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Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe

Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of David B. Ruderman

Richard I. Cohen
Natalie B. Dohrmann
Adam Shear
Elchanan Reiner
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    Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe
    Book Description:

    In the last two decades, Jewish historians worldwide have developed and refined the discussion of an "early modern" period in Jewish culture, spanning roughly three centuries from 1500 to 1800, and have increasingly found this periodization to be a useful heuristic for interpreting historical developments.Thirty-one leading scholars both within and beyond Jewish studies advance, refine, and challenge how we understand the Jewish early modern period. The collection includes a comprehensive range of topics, beginning by examining authority structures of Jewish communities following the expulsions and migrations that reshaped the geographical contours of the Jewish world. The formation of Jewish communities, communal autonomy, and cultural representations of leadership are explored, pointing to a geographical remapping of a Jewish early modernity that can contribute to a better understanding of the integrated economic and cultural landscape of the time. The volume then moves to consider Jewish intellectual life in light of demographic, political, and technological change-especially the advent of print culture. From there, the discussion moves to cultural and intellectual interchange, especially between Jews and Christians, and next, to eighteenth-century Jewish culture as a fulcrum of the early and late modernity. Finally, the book concludes by tracing the early modern as it is both etched into and effaced from later eras, reflecting on the project of historiography as both retelling the past and connecting to the past in the present.Read individually, the essays in this volume are finely detailed case studies that illuminate specific aspects of Jewish culture. Read as a mosaic, the studies combine to form a rich and nuanced portrait of a culture that is both a contributor to and a product of early modern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8036-0
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. INTRODUCTION From Venice to Philadelphia—Revisiting the Early Modern
    (pp. xi-xxviii)
    Adam Shear, Richard I. Cohen, Elchanan Reiner and Natalie B. Dohrmann

    IN his introduction toEarly Modern Jewry, David Ruderman reveals something of his intellectual autobiography by relating to three seventeenth-century figures who inspired him in his scholarly path and had a significant impact on how he conceives of the Early Modern as a distinct era in Jewish history. Each figure is connected in some way to the Italian port of Venice. Though they differ considerably from one another, in their distinctive hybridity Leon Modena, Simone Luzzatto, and Joseph Shlomo Delmedigo were each paradigmatic of the age.

    Modena, the enigmatic rabbinic figure, was full of internal contradictions. A man of great...


    • CONTINUITY OR CHANGE The Case of Two Prominent Jewish Portuguese Clans in the Ottoman Empire
      (pp. 3-17)
      Joseph R. Hacker

      THE fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were marked by Jewish mass migrations—some willing, some by force.¹ Much movement was from west to east—as from Christian Europe to the Ottoman lands, or from Central to Eastern Europe. These demographic changes are not just visible to historians. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Rabbi Isaac Abravanel wrote in his commentary on the Book of Ezekiel:

      From then [1464], trials befell the Jewish people and all of the Jews and their offspring in Savoy [1464–75], Provence [1493], and Piedmont, and in all of Lombardy and the kingdoms of Spain...

    • DON’T MESS WITH MESSER LEON Halakhah and Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Italy
      (pp. 18-27)
      Elliott Horowitz

      IN 1455, shortly after arriving in Ancona, in the Marche region on Italy’s Adriatic coast, the humanist rabbi and physician Judah Messer Leon boldly sought to make changes in both the ritual practices and intellectual orientation not only of the local Jews, but of those residing a considerable distance away, threatening those who failed to obey his decrees with dire imprecations. The ritual practices were primarily in the realm of female observance, and the intellectual issues related to both philosophy and Kabbalah. This episode has sometimes been misinterpreted as a brazen attempt on the part of the erudite young rabbi...

    • JEWS AND HABSBURGS IN PRAGUE AND REGENSBURG On the Political and Cultural Significance of Solomon Molkho’s Relics
      (pp. 28-38)
      Matt Goldish

      THE transfer of the “contact relics”¹ of the martyr Solomon Molkho from Regensburg to Prague around the early 1540s was a minor event with great symbolic implications. While it is unlikely that anyone involved intended the significance of the transfer to be so far-reaching, it would ultimately convey several profound messages. Foremost among these was the bid of the Horowitz family to present a new European Jewish map in which Prague was at the center while Germany and its Jewish leaders were in rapid decline. The transfer also symbolized the dominance of the Horowitzes in Prague, their connection to the...

    • JEWISH WOMEN IN THE WAKE OF THE CHMIELNICKI UPRISING Gzeires Taḥ-Tat as a Gendered Experience
      (pp. 39-49)
      Adam Teller

      THE experience of destruction and disaster has formed the subject not only for a huge body of Jewish literature in a wide range of genres, but also for a great deal of modern research. Starting from the pious impulse to repent in the face of suffering and to memorialize the dead, and ending with the secular desire to reconstruct and explain the events and feelings of the past, the experience of massacre and martyrdom has played—and continues to play—a central role in Jewish cultural creation.¹ Moreover, as modern scholarship has shown, female figures have held prominent positions within...

    • FOR GOD AND COUNTRY Jewish Identity and the State in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam
      (pp. 50-62)
      Benjamin Fisher

      WITH a grand flourish bordering on hyperbole, Menasseh Ben Israel lavished praise on Prince Frederick Henry, his son William II, and Queen Henrietta Maria of England on the occasion of their visit to Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jewish synagogue on May 22, 1642, and extolled the deep sense of commitment and belonging that he and his coreligionists felt to the United Provinces, the society that had offered them refuge beyond the reach of the Inquisition. Menasseh insisted that Portuguese Jews were not just devoted to their new homeland, but that their devotion was equal—at least—to that of any Dutch Christian;...

    • “A CIVIL DEATH” Sovereignty and the Jewish Republic in an Early Modern Treatment of Genesis 49:10
      (pp. 63-72)
      Anne Oravetz Albert

      PREDICTING that “the sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come,”¹ Genesis 49:10 is usually understood as foretelling the continuity of Jewish rule until the messianic age. In addition to the polemical challenge posed by this apparent confirmation of Christian supersessionist claims, the disparity between the promise and historical reality has required Jews to account for the exile in some fundamental way. In his examination of medieval polemics, Amos Funkenstein identified three types of Jewish response: missionary, cathartic, and soteriological.² All of these theological and historical explanations acknowledge or even embrace the...


      (pp. 75-84)
      Talya Fishman

      IN her groundbreaking study of the writings of Profiat Duran (1350–1415), Maud Kozodoy draws attention to the Torah-centered ideology of this forcibly-baptized Catalan Jew and notes that it enabled conversos (like the author himself) to affirm their Jewishness.¹ Duran’s identification of “the craft of Torah” as theonlycurricular approach that could lead to life’s ultimate goal reflected certain realities of converso life, observed Kozodoy.² Whereas a baptized individual could not have participated in Jewish study circles focusing on Talmud, philosophy, or Kabbalah (which Duran portrays as competing disciplines on the Jewish cultural landscape),³ conversos retained access to Scripture....

      (pp. 85-96)
      Moshe Idel

      FROM the end of the fifteenth century, kabbalistic books and ideas spread widely. This was the result of three different processes: the Italian intellectual ambiance in Florence was newly receptive to Jewish views; Spanish kabbalists now dispersed throughout the Mediterranean brought their books with them to new centers; and, last but not least, the printing of kabbalistic books led to their broad dissemination. Printing contributed substantially to the propagation of those cultural developments, which included the emergence of Christian Kabbalah in Northern Italy, enabling its dissemination beyond the small circle of scholars around the Medicis in Florence. Printing also insured...

    • PERSECUTION AND THE ART OF PRINTING Hebrew Books in Italy in the 1550s
      (pp. 97-108)
      Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin

      IN his seminalEarly Modern Jewry, David Ruderman surveys the role of the printed book in shaping early modern Jewish culture.¹ He begins with the publication of theShulḥan ‘arukh, suggesting that its writing, publication, and later expurgation represent an outstanding manifestation of print consciousness, and accordingly, marks a crucial moment in the Jewish transition to modernity. In this essay I would like to follow Ruderman’s cue and expand on my own previous work on this topic,² to propose that the two decades before the publication of theShulḥan ‘arukhin 1565 represent a fundamental period in the history of...

      (pp. 109-123)
      J. H. (Yossi) Chajes

      IN what follows, I would like to consider the interplay of Lurianic Kabbalah and early modern science from a fresh perspective. Lurianism, long portrayed in the historiography as thene plus ultraof arcane obscurantism, has come to be regarded by today’s scholars as a distinctively early modern lore in which individuality, embodiment, and even a quasi-scientific orientation are palpably present.¹ Moreover, scholars now accept that the pioneers of the scientific revolution—natural philosophers rather than scientists in the modern sense²—were no less deeply engaged by matters of religion and the occult, Lurianism included.

      I begin with a pair...

    • YOSEF SHLOMO DELMEDIGO’S ENGAGEMENT WITH ATOMISM Some Further Explorations into a Knotty Problem
      (pp. 124-134)
      Y. Tzvi Langermann

      YOSEF Shlomo Delmedigo (1591–1655), often referred to by his acronym, Yashar of Candia, flaunted his knowledge on just about every topic below (and above) the sun. His disquisitions are of interest in many ways for the history of Hebrew literature, and for the history of science and ideas within, and, occasionally, beyond the Jewish communities of Europe and the Middle East as well. Moreover, his art of writing and the way his creations were brought to print illuminate important aspects of Jewish cultural history.

      My original and modest goal in preparing this essay was to locate Yashar’s engagement with...


      (pp. 137-144)
      Giuseppe Mazzotta

      THIS paper will examine some philosophical reflections on the theater by some leading Renaissance thinkers and will pay special attention to two plays,La Mandragola(The Mandrake Root) by Machiavelli (1525) andIl Negromante(The Necromancer) by Ariosto (1528). Within this general context I will seek to explore the elusive question of the relation between these two major authors of the Italian sixteenth century. Each is known for harboring reservations about (as well as fascination for) the other. Their reservations were part of what I would call their “silent dialogue,” by which I also mean that it is understandable that...

      (pp. 145-155)
      Joanna Weinberg

      THE constant flow of studies on Erasmus, his life, works, and fortune bears eloquent witness to the abiding role of his contributions to religion and scholarship. There is not one aspect of Erasmus’s voluminous writings, from the adages to the works on the Christian life, education, the editions of Greek and Latin texts, or on how to pronounce Latin and Greek, that has not been studied in minute detail by scholars of all descriptions. My paper will add to the glut of Erasmian studies, focusing on a text which appears ephemeral. On closer examination, however, it could be claimed to...

    • “FAIR MEASURES FROM OUR REGION” The Study of Jewish Antiquities in Renaissance Italy
      (pp. 156-168)
      Andrew Berns

      THE Jews of Renaissance Italy displayed an acute interest in the material culture of the ancient and late antique Jewish past. One manifestation of that interest is a flurry of compositions that concern weights, measures, and coinage from the biblical and talmudic periods. The number of texts that have survived, the breadth of their compass, and the consistency of their style present a new phenomenon to the historian. From their medieval forbears, Renaissance Jews inherited an interest in numismatics that was episodic, undisciplined, and polyglot. In the sixteenth century they formed that interest into an intellectual preoccupation that ran parallel...

      (pp. 169-180)
      Anthony Grafton

      WHAT was Christian Hebraism? Who practiced it? What did they study? The standard answers to all of these questions are clear. From the mid-fifteenth century onwards, printing made Jewish books available, and debates about the text and interpretation of the Bible showed that knowledge of Hebrew might be vital for Christian theology and exegesis. Christian society showed little tolerance for actual Jews, who were expelled from Castile and Aragon, forced into ghettos, made to surrender their copies of the Talmud in Italy, and even accused of ritual murder. Prominent scholars always denied that Jews or Jewish learning had anything to...

      (pp. 181-192)
      Jonathan Karp

      THE second half of the sixteenth century inaugurated a period of renewed economic dynamism in much of European Jewish life. According to Jonathan Israel’s influential if ironic characterization, the expulsions of the preceding century had resituated Jews in a constellation of locales that enabled them to create far-flung trading networks, ones that well fit new and vital trends in global commerce. These networks linked the Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean via overland trade routes to Northern Italy and, via ocean-going routes, to Italian ports like Venice, Spalato (the Venetian controlled Dalmatian port), Ancona, and Livorno. Many New Christians, sincere and otherwise, maintained...

    • “ADOPT THIS PERSON SO TOTALLY BORN AGAIN” Elias Schadeus and the Conversion of the Jews
      (pp. 193-204)
      Debra Kaplan

      “THE Hebrew language,” preached Elias Schadeus, “is the oldest, first [and] holiest, and is of the highest importance for the promotion of the true religion.”¹ Schadeus made this statement in the third of a three-part sermon preached at the Strasbourg cathedral on the fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth Sundays after Trinity Sunday in 1592. It is a classic depiction ofHebraica veritas—Christian use of Hebrew and Judaica aimed expressly at affirming the truth of Christianity. Such Christian Hebraism has been categorized by David Ruderman as part of the knowledge explosion that was characteristic of early modern life, with Hebraists as...

      (pp. 205-215)
      Adam Sutcliffe

      CULTURAL border-crossing has long fascinated historians of early modern European Jewry. The softening of the boundaries separating Jews from Christians has, since the pioneering work of Jacob Katz, been recognized as a key hallmark of early modern Jewish history, while the nature of the innermost loyalties and identities of those Jews of this period who—whether under pressure from the Iberian Inquisitions or as Sabbatean or Frankist heretics—abandoned their outward affiliation with Judaism has been the focus of extended historiographical controversy.¹ The final core chapter of David Ruderman’s bold interpretive survey of early modern Jewry is titled “Mingled Identities,”...

      (pp. 216-226)
      Roger Chartier

      EN 1733 les marionnettes du Théâtre du Bairro Alto de Lisbonne représentèrent une pièce nouvelle: laVida do grande Dom Quixote de la Mancha e do gordo Sancho Pança.Elle était la première œuvre théâtrale d’un auteur encore inconnu: Antônio José da Silva. En 1996, le réalisateur brésilien Jom Tob Azoulay a consacré un film intituléO Judeuà la vie tragique du dramaturge, né à Rio dans une famille de juifs conversos et condamné au bûcher par le tribunal de l’Inquisition lisboète en 1739. Il y propose la reconstitution de deux scènes de la pièce telle que, peut-être, les...


    • THE COLLAPSE OF JACOB’S LADDERS? A Suggested Perspective on the Problem of Secularization on the Eve of the Enlightenment
      (pp. 229-238)
      Michael Heyd

      THERE is hardly a more significant historical phenomenon in modern times than the so-called process of secularization. The very nature of this process, even its existence as an historical “entity,” has been the subject of heated debates among historians, sociologists and students of religion, especially in the past twenty five years or so.¹ Quite a few scholars have cast doubt on the so-called “secularization thesis,” and even its supporters no longer see secularization as one homogeneous linear process common to various societies.² Nor is it clear any longer that “secularization” is an essential part of “modernization” at all (modernization itself...

      (pp. 239-249)
      Yaacob Dweck

      החידא חידה הוא (ha-ḥida’ ḥida hu’).¹ This three-word Hebrew phrase puns on the Hebrew word for riddle,ḥidah, and the acronym for the Hebrew name of Ḥayim Yosef David Azulai,ḤIDA. One might paraphrase Churchill and say that Azulai is an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

      Born in Jerusalem in 1724, Azulai lived in Ottoman Palestine and Egypt for the first three decades of his life. For a period of four years in the 1750s he traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire and Europe as an emissary for the Jews of Palestine. He then returned to Palestine for some fifteen years...

      (pp. 250-259)
      Francesca Bregoli

      THE minuscule homage was theSefer sha‘ar Yosef, a talmudic commentary on the tractateHorayotthat Ḥayim Yosef David Azulai, the ḤIDA (1724-1806), gave to print during his stay in Livorno in 1756.¹ TheSha‘ar Yosefwas the first book published by ḤIDA, who at that time was a young itinerant fundraiser (sing.shaliaḥ, pl.sheliḥim) on a mission for the Jewish community of Hebron. The long dedication in Spanish, from which I have quoted the first few lines, was printed at the beginning of the book in honor of Dr. Michael Pereira de Leon, a wealthy member of the...

    • AN INTERPRETIVE TRADITION Connecting Europe and the “East” in the Eighteenth Century
      (pp. 260-270)
      Andrea Schatz

      THE “idea that we live in the description of a place and not in the place itself”¹ has been articulated as such in the twentieth century, but the questions and challenges, which it captures so well, are not peculiar to the modern period. Wherever belonging was not taken for granted, the meanings of a place could become the subject of intense reflection and debate, which in turn invites scholars today to raise their own questions. What did Jews mean when they mentioned “Frankfurt” or “Prague,” “Amsterdam” or “Berlin,” “France” or “Europe”? How did various different ways of describing a place...

    • GIBBON’S JEWS Dead but Alive in Eighteenth-Century England
      (pp. 271-281)
      David S. Katz

      THE first volume of Edward Gibbon’s narrative ofThe History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1776) quite naturally comes into the final stretch with a typically stirring if somewhat conventional discussion of Constantine’s conquest of Byzantium in 324 C.E. Scholars are still perplexed by Gibbon’s editorial decision to conclude this first volume with a deeply controversial attack on early Christianity, knowing full well that it would be a number of years—five, as it happened—before another volume would be published, taking up the tale of Constantine where he left off. The shocking and almost vindictive...

      (pp. 282-293)
      Shmuel Feiner

      MOSES Mendelssohn (1729–86), the Jewish enlightened philosopher from Berlin, was not a particularly optimistic person. He was rather dubious about what his contemporary, Immanuel Kant, for example, regarded as a fundamental principle of the Enlightenment and the ethos of modernity, the ability of humans, as rational beings, to change, to reject prejudice and to cast off their dependence on the representatives of authority and tradition. Mendelssohn had little faith in a future in which the values of humanism, morality, and reason would guide behavior. He believed that under every stone “barbarism” was awaiting the chance to raise its head...

    • A TALE OF THREE GENERATIONS Shifting Attitudes toward Haskalah, Mendelssohn, and Acculturation
      (pp. 294-306)
      Sharon Flatto

      DRAMATIC changes swept over Prague’s Jewish community during the last decades of the eighteenth century. State legislation transforming the political status of the community, beginning with the abolishment of its autonomy in the 1781Toleranzpatent,¹ led to increasing acculturation. Concurrently, maskilic forces, which migrated from Berlin in the 1770s, challenged the traditional educational, religious, and social norms of the community.² The official sanction of the Absolutist Habsburg monarchy’s innovations, coupled with the internal infiltration of maskilic ideas, threatened to undermine the Jewish community’s most basic values.

      The scholarly studies of this period have underestimated the trenchant initial response of Prague’s...

    • AN UNDERCLASS IN JEWISH HISTORY? Jewish Maidservants in East European Jewish Society, 1700–1900
      (pp. 307-316)
      Rebecca Kobrin

      TSEMAḤ ATLAS[translated asThe Yeshiva], Chaim Grade’s epic two-volume Yiddish novel about nineteenth-century Poland, opens with the tragic tale of Stesye, a young, pregnant, Jewish maidservant who has been thrown out of her employer’s home. At first, Stesye is painted (primarily by her former employer) as a temptress, not to be trusted. As the novel progresses, it becomes quickly apparent that this young girl is far from a seductress; Steyse is rather a simpleton who became entrapped by her former employer’s twenty-year old son. This boy’s rapacious ways were well-known to other girls, but this poor Jewish orphan did...


      (pp. 319-330)
      Beth S. Wenger

      THE phrase “early modern” rarely, if ever, appears in scholarly treatments of Jewish history in colonial North America and the early United States. In recent years, the early modern period has emerged as a defining epoch of transition in European Jewish history—one characterized by increased social and economic mobility, new religious ideas, weakening rabbinic authority, and a proliferation of Jewish knowledge sparked by the expansion of printing. Yet, the notion of an early modern period remains virtually absent as a category in the historiography of early Jewish life in the North American colonies and the United States. At first...

    • LANGUAGE AND PERIODIZATION Mendele Moykher Sforim and the Revival of Pre-Haskalah Style
      (pp. 331-343)
      Israel Bartal

      MENDELE Moykher Sforim (Mendele the Book Peddler, the literary pseudonym of Shalom Jacob Abramovitch, 1835–1917) has been regarded by generations of critics and literary scholars as the “inventor of the style” (yotser ha-nosakḥ). Mendele wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, and his oeuvre in both languages occupies an important place in the Jewish literary canon in general and in the linguistic history of modern Hebrew literature in particular. Mendele’s literary creation has been usually connected by both historians and literary critics with the Haskalah and its post-Enlightenment affiliations—be it nascent Jewish nationalism, social radicalism and/or Russian-style populism.¹ This bilingual...

    • THE END OR THE BEGINNING Jewish Modernity and the Reception of Rahel Varnhagen
      (pp. 344-355)
      Vivian Liska

      IN Franz Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus,”¹ a hunter from the Black Forest, after his death caused by falling from a rock, has been wandering the earth in an old boat, roaming restlessly without any prospect of reaching the shores of the nether world. When he arrives at the port of Riga he is asked by the city’s mayor to tell his story, and to do this in “a coherent mode.” Gracchus responds: “Ah, coherently. The old, old stories.” Instead of honoring the request, Gracchus dismisses the functionary: “Ask the historians! They sit in their studies looking at the past...

      (pp. 356-368)
      Yosef Kaplan

      “THERE is no anti-Semitism in Spain,” declared the Spanish historian, Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, to his colleague Fritz (Yitzhak) Baer in 1929, when he greeted him cordially at the Royal Academy of History in Madrid.¹ Baer, who was forty at the time, had published, in Berlin, the first volume of his monumental documentary project, in German, on the history of the Jews of Christian Spain, a volume dedicated to the Jewry of the crown of Aragon and the kingdom of Navarre.² Historians of medieval Spain praised the academic quality of the book, which, upon its appearance, assured Baer a place of...

  7. List of David B. Ruderman’s Publications
    (pp. 369-378)