Judaism in Practice from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period

Article excerpt

edited by Lawrence Fine. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. 537 pp. $22.95.

Along with Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, Judaism is not an entity, but rather a concept, connected, sometimes very strongly, to other concepts. Thus the very title "Judaism in Practice" embeds a relation between the concept Judaism and that of Religion, no matter how you define the two. In turn, Religion is never thought of without Christianity, the tradition which proclaims itself the originary religion.

A rich product of collaboration of 33 scholars from various fields of Jewish Studies, Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period is a selection of documents, well known and less-known, from the time following the completion of the Talmud up until the emergence of secularized Jewry. This book is the ninth volume in the Princeton Readings in Religion series. The series focuses on religions as they are practiced rather than on the way they are presented in their respective canonic literatures. The documents, prefaced by scholarly explanations, are divided into seven sections, showing the "practical," i.e., "non-doctrinal" aspects of the traditional Jewish life in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

In his introduction to the volume, Lawrence Fine surveys its structure and design. He suggests that Judaism in practice, as opposed to Judaism in canon, has produced great diversity and variation not only in the life of ordinary people but also in the development of rituals, ethics and aesthetic, mysticism, communities, and concepts of gender.

The first two sections focus on communal rituals and those related to the life of individuals from birth to death, with special emphasis on the way in which women and children engaged in prayer and liturgy, both in creative imagination and in routine.

The third section deals with conflicts between ideal and real in the ritual settings of studying the Torah. For example, Judaism assimilated from Christianity a monastic model of learning which could never be implemented in full. In addition to showing the influences of Islamic and Christian attitudes on Jewish learning, this section emphasizes the importance of communal emotional ties to the activity of learning itself.

The fourth section takes the reader from the mainstream of the individual and communal rituals to the life of geographically marginal communities and "sects," as the latter represent a non-typical way of being non-typical. The section shows how distancing -- symbolic (Karaites) or geographical (Jewish communities in China) -- from the "center" sharpens and shapes the "norm" as a response to a "deviation."

The fifth section leads the reader from the communal and individual rituals (marginal or not) to the visual aspects of rituals, as well as to the laws and controversies that govern them. …