Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Did Print Create a Counter Revolution in Judaism?

Robert Bonfil, in "Jewish Attitudes toward History and Historical Writing in Pre-Modern Times," argues for the field of history as having an important role in Judaism, contrary to the position of Yosef Yerushalmi. Bonfil focuses on the case of R. Joseph Caro in the sixteenth century, who banned the reading of "profane bellettristic and erotic literature, such as the book of Immanuel as well as books of wars" on the Sabbath as well as on weekdays. Bonfil sees this position as an innovation. It is far more stringent than even that of Maimonides, who may have philosophically objected to history but never stepped in with a legal ban. For Bonfil this marks a shift in the rabbinic response both to history specifically and secular literature in general due to the rise of print.

As is well known, the authoritarian control over knowledge characteristic of the Middle Ages and particularly of frames of mind such as Maimonides', made possible a wide range of medieval production of profane Hebrew literature, including of course historical writing. I suggest that such a cohabitation of sacred and profane, licit and illicit, was no longer possible now that, in the wake of the printing revolution, effective control over reading material had been lost. A careful definition of boundaries now became necessary. The learned arbiters of Jewish culture, who defined borders according to criteria "known" only to themselves, lost much of their former control over the intellectual activities of the masses. Decisions could no longer be made exclusively by the learned elites. The lost control had therefore to be restored by codifying the elimination of arbitrarity, i.e., by establishing very strict definitions. In so doing, without at the same time radically reforming ancient and medieval basic assumptions, codification was almost inevitably forced into further strictures. (pg. 16)

This certainly goes against the popular conception of print as a liberalizing force, but it fits with the trend we see in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church did not create an Index or wage any organized campaigns to ban books until the sixteenth century, when printing became a major force.

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