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Religious Law, Secular Courts, and the Jews of post-Reformation Poland

November 18th, 2011

Review of  Magda Teter. Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2011) 358 pages.

by Joshua Teplitsky

Magda Teter’s Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation, inquires after the broader significance of the accusations against Jews of sacrilege by the secular courts and magistrates of post-Reformation Poland.  What was the meaning of prosecuting crimes in Poland-Lithuania in an age in which such concerns had subsided in Western Europe?

To answer this question, Teter pays careful attention to the context in which these accusations were made and prosecuted— namely, secular courts.  While any pretense of German unity was torn asunder in the wake of the Reformation, the Polish sejm (parliament) sought to protect the dissenter from the Catholic faith by removing crimes of a religious nature from ecclesiastical court jurisdiction.  Ironically, this served to enhance the power of the Catholic faith, even as it unseated the power of Catholic courts and institutions, by placing Catholic enforcement under the coercive power of the state and its legal institutions.

The book, then, is of particular interest to scholars of legal history as it probes the legal properties of religious identity.  Teter forcefully argues for a pivotal role for the secular courts of law, as prosecutors of crimes against the faith, in solidifying a confessional Catholic identity for the Polish state, and a more disciplinarily rigid identity at that.  Whereas sinners could once gain forgiveness through acts of repentance, criminals required a much harsher sentence, often death.  This book is crucial in demonstrating the force of state power and legal regimes in creating and enforcing confessional identity.  It forces the reader to confront the question of territorial power in the service of heavenly faith.

In unearthing these moments of accusation, persecution, and even expulsions and executions, Sinners on Trial revises our image of early modern Poland-Lithuania as pluralist and tolerant.  These earlier visions are likely a corrective to the impulses, in a post-war world, to read the Polish-Jewish experience as doomed to failure from its inception.  Teter’s work complicates this picture, however, without even an inkling of teleology.  Rather than point to moments of persecution, however, Teter makes meaning out of these incidents, situating them, fittingly, within the context of political and cultural contests, in which Jews were often objects of contention, rather than agents in their own right.

The book begins by elucidating the meaning of the sacred to early modern Jews and Christians in order to lay the groundwork for an investigation of the sacred’s violation and the prosecution of such violation by different authorities.  It then turns to the cases themselves, paying close attention to the language and framing of the trial records, not simply their outcome.  Teter takes special heed of the surprising incidences in which robbery of ritual goods is prosecuted not for theft, but for sacrilege, and uses these cases as access points into considering the jurisdiction of courts in enforcing religious affairs.  In subsequent chapters, the work departs from the trial scene itself to wider contests over jurisdiction, including magistrates, nobles, and the king, but consistently loops back to the question of what can we learn from the treatment of Jews during this period, and how an investigation of this treatment is invaluable to understanding statecraft and the rule of law at this time.

Sinners on Trial brims with an array of sources in an impressive assortment of languages.  The study is based primarily on court records, preserved at times in Polish, at others in Latin.  While Teter acknowledges that the primary sources are at times fragmentary, sometimes merely a précis or summary of the trials rather than a literal transcription, she imaginatively fills in the details with supporting data, and guides the reader through the documentary lacunae.  This core body of sources is adorned with evidence from Yiddish pamphlets, Italian polemical treatises, and Hebrew liturgy and codes of Jewish law.  She makes use of secondary sources in English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, and Polish.

Teter’s study deftly demonstrates the importance of the Jewish experience and the treatment of Jews to our understanding of early modern European phenomena.  While this study does not deal too intimately with the “internal” culture of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry, it reveals essential information about the workings of Polish legal and political culture, posing and answering vital questions that can only be understood through the lens of the attitudes and policies towards minority populations during this time.  The work is an important contribution to study of the Jews and of early modern Europe most widely.

Joshua Teplitsky, a second year fellow at the CJL, is a doctoral candidate at New York University. His dissertation is titled “Between Court Jew and Jewish Court: David Oppenheim, the Prague rabbinate, and eighteenth-century political culture.”

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