A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and The Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz

A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and The Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz

A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and The Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz

A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and The Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz

Synopsis

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed an explosion of Christian interest in the meaning and workings of the natural world--a "discovery of nature" that profoundly reshaped the intellectual currents and spiritual contours of European society--yet to all appearances, the Jews of medieval northern Europe (Ashkenaz) were oblivious to the shifts reshaping their surrounding culture. Scholars have long assumed that rather than exploring or contemplating the natural world, the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz were preoccupied solely with the supernatural and otherworldly: magic and mysticism, demonology and divination, as well as the zombies, werewolves, dragons, flying camels, and other monstrous and wondrous creatures that destabilized any pretense of a consistent and encompassing natural order.

In A Remembrance of His Wonders, David I. Shyovitz disputes this long-standing and far-reaching consensus. Analyzing a wide array of neglected Ashkenazic writings on the natural world in general, and the human body in particular, Shyovitz shows how Jews in Ashkenaz integrated regnant scientific, magical, and mystical currents into a sophisticated exploration of the boundaries between nature and the supernatural. Ashkenazic beliefs and practices that have often been seen as signs of credulity and superstition in fact mirrored--and drew upon--contemporaneous Christian debates over the relationship between God and the natural world. In charting these parallels between Jewish and Christian thought, Shyovitz focuses especially upon the mediating role of polemical texts and encounters that served as mechanisms for the transmission of religious doctrines, scientific facts, and cultural mores. Medieval Jews' preoccupation with the apparently "supernatural" reflected neither ignorance nor intellectual isolation but rather a determined effort to understand nature's inner workings and outer limits and to integrate and interrogate the theologies and ideologies of the broader European Christian society.

Excerpt

Might it be that Judaism and nature are at odds?
— Steven Schwarzschild, “The Unnatural Jew”

The Jews of medieval northern Europe (Ashkenaz) were economically industrious and religiously devoted. They served at the courts of emperors and bishops, where they were prized for their commercial and financial acumen. They pored over the Bible, subjecting it to careful and critical literary scrutiny; engaged in intricate and highly abstract talmudic dialectics; and composed stirring and elaborately structured works of poetic verse. the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz were also obsessed with vampires, werewolves, and zombies. They dabbled in demonology and magical adjurations and used runic incantations to animate quasi- human Golems out of mud and clay. They dreamed of monstrous races, fought with dragons, and rode flying camels.

This bifurcated perception of Ashkenazic Jewry—as simultaneously learned and benighted, critical and credulous— has generated a paradoxical historical image. Some scholars have extensively mined Ashkenazic Jews’ sophisticated legal and exegetical compositions while dismissing ostensibly superstitious beliefs and practices as mere incursions of contemporary folklore. Others have identified magic and mysticism as the very core of Ashkenazic culture, describing a mystical theology that pervaded Jewish society, and that was prized alongside— and sometimes above— the more mundane realms of religious ritual and law.

But despite their differing emphases, these opposing depictions have converged on the question of medieval Ashkenazic attitudes toward the natural world. Whether because they were exclusively engaged in . . .

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