Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Fifteenth World Jewish Congress: Jewish Centers in Medieval Western Europe

Bernard Rosensweig – Did Rabbis Play a Central Role in the Ashkenazic Communities after the Black Death?

The Black Death more so than the Crusades was the turning point for German Jewry. Rabbi Jacob Weil divides the level of scholarship between before and after the decrees following the Black Death. Acts of violence, committed during this period had succeeded in eliminating many scholars and lowered the level of scholarship. New laws needed to be clarified. We have a rabbinic conference in Nuremberg in 1438 to deal with this breakdown in community. The creation of books of customs now became necessary as questions of daily routine now came to the fore.

In this period of confusion and chaos, the rabbi stepped into the void and provided a singular kind of leadership, going beyond the individual community. The rabbi serves as a center of Jewish unity, providing continuity and structure. We can see this in the attempts by the civil authorities to impose the position of chief rabbi on communities. These attempts failed but they show how important the position was and that the authorities were aware of this. An example of this new kind of rabbi was Rabbi Jacob Weil, who represented the community of Augsburg in negotiating with the emperor and at Nuremberg. We may bemoan the abuse of authority by unsavory characters only goes to show a new found power to the rabbinate as the community is weakened.

Mordechai Breuer wished to show that the rabbinate as was on the decline and that rabbis were caught in the position of trying to stem the tide going against them. Rabbi Moshe Mintz was the only rabbi to put in ordinances based on his own authority. He did this in Bamberg. They are in the most obvious areas on religion. There is nothing on communal life like personal status and monetary issues. Mintz only recording some of his ordinances. In order to establish his authority, he had to do so in the most obvious areas of Jewish life.

Rabbi Jacob Weil, when he came to Erfurt, found a community is disorder and put in ordinances to clarify basic matters of Jewish law. It is true that it was the parnaism who negotiated tax agreements and collected them from the community. Rabbis did, though, have a role in taxes. They helped set the ground rules for assessing taxes. Wealthy Jews tried to get special breaks, increasing the burden on the rest of the community. Rabbi Israel Isserlin declared that a practice had to done by the community three times in order to take effect.

In conclusion, there are clear continuities after the Black Death. We see more of a professional rabbinate. This generation did produce a talented group of scholars and they launched a new school of scholarship that influenced Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the sixteenth century. There was a decline but it was not at the beginning but rather at the end of the fifteenth century as Israel Yuval argued.

(Dr. Haym Soloveitchik goes to the other extreme, arguing that Germanic Jewry was on the decline from the end of the thirteenth century due to the collapse of imperial authority during these decades, which resulted in the large scale massacre of Jews.)

1 comment:

jewpublic club said...

very interesting, can you publish more of that?