On the Bookshelf
Medieval times: astrologers, kabbalists, illuminations, textualizations, and the evil inclination
It doesn’t take a brilliant marketer to realize that The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale, June) should have appeared, oh, say, by early April. But that’s just not how beleaguered academic presses—even beleaguered academic presses as trade savvy as Yale—do their thing. And, really, is it such a problem? The Birds’ Head Haggadah and its contemporaries have already waited seven centuries for the analysis that Marc Michael Epstein provides here; it shouldn’t be that big a deal to ask us to wait a few months more.
As it turns out, this should be an unusually busy summer for fans of medieval times. Along with Epstein on the oldest haggadot, they’ll have a collection of essays edited by Gad Freudenthal on Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Cambridge, June) to keep them busy. Aside from deserving a prize for no-nonsense book cover design (just the word מדע, Hebrew for “science,” plus the book’s title), the collection includes essays on topics ranging from “Astronomy among medieval Jews” to “ Astrology among medieval Jews.” Plus: “Latin scholastic influences on late-medieval Hebrew physics.”
They may have been scientifically literate, but medieval Jews weren’t always sensible: Witness the fact that unlike Christianity and Islam, medieval Judaism had no female mystics. Sharon Faye Koren’s Forsaken: The Menstruant in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Brandeis, June) argues that this strange dearth resulted from traditional Jewish understandings of menstruation as a ritual impurity, which Jewish men felt was incompatible with higher spirituality—despite women in the Bible and even in the Talmud having proved themselves perfectly capable of religious insight and leadership.
Speaking of the Talmud: according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Talya Fishman, it is those medieval Jews that we can thank, or blame, for shaping the traditional, Talmud-centered Jewish culture that thrives today from Jerusalem to Teaneck. In Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Penn, May), Fishman sets out to explain “the disconnect between the contents of the Talmud and the roles that it came to play in medieval Jewish culture (and beyond)” by taking stock of what she calls the “textualization of northern European Jewish culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries”: in other words, Jews “came to ascribe greater value to the authority of the inscribed word than it did to oral testimony” and transitioned “from the valorization of memory to the valorization of written records.”
Like the the “distinction between written matters … and oral matters” with which Fishman begins her study, so much Jewish culture has its roots in the period that has come to be called “late antiquity,” stretching from the late 3rd century to the mid-7th. Alexei Sivertsev’s Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, June), for one, notes that the Roman visions of empire circulating in that period informed the ways Jews imagined their own messianic redemption: if they needed models for how the moshiakh would look and act, Jews could look to the way that the Romans puffed up their emperor. Meanwhile, Ishay Rosen-Zvi attends to late antique Jewish psychology in Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (Penn, June). When the rabbis of the period referred to the evil inclination, the yetzer hara, did they mean sexual desire specifically, or evil in a general sense? Rosen-Zvi argues the latter, and suggests that the rabbis modified ancient beliefs about demons to fit increasingly sophisticated ideas about human minds: Think of the devil sitting on a cartoon character’s shoulder, and the concept of mind that that represents.
Whether it’s medieval, late antique, or just really, really, old, the Jewish past tends to matter to us only because it continues to resonate in the present. One noteworthy current attempt to argue that an old artifact of Jewish culture matters, very much, right now, is Stan Tenen’s The Alphabet That Changed the World: How Genesis Preserves a Science of Consciousness in Geometry and Gesture (North Atlantic, June). Tenen expounds a dizzying theory about Hebrew as “a natural universal language” through a lot of three-dimensional diagrams that hew assiduously to a 1990s clip art aesthetic, and loopy references to the Zohar (in one of his videos, Tenen says that the most recent translator of the Zohar, Daniel Matt, “has not a clue as to … the deep meaning” of what he’s translating). One emeritus professor of Judaic Studies suggests that Tenen’s theories “could equal the importance of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and perhaps even surpass it.” Samples of Tenen’s work can be found, in abundance, at Tenen’s Meru Foundation site, and though only scholars of Jewish mysticism can say whether Tenen’s legit, one hopes that he’s a conceptual artist lampooning new agey Kabbalists, in which case he’s hilarious.
A less bewildering demonstration that ancient and medieval cultures can still matter: Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa (Indiana, July), edited by Berkeley’s Emily Benichou Gottreich and Minnesota’s Daniel J. Schroeter, offers studies of the Jewish communities of North Africa ranging in their setting from the ancient world to the postcolonial. Farid Benramdane’s contribution focuses on Western Algerian place names that derive from the Torah, while Jamaâ Baïda covers “The Emigration of Moroccan Jews, 1948-1956.” The most promising feature of the book, perhaps, is that alongside American and Israeli academics, scholars from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have contributed examinations of the roles of Jews in their national and cultural histories. Is it Pollyanna-ish to hope that such scholarship might help to promote interfaith understanding as the Maghreb redefines itself in the wake of the Arab Spring?
A new book shows how Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan prompted the American establishment to look beyond longstanding divisions and see Catholics, Protestants, and Jews as kin