Tuesday, December 9, 2008

General Exam III: Jewish History (Part IV)

[For the final part of the exam I was given two texts to analyze. One was from Jacob Marcus’ Jew in the Medieval World and the other was from Gershon Cohen’s translation of Ibn Daud’s Book of Tradition.]

Text #1: (Modena)

This text comes from Leon Modena’s autobiography, Hay’ye Yehudah; it deals with the printing of his Historia de gli riti hebraici and how he nearly ran afoul of the Inquisition over it. This text is a useful example of the complexities of Jewish-Christian relations in the early modern period, particularly within the context of the age of the printing press and the split between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Modena was someone in regular contact with Christians and engaged in friendly scholarly discussions with them. Historia was written at the behest, we believe, of Henry Wotten, the English ambassador to Venice, and was meant to be given to James I of England. In this book Modena gives an overview of Jewish laws and practices. In large respect he was responding to Johann Buxtorf the elder’s Synagoa Judaica. Modena wrote the Historia in 1616. He later, in 1635, gave this same book to a French-Christian Hebraist named Giacomo Gaffarel. Gaffarel then went and published the book on his own initiative. This created a problem for Modena in that there was material in the book that violated Catholic censorship policies. While the Historia was just a manuscript, one that was also written for a Protestants to boot, this was not a problem. Now, though, that Gaffarel had printed the book, Modena found himself to be an inadvertent promoter of “heresy.” The problem was quickly and painlessly solved. Modena explained the matter to the local inquisitor, who proved to be quite sympathetic and understanding. It turns out that even this was not necessary as Gaffarel did not publish the manuscript as is but, on his own initiative, removed the potentially objectionable material.
This story illustrates something about Catholic censorship. This whole incident happened only a few years after Galileo was put on trial for the Dialogues. Galileo’s real crime was not that he was a heliocentrist, but that he failed to adhere to the letter of the original ban on him writing on the issue and, more importantly, he managed to antagonize Pope Urban VIII. One could get away with a lot during the seventeenth century, inquisition censors or no inquisition censors, as long as one knew how to adhere to the letter of the letter of law and avoided antagonizing any of the wrong people. Publishing books was a political game and one was perfectly safe as long as they knew how to play the game. Galileo was not very adept at this game and suffered the consequences; Modena could play the game and was perfectly safe.

A word should be said here about Christian Hebraism; there are quite a few Christians in this story that are interested in Jews and Judaism and some of them are fairly knowledgeable. This had nothing to do with Christians thinking about converting to Judaism; though, as the case of Peter Spaeth illustrates, this did happen on occasion. Rather this early modern Christian Hebraism was rooted in the search for the prisca theologia, the original theology, which lay behind much of early modern thought. The premise was that humanity had fallen away from the truths of antiquity and that these sources could be recovered by a close examination of the sources. One of the major manifestations of this was the interest in “magical” texts such as the Hermetic corpus, thought to date from the time of Moses, and the Zohar. Another manifestation was a renewed emphasis on the bible and reading it outside of the shadow of the Vulgate and the medieval Catholic tradition. Protestantism was a product of this movement. Protestants in particular were interested, in this period, in forming contacts with Jews and Jewish sources because they believed that, while the Jews may have corrupted their own sources, a critical analysis, in light of Christian truths, of such material would allow one to uncover the original true “Christian” religion behind it.

This whole incident is a good illustration of how interrelated Jewish history is with the happenings within the general society. Jews in Europe did not live in a different world from Christians. The printing press, the Catholic Church’s post-Tridentine censorship, the struggle with Protestantism affected someone like Leon Modena just as it affected Galileo.

Text #2: (Ibn Daud)

This text in Ibn Daud’s Book of Tradition, deals with the story of the four captives. According to this story four rabbis were captured by pirates and ransomed respectively by the communities of Fostat, Qairawan and Cordova. These rabbis stayed in these given communities and set up communities. Ibn Daud uses this story to explain how it came to pass that the authority possessed by the Babylonian Gaonate passed to Spain. This story is useful, though not in its most obvious sense. The story is clearly a legend and cannot be accepted as historical fact. That being said this story is an excellent example of the telling and use of legends. As such, while this story tells us nothing of use about the origins of the Spanish Jewish community, it is very useful in understanding Ibn Daud and by extension Andalusian Jewry.

The story of the four captives serves as a convenient foundation story. It gives a clear cut, dramatic story that points to a given conclusion. It clearly fits into the overarching narrative of the Book of Tradition. The main purpose of the Book of Tradition is the defense of the rabbinic tradition, particularly in the face of Karaite critic, and the establishment of Andalusia as the center of Jewish life and Torah authority. As such the story is just too convenient to be taken at face value as a historical event.

Within the story itself there is micro narrative that is highly suspicious. We are told that that the captain wanted to violate the wife of one of the captives, R. Moses. She asks him if she would be allowed to throw herself overboard to drown; would such an action bar her from the future resurrection of the dead. R. Moses responds by quoting the verse: “I will bring them back from Bashan; I will bring them back from the depths of the sea.” The wife accepted this and drowned herself. The problem with this story is that it is lifted straight out of the Talmud. In the Talmud the story is that there are two boats sailing to Rome with Jewish captives, one with four hundred boys and another with four hundred girls. Fearing for their chastity, the girls ask the boys if they would be forfeiting their place in the future resurrection by jumping overboard. The boys reply by the same verse. The girls follow this advice and jump. The boys then follow the example themselves and also commit martyrdom. So here in the four captives story we have the same scenario, woman on a boat with her virtue threatened, with the exact same conversation and the exact same verse quoted. What is one supposed to believe; that R. Moses and his wife played out the Talmudic story, apparently unaware of the precedent, or someone lifted the story from the Talmud and used it for the four captives story.

The ending of the whole narrative is also simply too convenient and too much to type to be believed. We are told that R. Moses and R. Hanok arrive in Cordova. They go to the central synagogue and sit in the back; everyone just assumes they are simple beggars. While they are sitting there, the leading rabbi, R. Nathan the Pious, is unable to give the correct explanation in a matter of law. R. Moses and Hanok come forward, deus ex machina, and solve the problem. R. Nathan the Pious is so amazed by these two scholars that he steps down and acknowledges their authority. This is the sort of thing that only happens in legends. In real life, revolutions in authority do not happen overnight; the opposition fights with every last breath and goes to its grave kicking, screaming and denouncing the interlopers, who stole what was rightfully theirs.

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

In regards to Text #2

So why bother with the legend? I do not ask this to lend any authority to it; but rather wonder what was the push to cover up the true history of the orgins of Spanish Jewry. Is the truth just too mundane? Or was it part of a system where in order to instill a sense of pride in the community, legends should be used? (This are rhetorical questions really).