Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of "New Jews,"
Berger, Shlomo, Shofar
Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of "New Jews," by Marc Saperstein. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2005. 585 pp. $49.95.
Exile in Amsterdam is a study of Jewish preaching in the early modern period that tells the story of one prominent rabbi, Saul Levi Morteira, and his unique Portuguese community of Amsterdam in the first half of the seventeenth century. Marc Saperstein is also the author of Jewish Preaching 1200-1800, a book that aimed at presenting a more general view of sermonizing within the Jewish community throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period.
Saul Levi Morteira was the chief rabbi of the community of ex-Marranos, or "New-Christians," whose members returned openly to Judaism when immigrating to Amsterdam from the beginning of the seventeenth century on. Being an originally Ashkenazi Jew, Morteira arrived in Amsterdam in 1616 and remained in the city until his death in 1659. As a spiritual leader of the community, he employed the sermon as a principal vehicle guiding his flock back into the fold of rabbinic Judaism. This was a powerful and necessary device. Indeed, members of the community openly chose to be Jews and embrace Jewish traditions, but they were ignorant of rabbinic literature and traditions, did not master Hebrew, and were still influenced by Christian doctrines on Jews and Judaism, which they learned and absorbed in their previous Christian life. Thus, during the first formative decades of the community's existence, the sermon had to play an important role in transforming the people's way of life and constructing a new Jewish consciousness and identity.
This story is here told in four parts. The first part deals with the book's protagonist. Saperstein, who discovered 550 hitherto unknown sermons of Morteira in the rabbinic seminary in Budapest, attempts to decode Morteira's doings as gleaned from the sermons. Discussing the value of the manuscripts, analyzing the ways Morteira composed the sermons and correctly adding a useful discussion on the sermon as an oral performance, Saperstein is able to show how a rabbi writes a sermon and how he is acting as a preacher; how he is working with the Bible, rabbinic literature, and traditional ideas, but also how he is aware of the circumstances within which he is operating. The second part of the book deals with "the listeners," the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community. Here Saperstein locates the individual sermon within its historical context, and the whole corpus of these 550 sermons as a historical source for the study of the community's religious preoccupations. …