Friday, August 29, 2008

From Texts to Narrative: a Review of Jewish Questions

(Just so there should be no undeclared conflict of interest, Matt Goldish is my advisor, my mentor and I also like to think of him as a personal friend.)

There are three parts to the study of history. There is the gathering of historical evidence, usually written texts, the analysis of the evidence and finally one hopes to be able to create a coherent narrative from this evidence. The most important part and the part that most historians primarily deal with is the second part, taking pieces of historical evidence, primarily written texts, and analyzing it to see what sort of conclusions it will lead to. One of the problems with trying to educate the public about history is that when most people think about history they think of it in terms of the third part, the creation of a narrative. Because they do not see what actually goes into the study of history, people tend to think that history is simply a bunch of people giving their own highly biased opinions about the past. Why, if this is the case, is there any need for the professional historian? Anyone could write history. People need to see not just the surface of history but the whole intellectual process that goes on below the surface that is heart and soul of history.

Matt Goldish has done an admirable job in this regard with his new book, Jewish Questions: Responsa on Sephardic Life in the Early Modern Period. While the book deals with a very specific subject, Sephardic (North African and Middle Eastern) Jewish life in the early modern period (1492-1750), this book would benefit anyone seeking to understand the historical method of reading texts and how it is used to create a broader story. This book is a collection of primary sources, in this particular case responsa, questions posed to various rabbis. (It should be noted that rabbis sometimes wrote their own questions as a set up for a given discussion.) As Dr. Goldish shows, these responsa contain stories behind them and these stories tell us things not only about the individuals who asked the question but also about Sephardic Jews as a whole. Through these responsa, we are introduced to merchants, moneylenders, soldiers, housewives, widows and conversos. Each responsa is prefaced by Dr. Goldish, who explains the significance of the text in question and how it sheds light on the larger narrative.

At the beginning of the book Dr. Goldish offers an introduction where he talks about the use of responsa and gives the reader some general background information about the history of Jews in Spain up until the time they were expelled in 1492 and how this created the world revealed by the responsa he uses. Finally Dr. Goldish offers a series of brief bios of the rabbis to whom the responsa questions were written. While a good overview, I cannot say that I cared much for Dr. Goldish’s reference to the “superstitions of the populace” (pg. xxi) when talking about the attacks of 1391.

All in all this is a remarkable book that will be useful not just as a textbook for classes on early modern Sephardim but also for those who wish to understand what history is really all about. With this book, Dr. Goldish demonstrates that he is not only a highly gifted historian but also a master pedagogue, who has done a valuable service advancing the public understanding of history.

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