Current Issue Article Abstracts
Spring 2020, Vol. 110.2
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Among the central players of Josephus’s autobiography are those he refers to as “the Galileans.” Patronized by their one-time general as a restive and emotional mob ready to ignite at the slightest indignation, “the Galileans” are of vital importance to Josephus’s imagined success as general of the Jewish forces in Galilee. Josephus’s condescension toward “the Galileans,” strange as it is, is compounded by the fact that he regularly contrasts them with the inhabitants of Galilee’s major cities, principally Sepphoris, Tiberias, and Gabara. This essay revisits the curious presentation of “the Galileans” in Josephus’s writings, picking up an inchoate suggestion of Shaye Cohen of a Galilean ethnos. I argue that Josephus does indeed view “the Galileans” as an ethnos of their own, distinguishable from the Jews of Galilee, who mainly reside in the region’s urban centers. That is, the term “Galileans” in Josephus’s works functions first as a marker of ethnic belonging and so is not equivalent to “an inhabitant of Galilee” tout court. Josephus’s presentation of “the Galileans,” moreover, is colored by an ethnic prejudice that essentializes a few traits and makes them foils for the virtues of Josephus and the Jews. The introduction to “the Galileans” in his Jewish War (J.W. 3.42), which portrays them as “pugnacious from infancy,” converges with their characterization in Life, written some two decades later. I briefly consider the historical implications that follow from this reevaluation of “the Galileans” in Josephus.
Maimonides’ Menstrual Reform in Egypt
In the spring of 1176, Maimonides ordered Jewish women throughout Egypt to observe rabbinic menstrual purity laws or risk major financial loss: the dowers their husbands had promised them at marriage. Scholars have understood this decree mainly in context of Karaite-Rabbanite relations, or as inspired by a mass refusal among women in twelfth-century Egypt to perform rabbinic immersion. Both frameworks were first suggested by Maimonides himself, but both are misleading. In this essay I argue that the decree instead responded to an otherwise unknown aspect of medieval “common Judaism”: a quasi-biblical and nonrabbinic—but not markedly Karaite—menstrual purity regime that had prevailed among Jews throughout the medieval Middle East for centuries. After reconstructing these biblicizing menstrual practices, the essay examines the novel administrative tools that Maimonides, breaking from the long-established political norms of Jewish communal leadership in Egypt, deployed to end them, and the ways in which Jewish husbands and wives deployed these tools in turn in the decades afterward—not always as Maimonides had intended them to. The story of this reform offers an exceptional window onto Maimonides’ great project of rabbinic normativization as it played out not on the pages of the Mishneh Torah but on the ground in Egypt in his own day—its radical political character as well as its complex social effects and social limits, especially as these affected women within the equally but differently gendered spheres of the household and the rabbinic courtroom.
Jacques Basnage (1653–1723), author of the first comprehensive history of postbiblical Judaism, has elicited starkly contrasting evaluations. Some historians have been inclined to see him as the founder of the “pro-Jewish tradition in the Enlightenment”; in Heinrich Graetz’s view, Basnage’s History of the Jews offered an “incalculable service to Judaism.” Other, more recent historians have condemned Basnage’s harsh portrayal of the Talmud and his adherence to a Christian presumption of an eventual Jewish conversion, sometimes even branding his work as “antisemitic.” This essay expands the analysis of Basnage by proposing that an important feature of his historiography was the broad reception of Jewish historians, many of whom he studied in translations by Christian Hebraists. In his presentation, he consistently excised Jewish claims about the theological meaning of history but otherwise tried to retain as many Jewish sources—and voices—as possible for reconstructing history, often even including Jewish accounts of doubtful historicity. As is evident in his reception of Solomon ibn Verga and Isaac Cardoso, Basnage was especially determined to include Jewish records of Christian persecutions and atrocities, all of which he validated as he constructed a historical argument against Christian oppression of Jews and Judaism.
Before the interwar period, yeshivas (rabbinical academies) were unpopular among Polish Hasidim, who preferred a less formal educational paradigm centered on a shtibl (house of study). Following the First World War, however, shtiblekh emptied out and specifically Hasidic yeshivas were designed as an emergency measure to retain the young people within the Hasidic fold. Paradoxically, this educational revolution depended to a great extent on people like Shimon Engel Horovits of Żelechów (1877–1943?)—elite scholars educated in traditional shtiblekh, who often looked on modern yeshivas with suspicion, if not outright enmity. This essay explores Engel’s biography as an educator, focusing on his vision of Hasidic education as an alternative solution to the interwar crisis that befell the Hasidic communities. It discusses Engel’s endeavors as a part of a broader phenomenon of the Hasidic renaissance aimed at redefining and reviving the original spirit of Hasidism, which interwar communities had supposedly lost. Finally, it shows how his controversial ideas put his life on a collision trajectory with the modernizing endeavors of Hasidic leaders in Poland and eventually ended his career when his conflict with the administration of the famous Yeshivat @Hakhme Lublin resulted in violent riots.
When it comes to Jewish politics and religion, contemporary scholarly trends broadly—if cautiously—favor the classic interpretation of modernity as a moment of rupture. When it comes to Jews and economics, however, continuity appears to be preferred. Taking up this disparity as it manifests in Jewish economic history and ethics, this essay argues that greater attention to the concept of capitalism would point back toward rupture, and that such a direction should be considered despite its checkered past.
Both poles of Jewish economic history’s essentialist/contextualist divide affirm Jewish economic continuity, albeit in different ways. Essentialists claim that Jews were ushered by historical circumstances into economic niches that prefigured capitalist dynamism and fluidity, while contextualists reinforce liberal ideological notions of an unchanging “economic sphere” even as they attempt to avoid grand narratives. Capitalism, for the former, is seen as having always existed in nuce, even though fettered by environmental, technological, and political factors; for the latter, capitalism is intentionally left underdetermined in order to avoid being drawn back into old debates. If, however, we consider capitalism (with Polanyi and others) a qualitative “great transformation,” both of these descriptive orientations appear problematic.
A similar problem appears in Jewish economic ethics, considered here through the example of the Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics. Biblical and rabbinic texts on topics defined today as “economic” are read in ways that suggest the perennial existence of contemporary categories. Taking a historical view of capitalism as a qualitatively determinate phenomenon might assist this field’s normative work.
Jews and Money: Time for a New Story?
Because some of the oldest and most enduring anti-Jewish stereotypes have to do with money, academic work on Jews and money is often fraught. The dominant scholarly narratives on the subject typically acknowledge the (stereotypical) idea that Jews have always and disproportionally been involved with money, but instead of attributing this to the Jews’ perfidious nature or intentions, they argue that it is the result of centuries of discrimination against Jews in Europe. These accounts further argue that the Jews’ economic involvement was a positive factor in the development of Europe’s economy. Two new books—Julie Mell’s The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender and Francesca Trivellato’s The Promise and Peril of Credit—vigorously challenge the traditional narrative. Mell applies data analysis to archival sources to demonstrate that the medieval Jewish moneylender, a staple of Jewish history, is a myth, while Trivellato marshals the power of digital databases to trace and debunk the early modern legend that Jews invented bills of exchange (the precursors of today’s checks). Both authors combine in-depth and corrective historical study with a reflection on the state of scholarship on Jews and money, from the nineteenth century to today. After examining Mell’s and Trivellato’s books in detail, this essay argues that their challenges to traditional historiography should be taken seriously and will hopefully prompt renewed research and debate into this important topic.