Monday, December 29, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session Three (Jewish and Christian Learning During the High Middle Ages: Parallels and Points of Contact)

Ephraim Kanarfogel (Yeshiva University)
“Tosafists, Cathedral Masters, and Their Critics”

We see a contrast between Tosafists and Spanish rabbis; in general Tosafists are not expected to have had the sort of cultural contacts that we see in Spain. That being said, as Ephraim Urbach argued, the Tosafists were influenced by Christian dialectics. This was largely the result, not of reading texts, but simply from hearing preachers on the street. For example Peter Abelard talks about hearing a learned Jew speak. Even the narrative of the debate between the adherents of dialectic and their opponents is very similar to what we see with Christians. It all just happens a generation later.

In the Christian world we see in a shift in the eleventh century from the monastery schools to Cathedral schools. At the center of this was dialectic. The monastery schools were not interested in dialectic. Their method focused simply on the gathering and processing of vast quantities of material, without putting texts against each other. The Cathedral schools, such as Chartres, were built around dialectic. Not only that but they operated around given masters. Their prestige was not dependent upon the local but on who taught there.

The use of dialectic often brought charges of theological unorthodoxy. The dialectician Anselm of Laon talked about two wills of God; God allowing human beings to do something, even that which is evil, and God actually wishing for something to be done. Anselm was attacked by Rupert of Deutz, who saw this sort of theological hair splitting as having nothing to do with Faith, but simply as a matter of masters being interesting in their own glory. Similarly Bernard of Clairvaux attacked Peter Abelard. According to Bernard one should flee to the Cathedral schools to “cities of refuge.” One could learn more from the woods and the forests. Bernard was not against dialectics per se, in fact he made use of it. He was simply against what he saw as some of the abuses of it.

This conflict over dialectic finds its parallel amongst Jews. The Tosafist academies were based around a given master and not a local. Tosafist dialectics came under a similar line of attack. For example the Hasidai Ashkenaz saw dialectic simply as a means for a given individual to gain an inflated name for himself. Interestingly enough, they refer to Christian dialectics. The sort of more nuanced critique of dialectic exemplified by Bernard finds its parallel in Elijah of Paris, who also attacked the abuses of dialectic even as he proved willing to use its methods himself.


Daniel J. Lasker (Ben Gurion University of the Negev)
“Jewish Knowledge of Christianity in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”

How would a Jew learn about Christianity? A medieval Jew did not have the sort of resources that modern scholars take for granted in pursuing their own research. Ironically enough, Jews living in the Muslim world would have had more of an opportunity to engage Christians in an open dialogue and therefore probably had a better understanding of it. Ashkenazic Jews, as a rule, did not have these sorts of opportunities. For example the Christianity that Rashi confronts in his work is a product of Midrash and not of the contemporary Christian culture around him. The exception to this were Jews who consciously set out to refute Christian theology. Jacob b. Reuben’s knowledge of Christianity came from his dialogue with a priest. This priest even lent him the works of Augustine, Paul, and Jerome, which Jacob was able to read in Latin. Moses b. Solomon was also someone who read Christian literature. He even urges his fellow Jews to familiarize themselves with non Hebrew languages, i.e. Latin, in order to deal with Christians. This sort of familiarity with Christianity and ability to directly engage Christian sources must be seen as atypical.


Sharon Koren (HUC-JIR)
“Echoes of the Eve/Mary Dichotomy in the Zohar”

Gershom Scholem focused on connections between Kabbalah and heretical Christianity. He never dealt with orthodox Christianity. We see in the Zohar a counter ideology to the Christian adoration of Mary and the doctrine of her immaculate conception. As other scholars have noted there is the Sechina, which is feminine. Beyond this, though, we see the biblical matriarch Sarah used in ways that parallel the Christian view of Mary. Mary is the counter to Eve. Eve sinned through her disobedience and brought death to the world. Mary, through her act of obedience, restores mankind to the life that Eve lost for them. The Zohar talks about Abraham and Sarah’s descent to Egypt as a descent into the forces of darkness, the Sitrah Acher. By doing this, and overcoming the obstacles they face there, they succeed where Adam and Noah failed. Eve was polluted by the serpent. Sarah, by remaining undefiled in Egypt, achieved a tikkun for Eve’s sin. Abraham and Sarah are the Sephira of Hesed, which acts a ritual bath and is protected from the forces of judgment.

The Zoharic circle gained their understanding of Marian devotion from the Christian world around them, seeing it on displayed on churches. They felt a need to respond to it. This is accomplished by brining in Sarah as the true exemplar of Marian salvation.

(Looking around AJS you see a wide variety of characters who seem to transcend the usual Jewish categories. Dr. Koren is an example of this. Judging at least from how she was dressed at the conference, she looks Orthodox; that is until you see on her name tag that she is with Hebrew Union College. I do not know her, but I imagine there is some sort of story behind all of this.

I most say I particularly liked Dr. Koren’s lecture. It went beyond simply pointing out a similarity to what we see in Christianity. She considers the process of how a Christian idea got into Judaism. She also considers the why; why were Jews so open to a given Christian idea? This gives her a narrative to work with.)

1 comment:

Michael P. said...

Through Drew Kaplan I got to your blog. It is very interesting. Thanks for your summary of some papers delivered at AJS. This year I was unable to attend and you wrote about some of the sessions that I would have attended.