Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Vital and the Moribund in the Jewish Middle Ages

The final book chapter that I'm writing (which is not the last chapter but is, in fact, either four out of five or five out of six, depending on how I'm organizing it on any given day) is a reception history, which means that it takes me far out of my comfort zone and area of expertise, both geographically and temporally, as I am looking at how late medieval European readers tried to contend with a Hebrew that was Arabic as much as it was Hebrew.

So I'm doing some basic reading in areas adjacent to my own to get myself oriented, including the relevant chapters in the Oxford Handbook for Jewish Studies, an authoritative volume that lays out the contours of various subfields and provides ample bibliography.

In the chapter on rabbinic literature, authored by Israel Ta-Shma, one of the grandees in the field of Talmud, I found this gem:

"A unique characteristic of halachic literature, which sets it apart from other areas of creativity, is that a large part of it, perhaps even all of it, has not become outdated, so that it continues to serve the rabbinic scholars in yeshivot then as now with the same remarkable degree of vitality. The other areas of rabbinic creativity, as with other areas of medieval scholarship in general, serve only students and scholars of medieval culture." 

People wonder why I don't enthusiastically embrace Jewish Studies as my intellectual home. It's that attitude, precisely, and its pervasiveness and authority that does it. It's being told over and over again that the literature and philosophy of medieval Jews are both less than and useless and boring, the same kind of things that a modernist or a lay person might be expected to say. It's the sense, when the humanities, and the pre-modern in particular, are under attack for being fusty and useless, that Jewish Studies is a field that provides no refuge for someone with my interests and of my particular intellectual profile and is instead one more corner from which to be assailed.


  1. You completely misread Ta-Shema's text and ascribe to it something that is not even there. "The other areas of rabbinic creativity, as with other areas of medieval scholarship in general, serve only students and scholars of medieval culture": There is no judgmental tone here, not towards the Yeshivot students, nor scholars of Medieval Judaism. The writer definitely does not say that Medieval Hebrew literature is "useless and boring", as you paraphrase it. Moreover, Ta-Shema was in fact a *leading* scholar of medieval (Rabbinic) literature. ( Shabbat Shalom.

  2. I'm not sure it's wise to approve a comment from someone who won't leave his name and instead introduces himself simply by telling me that I am wrong, but I suppose I"m doing it for the sake of transparency and allowing dissent. I stand by my reading of Ta-Shma here. To laud halachic texs and then to say that others are *only* useful to scholars of medieval culture is to judge as inferior; this is even clearer in the longer passage from which I excerpted the quotation.