Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom

By Basser, Herbert W. | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom


Basser, Herbert W., Shofar


Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom, by Robert Chasan. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 379 pp. $75.00.

Christianity, once an obscure Jewish sect, rose to be a major world religion. In so doing it retained the story of harsh Pharisaic suppressions and divine displeasure at them, This memory became enshrined in the New Testament's argument that adherence to the Law of Moses and dismissal of the divinity of Jesus Christ brought God to abrogate his covenant with the Jews. Succeeding generations of Christians always imaged the Jew as the powerful suppressor and enemy of Christian values. Jews, from the beginning, felt a need to dispute Christian claims (aiming to convince and convert); sometimes they were forced to debate, and a few medieval Rabbis have left us their textbooks, records, and commentaries concerning their views of the groundless claims of the Christian attack on Judaism.

Robert Chazan has written a book to inform us of some details of Jewish polemical writings in Northern Spain and Southern France. Chasan does not discuss the Jewish/pagan and Christian/pagan polemics that occurred apart from the early Jewish/Christian attacks and counter attacks. The cases are not at all comparable: Jesus had sprung up on Jewish soil, physically and spiritually, and these issues cut deeper to the bone. How did Jews respond? It would seem they more than held their own in literary and actual debates. Any student of medieval polemics finds it difficult to know what precisely is literary and what was face-to-face confrontation. The author, a prominent medievalist, has limited his scope to only a few writings of polemicists: Joseph (Northern Spain and Narbonne) and David Kimhi (Narbonne), Meir bar Simon (Narbonne), Jacob ben Reuben (time and place unknown), Moses Nachmanides (Northern Spain) and a few references here and there to some minor works. He claims he has discovered a new literary genre that took form in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: Jewish polemical writings. He probes the reasons of why it came to be when and where it did. Does he realize that biblical commentaries (or is this a new genre too?) from these areas are also unknown prior to the late eleventh and twelfth centuries? I suspect we have this literature from these places at this time because, for whatever reason, preservations of written materials stemming from these places date from these times and not earlier. Lack of evidence is nor always evidence of lack. Connecting some earlier faint dots (which Chasan sees as garbled and rudimentary) might show us that the genre is not so new.

More than anything else the Jewish mindset both in medieval Ashkenaz and Sepharad stemmed from the religiously oriented communal culture that Rabbinic leaders had nurtured for many centuries. For this reason it is fitting to note that both sides saw the medieval disputes as a continuation of past frictions, as Nachmanides claimed (referring to a talmudic story about the Sanhedrin's debates with Jesus' disciples-who were, in the end, executed by it) in the written introduction to his famous disputation in Barcelona. Now, however, the debates often ended in real-life dire consequences for Jews. Christians judged the outcome of the debates. In France, cartloads of valuable Talmud manuscripts were burned as debates began to center on the anti-Christian teachings of the Talmud. …

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