Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

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9780812246407: Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

In the urban communities of medieval Germany and northern France, the beliefs, observances, and practices of Jews allowed them to create and define their communities on their own terms as well as in relation to the surrounding Christian society. Although medieval Jewish texts were written by a learned elite, the laity also observed many religious rituals as part of their everyday life. In Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz, Elisheva Baumgarten asks how Jews, especially those who were not learned, expressed their belonging to a minority community and how their convictions and deeds were made apparent to both their Jewish peers and the Christian majority.

Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz provides a social history of religious practice in context, particularly with regard to the ways Jews and Christians, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members. Medieval Jews often shared practices and beliefs with their Christian neighbors, and numerous notions and norms were appropriated by one community from the other. By depicting a dynamic interfaith landscape and a diverse representation of believers, Baumgarten offers a fresh assessment of Jewish practice and the shared elements that composed the piety of Jews in relation to their Christian neighbors.

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About the Author:

Elisheva Baumgarten is Professor Yitzhak Becker Chair of Jewish Studies and Professor of Jewish History and History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and coeditor of Entangled Histories: Knowledge, Authority, and Jewish Culture in the Thirteenth Century, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press..

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

R. Judah said: The hasidah is a white stork. And why is she called hasidah? Because she shows kindness ( hasidut) to her companions.
—BT Hullin 63a,

This is a white bird, cygonia, and why is she called hasidah? Because she acts with kindness (hasidut) unto her friends with food.
—Rashi, Leviticus 11:19, s.v. "hasidah"


The talmudic passage above offers an etymological explanation of the Hebrew term for stork (hasidah) by connecting the stork's behavior to the word hesed (kindness) and its derivative, hasidut (piety). During the Middle Ages, the famous French commentator Rashi (Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, d. 1105) understood the stork's kindness through her custom of voluntarily distributing food to her friends, an act of sharing that was in no way obligatory (see Figure 1). Other commentators have provided alternate interpretations for her gentle behaviors, such as allowing others to tread on her and showing mercy to her friends. Moving from animals to humans, the adjective hasid (pious) and the noun hasidut are used in Jewish texts since late antiquity to describe forms of religious behavior and fervor, as well as individuals known for their devotion to God.

This book presents a social history of pious practice, focusing specifically on the Jewish communities of northern France and Germany during the High Middle Ages. In Practicing Piety, I wish to revive the sense of piety implicit in Rashi's comment and to examine pious observances in their social settings, among medieval Ashkenazic Jews and the cultural currents in which they were immersed. For the purpose of this study, I have defined the term "pious" broadly, ranging from acts that were seen as unusually devout to practices that can be seen as a dedicated fulfillment of one's religious obligation. By focusing on social practices and the ideas they expressed, I have aimed to capture the religiosity of Jews whose modes of observance are far more accessible to us than their convictions. Throughout the book, I contend that these acts were no less critical to the development and coalescence of religious identity than intellectual engagement with theological concepts.

Piety is often associated with the Jews of northern Europe, much as medieval Christian society is well known for its fascination with piety, which was sometimes expressed by extreme asceticism. The spirit of holiness and sanctity in European life was not the exclusive purview of Christian clergy and the aristocracy. Rather, this aspiration was prominent in the lives of the laity whose efforts to integrate piety into their religious practice is often known as "lay piety" or "popular piety." As a result, piety was an intrinsic feature of both medieval Jewish and Christian life as well as a means for each community to manifest its expression to members of the other faith, making explicit the social tensions and divisions between these competing religions.

Practicing Piety focuses on observance rather than intellectual legacies and, by extension, on the widest sweep of Jewish community members possible, rather than the few who authored medieval compositions. The medieval Hebrew sources that have reached us are all products of a select circle of scholars, a fact that presents significant barriers to the consideration of other segments of the community. My primary tool for pursuing a wider representation is a constant comparison between the actions of both men and women, in every aspect of medieval Jewish society. Such gendered reading also facilitates a gauge of how deeds and practices were perceived when performed by the non-elite. That is to say, piety was determined by its social context: the pious were identified among their contemporaries by their actions, while their distinctive conduct set a standard for the religious values in their cultural milieu. Just as the kindness of the hasidah was conveyed by her deeds, so, too, Jews in medieval Ashkenaz would merit a reputation for piety based on actions that reflected on their coreligionists as well as on themselves.

Following feminist theorists, I have used gender as a principal measure for signifying the exercise of power and struggles over authority, since scholars have demonstrated that gender is often a lightning rod for societal tensions and shifts. Conflicts regarding identity and institutional control are often imposed on and reflected by women. In terms of this study, women practiced piety and piety was practiced on them. Therefore, a comparison of Jewish women's and men's observance is central to this volume.

The second emphasis of this study locates the Jewish community, its practices and beliefs, in the context of medieval Christianity. Situating Jewish communities within Christian society while also investigating the role of gender in both groups allows for a dual comparison, assessing certain practices among Jews and Christians and between men and women of each religion. I approach the medieval Christian world as a vibrant and multi-faceted environment where Jews of Germany and northern France encountered deep hostility as well as a home where the Jewish community (co)existed. This complexity, on the spectrum from hostility to acceptance, was a constant component of the daily rhythm of medieval Ashkenazic life.

In the pages that follow, I set the stage for this volume by surveying the medieval Ashkenazic communal frameworks and sources I have examined. I then address the parameters of religious comparison with an overview of the wider social framework in which Jews and Christians lived side by side and an outline of how social historians have addressed Christian and Jewish piety, including the Ashkenazic phenomenon known as Hasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietism. Finally, I consider how Jewish and Christian societies, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members.

The Medieval Jewish Communities of Germany and Northern France

The Jewish communities that dwelled in the areas known today as Germany, northern France, and their environs during the twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century occupy the heart of this study. This region is generally referred to as "Ashkenaz" in historical writing about medieval Jewry. My decision to examine areas that are part of contemporary Germany and northern France stems from the close contact that existed between their communities and relies on medieval territories that roughly correspond with modern entities rather than on actual borders.

Whereas a number of French Jewish communities date back to the early Middle Ages, little documentation from the ninth and tenth centuries is extant. Nonetheless, scholars recognize that the Jews of northern France played a vital role in the urbanization of Europe during the Carolingian era, a culture of trade fairs and active commerce. By the High Middle Ages, substantial communities—numbering several hundred families—lived in the large cities of France (Paris, in particular), while many smaller Jewish communities— sometimes just a few families—had been established along trade routes. During the ninth and tenth centuries, Jews also settled along the banks of the Rhine River in cities that, over time, became prestigious Jewish establishments. Among these, the "Shum" communities— Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, together with Cologne, Frankfurt, Würzburg, Nürnberg, Regensburg, and other urban centers—became home to notable rabbinical figures and leading merchants. Additional communities on trade routes in central Europe also grew and thrived during the Middle Ages.

Frequent travel between centers of learning along major rivers in northern Europe led to a permeating familiarity among the Jews of these communities. While some prevailing patterns changed over time—in the tenth and eleventh centuries, students often traveled from France to Germany, whereas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that tide was reversed—there was significant movement within this area, not only by individual merchants but by their families.

The Jews of northern France and Germany maintained close contact with each other and with Jews who shared their customs in other locales, specifically Bohemia, Austria, and Italy (where many Ashkenazic Jews originated and later emigrated). Selected texts from these regions are examined here as well. I have not included the Jews of England as a distinct group in this discussion, since sources from that community are not plentiful enough to provide an adequate picture of daily pious practice. However, following scholars who have suggested that English customs most closely resembled the practices of Jews in northern France, I refer to evidence from England at various points in this book. As such, the corpus that forms the basis for this study was shared by Germany, northern France, and neighboring areas. However, since some texts from which I have drawn demonstrate that medieval Jews were well aware of local differences, I have sought to balance the evidence suggesting that many customs were common to Jews living throughout Ashkenaz and textual references that indicate distinct practices.

This geographic breadth is also necessary because extant sources cannot adequately describe the practice in any one location for most of the topics examined here. Therefore, as in my previous work, I set out to reconstruct medieval practices and ideas by aggregating sources from various places and contexts, forming a sort of bricolage. Another limitation that characterizes medieval sources is the relative homogeneity of available texts, despite their varied genres. This phenomenon is especially evident among the Hebrew material.

The main body of sources examined in this volume was written between the First Crusade (1096) and the Black Death (1349). My analysis of select writings dated after the Black Death highlights some of the shifts in observance that resulted from these cataclysmic events and explores the extent to which observances continued without change, were accentuated, or became transformed after the mid-fourteenth century. Despite the fact that the ninth and tenth centuries were formative for Jewish communities, t heir Christian neighbors, and their respective institutions, relatively sparse Latin texts and even fewer Hebrew sources have come to us from this period. By comparison, the relative abundance of Hebrew sources from the late eleventh century onward allows for a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the lives of Jews in medieval Europe. This pattern of source transmission is paralleled in the Christian world, where we find a wealth of sources from the twelfth century forward, as many scholars of social history—especially of piety—have noted.

For this study, I rely on the classic rabbinic texts composed by medieval Jewish men: commentaries on the Bible and Talmud, compendia of halakhic discussions, and formal responses to questions from community members. I have also mined collections of stories, exempla from Sefer Hasidim and elsewhere, custom books, communal records, and manuscript illuminations. In some cases, I have included sources that are found only in manuscripts, thus incorporating content that was overlooked or censored by later copyists, especially as practices changed over time. I also consulted parallel Christian materials: penitential and preaching manuals and biblical interpretations along with statutes and collections of exempla. In addition, I have delved into the abundant scholarly work on Christian society that, beyond its obvious informing role, has further sensitized me to nuances within the Jewish evidence that I otherwise might not have recognized.

Toward a Social and Comparative History of Jewish and Christian Medieval Piety

Research on medieval Jewish piety has primarily focused on reactions in Ashkenaz to the First Crusade (in 1096) and later persecutions, from the Rindfleish attacks of 1298 in many German communities, repeated expulsions from parts of northern France in the early fourteenth century, to the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century. The deaths of many Jews at their own hands or by attackers during assaults on their communities transformed those who died into martyrs (kedoshim) in a way that has been interpreted by subsequent generations, including modern historians, as the ultimate and uniquely Jewish expression of pious devotion to God.

A second historical phenomenon that reinforced the association of Jews in medieval northern Europe with piety relates to the rich and varied writings that were produced by the intellectual elite of Jewish communities in medieval Germany and northern France. These medieval authors were instrumental in portraying the Jews of this period as pious through their religious guidance for fellow Jews and their overarching approach to Jewish observance. Furthermore, these are the medieval Jewish personages that have been most rigorously studied since the late nineteenth century.

Whether explicitly or by implication, scholarly narratives have positioned the Jewish community and its piety at odds with their Christian counterparts. After all, when medieval Jews opted for death (kiddush hashem; lit., sanctifying the Divine Name), either actively or passively, that decision was the direct consequence of their refusal to embrace Christianity. Similarly, Jewish intellectual culture was often seen as a significant internal achievement amid, and at times despite, perilous circumstances. This approach focuses on points of crisis and confrontation at the expense of considering everyday life, thereby highlighting interreligious tensions in medieval society over harmonious aspects of coexistence, effectively obscuring the interplay of tension and coherence that fostered a sustainable social environment.

A more inclusive approach for evaluating Jewish life in medieval Germany and northern France was suggested during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and has reemerged periodically, recently regaining currency by pointing to the affinities between Jewish and Christian cultures alongside the separate identities that medieval Jews and Christians were actively producing and propagating. Present-day scholars have suggested that, despite the clear distinctions between Jews and Christians, in theory and in practice, adherents of these two religions shared far more than previous studies have assumed.

During this period, the Christian communities among whom Jews resided were undergoing significant social and religious changes and doctrinal revisions. Beyond the Crusade movement, which marked much of the period in question, new doctrines were being instituted and more firmly established, such as celibacy of the clergy, which was transformed in the eleventh century; the growth and expansion of monastic orders throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and, most notably, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which redefined the role of laity in medieval Christian society and reassessed central doctrines, including transubstantiation and the sacraments of baptism, marriage, confession, and the Eucharist. Not only were Jews cognizant of many of these changes, but recent studies have demonstrated that they had bearing on their lives as well. Living side by side, Jews and Christians alike were participants in the growing urban life of the High Middle Ages.

Perhaps most dramatically, the Black Death had significance for Jewish as well as Christian societies while also serving as a catalyst for change in Europe's Jewish communities and in European attitudes toward Jews; thus, the mid-fo...

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