Current Issue Article Abstracts
Spring 2021, Vol. 111.2
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Commandments and the Community of Law in Tosefta Berakhot
Ayelet Hoffmann Libson
This paper examines the role of law and liturgy in constructing the political borders of the early rabbinic community, focusing on the treatment of the blessings over commandments (birkat ha-mitsvot) in chapter 6 of tBerakhot. The conclusion of both Mishnah and Tosefta Berakhot addresses several liturgical formulas that are invoked when encountering an assortment of unique natural phenomena. As such, these texts center on the most religious of spheres, pertaining to issues such as prayer, ritual, miracles, and theology.
One anomalous subject addressed in the last chapter of tBerakhot is the blessings over the commandments. This essay argues that the novel institution of the blessings over the commandments serves important legal and political functions. By detailing who is obligated to recite which blessings, the Tosefta creates a stratified conception of legal obligation, with some members of the community obligated by more duties than others. Moreover, the language of the blessings, the laws pertaining to blessings, and the examples of blessings given by the Tosefta frame the concept of obligation (mitsvah) as a duty that ties the individual to the broader community through the performance of the law. The Tosefta thus presents a novel vision whereby carrying out legal obligations accompanied by blessings simultaneously denotes legal personhood and delineates the political borders of the community.
This study concentrates on bilingual charters from tenth- and eleventh-century Catalonia. It shows that Jews participated in the Christian bureaucracy and that Hebrew was incorporated into Latin deeds. Furthermore, local Latin formulas and documents were internalized into the Hebrew formulas and subsequently into the Jewish legal system in this region and era. After offering a survey of this corpus, the article attempts to provide a cultural history of these documents, with particular attention to questions of language and identity, by understanding their place within a predominantly oral and visual culture. Through a comparison of Hebrew formulas in Catalonian bilingual deeds with Latin and Aramaic formulas, it argues that the use of Hebrew was a cultural choice that served as an identity marker. Furthermore, the use of the Hebrew alphabet became the Jewish signum, the graphic symbol representing the Jewish self, conveying a message of an acceptable, even equal, Jewish identity within a Christian culture. Thus, Jewish landowners selected Hebrew not as a rejection of Latin but within the context of increasing engagement with the Christian legal system. The choice of Hebrew by this economic circle predates, and may have ushered in, the intellectual turn toward Hebrew in the same region during the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, known as the "translation movement."
One of the thorniest problems for the writing of medieval Jewish social history is the paucity of source materials. Yet even where documentary materials such as the Cairo Geniza do remain, scholars often complement their study of documentary materials by making recourse to legal materials. The legal genre of responsa, full of rich detail about life, has been particularly useful for social historians. In this paper, I will revisit this historiographic practice and suggest that legal queries from the Jewish community in the medieval Islamic world present a biased and sometimes tendentious picture of quotidian detail, and they must be studied with care and attention to the Sitz im Leben of the query itself. Internal evidence from two responsa from the hand of Moses Maimonides concerning a single case, the responsa of the geonim, and detail from court practice in medieval Egypt all reveal the ways that queries and responsa are works of legal advocacy from rabbinic patrons on behalf of their litigant clients. Therefore, historians may not take for granted their historical accuracy of detail—even detail given seemingly en passant. By rereading Maimonides' different responsa, I also shed light on the relationship between Jewish commercial law and mercantile practice in medieval Egypt.
Beyond the Rabbinic Paradigm
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, Elisabeth Hollender
Using medieval Cologne as an example, this paper seeks to extract traces of a lay leadership from rabbinic texts of medieval Ashkenaz. It reveals evidence of a culture of leadership and arbitration that was based on Jewish tradition and common sense, rather than an emphasis on talmudic law and argumentation. This is demonstrated by a discussion of known leaders, texts about Cologne Jews, rabbinic statements that criticize Cologne's Jewry for halakhic leniency in favor of economic gain, and cultural assimilation to the Christian environment. The sources presented in this study suggest the existence of a lay leadership entrusted with governance and arbitration, existing in Cologne and possibly other places in medieval Ashkenaz. This system of governance and arbitration seems to have been possible in Jewish communities that had no strong rabbinic presence and probably existed in many places. Only with the arrival of strong local rabbinic authorities did the lay leadership yield its place to rabbinic leadership.
The first two transports of Hungarian Jews arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. The extermination camp was located within range of the Allies' bomber aircraft, leading to demands to bomb the site. The fact that the extermination camp was never bombed, along with the dramatic impact of the murder of Hungary's Jews during the final stages of World War II, has turned the failure to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau into a symbol of the powerlessness of the free world and of Jewish leadership to rescue the Jews of Europe. This essay presents a new approach to this episode, based on documents in the archives of American Jewish activists involved in the issue of the bombing of the camp—above all, Leon Kubowitzki, who headed the World Jewish Congress's Rescue Department. From the documents, we learn that leading figures in the Jewish and Zionist leadership asked that the U.S. administration not bomb Auschwitz, preferring other forms of military action by partisans or paratroopers against the camp. While a number of scholars have noted this position of the WJC, most treat it as peripheral. Contrary to the commonly accepted scholarly belief, the course of action taken by U.S. Jewish leaders was a significant strategic political step designed to damage the capability of the extermination camp by means other than bombing.
IN THE UNCERTAIN DAYS IN WHICH WE LIVE, as pandemic rages, temperatures rise, and authoritarians seethe, the "stranger" has reappeared with full force around the world. The United Nations counts nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world today—individuals who are in places where they are not welcome and do not feel welcome themselves. Over the last few years, the list of those held responsible for the woes of the world has grown long: immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Mexicans, and LGBTQ people. They are often deemed strangers to societies in which they, in fact, are indigenous or at least natively familiar with the local language and culture.
A Bounded Leeway
THE IMPORTANCE OF GEORG SIMMEL'S "Excursus on the Stranger" as a seminal text for the discourse on the topic is undisputed. His portrayal of the stranger—who is neither a fleeting visitor nor a member of the group, who combines proximity and distance, embodies mobility, objectivity, and freedom, and inhabits a status that is both positive and negative, enriching and vulnerable—has become a standard reference in cultural studies and the humanities in general. While the conceptual tools that Simmel has forged in his excursus continue to exert wide influence, critics have recently argued that his depiction of the stranger no longer applies to the increasingly globalized, mobile, and mutable world of today.
BEING A STRANGER is the universal condition of modernity. Simmel, like many of his fellow sociologists and Germans at the end of the twentieth century, was riveted by the question of what the new era of trains, light, cities, and money had in store for humanity; but following his anti-positivism and Weberian tendency to look for ideal types, he grasped this change through the emblematic figure of the stranger. Why was the stranger such a key figure of modernity?
IN HIS LANDMARK 1908 ESSAY "The Stranger," Georg Simmel links the Jews to his signature sociological type almost only in passing. In identifying the Jews as the "classic example" of an intruding outsider group that specializes in trade because all the productive economic niches in their host society are "already occupied," he makes clear that he considers this minority the strangers of history par excellence.1 He also associates the outsider stranger, in highly positive terms, with intellectual acuity and objectivity. He equates this objectivity with freedom, noting that the stranger, precisely because of his separation from the social world surrounding him, "is not bound by ties which could prejudice his perception, his understanding, and his perception of data."
ON JULY 15, 1916, the young Gershom Scholem wrote a letter to his older brother Werner, concerning the connection between Georg Simmel and the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger, who committed suicide in 1903 at the age of twenty-three. Scholem didn't think highly of Simmel (and neo-Kantianism in general) and portrayed him, echoing both Zionist and antisemitic discourses, as a talmudic, abstract, Jewish intellectual: "[Simmel] has created a machinery bearing the name 'Simmel' that functions as follows: one inserts a problem, the 'Simmel' machine moves and reacts purely, mechanically, it transfers the problem into a foreign language, and after a bit of time elapses a book or an essay gets spat out—which, if people consider it valuable, then has to be retranslated back into the original."
"Exkurs über den Fremden" and the Jewish Question of the Fin de Siècle Period
Søren Blak Hjortshøj
IN RECENT YEARS, Georg Simmel's "stranger" figure has been highlighted as a universal ideal for cultural encounters, cosmopolitan identity, mobility, and migration.1 Yet the focal point of this essay is to discuss whether it is accurate to perceive Simmel's stranger as a universal ideal when examining the contextual references of the "Exkurs." Thus, by focusing on the many references to the so-called Jewish Question of the fin de siècle period, I will discuss whether Simmel's stranger is bound to Jewish history in particularistic fashion.
Futures of Jewish Exemplarity
Jakob Egholm Feldt
GEORG SIMMEL'S "THE STRANGER" (1908) might be considered an exemplar for the processual relationship between the particular and the general in history. As Elizabeth Goodstein notes in her book on Simmel, the stranger exemplifies Simmel's social theory, holding that over time and across various events, particularities can evolve into general forms or abstractions, and they may become a lens through which we see what has happened and what will happen in a different way.
The Stranger as a Threshold Figure
GIVEN ITS SUBJECT AND GEORG SIMMEL'S BACKGROUND, one would think that Simmel's excursus "The Stranger" (1908) and Jewish history could easily be brought into sustained conversation. Widely thought to be the most original social thinker of the turn of the twentieth century in Germany, Simmel was of Jewish descent. In "The Stranger," he refers to European Jews as the "classic example" of this social type. The excursus became a landmark in twentieth-century social theory and sociology.
The Specter of Ahasver
GEORG SIMMEL'S "THE STRANGER" (1908) opens not by formulating the concept of strangeness itself but with the conditional phrase "If wandering"—initially anchoring strangeness in wandering so naturally that an incidental mention suffices. Indeed, in the next sentence, Simmel predicates the definition of the stranger on the poetically expressed dynamic between coming today and leaving tomorrow, on one hand, and on coming today and staying tomorrow, on the other hand. Apropos, he also states that this is not the standard use of the term "stranger."
Note: From the Archives
Jewish Censorship of Menasseh ben Israel's Piedra Gloriosa: A New Document from the Archives
Steven Nadler, Victor Tiribás
IN LATE 1654 OR EARLY 1655,1 Menasseh ben Israel, one of four rabbis serving the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam's Talmud Torah Congregation—and arguably the most famous Jew in Europe in the seventeenth century—published a book titled Piedra gloriosa (Glorious stone). Framed as a commentary on the Book of Daniel, the treatise contains Menasseh's most explicit presentation of his messianist views.