Monday, August 10, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Hebrew Bibliography in Early Modern Europe

Adam ShearReuchlin and the Categorization of Jewish Literature circa 1500

How did Early Modern Jews organize books? How did such categories affect how the books were treated? Such a study should reveal something about the mental framework of those who used them. One place to look are lists of books whether Jewish nor non-Jewish. These lists, though, are not divided by categories. Historians are left using modern categories. Using our modern categories can obscure the relationship between these books. All historical research involves translation, but there is still a need to understand things as people at the time understood them. The Christian Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin responded to Johannes Pfefferkorn, a convert from Judaism, who had told the emperor that Jewish literature contained damaging material to Christians. Reuchlin defended the Talmud and Jewish rights. According to Reuchlin, Jews had legal protection and that furthermore their works benefited Christians. Reuchlin offers the earliest bibliographical scheme for Jewish books, going from most authoritative to least authoritative.

Holy Scripture – This carries the highest authority.

Talmud – Reuchlin makes no mention of the Mishnah nor does mention the Oral Law. He simply views the Talmud as exegesis on the Bible. As a Christian he was not about to lend any extra authority to the Talmud as having any basis in a tradition. This stance, though, also helps when dealing with anti-Christian statements. Reuchlin could argue that such statements were not intrinsic to Judaism.

Kabbalah - This was not something that Pfefferkorn or the Cologne theologians were familiar with. This had more to do with Reuchlin’s interests.

Commentaries – These, Reuchlin points out, are not binding, like the Talmud.

Midrash and Sermons – Reuchlin removes Midrash as a category of series of authority and places it on the same level of medieval sermons. There is no mention of Jewish liturgy.


Poetry, fables – These are deemed by Reuchlin as whimsical. Even the Jews, he claims, do not take them seriously. Reuchlin places the Nizzahon and Toldot Yeshu in this category. He even makes the claim that the Jews forbid these books themselves. Reuchlin may have been a naive sap but a very canny lawyer.

As Yaacov Deutsch argues, this is a period in which Christians, particularly converts, begin to offer descriptions of what Jews do. There is a parallel to the Barcelona debate of 1263. Reuchlin seems to engage in both sides of the Barcelona Debate. Like Nachmonides he tried to limit authority of midrashic literature. On the other hand he wished to give a Christian interpretation of Jewish texts.

(Dr. Shear is the author of the Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity and the Tea, Lemon, Old Books.)

Stephen G. BurnettJean Plantavit de la Pause’s Bibliotheca Rabbinica (1645) and Seventeenth - Century Jewish Bibliography

The Christian Hebraist Jean Plantavit de la Pause’s (1576 – 1651) bibliography of Jewish books, Biblia Rabbinica, is often criticized for repeating the errors of Johannes Buxtorf and adding his own. Plantavit is still valuable as an example of this period where knowledge of Judaism growing because of converts and because of more Judaic libraries. Plantavit lead a dramatic life with two theological careers. He was born into a Hugonaut family and trained as a Protestant theologian. He converted to Catholicism after he already had a degree in theology. Interested in Hebrew, Plantavit studied with Leone Modena. Modena encouraged him to start his own Hebrew library. Modena may have done this out of self interest as he was a book seller. Plantavit also studied under Domenico Gerosolimitano, the converted Jew who served as the chief censor for the Catholic Church. (See Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s The Censor, the Editor, and the Text.)

Biblia Rabbinica was intended to replace Buxtorf’s work. Such a bibliography served a Catholic polemical purposes. In a post Index world, Catholics needed a guide as to what books were permitted to read and quote. Plantavit owned over one hundred and eighty books out of eight hundred books he listed. He also owned a copy of the Jerusalem Talmud, even though he does not list it. This book was banned; Plantavit was more interested in telling other people what to read than in following his own advice. While Plantavit had Buxtorf outnumbered by two to one, the younger Johannes Buxtorf put out an updated version of his father’s book five years earlier. This had over a thousand Hebrew books, making Plantavit’s book outdated from the start. Between the two of them, Buxtorf and Plantavit only listed about a quarter of the Hebrew books printed.

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