Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Tisha B’Av Speech to the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation

Today is the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) when traditional Jews mourn the destruction of the two Temples and the many subsequent tragedies of Jewish history. In honor of the event, every year the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, a Haredi organization, sponsors a video presentation shown to thousands of Jews across the world. The video usually features prominent Haredi speakers such as Rabbi Paysach Krohn (apparently he is not on for this year), Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rabbi Yissocher Frand and Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon. (For some strange reason when I played the ad for the event on their website they had music playing in the background. Music is certainly not something permitted today.) Usually, when I try to go, I find that the combination of my empty stomach and the rancid theology on screen proves too much for me and I end up having to walk out before the end. For all those with similar theological-gastronomical dispositions, I offer you the speech that I am confident you will not be hearing this year from the Chofetz Chaim Foundation; it is, though, what I would say if I were given the chance to speak as part of their lineup.

A good churban to all of you gathered here today from across the globe. The fact that all of you are here in the afternoon on a fast day is remarkable. I say this because I do not wish to come across as completely negative in my comments, as someone who ignores the good in our community. Now that we have gotten past that I would like to move on to business. I am not much of a storyteller nor am I the sort who likes throwing around little vertlach on midrashim, with no purpose other than to entertain and offer pithy moral value statements. I am afraid that if you are looking for someone to make you feel good about yourself you have come to the wrong speaker. By my nature I possess a skeptical view of human virtue along the lines of Augustine and John Calvin. (You can look those people up later.)

By training I am a historian and a contemplator of human politics and society. From this I have become a strong believer in the importance of a bottom up understanding of human affairs. Major changes happen in society because the vast majority of society agreed to go along with them. As Leo Tolstoy (You can look him up later as well.) understood, those at the top, those supposed “great men,” are not the ones controlling events but are being controlled by them. For example, in the case of Nazi Germany, if you ask me who was responsible for the murder of six million Jews I would not say Hitler or those who ran the camps. Every society has its insane murderous people; they should be mercifully placed in mental hospitals, protected from harm or from harming others. The people really responsible were those regular sane German people who allowed Hitler to come to power and go to war. Without millions of regular Germans agreeing to serve in the German army and run German factories there is no World War II and no Holocaust. These were sane rational people who came to the sane and rational conclusion that the removal of Jews and other undesirables and the expropriation of their property would benefit them. Going along with the Lebensraum policy, had the sanity and rationality necessary for an act of first degree murder. If it were up to me, I would have put the entire German population above the age of eighteen on trial at Nuremburg and those who could not prove that they actively tried to stop Hitler would have received a sentence of death. (Whether or not it would have been feasible to carry out such a sentence is another issue. Most probably this death sentence would have needed to remain something symbolic.)

Similarly with the problem of Islamic terrorism, the people responsible for Islamic terrorism are not the terrorists, such as suicide bombers and the hijackers of September 11. The real people responsible are those Muslim and liberals who act as apologists for Islamic terrorism, blaming the West and Israel for bringing trouble upon themselves. I see such people on a regular basis on the college campus where I work. These people get to pursue their vendetta against the West and they hypocritically Pontius Pilate their hands of the affair. (Look it up.) They correctly claim to not be terrorists and make a big show of taking offense at any implication that they are. In truth they are something worse, moral scoundrels, who lack the courage to pay the true price of their beliefs.

The past few weeks have seen numerous scandals erupt from our community; whether it is youngsters from our community burning trash cans and smashing traffic lights or the arrest of rabbanim in New Jersey. The common refrain is that these are the sins of just a small minority and have nothing to do with the overwhelming majority of us who are good righteous people. My response is that these are precisely the sins not of the few but of all of us in the community for they happen because we, as a community, are making the sane rational and immoral choices that allow for it. And let us not play innocent here, we benefit from these things. The least we can do is have the decency to openly endorse what was done.

Why do we have a population of youngsters with time on their hands and lack of any concern for secular authority to riot? Should young men in their teens and early twenties not be in school, learning a useful trade, or in the workplace practicing a trade? No because we created a system in Israel in which young men must sit and study Gemara and are discouraged from pursuing any other option. Most people, including people with high levels of intelligence and talent as it pertains to other fields, are not suited for Gemara. Such people might be well suited for other fields of endeavor, but they are trapped by the system they are in; the system we have created. People in such a situation might be tempted to leave the community to pursue other options, but refrain from doing so, in large part, because we have taught them to hate, fear and despise the outside world. Make no mistake about it, we did it with intent; we taught them this precisely because we knew that by doing so we could stop them from leaving, joining the ranks of the of the off the derech and becoming an embarrassing statistic. So we reap what we have sown in the riots. We can no more say that we did not want or endorse the riots than Arabs can denounce the state of Israel as a Nazi occupier and not support the terrorism used to destroy it.

Jewish life is expensive with tuition and large families. It does not help matters if you are less than enthusiastic about advanced secular education. (A necessary platform for many of the sorts of jobs that allow one to pay for such a lifestyle.) We can try giving tuition breaks to needy families, but that simply spreads the cost somewhere else. At the end of the day we, as a community, have to be able to come up with the funds to support ourselves. You are shocked and horrified that members of our community, even leaders in our community, turned to defrauding people of their kidneys? I am talking to the real criminals right now. No one here can play innocent. We just thought it would be best to look the other way and hoped that if we did not notice no one else would. And some Germans innocently thought that the Jews could all just be shipped off to the East and everyone would be the better for it.

For all of you so called “Modern Orthodox” Jews sitting in this audience, feeling pretty good about yourselves right now; I mean you to. You have allowed yourselves the luxury of using systems built by others. Why are you sitting here listening to this lineup of speakers; why do you not have your own speakers, who actually believe in the sorts of things you claim to believe in? It is sheer laziness. You abandon the running of Torah true Judaism to people who support an ideology you oppose. Do you think it actually matters that, when this ideology fails, you can claim that you did not support it; for all intents and purposes you did support it.

In conclusion, let us resolve ourselves to taking some moral responsibly for what goes on in our world. There is a churban going on right now. If you are one of those people who looked at articles in the press about Haredi rioting and complained that we were being picked on then you are responsible for our churban. If you are one of those people making comments on websites like the one run by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, telling him that he needs to stop talking about what is wrong with our community and do more to tell us how wonderful we are, then you are part of the churban. My bracha to you all is that, if we take it upon ourselves to clean up our own mess, Hashem should bless us that next year we will have the luxury of only having to mourn the burning of a building in the year 70 C. E.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Libertarianism: The Healthy Choice for Single Hispanic Mothers

In response to my recent post on Milton Friedman, Miss S. asked about how someone like him would have dealt with the issue of health care. One of the things I so admire about Milton Friedman was that, unlike what you might think, he was motivated to advocate for libertarian positions in large part precisely because he cared so much about the poor and minorities, people without access to the establishment. Friedman was the son of working class Jewish immigrants so this was something very personal for him. Friedman was a far greater thinker than I, but I think he would have approved of my sentiments regarding health care and how I would solve our health care crisis.

I have a younger brother, Mortimer Elliot, who is about to go into medical school. Unlike me, he is going to be the doctor who actually makes money. On this path though, he will spend years working miserable hours and contracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. What if Mortimer decided to skip medical school and set up shop as a non licensed physician? Mortimer was a pre-med student in college and has worked as an intern in hospitals and even at the National Institute of Health. Without a doubt he can handle basic issues of medical care. We are not talking about him performing brain surgery anytime soon. What we are talking about is him being able to give people basic checkups, figure out what is hurting them and advise his patients as to how to best pursue a healthy lifestyle.

Since Mortimer would be competing against doctors who have gone through medical school and have state issued licenses he would have to charge less for his services and maybe even be willing to go to places that established physicians might shy away from; maybe a place like Washington Heights. In Washington Heights you will find many poor Hispanic single mothers trying to make ends meet while raising their children. When faced with a child complaining of stomach pain or of a fever it would be very helpful to, instead of going to the emergency room or messing around with health insurance which they may or may not have, be able to go to Mortimer for help. For a very reasonable fee, say $10-$50 depending on the situation, Mortimer will be able to do so. The fact that Mortimer is cheaper and more accessible than established doctors means that people will come to him sooner with problems. This has the benefit of allowing him to catch and help prevent more serious issues.

Fraud will still be illegal even under a libertarian government so Mortimer will not allowed to represent himself as anything besides someone with an undergraduate medical education. If he does he will go to jail. Since a libertarian government will be freeing all those sitting in jail on drug charges, many of whom just might be the fathers of some of the children in question, there will be plenty of resources to devote to going after those who commit fraud and we will have the jail space to keep such people behind bars for years to come.

Allowing poor Hispanic single mothers to have easier access to basic medical care and Mortimer to make an honest living sounds like an obvious good thing. The only problem with this idea is that right now one would run into some serious legal issues. So you have to ask yourself, who benefits from banning something that would benefit so many people. It is our medical establishment, full of wealthy white males, who benefit; they receive a monopoly on health care and can therefore charge inflated prices and offer inferior services. So being a libertarian means helping poor Hispanic single mothers to get better access to health care. Not being a libertarian means helping wealthy white doctors line their pockets at the expense of the health of the less fortunate. If being a liberal means supporting the poor and disadvantaged than the only option for a liberal of conscious is libertarianism.

For those interested there are more clips available of Milton Friedman from other interviews and his show Free to Choose.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Different Sotomayor

Reading Yosef Yerushalmi’s From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto I find mention of a Fray Antonio de Sotomayor, who served as the confessor to King Philip IV of Spain before becoming Grand Inquisitor of Spain. This Sotomayor served as the dedicatee of a work by Don Juan de Quinones, which argued that Jewish men menstruate. (For more in this topic of Jewish men menstruating see David S. Katz’s essay “Shylock's gender: Jewish male menstruation in early modern England” in the Review of English Studies 50(1999): 440-462) Sotomayor headed the Inquisition for about a decade until 1643. Apparently he is remembered in history as being one of the more moderate members of the Spanish Inquisition at least compared to his successor Diego de Arce Reinoso.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Just Say No to Polytheism: Why it is Important to Believe in a Singular Non-Physical Deity (Part III)

Part I, II

My intention is far from picking on Christianity, even pagan Christianity. My real interest and the reason why I am writing this are those Jews who have the hypocrisy to attack Christianity while holding on to doctrines that are equally as problematic as the Trinity or the Incarnation. There is no way easier to have yourself thrown out of the Jewish community, whether it is the Haredi community or the most liberal Reform community, than to imply an openness to the Trinity. If this was more than just politics, we would expect equal thoroughness in going after certain other doctrines. These problematic doctrines are closely related to the Jewish mystical tradition, particular that of Kabbalah. This is not to say that all mysticism or all Kabbalah is bad; statements have to be taken one by one and judged before the bar of monotheism and those that fail must be cast aside.

The early mystical text Shiur Koma (Song of Ascent) was listed by Maimonides as an idolatrous book because it offers measurements of God’s body. For our purpose it is not enough to reinterpret Shiur Koma as a mystical allegory that is not meant to be taken literally. Our apologist would still have to explain how Shiur Koma serves to spread monotheist ideas more than it does to give people the idea that God has some sort of body, even an elevated preternatural one. If this person really believed that Shiur Koma was just an allegory he would have the good grace to recognize that, as with any explanation that requires more explaining than the thing it is trying to explain, it should be dropped. Thus we can assume that any Jew who actively supports Shiur Koma is either an open or closeted corporalist, thus a pagan, or is demonstrably lacking in proper monotheistic zeal. One way or another, such a person should not be allowed to hold any position of respect and authority within the Jewish community. Just as we would not allow someone who believed that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, possessed a human body.

There is a whole body of early medieval Jewish mystical literature known as Merkavah texts. These texts deal with ascents into the heavenly realms by the use of various mystical names. They are premised on the notion of the heavens as a realm that can be traversed and that one can even reach the inner sanctum where God “dwells.” While one can reinterpret this as something innocuous, there is no doubting the inescapable premise that the divine realms are a place that can be conquered through the right secret knowledge. The moment you allow this you turn Judaism from a rational ethical religion to a magical and hence a pagan religion.

Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed is often blamed for the mass apostasy in Spain. The Guide was quite popular in Spain, but so was the Zohar, a body of mystical texts attributed to Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai and is the main source for the concept of Sephirot. Now I ask you what is more likely to get people to sincerely convert to Christianity, a book like the Guide that takes one of the most hard line stances imaginable against God being in any way physical or a book like the Zohar that suggests that God might have different parts to him? This is ultimately the same sort of territory opened up by the Trinity. Abraham Abulafia made the argument that the belief in Sephirot was worse than the Trinity as the Christians only had three persons in their godhead and not ten. It is not for nothing that early modern Christian Hebraists were so interested in the Zohar and the concept of Sephirot. If you accept Sephirot than you have no intellectual reason to reject the Trinity. In fact the Trinity can easily be worked into the Sephirot. God the Father could be the three highest Sephirot, Keter, Chochma, and Binah. The Holy Spirit could be six of the lower Sephirot. Jesus would then be the Sephira of Malchut. Malchut is special because it is the one Sephira that directly interacts with the physical world, a Kabbalistic version of the Incarnation. So what sort of person would support a book like the Zohar? Someone whose primary concern is not defending strict monotheism.

Zoheric concepts are developed into some of their worst features in the thought of Isaac Luria. Luria postulated an elaborate creation story in which the divine vessels were damaged in very act of creation, leaving human beings with the task of tikkun olam, healing the world. At the heart of this theology are the notions that God is in some sense “imperfect” and in “need” of human aid to make himself perfect once again and that human beings have the power to affect the divine.

While books like Shiur Koma, Merkavah texts, Zohar and the Lurianic corpus are held in high esteem by most in the Haredi world, the group that has done the most to popularize such texts has been Chabad. This makes Chabad a logical target for someone like me who believes that such books, for all intents and purposes, advocated paganism. In addition Chabad has its own sacred text, Tanya, which features many of the same problems as these other texts. So what do we assume about our Rabbi Eli Brackman, the Chabad rabbi at Oxford mentioned previously? If his interests where really in the realm of ethical monotheism than he would be spending his time trying to pass along the philosophy of Saadiah Gaon, Judah Ha-Levi and Maimonides. He would not be spending his time with Tanya. For that matter why, considering that Chabad has more and more become not just a side issue for Chabad Jews but the central issue of their Judaism, is Rabbi Brackman identifying himself with Chabad? Now Rabbi Brackman has denied having any polytheist intent; this leaves the conclusion that either Rabbi Brackman is just a closeted pagan or that he fails to appreciate the gravity of the situation, a common failing of so-called monotheists.

In conclusion, I admit that I have not offered a thorough discussion of Jewish mysticism nor do I claim to be an expert in the field. This is a more formal version of the challenge that I touched upon earlier and I hope that this could the start of future dialogue. My challenge to Rabbi Brackman or anyone else who wishes to defend Kabbalah in general and Chabad specifically is not whether they can offer acceptable interpretations of the texts in question but whether these texts offer something to ethical monotheism that can justify tolerating them in light of the very obvious heterodox lines of thought inherent to them.

Milton Friedman on the Phil Donahue Show 1979

Here is a clip of the late libertarian economist Milton Friedman on the Phil Donahue show in 1979. The main issue under discussion was a proposed government bailout of Chrysler. (It is funny how some things do not change in thirty years.) I would like to thank my cousin for sending this clip to me. I challenge anyone to watch the full program and come back and say that libertarianism does not offer a coherent and logical way out of our economic predicament.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Just Say No to Polytheism: Why it is Important to Believe in a Singular Non-Physical Deity (Part II)

Part I

What should be clear from what I said previously is that the struggle between monotheism and polytheism is more than just about how many gods you believe in. This is about whether God is simply some super powerful being who will punish us if we do not obey his arbitrary commands or whether God is the righteous being whom all ethical beings should seek to align their actions with. Without this, we are left making abstract distinctions that are incomprehensible to anyone not well versed in theology. For example what is the difference between the pagan who believes in minor gods and the one God who is above all and the monotheist who believes in angels and one God? Particularly when one of the most common Hebrew words for God, “Elohim,” is used in the Bible to refer to both angels and God. Nor is it much help to talk about idolatry. It is hardly obvious what the difference is between Christians kissing a crucifix, Jews kissing a Torah scroll and the ancient Israelites bowing to the Golden Calf. (This issue of the Golden Calf received a modern twist during the recent economic downturn when a group of Christians went to pray at the Wall Street Bronze Bull.)

When judging people or ideologies we need to ask ourselves not just whether they call themselves monotheists or whether they fulfill some abstract theological qualification but whether what they say furthers or hinders the monotheist understanding of God as a righteous being. This creates a third category of people, those who, while they themselves may not be pagans, preach doctrines that only serve to further belief in the pagan model. While such people are not guilty of paganism, they are guilty of lacking the proper zeal for monotheism. Furthermore this lack of zeal can be taken as grounds to suspect covert pagan belief.

I strongly object to the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity not just because it crosses some highly technical theological line but because it can only serve the interests of the pagan model. Christianity from its own perspective is meant as an improvement of the Old Testament. This means that Christianity should have fewer problematic statements than the Old Testament and get rid of anthropomorphic statements about God’s hand or body. Christianity, as exemplified in the Nicene Creed, takes a step backward by introducing such concepts as God in a human body or there being “three” parts to God. This view of God can only serve to further a pagan model. For example, at a popular level, medieval Catholicism was a magical religion that was supposed to grant power to those who practiced its rituals. Admittedly medieval Judaism had its magical elements too, but it had nothing to compare to the adoration of the Eucharist and tales of Eucharist miracles.

Nothing that I say here should be taken as an attack on non-Trinitarian Christians. So, if any Unitarians, Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons are reading this, you are in the clear. I also have no problem with Christians like C. S. Lewis, for whom the Trinity was a passing issue to be explained when challenged in monotheistic terms. I admit that it is possible to have a monotheist Incarnation and Trinity. One could say that God is one, but that from a human perspective there is sometimes a misapprehension that he is three and that when talking about God it is sometimes useful to play to this human misapprehension and talk about God as if he were, heaven forbid, three persons. From a monotheistic perspective it is theoretically possible that a human being could reach such an understanding of the divine and be so successful in helping other people to live according to God’s intention that we could say, after a manner of speaking, that people saw God when they looked at this person. Christians believe that Jesus was such a person and I have no theological objections to such a claim.

The Christians I would have a problem with would be those who took the Trinity in a pagan direction. Those who operate with the pagan model are pagans and should be treated as such. I would even object, though, to a Christian who insisted on elaborating on the Trinity and making it the focus of his religion even if this Christian, when pressed, would claim that they believed in the monotheist understanding of the Trinity that I suggested. Such a person is clearly lacking in zeal for true monotheism in that, not only does he not try to stamp out ideas that could lead to people following paganism, he actively spreads them. In the end I would not even be certain that I could believe him; it is possible that he is lying about what he truly believes in order to make himself acceptable in the eyes of monotheists. This would particularly be a concern because if he really was a monotheist in his heart he would have no purpose in pushing Trinitarian ideas in the first place.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Just Say No to Polytheism: Why it is Important to Believe in a Singular Non-Physical Deity (Part I)

A recent post of mine made passing mention of my concerns regarding Chabad, whether or not they were monotheists or if their brand of theism crossed a line into Trinitarian territory. I would like to elaborate on this issue. I do not view myself as being anti Chabad per se. Most of my objections to Chabad apply in one form or another to Haredim in general. Monotheism, the belief in one God, is at the center of Jewish belief. We need to consider what that means and why it is important. I would argue that the belief in the oneness of God is intimately connected to what type of relationship one has to God; does one relate to God in the hope of gaining some sort of benefit, earthly riches and eternal life, or does one seek to form a relationship to God because they believe in God’s goodness and wish to further his project in this world? The one person is interested in God for his own self interest, the other because he believes in the cause.

To describe a model of paganism, traditional pagan religion worshipped its gods as a means to an end. One does the necessary rituals and receives the necessary rain and fertility from your particular version of Father Sky and Mother Earth. If one desires victory over the enemy, there is a god of war to turn to. There is nothing ethical or particularly spiritual about such actions. They are means to ends, no different from the day to day human interactions that are necessary to gain the essentials of life. There is nothing ethical or spiritual about talking to my boss in the hope of a raise or to lobby a politician. The fact that polytheism recognized many gods furthers this mercenary relationship with the divine. If there are many gods then these gods can be played against each other. Children learn very quickly that their parents have different opinions and that they can be played against each other. If the gods are like human beings then they can equally be played. They can be flattered by one who knows their temperament. If the gods are in some sense physical than they must, after some fashion, have physical needs even if those physical needs are nothing more than to be praised and flattered. This is the essence of magic, that one can extend the amoral relations that define day to day human interactions to the divine and the supernatural. (Admittedly, this model fails to completely account for paganism in practice. There can be monotheists in pagan guise, such as Socrates, and pagans in the guise of monotheists.)

The Abrahamic revolution is not just that God is one but that he is a righteous God. This one God has no rivals to play against him. As a non physical being he has no need for anything and nothing that anyone does can benefit or harm him. This is one of the hardest concepts in theology to come to terms with; there is no way to bargain with God, there is nothing to bargain with. This vision of God is most clearly articulated in the Prophets where God is the righteous protector of widows and orphans, who cannot be appeased with the mere burnt flesh of bulls and goats. (See the Prophets by Abraham J. Heschel.) This is a God who is willing to strike down his own temple and let his name be a mockery among the nations of the world because Israel failed to live up to the calling of being his nation.

As Maimonides argues in the Guide to the Perplexed, the Bible serves as a way to transition people from a pagan mode of thinking toward to the ethical rationalism necessary in comprehending the will of the monotheistic deity. As such one is going to find in the Bible things that on the surface seem to be part of the pagan model. For example the Bible commands the use of animal sacrifice, part of the pagan model. A pagan god would have physical needs that could be satisfied through a sacrifice. At the very least the god could be honored by sacrifice. The monotheistic God has no need for sacrifice, but allows them as a concession to human weakness. While the Bible makes the pretense of allowing and even mandating animal sacrifice, it robs animal sacrifice of its theological value and justification, leaving animal sacrifice as a hollow edifice to be undermined by the prophets.

If one looks at the concept of reward and punishment in the Bible one sees a similar pattern. The concept of reward and punishment is there, even physical non-gnosis reward. The monotheistic God is capable of bringing miracles about and affecting the world to the benefit or detriment of individuals. That being said, this is an incidental belief for the monotheistic religion. The rewards and punishments in the Bible are overwhelmingly about one’s descendents or about the people as a whole, not about personal gain. As Maimonides explains, the rewards and punishments in the Bible are consequential. If the Israelites pursue an understanding of God they will be pursue rational solutions to their problems and be successful as a state. Alternatively, if the Israelites pursue the magical solutions offered by paganism, the state will fall.

(To be continued …)

Monday, July 20, 2009

My Presentation to the International Medieval Congress (Part II)

(Part I)

Did Jews have the power to act against those accused of heresy? When faced with other types of threats the heads of the Jewish community proved themselves quite capable of putting through legislation, which regulated the behavior of individuals. In 1397, in response to the events of 1391, the leader of the Jewish community, Hasdai Crescas passed through a series of takkanot, in Saragossa that increased the powers of the communal trustees, making it easier for them to act without consulting the community as a whole. He placed a ban of excommunication on anyone who would tamper with his regulations.[1] Crescas wrote a book, Or Adonai (Light of the Lord), attacking Aristotelian philosophy and Maimonides yet he did not bother to place any restrictions on the study of philosophy. If Crescas really believed that Aristotelian philosophy posed a mortal threat to Judaism then surely he should have done more than engage in a philosophical debate with Aristotle and Maimonides. He should have put the considerable power, that he wielded, and used it to rid the community of Aristotle’s books and Aristotelian philosophers.

We see a similar pattern with the Synod of Valladolid in 1432, under Don Abraham Benveniste that focused on the need to reestablish community authority. The ordinances focused on five things: instruction in Torah communal judges, denunciation and slander, taxes and services and restrictions upon extravagant dress and entertainment. The council was concerned with the lack of Torah study amongst the Jewish community in Castile. In order to rectify the situation and support those involved in the study of Torah and teaching it a tax was levied on cattle slaughtered, wine, weddings, circumcisions and death. Every community was to appoint it own judges and officials to serve terms of one year. In case of any indecisions the matter was to be brought to the Rab de la Corte, who would appoint someone himself. These judges wielded the power to levy fines and even use corporal punishment. They could force people to appear before the court and fine those who refused. They could order the arrest of any Jew provided they first signed a warrant in the presence of witnesses. The Synod forbade Jews to take other Jews to a Christian court or denounce other Jews to Christians, except if it was a matter of taxes due to the king, something pertaining to the king’s welfare or if the Jew in question did not recognize the authority of the Jewish court.[2] The Synod forbade Jews to attempt to seek special privileges from the Christian authorities in order to exempt themselves from community taxes.[3] Finally the Synod placed restrictions on what sort of clothing Jews could wear. [4] The idea being that Jews should not wear fancy garments so as to not incur the ire of their Christian neighbors. [5]

Benveniste was Rab de la Corte under John II of Castile. In accordance with these statutes, Benveniste, as Rab de la Courte, was the supreme legal authority amongst all Jews in Castile and had power over all courts. We know from Ibn Musa that Benveniste was critical of philosophical interpretations of the Bible. According to Ibn Musa, Benveniste once responded to two scholars, who preached about “matters alien to our tradition,” using “figurative interpretations,” saying:

My brothers, children of Abraham, believe that when the Bible says in the beginning God created (Gen. 1:1) or Jacob left Beersheba (Gen. 26:10), it is to be understood in its simple meaning. Believe also in all that is written in the Torah, and what the rabbis explained in accordance with their tradition. Do not believe those who provocatively speak of alien matters.[6]

One would have imagined that Benveniste, among all of his various community regulations, could have spared a few lines as to the regulation of rogue preachers engaged in undermining popular belief with their philosophical allegories. As Rab de la Courte he certainly would have had the power to successfully wage the sort of campaign that had been attempted with limited success by Solomon of Montpellier, in 1232, and Solomon ben Aderet and Abba Mari, in 1306.

Part of the solution to this historical problem lies, I believe, in rethinking the issue of what these anti-philosophical polemics were about. I would suggest that rabbis wrote these polemics not written in order to warn ordinary Jews as to the dangers and failings of philosophy, but to reach out to conversos and make the case to them that Christian theology was a denial of the God of the Bible, and that by remaining as Christians they were abandoning God’s covenant and were no different than the Israelites in the Bible who worshipped Baal. Since we are dealing with a population that the church and the civil authorities viewed as Christian, Jews could not directly write anything that tried to get conversos to remain Jewish in any fashion. Therefore any outreach to conversos needed to be esoterically written.

To give an example of this, Solomon Alami accused philosophers of exchanging the garments of the “pure” Torah for Greek garments.

According to their [the philosophers’] words they have raised Aristotle with his calculations above Moshe, Peace Be Upon Him, with his Torah. For, were it not for his work and his books on nature, we would be left in the darkness of our intellect and we would not go out into the light from the barriers. And this is a little like the Christian argument when they say that all the righteous descended [to Hell] and were lost until their Messiah came and atoned for them through his death.[7]

Alami clearly connects philosophy to Christianity. Other examples follow this course and we can see philosopher as a codeword for Christian.

Assuming that rabbis wrote anti-philosophical literature in order to reach conversos solves our problems. It would explain why no one made the jump from attacking philosophy to actually taking action against it. The “philosophers” in question, whom the rabbis saw as such great threats, lived outside of the formal control of the Jewish community so any attempt to take action against them was futile. No Jewish communal bureaucracy could touch a Christian. When faced with the fact that a large percentage of the Jewish community officially lived as Christians, one could quite comfortably choose to ignore the issue of Averroeist Jews reading large swaths of the Bible allegorically. The rabbis were addressing a contemporary issue and were not simply going through the troupes inherited from earlier generations. Previous generations had the luxury of not having to face mass apostasy so they had the ability to look inward and take action against those Jews deemed to be too philosophically minded.

This move to reach out to conversos would also explain the turn towards dogma and why it did not lead to any attempts to follow through and take action against those deemed to possess heterodox beliefs. If one viewed Judaism as a set of beliefs and not as practices then it is possible to say that a Jew who did not keep the practices of Judaism, but who still believed should not be counted as an apostate. If one followed Maimonides even if a Jew violated every commandment in the Bible he still counted as a member of Israel and must be treated as one in every respect as long as he accepted all thirteen Principles of Faith. Since this move to dogma came about in order to accommodate those who could not actually practice Judaism or even count themselves as part of the Jewish community, any attempt to rid the Jewish community of those who counted themselves as part of the community, even though they might not accept everything in Judaism, would have been counterproductive.

In dealing with rabbinic anti-philosophical polemics in the fifteenth century one cannot simply pass them off as a form of reactionary conservatism aimed at rooting out philosophy. If the rabbis of this period had wished to fight philosophy then they would have gone beyond simply denouncing philosophy to using their political power in order to excommunicate philosophers and ban their books. The fact that these people did not take such action forces us to rethink our understanding of this literature. The solution I have offered connects the issues of conversos and rabbinic polemics against philosophy. The real concern here was not philosophy but the mass apostasy of Jews. The anti-philosophical polemics from this period did not serve as vehicles to purify Judaism from the threat of heresy. Rather they served as a means to reach out to other Jews, even those who did not practice Judaism in any sort of traditional sense.


[1] Baer HJCS II pg. 126-29 and Die Juden im Christlichen Spanien Erster Teil I no. 463, pg. 727-32.
[2] One wonders what sort of Jew this is meant to refer to. One source of possible candidates would have been conversos.
[3] This statute is found in almost every community ordinance in the middle ages both amongst Sephardic communities and Ashkenazic.
[4] Ibn Verga in his book Sevet Yehuda, argues that Jews brought about the expulsion of 1492 upon themselves because they paraded themselves in fancy garments in front of Christians, which made Christians resentful of them.
[5] Baer, HJCS II pg. 261-70 and Die Juden im Christlichen Spanien Erster Teil II no. 287, pg. 281-97.
[6] Saperstein, Jewish Preaching pg. 385-86.
[7] Iggeret Musar pg. 41-42.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Presentation to the International Medieval Congress (Part I)

Philosophers, Conversos, and the Jewish Campaign against Heresy in 15th-Century Spain – Benzion Chinn (The Ohio State University)

One has to admit that there is something just a little bit odd about studying orthodox attempts to suppress “heretical” ideas. As academics, our very lifeblood is free enquiry. It would only be natural for us to simply view these defenders of orthodoxy as the “ultimate evil,” attempting to destroy "reason" and establishing the tyranny of “dogma” and “superstition.” I believe this speaks to the best of the historical profession that we are committed to giving all those from the past a chance to speak, particularly those who seem to be the most distant from “modernity.”

This paper is primarily about a question and I will spend most of my time dealing with this question. I will suggest a solution. Not that I am convinced that I have the evidence to completely solve the question. I would be interested in getting feedback if anyone can offer anything to further my case or to refute it.

One of the major features of Spanish Jewish thought, during the fifteenth century, was its polemic against philosophy. Philosophy was supposed to lead to the abandonment of the commandments, to heresy and even to apostasy. This element received particular emphasis in the work of the late Yitzchak Baer and his History of the Jews in Christian Spain. (Probably the finest study of any one particularly Jewish community.) I first started exploring this topic with the intention of writing about the practical side of this move against philosophy, such as bans, book burnings and excommunications. It seemed only logical that such things went on; what is the point of denouncing philosophy if you are not going to actually do something about it? As I am sure many of you can relate to, this project took a dramatic shift when, after several weeks of work, I realized that I had absolutely no evidence of such things happening. Out of frustration, as strange as this sounds, I found myself almost yelling at my sources: “what is wrong with you people? Why do you not show some spine and ban something?” I could have pretended that I had the evidence and hoped no one would notice. Instead I chose what I think is the more interesting option and asked myself why I had no evidence. We are left with the conclusion that the reason we have no evidence of bans, book burnings and excommunications is that they did not happen.

So why would a rabbinic establishment devote so much energy to denouncing philosophy without taking any practical measures against it? To suggest some obvious possibilities: Maybe Jews were remarkably tolerant and did not go for banning books? Maybe Jews were just not that interested in dogma? Maybe the Jewish community during this period was remarkably orthodox and there were no dangerous philosophers? Maybe Jews just did not have the power to do something about it?

Attempts by the Jewish community to take action against perceived heterodox beliefs had clear precedent both within Spain and outside of it. Spanish Jewry possessed a particularly strong precedent for the active suppression of heterodox beliefs since it served as the host for most of the Maimonidean controversies. In 1232 Solomon of Montpellier and his students, Jonah of Gerondi and David b. Saul banned Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. Furthermore Solomon sent Jonah of Gerondi to Northern France in order to gain support for the ban. The Rabbis of Northern France themselves went and banned this book as well. The Maimonideans responded with a ban of their own against Solomon of Montpellier. Furthermore, they sent David Kimhi to Spain to rally support for their position. While Kimhi gained the support of a number of important community leaders, he met some fierce opposition from such Jewish leaders as Nachmonides, Judah Alfakar and Abulafia. This fighting only came to a close when the Inquisition got involved and burned copies of the Guide.[1] This event shocked both sides and caused them to temporally halt their campaigns.

A similar controversy occurred in the fourteenth century. In 1304 Abba Mari ben Moses (d.c. 1310) and Solomon ben Aderet (1235-1310), the chief rabbi of Barcelona and student of Jonah of Gerondi, issued a ban of excommunication on all those under twenty-five who studied philosophy. The focus of Abba Mari and Aderet’ zeal was Levi ben Abraham of Villefranche who supposedly claimed that Abraham and Sarah represented Form and Matter and were not real historical figures. As with the case of Solomon of Montpellier, this attempt also met with stiff opposition from a number of scholars, most notably Menahem Meiri. Abba Mari collected his correspondence in a book titled Minhat Kinot (Offering of Jealously). It serves to detail all of his efforts to stamp out Aristotelian thought within the Jewish community. His efforts to get different communities to sign on to his ban, the rabbis that he convinced to sign and those that turned against him. He also recounts his efforts to defend himself against his opponents, who went after him personally and tried to destroy his reputation.[2]

As strange as this sounds, one has to admire these people. They took a principled stand, based on what they believed, and where even willing to put themselves at some professional risk for those beliefs. Keep in mind that the pro-Maimonidean forces possessed considerable power and were perfectly capable of moving against those who dared oppose them.

To move on to the issue of dogma. The central figure in the history of Jewish dogma was Maimonides (1138-1205) with his thirteen Principles of Faith. As Menachem Kellner has argued, Maimonides attempted to reformulate Judaism as a theologically based religion as opposed to a law based one. Furthermore Maimonides redefined the meaning of being a Jew. For Maimonides a Jew was not simply someone born to a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism; a Jew was someone who believed in the dogmas of Judaism. While Maimonides’ thought played a major role in the theological controversies of the Middle-Ages, his Principles of Faith only came to play an important role in fifteenth century Spain. It was Hasdai Crescas (1350-1410) and his student Joseph Albo (1380-1445) who first made an issue out of it. They criticized Maimonides’ choices as to which doctrines should be viewed as the foundations and axioms upon which Judaism was to be based and put forth their own alternative lists of dogmas. Kellner suggests that the reason for this sudden interest in dogma was the church’s missionary assault at the end of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. Christianity set the terms of debate and that meant dogma. Any responses on the part of Jews needed to formulate a conception of Jewish dogma and how it was different from Christian dogma. This predicament lead Jews back to Maimonides and the acceptance of all or parts of his reformulation of Judaism.

While Kellner notes in passing that this interest in dogma did not lead to any fissures within the Jewish community, he does not bother to follow through and consider the implications of this lack of any real world crackdown on heresy. One would think that the point of formulating an official established dogma was so that one could define heresy. Once we have an official dogma all those who do not confirm to it are heretics and should be persecuted. Why would someone go through so much trouble formulated dogma unless they intended to use it as a platform with which they could hunt after heretics? Both Crescas and Albo, in the early part of the fifteenth century, and Isaac Arama (1420-97) and Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), in the later part, engaged in anti-philosophical polemics and in attempts to formulate official Jewish dogma. For some strange reason, though, none of these people ever banned a book or excommunicated someone for their philosophical leanings.

Where there radical Jewish philosophers in the fifteenth century? We do have some evidence to indicate that the Jewish community possessed some active philosophical radicals during this period. The mid fifteenth century preacher, Haim ibn Musa, in a letter to his son wrote:

Now there is a new type of preacher. They rise to the lectern to preach before the reading of the Torah, and most of their sermons consist of syllogistic arguments and quotations from the philosophers. They mention by name Aristotle, Alexander, Themistius, Plato, Averroes, and Ptolemy, while Abbaye and Raba are concealed in their mouths. The Torah waits upon the reading stand like a dejected woman who had prepared herself properly by ritual immersion and awaited her husband; then, returning from the house of his mistress, he glanced at her and left without paying her further heed.[3]

While Ibn Musa did not give any specific names, the preachers he attacked clearly lived in his time.




[1] Whether or not the anti-Maimonideans denounced the works of Maimonides to the Inquisition is an open question. Maimonideans, such as Hillel of Verona, blamed their opponents for what happened and sought to use this event as a means of discrediting them. Daniel Silver has argued that such actions would have been highly unlikely as it would have elicited the complete opposition of the Jewish community at large.
[2] For more on the Maimonidean controversies see Joseph Sarachek, Faith and Reason, Daniel Silver’s Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy and Bernard Septimus’ Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition: the Career and Controversies of Ramah.
[3] Saperstein, Jewish Preachers pg. 386.



(To be continued ...)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Day One Session Three

Reasoning with Heretics

Right Belief and Right Knowledge: Epistemological Subversion in the Cloud of Unknowing – Chance Woods (University of Oklahoma)

According to the anonymous author of the fourteenth century text, the Cloud of Unknowing, the prime source of heresy is the claim to know God. Complete union with God is impossible. This concept of the radical inability to know God comes from Pseudo-Dionysius. Traditional scholarship on religion thought in terms of object of experience. This model does not work for Pseudo-Dionysius or Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud of Unknowing does not want the reader to focus on any one thing. He downplays rationality, but views the imagination as dangerous. The only response to the call of Grace is silence. The particular target of the Cloud of Unknowing’s hostility to images was the English mystic Richard Rolle. Rolle talked about feeling the Holy Spirit like a fire in his belly, which Cloud of Unknowing suggests may have been indigestion. For Cloud of Unknowing, images lead to heresy because they come from ignoring one’s spiritual mentor and pursuing images which are the products of one’s own mind. Soon such visions become addictive and Satan willingly aids in providing such images as will lead the foolhardy seeker away from the doctrines of the Church.

‘Protego – proterreo’: Pantaleon as Pagan Medicus, Healing Saint, and Heretical Magician – Dick E. H. de Boer (Rijksuniversiteit)

There is not a clear distinction between the miracles of saints and the feats of a magician. This comes out of the larger problem that, contrary to Emile Durkheim, religious ritual is not necessarily about making the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This is particularly the case with people in the Middle Ages for whom religious ritual often was distinctively about dealing with the profane and for whom religion had a distinctive magical quality.

The two most famous Catholic saints connected to medicine are Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, twin brothers, who worked as physicians and were martyred during the third century. One miracle story of theirs has them grafting a leg of an Ethiopian onto an amputee. Another saint who is not as well remembered today is Saint Pantaleon. Pantaleon had a Christian mother and a pagan father. While he grew up as a Christian he became a pagan as an adult. He later, though returned to Christianity. (This story is almost exactly like Augustine’s.) Pantaleon served as an imperial physician in Nicomedia, but was martyred at the beginning of the fourth century. The charge against him was that he was a magician. According to legend he went through burning, hot lead, wild beast and the sword until finally he prayed for death.

For some strange reason Pantaleon is not nearly as famous as the twins. He only seemed to pick up much of a following as an individual saint during the Middle Ages in the Rhineland. During the Black Death we do see Pantaleon listed as one of the fourteen holy helpers. The popular image of Pantaleon is of him getting a nail through the head. This image is used as an amulet.

The words "hocus pocus" most probably are a mangled version of the Latin “hoc est corpus,” this is the body. One suspects that this was some magician imitating the priest consecrating the Eucharist. The words” hoc est corp[us]” appear on an amulet with the image of Pantaleon.

(I actually presented second, but I am going to leave my presentation for the next post. There were not a whole lot of people there. I suspect it was because we consisted of two graduate students and one legitimate scholar and because we dealt with such diverse topics. After the presentation I had a very interesting conversation with Chance Woods. Interesting as in it went on for about two hours. It was largely a running exchange of observations on religion in the Middle Ages and in the present. To my surprise, Chance knows quite a bit about Judaism. Apparently the University of Oklahoma has a decent Jewish Studies Department with the likes of Norman Stillman on board. So keep an eye out in the future for Chance Woods; he is someone special.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Day One Session Two

Dangerous Doctrines, II: Heresy trials and the Limits of Learning

Parisian Pantheism or Maurice’s Magic? A Re-Interpretation of the Condemnation of 1210 and 1215
– Thomas Gruber (Merton College, University of Oxford)

In the early thirteenth century we see a number of accusations against heresy. Robert of Courson, in the Statutes of the University of Paris of 1215, lists three groups. There are the Amalricians, followers of Amalric of Bena, who preached pantheistic creed in which there is no difference between creator and created. This group managed to grow large enough to form a sect and cause enough concern to be spied upon. There is David of Dinant, another pantheist philosopher. The third person mentioned is a Mauricii hyspani, Maurice the Spaniard. This Maurice is the twelfth century anti-Pope Gregory VIII, originally named Maurice Bourdin.
Maurice was the archbishop of Braga and close to Pope Paschalis II. Sent as an envoy to Henry V, Maurice switched to the side of the emperor, who repaid this action by making him Pope Gregory VIII. Maurice’s reign as pope did not last long. As the tide turned against the emperor, Maurice was captured, put on display and humiliated. There is an image of Maurice serving as a footstool to the pope. Later the archbishop of Toledo uses this to show the supremacy of Toledo over Braga.

What was Maurice’s doctrine? It would seem that Maurice was accused of necromancy. We have a magical text sent by John of Seville to a Pope Gregory to guard against kidney stones. This recipe represented a magic tradition that was condemned in 1215. Maurice’s name was added in order to add an element of menace to it. This would add an element to 1215 besides for Aristotelianism and pantheism.

Indians, Demons, and the Death of the Soul: Necromancy and Talismanic Magic at the University of Paris in 1277 - Matthias Heiduk (Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat)

We see a condemnation of magic in Paris in 1277 besides for the more famous attacks on Aristotle by Bishop Stephen Tempier. Who were the targets? Why would people in the Middle Ages have been interested in magic and why would the Church be against it. We possess several geomancy books which start with Estimaverunt Indi. The sorts of crimes of things we see listed are Nigromancy, a term often conflated with necromancy, invocation of demons, and talismans. We do not know if magical books were at the University of Paris or if magic was being taught to the students, but we do know that they were being read in the thirteenth century. William of Auvergne mentions that he studied magic in his youth before he became Bishop. These rituals involved the veneration of demons.

‘Ruditas et brevitas intellectu illorum’: Meister Eckhart against the Inquisition - Alessandra Beccarisi (Universita del Salento)

Charges of heresy were often used for political reasons. The move against Meister Eckhart was a good example of this. The Political situation in Germany in 1325-26 played a critical role in this, particularly in regards to the papal representative, Nicholas of Strasbourg. In 1324 Pope John XXII excommunicated Ludwig of Bavaria. Dominicans had to decide where they going to side. John decided to interfere directly with the Dominicans. There were sympathizers with Ludwig in the order. Nicholas of Strasbourg visited Cologne which was a particular delicate situation. Eckhart was a Dominican closely in the public eye so he became a target. His preaching in the vernacular about poverty came to be seen as an attack on the papacy. Nicholas served as the pope’s vicar and ended up defending Eckhart. We see a shift in the Dominican order and monks friendly to the pope are put in charge. Once Eckhart is on trial at Avignon away from his enemies the charges are relaxed and the charges of heresy are dropped.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Day One Session One

Heretical Destructions: Incitement and Symbolic Violence

Moving Violence: Images of Persecution in Late Medieval ArtAssaf Pinkus (Tel Aviv University)

There is a certain allegorical framework to medieval depictions of violence. There is the motif of monsters and the damned in hell and the triumph of faithful. In the twelfth century we begin to see a lot more martyr cycles. Early studies have focused on these stories in terms of the life and suffering of Christ. We see St. James the Greater holding on to his head after it has been cut off. St. Denis, as contrast, is depicted as being crowned by angels, standing in victory. St. James is down on the ground and clearly suffering. St. Simon has his head split open. St. James the Lesser has an ax in his head. These violent images are shown outside the context of the suffering of Christ. Furthermore, the use of smashed limbs creates an image of submission rather than triumph.

This can be seen as an inversion of values. We see the moral triumph of those suffering in that they demonstrate their suffering. Did viewers see this as violent? Did the audience enjoy a voyeuristic sense of suffering? Caroline Bynum argues that these images were not viewed as violent but as access to the body of Christ. This is in keeping with the Augustinian bifurcation of body and spirit. Contrast to the violence of the spirit when one is forced to renounce one’s faith. Aquinas, it should be noted, argues that the body is the form of the spirit. This changes the straight dichotomy of Augustine.

Late medieval violence did not just exist in the symbolic sense; there is a growing awareness of urban violence. These depictions of the violent martyrdom of these saints was meant to confront this everyday urban violence.

The Destruction of Heretical BooksAlexander Murray (University College, University of Oxford)

There is an interest in the destruction of books that is not just school boy impishness. We are part of a culture that worship of books. Fernando Baez has a book on book burnings for those who are interested. Much of the historical destruction of books has happened not through censorship but through simple neglect. If you look at Hogarth’s Gin Lane painting you will see a wheel barrow of books going to the trunk makers.


Agobard of Lyons Opera Omnia was saved by mere chance from being turned into wrapping paper.


This presentation is a summary of a book by Thomas Werner titled Den Irrtum liquidieren Bücherverbrennungen im Mittelalter. There is nothing original in this presentation but then again originality is a modern value. Werner deals with some 200 book burnings during the Middle Ages. They become more common after 1200. In the fourteenth century you have the Wycliffe persecution which leads to a lot of books being burned. You see more censorship for a while. Then in 1521 Lutheran books are being burned in London. Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment has a lot on book burnings. Lots more books were destroyed during the Enlightenment. This has to do with the increased production of books.

Book burnings were an efficacious sign; it demonstrated things. Books were even written in order to be burned. For example there is a whole genre of collections of errors by teachers accused of heresy that students were asked to write in order to denounce those teachers. This happened particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Copies of heretical books were sometimes kept in order to identify the heresy in the future. Johann Huss’ works were kept in Rome even though they were burned at Constance. Burning is actually a hard way to get rid of books. Cutting or tearing a book up make more sense, but were considered a lesser punishment than burning.

This emphasis on burning applies to the burning of heretics as well. Heretics who were dead or unavailable were burned in effigy. We have examples of where the defendant is made to burn his own books as a sign of penance. We see this with Abelard. Lollards were put on display with their books hanging from them along with faggots as a sign to where the books were headed.

What did one do with books that were a mixture of orthodoxy and heresy? Pico de Mirandola had only three thesis declared to be heretical. Yet all nine hundred were burned. This attitude runs counter to scholastic dialectic where one preserves the heretical view in order to respond to it. Huss and his followers make this point. If one burned an entire book because of it contained a heretical statement then Canon Law would have to go as well as the Old Testament as these books contain heretical statements. Also, forcing someone to burn something he believes to be true would force them to sin. They would be acting against their conscious.
It should be noted that church courts had the authority to burn books but could not burn people. This was even after the clergy had lost their monopoly on reading. The church burned books and the secular authorities burned people. Because of this, you could not have people being burned with their books. All the clergy could do to people was hand over relapsed heretics to the secular arm with a plea not to execute them. Quite hypocritical of them, one has to admit. The first time we have unequivocal evidence of a heretic being burned with their books is in 1510. Now the secular authorities are taking the lead in the pursuit of heresy.

(I spoke to Dr. Murray for a little bit after his presentation. I would describe him as some sort of ultimate Platonic version of a kindly elderly English academic.)

International Medieval Congress: Key Note Lectures

Heresies and RhetoricsJohn H. Arnold (Birkbeck College, University of London)

In 1261, after two decades of work, Benedict of Alignan’s De Summa Trinitate et Fide Catholica in Decretalibus was completed. This book follows the program set by the Fourth Lateran Council and goes points by point to answer those who go against Catholic doctrine. This book has over two thousand chapters. Some scholars view Benedict as the last grasp of a pre-Aquinas theology. In truth he was a much more complex figure than he is usually given credit for. He was the Abbot of his monastery and dealt with Albigensians. He traveled to the Holy Land and saw Christian defeat and Christians making deals with Saracens. Benedict may not have been a scholar but he did have direct contact with heretics, Jews and Muslims. Benedict’s work still had a few hundred years of life on it and would influence subsequent generations. He is also useful in thinking about the context of heresy.

In the last two decades the study of heresy has taken a certain turn to viewing heresy as a construction of orthodoxy. There is a tendency to see the opposition to heresy as something uniform as if every preacher was preaching from the same hymn sheet. We note shared language and shared concepts such as the heresiarch. In truth there were differences in orthodox responses. There were those who saw heresy as a single monster with many heads united in its attempt to destroy the one true church. Others argued that heresies were many as opposed to a one unified church. To assume the uniformity of orthodoxy is to hand it the power that it sought.

Benedict does not use very colorful language. He has a few moments of insult. For example, he claims that Cathars got their name from kissing the anuses of cats. He follows the structure of the creed rather than going point by point to respond to heretics. It is not framed as a polemic or as a debate. He writes out of a need to convince the unfaithful, including Jews and Muslims, but particularly to strengthen the faithful. Like Augustine, Benedict seeks to refute all heresy as a group. He even goes after pre-Christian philosophers.

Bernard of Clairvaux and Guibert of Nogent are examples of responses to heresy that are insult over substance. Inquisitor texts, such as the work of Bernard of Gui, are far more technical. The inquisitor manual is meant for other inquisitors and emphasize the inquisitor’s knowledge of heresy. This, ironically enough, brings the heretic into the same realm as the orthodox. Unwillingly, these texts acknowledge that heretics are thinking individuals with arguments that are not easily refutable. Benedict’s work is similar.

By the thirteenth century there is no longer an assumption of orthodox triumph. Even the quotation of orthodox interpretation of scripture does not always bring victory. As an example we have a story where a group of Dominican priests only win when the heretics are challenged to make the sign of the cross but are miraculously unable. Benedict, himself, notes that many people are not interested in reading a book as long as his.

(Dr. Arnold is the author of Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe.)


Between Christian and Jew: Orthodoxy, Violence, and Living Together in Medieval EnglandJeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University)

Gerald of Wales is a good place to go for almost any type of medieval stories. He has miracle stories dealing with Jews in which the Jew serves as the defeated monster. He tells the story of a Jew who doubts the miracles of a saint in Oxford, St. Frideswide. The young Jew comes to a procession of the saint with his hands tied, pretending to be crippled. If feminists like to talk about gender insubordination, this can be viewed as dogma insubordination. The youth, in the end, commits suicide. His parents try to cover up what happened, but the story gets out. The Jew is important for orthodoxy because he is a living heretic. The Jew says things that Christians can only think. To be clear, real Jews did mock Jesus and call him the hanged one, and challenged the virginity of Mary. The Jew of Unbelief, though, is a stock character to go with the other types of Jewish literary constructs.

To throw some other texts for consideration; there is Matthew Paris’ account of little Hugh of Lincoln, who is tortured in a manner similar to Christ. Hugh is important because he is one of the few martyr cults of Jewish victims that lasted more than a century and attracted royal patronage. Matthew of Paris is a story of supersessionism where the Jews are a living anachronism. John Mandeville refuses to condemn the foreign people he comes in contact with, even promiscuous, nudist, communist cannibals. John, though, does attack Jews. According to Mandeville, the Ten Lost Tribes are trapped in the mountains by Alexander. They have a prophecy that they will escape in the time of Antichrist. Jews learn Hebrew so that the Ten Lost Tribes will recognize them and not kill them along with their Christian neighbors. (For more on this legend see Andrew Gow’s Red Jews.)

Did the real life Jewish and Christian interactions go beyond the static constructions of works such as Gerald of Wales? If we look closely, anti-Semitic texts unwittingly reveal a world of interaction that goes beyond this static relationship. What other possibilities do these stories give us besides for the lachrymose narrative denounced by Salo Baron.

Christians and Jews shared urban spaces. Hugh of Lincoln is a story in which Jewish and Christian children play together and where Christians entered Jewish homes. What kinds of games did these children play? There is a line, in Paris’ account to suggest that Christians might have had pity on Jews. It should be noted that Jews were important to the economy and Christians were dependent upon them. For example, Aaron of Lincoln in the twelfth century was one of the richest people in England. Mandeville can be seen not just as a warrant for genocide but an example of Christian awareness of Jewish discontent.

Monday, July 13, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Rhiannon

Here I am at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. There are over one thousand medievalists packed in here on the complex surrounding Bodington Hall on the north side of the University of Leeds. The conference is dedicating to the theme of heresy and orthodoxy. So far there seems to be minimal causalities and no one has been burned at the stake or hacked to pieces in a religious crusade yet. While I wait for things to get interesting, I will be reporting on the sessions and the various presentations, including one given by me.

Sunday evening, after I had settled down in my room and before the conference began in earnest, I attended a telling of Rhiannon by Katy Cawkwell. Rhiannon is based on several stories from the Mabinogion, a collection Celtic myths. I am most familiar with the Mabinogion through the lens of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, a wonderful series of children’s books, particularly useful for preparing children to read and appreciate Tolkien. The story of Rhiannon goes as follows:

Pwyll, king of Dyfed, stands upon a hill in his kingdom upon which it is said that such an action will bring either blessing or curse. Pwyll challenge to fate leads him to rescue Rhiannon, a beautiful woman from the other world, from having to marry the Grey Lord, a man of stone with no heart. As the two lovers leave, the Grey Lord curses them and promises to have his revenge. For many years Pwyll and Rhiannon do not have any children until, on the advice of a man named Manawydan, Pwyll catches a silver fish and gives it to his wife to eat. Rhiannon and Pwyll have a child, but this child is stolen from the sleeping arms of his mother right under the watchful eye of six midwives. In order to save themselves the midwives accuse Rhiannon of having eaten her own baby. To make this work they slaughter a puppy, smear the blood on Rhiannon's face and scatter the pieces of the body around the bed. (I do love it when fairy tales turn really gory.)As a punishment, Rhiannon is forced to wear a bridle and a saddle and wait at the city gate. She is to tell all strangers of her crime and offer to let them ride her. This goes on for some time until a farmer and his wife come, bringing a small child with them. The child was named Gwri and his parents told the remarkable story of how he had come to them on an arm shaped cloud. It is confirmed that the child was truly the one lost to Pwyll and Rhiannon, who is released from her torment. The family is thus reunited, but not for long.

Pwyll and Rhiannon call their son Pryderi and the lad grows. Unfortunately he is forced into manhood sooner than expected when his father is killed by a giant white boar with red tipped ears. Pryderi becomes king of Dyfed. He takes for himself a woman named Cigfa, but is called to war with the rest of the kings of Britain against Ireland. After many years Pryderi comes home with a companion, who had become like a father to him. Upon seeing him, Rhiannon realizes that this man is Manawydan. There is peace for a time until Pryderi resolves himself to imitate his father and go to the hill to risk either blessing or curse. Unable to stop him, Rhiannon, Cigfa and Manawydan join him on the hill. When they look out they see that the entire kingdom has been desolated. With Manawydan’s guidance they manage to survive, first in the woods and then by traveling from town to town. Their luck changes again for the worst when Pryderi chases a giant white boar with red tipped ears into a tower where he is magically ensnared. Rhiannon follows after her son to try to rescue him but is also caught. The tower disappears leaving Cigfa and Manawydan alone. In an attempt to free their companions, Cigfa and Manawydan resolve to replant the kingdom of Dyfed. If the land will grow again perhaps the king will spring up with it. They plant three fields but these fields are attacked by an army of white mice with red tipped ears. Manawydan catches one of the mice, who is pregnant. Resolved to do justice, Manawydan sets out to hang this mouse. A man approaches Manawydan and begs him not to kill the mouse, even offering him gold. When Manawydan refuses the man reveals himself as the Grey Lord and confesses all the harm that he has done to Rhiannon and those close to her ever since she left him, from kidnapping Pryderi as a baby to changing his people into mice to attack the fields. The pregnant mouse is the Grey Lord’s woman and she is carrying his child. Manawydan agrees to give up the mouse in exchange for Rhiannon and Pryderi.

Calling what Ms. Cawkwell does storytelling fails to do her justice. She offers a full play, of her creation, in which she performs the role of narrator and all characters. Ms. Cawkwell’s performance has a remarkable lyrical quality to it, at times one can almost think that she was singing. After the performance Ms. Cawkwell thanked the audience and remarked that this was the first time she ever performed at an academic setting in front of people, many of whom are familiar with the Mabinogion. The post modernist in me notes that the tone of her storytelling takes on the mode of modernist commentary and satire with its strong sense of tongue and cheek. All in all, a truly remarkable performance.

Asael VII

This is part of my ongoing novel. Think of it as Killer Angels taking place in a musket and magic fantasy world with characters that combine the religious sensibilities of American revivalism with Beowulf-like blood feuds. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition is about to take on a whole new meaning.

Introduction, A Note from the Author, Prologue, I, II, III,IV, V, VI

The two of them were silent for a moment, a silence broken by Asael: “You owe me a cigar.”
Serariah looked disapprovingly at his son. “One, as it has already been established, the Colonel does not have any. Two, you do not smoke and, three you are not allowed to smoke.”

Asael starred up petulantly at his father: “You win, you get a cigar; I win so I get a cigar. He can pay what he owes me when he pays what he owes you. I shall likely be an adult by then. Since you smoke this can hardly count as a real prohibition.”Asael stopped and smiled as something else occurred to him: “If Ima finds out that I have been smoking she will blame you and forget about me. So there can be no claim on her side. Since you would not want her to find out, there can be no claim on your side. Hence I get to smoke.”

Colonel Kochba let out a laugh: “he has you there Serariah.”

“Me! This is about not corrupting my son until he has reached a respectable age and you not adding on to debts you will never pay.”

“The travails of the disinherited son of a rich man.”

Colonel Kochba turned to Asael and winked: “what if I pay a holding fee now, as a sign of good faith, and pay in full later.” Nodding to Serariah, “the Ursa Major[1] permitting.” The Colonel walked over to his coat and produced a book and, holding it casually between his fingers, handed it to Asael. Asael could see that it was a copy of the Oraitha. “This is a soldier’s copy,” said Colonel Kochba. “It is compact, with small print and thin pages. It is the straight text, no commentary, just the undiluted word of God. The margins are extra wide for the writing. Think of it as a diary as you go through your day reacting to God’s word in your life.”

Serariah raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Look,” said Kochba. “This is the one present that not even you could object to.”

“Couldn’t this be construed as usury Abba?”

“Asael has been studying the tractate of Riba[2] in school for the past few months,” explained Serariah.

“Apparently the people at my bank have not been studying that part of the Shith.”

“They have not gotten around to discussing how interest might be taken.”

“And the bank, I am sure, simply skipped to that part. Tell me, Serariah, what is the point of teaching laws and teaching how to spit on those same laws, in spirit if not in deed.”

“So that people will know that it is God’s Law that they are spitting on and that they are sinners in need of his Grace.”

Asael flipped through the book then raised his hand: “This is brand new so you must have just bought it before coming here. So you must have planned to give this to someone. Might I presume that the someone was me? If so then you planned on giving me this from the beginning.”

“The boy thinks, Serariah. Are you sure he belongs to you?”

“If this is a simple present that you intended to give me from the beginning with no conditions attached it would completely remove the issue of interest,” said Asael. “A good thing for sure. That being said it raises the question of why. Judging from what I have seen of you, you do things because you have something to gain by it. I am confused, you seem utterly unscrupulous and yet my father clearly holds you in some esteem. Colonel Sir.”

“Call me Hasan. Your father likes me because I am honest in my dishonesty. I actually want two things from your father and one of them involves you. Am I correct, Serariah, that your son is like you?”

“I did win the city under thirteen division at scacordus,” put in Asael, “but the competition was poor. “Abba wants me to go to regionals. He thinks, if I work hard, I can win.”

“That is enough.” Asael stopped and looked at his father and saw that he was actually angry, not at him but at the Colonel.

“All I am asking is that you resume contact with some of your old friends and let Asael serve as a go between.”

“That is a page in my life that I closed and I have no wish to open it again. Nor do I believe that my friends would have that much interest in me as it is. I never was that talented in my youth and I doubt anyone would find it worthwhile to train an old man now.”

“All the reason to bring your son. They will deal with him. And why not; are you truly going to deny him what is his?”

Asael meant to ask his father what this was about, but there was an air of primeval ferocity about his father that made Asael think better of it. “He will know what is needed when he needs it.”

Colonel Kochba walked back over to his coat and this time produced a folder. “In the meantime, while, you make up your mind, Serariah, as to what your son needs and when you are going to give it him, I suggest you consider this.”

A vein pulsed from the side of Serariah’s head and he glared at Kochba, but he accepted the folder and began to flip through the pages inside.

“That is classified information, Serariah, which you did not see and I did not show you. Sorry I cannot let you keep this file, but I will not take it as a personal breach of confidence if you informed your friends about the contents of what you just read.”

Serariah stood reading for a few more minutes before handing the folder back to the Kochba. The two of them walked on ahead, leaving Asael by the table. “We are not in immediate danger. He will get his chance to make a decision when he is capable of making one.”


[1] Great bear.
[2] Interest. Lending with interest violates Oraitha law. This law has traditionally been ignored, much to the chagrin of moralist preachers. Copious volumes have been written in recent years to justify the non application of the law particularly as the Khazars, as a developing capitalist society, have a growing banking industry.

Friday, July 10, 2009

At the Pub with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien

For me, no stay at Oxford would be complete without a visit to the famous Eagle and Child pub where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the other members of the Inklings used to meet.


I guess the sign is not in keeping with rabbinic thinking. According to Rashi and the Midrash, the great virtue of the eagle is that it carries the young on its back in order to shield them from men’s arrows.



I went inside and had a pint of some of the local stuff. To quote Pippin in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings film, but not the original novel: “it comes in pints?” You can tell that the stuff was good because I drank all of it. This the first time in my life that I have ever drunk a full pint of beer. I think Lewis would be proud of me. I am not much of a beer drinker, but I have recently been getting into it. I am now the sort of person who will go throw a bottle over the course of watching a game. In the back of me is a letter from the year 1948 drinking to the health of the proprietor of the establishment. The letter is signed by several people among them are C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, who was then an undergraduate student at Oxford.

Later I was helping out at the Chabad house when I mentioned Lewis to Mrs. Freida Brackman. She responded that she taught Lewis’ grandchildren. I response was: “so you know David Gresham.” Lewis late in life, married an American divorcee named Joy Davidman. She was an ex-Communist, who had converted to Christianity. Joy was originally from a secular Jewish family. Joy had two children, David and Douglas Gresham. (Lewis actually dedicated the Horse and His Boy to the two of them.) Joy died of cancer leaving the two children with Lewis. As a teenager David Gresham became an Orthodox Jew. Interestingly enough, Lewis actually paid for David’s Yeshiva education. According to Mrs. Brackman, David and his wife are extremely eccentric. I would certainly love to meet them. Judging from the fact that there is little information available about David on the web, I assume that he is a very private person, who likes to avoid the public spotlight.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Oxford Martyrs (The Catholic Version)

The X marks the spot where they used to burn people at the stake. I cannot think of any American Universities were people have ever been put to the stake for coming out on the wrong side of an academic debate; they are just denied tenure.

I visited a Dominican monastery here in Oxford. I feel a certain kinship to the Dominicans ever since I took a Facebook quiz and found out that the Dominicans are the monastic order I am best suited for. (The quiz was a big hit around the department. There may not be many religious Catholics, besides for one person who is in fact a Dominican priest, but there are many medievalists and early modernists with backgrounds in church politics. Most of us ended up as Dominicans. I guess it has something to do with our bookish sensibilities. My Mormon friend, Logan Smith, came out a Franciscan, but he answered the questions with that intent since he studies them.)

I found a pamphlet at the monastery titled “Catholic Martyrs of Oxford.”For those unfamiliar with English History, the Oxford Martyrs refers to a group of leading Anglican figures burnt at the stake under the reign of the Catholic Mary I (r. 1553-58).

As the pamphlet notes: Oxford’s most famous martyrs are the bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, who died courageously for their Protestant faith by being burnt to death, ironically the same method they themselves had approved of (when they still enjoyed the Crown’s favour) for dealing with stubborn Catholics and other heretics.

The pamphlet goes on to point out that five Catholic martyrs were executed in Oxford and proceeds to give their stories. Four of them, Thomas Belson, George Nichols, Humphrey Pritchard, and Richard Yaxley, were captured at St. Giles Inn and were hanged on July 5, 1589. Nichols and Yaxley, being priests, were drawn and quartered as well. The fifth martyr was George Napper, a priest, who was hanged, drawn and quartered on November 9, 1610. I guess it helps if your side has a Foxe’s Book of Martyrs with its pretty pictures.



A simple pamphlet is just not going to compete.

I find it interesting that this Catholic pamphlet, in a sense, acknowledges the martyrdom of Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer as something admirable. I guess in this modern world one has to be more ecumenical even when discussing this most unecumenical act. Let us face it; either these Protestants were servants of the Devil or their Catholic executioners were murderers. There is not a whole lot of wiggle room here.

The funny thing about the persecution of Catholics during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I was that “technically” it was legal to be a Catholic as long as you acknowledged the supremacy of the monarch as the head of the English Church and not the pope, were not a Catholic priest, did not aid or abate any Catholic priests and did not take part in any Catholic masses. The penalty for any of these things was death. So one could not actually be a Catholic. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, approximately two hundred Catholic priests and laymen were executed. Their crime was not heresy, but treason. It was treason to believe that the pope was the proper head of the Church and to take part in a Catholic mass. One of the interesting implications of this was that, since these people were not being executed as Catholics and because technically speaking being a Catholic was not a crime, many of these Catholic martyrs, when given the chance to speak their last words, gave very Catholic sermons and no one could stop them.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (Sort of): One Converso’s View of Jesus

Last year I did a series of posts on Jewish views on Jesus. Here, in an article by David Graizbord, is a view of Jesus, by an early seventeenth century converso, liable to perplex both Jews and Christians. Espiritu Santo was born a Jew in Marrakesh but converted first to Islam and then to Christianity. He was living in Spain when the Inquisition picked him up on charges of sorcery, crypto-Islam and crypto-Judaism. According to Espiritu Santo:

… the one who had come [namely, Jesus] was [a Messiah] of the tribe of Joseph; and that the messiah of the tribe of David [sic] had yet to come, and that he [the defendant] would go to heaven [if he was burned], and that when Jesus [sic] came to judge the living and the dead, the first he would absolve would be the Jews, because Christ is the son of God, and he is below the Father at [the Father’s] right hand, and that only the Father is a true God, because even though there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit, only one God shall judge – and that is the Father. The Son is [merely] a prophet [of God], as when a master sends his servant; and the old Law of Moses is written and adorned with diamonds … and it is written by the hand of God, adonai, God of Israel … and that in the Law of Jesus Christ there are many images, and that, there not being more than one true God, he did not believe in the [images], neither in the crosses, and that he [the defendant] was a Jew, of the stock of Aaron the priest, and that [earlier] when God had inspired him to turn to the holy Catholic faith, the reason that he had converted to it was that he understood that it and the Law of Moses were one; but afterwards, having recognized that they are opposed, he wished to keep the Law of Moses … because there is no more than one God, who is a pearl and a diamond that cannot be cut.
(David Graizbord “Historical Contextualization of Sephardi Apostates and Self Styled Missionaries of the Seventeenth Century.” Jewish History 19(2005): pg. 300.)


So here we have a Jew who believed that Jesus was a messiah, just not the Messiah, and that he was part of a Trinity, though an Arian Trinity. He believed that Jesus came to save people from sin just not the same sorts of sins that the inquisitors had in mind. He converted to Christianity even though he still believed in Mosaic Law and was prepared to die for that belief. So where does this Espiritu Santo fit in?