Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization | ABOUT

Review of Cohn, _The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis_

February 28th, 2013

Review of Naftali S. Cohn, The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 248 pages. $69.95 By Nathan Schumer Naftali Cohn’s book focuses on ritual narratives, the description of Temple rites in the Mishnah. Cohn asks, why do the rabbis remember and preserve the rituals of the destroyed Temple in the Mishnah? He argues that memories of the Temple—and especially memories of Temple ritual—were useful for the rabbis in the 2nd/3rd century CE. This remembered Temple past was an argument for rabbinic authority over post-Destruction Jewish law and practice (3). To support his argument, Cohn employs an admirable array of theoretical and methodological tools, including narratological theory, collective memory, and Foucaultian discourse. Cohn’s work also internalizes the minimalist narrative of Martin Goodman and Seth Schwartz, reading the Mishnah and its depiction of the past as an attempt to project and construct rabbinic authority. Though the rabbis lacked authority over the Jews of Roman Palestine in the post-Destruction period, they aspired to it. In Chapter 1, Cohn introduces the diverse and fragmented Jewish religious landscape of high imperial Palestine. In this competitive arena, the rabbis sought to promote their own authority. Chapter 2 focuses on the rabbinic depiction of the Temple Court, which in the Mishnah controls Temple ritual. For example, Mishnah Yoma 1 describes the high priest’s preparation for Yom Kippur. During this process, the high priest is adjured, instructed, and generally controlled by the elders of the Court. While the high priest is the main performer of the ritual, the Court has ultimate authority over how the Temple ritual is performed. Cohn argues that these memories are fictitious and incongruent with Second Temple evidence. Rather, the rabbis have patterned the great Court of the Temple past on rabbinic aspirations for authority and control over Judean ritual law in the post-Destruction period. The rabbis have created a predecessor institution for themselves in the past, which argues for rabbinic authority in the present. In Chapter 3, Cohn argues that the rabbinic narratives of Temple ritual as a literary form argue for rabbinic authority. Since these narratives describe the Temple past, they advance a rabbinic version of it (and Cohn provides several different examples of how these narratives argue for rabbinic authority). Cohn’s most innovative claim here is that the interjection of named rabbis’ statements into ritual narratives demonstrates to the reader that the rabbis ultimately have control over how the past is remembered. In Chapter 4, Cohn looks at the memory of the Jerusalem Temple’s space and he compares Mishnah Middot with the description of the Temple in Ezekiel 40-43. In Mishnah Middot, the rabbis place their predecessor institution, the great Court, at the center of the Temple, rather than the Holy of Holies. The centrality of the great Court deliberately displaces the Jerusalem priesthood. In Chapter 5 (which was not in the dissertation), Cohn argues that rabbinic appropriation of the Temple must be seen in the context of other post-Destruction discourses about the Temple. He discusses the importance of the Temple for other Jewish groups (apocalyptic writers, Bar Kokhba, and the Jewish community of Dura Europos), early Christians, and the Roman state. Cohn’s book presents a compelling and interesting way of reading Temple material in the Mishnah. He provides an incisive mixture of theoretical and close analysis of the Mishnah and the different subjects of the chapters complement each other well, fleshing out his argument. Cohn’s depiction of the rabbinic project in the minimalist historiographic narrative provides a compelling model for what the rabbis were doing with this Temple material. I would have liked to see some more developed speculation about the extent to which these assertions of rabbinic authority are primarily a product of the Mishnah, a topic which Cohn alludes to at several points. My main critique is that in his comparative analysis of the rabbis with other Jewish groups, early Christians, and the Romans, Cohn examines non-rabbinic attitudes towards the Temple, rather than Temple ritual. This seems to be an inexact comparison, and I would have liked to see more about the continued importance of Temple ritual in these other literatures. Despite these admittedly minor quibbles, Cohn’s contribution is strikingly interesting and provides a compelling explanation of why these Temple ritual narratives persist in the Mishnah.

Call for Papers: Desire for Narrative in Law and Literature

February 28th, 2013

CFP: Desire for Narrative in Law and Literature: A Special Session at MLA 2014 Hayden White has suggested “proper histories” narrate a changing relationship between a subject and a legal regime. As White states, “Where there is no rule of law, there can be neither a subject nor the kind of event which lends itself to narrative representation.” For White, law is essential to narrative, historical or otherwise. The converse, however, is also true: narrative is essential to law. We seek participants for a roundtable discussion and invite 250 word proposals from scholars who study law and literature to explore topics such as the aesthetics of both modes of cultural production, the representation or influence of legal narratives in literature, and the influence of literary narrative strategies on legal decision making. Questions to be considered and addressed in brief, five-minute position statements might include, but are not limited to: • What constitutes a legal narrative and who are its authors? • What are the formal and aesthetic characteristics of legal narratives, and how do they compare with the formal and aesthetic characteristics of literary narrative? • How have legal narratives evolved in response to cultural, political, or technological shifts, and with what consequences? • How is the teaching of law or literature, or both, affected by calling into question the distinctions we usually make between legal and literary texts? • What are the poetics of justice implicit in legal and literary narratives? • Of what use are literary methodologies in the study of law, and vice versa? Please submit proposals and a short bio by 5:00 pm on March 15, 2013 (HT: Legal History Blog)

Theater review of “Job,” by Thomas Bradshaw

February 20th, 2013

Review: “Job” by Thomas Bradshaw, at the Flea Theater, Tribeca   By Lynn Kaye, PhD Assistant Professor of Rabbinics Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion   Just finishing its run at the Flea Theater in Tribeca ( is Thomas Bradshaw’s new play, “Job.” I saw it on its final night, though I hope it will be extended or revived since this play demonstrates innovative writing, multi-layered, fast-paced direction by Benjamin Kamine and compelling acting by members of The Bats. I mention it to the readers of the CJL’s blog because of its concern with divine and human justice, and the concept of free will. Bradshaw illustrates Job’s torment in vivid terms. Many reviews of this superb play have commented on its explicit nudity and violence. It is also in the portrayal of Job’s ruin by Satan that the play differs from the Bible. In the biblical story, Job’s children and property are all destroyed in guerilla battles and by natural disasters (Job 1:13-19). Bradshaw substitutes personal malice on an intimate scale for faceless destruction. Satan, God’s brother, silently looks on while characters inflict horrifying brutality on one another. In a particularly disturbing scene, Job’s beloved and righteous children attack and kill one another. After the violence is over, Satan coolly performs a choreographed dance and walks away. (The use of dance as a way for the divine beings to express themselves is a particular strength of the staging of this play: God also performs his own idiosyncratic dance when an animal was sacrificed to him.) By making the evil befalling Job into Satan-supervised manmade mischief, Satan becomes the yester hara, the evil inclination people have within themselves. This portrayal of Satan’s instigation of violence among otherwise righteous people diminishes the free will of human beings in the play. I saw this play with my spouse, Alex Kaye, who observed that humans’ free will is not the only one that is questioned. The involuntary dancing of the divine beings in response to human actions suggests that their behavior is also in some way pre-determined. While the manner in which Satan brings destruction limits humans’ free will, the play is occupied with the unknown capacity of an individual to respond to catastrophe.  Not even God could predict definitively what Job might do under unimaginable pressure. While Job’s struggle and resilience form the dramatic arc of the play, the god characters (including Satan, Jesus and Dionysus) remain static. Free will is a prerequisite for Job’s notion of Divine justice, which is also questioned and complicated in the play. Job’s implementation of justice brackets the play. He is portrayed as a magistrate whose judicial responsibilities come with his status of the wealthiest, most powerful man in the land (“the greatest man in the east”). In the opening scene, Job judges three cases: giving a stern warning to a thief while also showing compassion for his poverty, bending the rules of levirate marriage for a righteous woman, and meting out harsh punishment for a rapist. Job declares that each of his judgments is according to divine will. Job returns to his role as judge in the final scene of the play, sentencing a recidivist thief to lose both hands. Job repeatedly returns to his notion of justice, namely that evil-doers are dealt immediate punishment such as mutilation or death, while the righteous are shown compassion and generosity. During his struggle with God, he asks how his circumstances fit the Divine justice he has always implemented. The play answers this question through its portrayal of the divine realm. God’s notion of justice, as portrayed in the scenes of God and his family (Satan, Jesus and Dionysus) is a-normative. God is not emotionally connected to what happens to Job. The character of God is played coolly; he is intelligent and discerning, but also detached. (Even the time-scale of heaven is disjointed, with the director leaving arrhythmic gaps between sentences in the scenes with the gods.) God likes that Job honors him with sacrifices, and therefore he rewards him, but he is open to seeing if Satan is right about Job being a fair-weather believer. Thus, while Job is trying to emulate what he understands to be Divine justice in his community, the portrayal of God’s justice is arbitrary, without emotion or compassion; it is not replicable or transferrable to earth. The Gods are Other to humans. They drink wine, make jokes, have rivalries, but they are also strange, detached, and different. Their notion of justice seems familiar, but just under the surface, God’s detachment suggests that his justice is part of a reality which cannot be translated into law on earth. In sum, the Flea’s excellent production of Bradshaw’s play offers the audience a chance to engage with the ever-pressing problem of human suffering and people’s persistent search for a way to understand the world which gives meaning to pain. Unfortunately, Job’s world is one of contradictions, and disappointingly opaque divine rules.

Resnicoff, “The Causes and Cures of Unethical Business Practices — A Jewish Perspective”

February 8th, 2013

  Steven H. Resnicoff (DePaul University College of Law) has posted The Causes and Cures of Unethical Business Practices – A Jewish Perspective. Here's the abstract:
The workplace seems increasingly characterized by unethical practices between and among employers, employees, customers, competitors and others, despite the fact that most leading religious traditions proscribe such conduct and many of the actors self-identify as religious. This paper examines this phenomenon through the prism of Jewish tradition. It identifies specific Jewish teachings that explain many types of misconduct and, where appropriate, it cites modern secular experiments that confirm these Judaic insights. Based on these teachings, the paper prescribes a series of steps that, if implemented, could enhance the integrity of business and financial actors. This is a working paper in connection with the Henry Kaufman Forum on Religious Traditions and Business Behavior sponsored by the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

All in the Family: A Review of Yaakov Deutsch, Judaism in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe

February 5th, 2013

"All in the Family": A review of Yaakov Deutsch, Judaism in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe (tr. from the Hebrew by Avi Aronsky). Oxford: ­­Oxford University Press, 2012. 320 pp. $74.00

By Mordechai Levy-Eichel

Yaakov Deutsch’s detailed and systematic study of ethnographic works about Jews in early modern Europe—Judais­m in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe—is a timely and helpful work for scholars. Anthropological studies, ethnographies, travel accounts, imagined reconstructions of humanity’s early history, and other similar sorts of works were an important and burgeoning genre of writing and study in early modern Europe. Deutsch’s book, which takes us from the early 16th century (beginning with the work of Johan Pfefferkon in 1508) through the late 18th century (terminating with Caspar Friedenheim’s Yehudi mibahutz, das ist der äußerliche Jud in 1785) is the only comprehensive survey of all ethnographic works about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish rituals published in Western Europe in this pivotal period and should serve as a reference for any future scholarship on the perception of Jews in the early modern world. Despite investigating and illuminating many significant historical points however, the limitations of Deutsch’s book make aspects of its theses questionable. My review will consist of two principal parts: first, I will summarize the volume, its structure and arguments; second, I will focus on some of its weaknesses, what Deutsch omits (most especially, an account of the reception of the works), and what aspects of this topic future scholars may want to pursue. Deutsch’s book is a lucid and broad survey, and for this it deserves to be commended. The volume is composed of five chapters plus an introduction. Between his first chapter (“A Survey of the Ethnographic Accounts of the Jews”) and his last (“An Overview of the Ethnographic Wrings about the Jews”) are three chapters that each examine one topic in particular. The second chapter on focuses on Yom Kippur observances; the third on circumcision “and other birth rituals”; the fourth on perceptions of kashrut and other matters relating to food and drink.  The book’s primary source base consists of 78 works written by Christians (some of them converts from Judaism) within this nearly three hundred year period.[1]  In addition to a chronological listing of all the works, including their years and places of publication, the first chapter offers a series of ten tables which compare the content of each volume.  At a glance, one can see how much more often marriage was a subject of study than, say, mourning customs, or how over time, education became a subject of increasing interest to the authors of these ethnographies. Two questions undergird Deutsch’s project: “First, against the backdrop of the genre in question [ethnography], what were the changes that the writing about the Jews underwent from the early 1500s to the late 1700s? Second, why did a literary genre that focuses on contemporaneous Jewish lifestyle emerge in the early modern period, of all periods?”[2] The author explains his decision to focus on ethnography because, in his opinion, “the ethnographic accounts reflect [a]…watershed in the history of Christian-Jewish accounts.”[3] Answering his first question, Deutsch “contend[s] that the early modern ethnographic writing on Jews is, to a large extent, a new phase in the age-old Jewish-Christian polemic.”[4] Although taking care to highlight the continuities between the literature about Jews in medieval and early modern times, Deutsch notes that the latter writings about Jews and Judaism were novel in how they described the rituals, habits, and customs of the contemporaneous Jewish communities. One of Judaism in Christian Eyes “basic premise[s] is that different approaches and methods were available to the authors, so that the expositive route they ultimately preferred is bound to be insightful,” with this turn to ethnography being evidence of a larger shift in Christian-Jewish relations. As opposed to medieval theological polemics and critique aimed at denouncing the errors of the Jews, these works aimed rather at describing the religious habits of the living and surrounding Jewish communities. The authors did not write simply to reproach the Jews but also to inform and educate Christian readers. To describe this new genre, the author coins the term “polemical ethnography” to emphasize a) the truthful nature, on the whole, of these accounts of Jewish life and customs, coupled with b) the political and polemical critiques behind much of the scholarship. “In general, the Jews and Judaism were rendered as diametric opposites of the authors’ conception of the Christian and Christianity”[5] with anti-Jewish ethnographies often being placeholders for critiques of Catholic or Protestant observances (although more the former than the latter). The polemical aspect also came out in the disagreements between the authors of these works who converted away from Judaism and emphasized their personal experience of Judaism (and its problems), versus Christians from birth who emphasized their knowledge and reading of Jewish sources. The answer to Deutsch’s second question about why this kind of writing emerged in this period is less clear. As the author notes, many examples of the genre were written by converts (a point I will return to below), and at first often functioned as defenses for their shift in allegiance: writing in “this genre was a way to prove that they were true Christians.”[6] Yet a majority of the books under consideration were published in the 18th century (50 out of 78, or 64%), a time in which the works were increasingly being written by those without a Jewish background. Deutsch takes care to emphasize that most of the works were in German (60 out of the 78, or nearly 77%). An explanation Deutsch repeats throughout his book for this phenomenon is that “while the Jews were banished from other lands in Western Europe, there was a continuous Jewish presence in large parts of Germany. Put differently, one of the catalysts behind the genre in question was the presence of Jews.” This is not quite correct.  There was also a continuous Jewish presence in the Italian states in this period, overall at least, corresponding to the situation among the German states, but with comparatively few contributions to the genre.[7] Nevertheless only two volumes in Italian are on Deutsch’s main list of ethnographies (three if you include Leone Modena’s work, written very much from within the Jewish community). While Deutsch comes up with a few features that distinguish the situation in the various German principalities from the other emerging nation-states of Western Europe (lack of an overseas empire, the supposedly greater interest in Hebrew among Protestant intellectuals than Catholic ones, proximity of large Protestant and Catholic communities to each other), neither individually nor together do these criteria explain the emergence and flowering of this genre. A list of ingredients, without actually explaining how they should be prepared and cooked together, does not a dish make. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Deutsch’s story however is not why this genre emerged during this time, but who wrote these works, because the clear majority of authors were former Jews. Out of the 60 authors, all of whom identify as Christian, 40 of them (almost two two-thirds) were converts. Conversion from Judaism hardly cleared a path to social advancement as we learn from Elisheva Carlebach’s Divided Souls,[8] and so a fuller understanding of what purposes any of these works served would have necessitated putting them in greater context.  This leads us to the other main omission in Deutsch’s account, namely the isolation of these works from their context and impact.  Deutsch’s work is an example of a particular kind of intellectual history. Intellectual history, of course, covers a multitude of sins, and there are a wide variety of ways to practice it.[9]  In one of its most common forms, it focuses on what books and ideas can reveal about a particular time and place. The fruits of this approach come out in Deutsch’s contention that despite their anti-Jewish aims (which Carlebach puts more emphasis on), many of the descriptions of Jewish rituals in the ethnographies were accurate, thus staking a claim for the growth of a new and influential kind of scholarly examination of religious ritual in this period. While admiring his care in individually and comparatively assessing this growing genre, one wishes Deutsch had placed the works in more of a German or European context. Admittedly this is a tall order.  The books Deutsch surveys span, chronologically and spatially, early modern Western Europe. He notes the multiple editions of many of the important titles (and how well they sold compared other early modern Hebraist works that have also recently received much attention). However, he doesn’t actually examine the personal, social, or political impact or reception of these works.  We are not given examples of whether the reading (or even the writing) of the books changed the outlooks of their readers (or authors), nor whether they featured in the debates about toleration or the other theological and political debates of the period.  For if they did, this is surely significant.  And if they did not, this is also significant, and speaks as well to questions about how customs and laws change under the impact of reportage and scholarly study (or do not).  By not examining the impact of these volumes on a personal individual or any larger political debate, the author undercuts his own case for the importance of his subject.  This is unfortunate since the transitions in the literature which Deutsch carefully tracks coincide with epic shifts in how religion was conceptualized and how minorities were treated, yet the legal, political, and social connections between any of these societal changes and the polemical ethnographies are not examined. Perhaps there were examples of marginalia by readers of these works which Deutsch could have shown us?  Or Deutsch could have looked more closely at the political relations of the authors of some of these works, like Lancelot Addison for instance, Anglican minister and author of The Present State of the Jews (1675).  Addison served in various positions while residing in Tangier and gathering the material that would make up his contribution to the emerging ethnographical genre. He also had extensive connections to the emerging British state and it is hard to believe his historical and ethnographic work on Jews (and Muslims) was not connected to his conservative ideology and political efforts. Despite these criticisms, Deutsch’s comprehensive collection and broad survey will surely be of use to scholars of early modern Jewry and early modern religion for a long time to come. The tighter integration of Deutsch’s story with the larger currents of early modern German, and European, history would have only lent his perceptive observations more power. The questions his work raises about the shifts in the conceptualization and description of Judaism and religion in this period demonstrate once again the significance of early modern transformations to our own ideas and habits today.
[1] Deutsch also makes use of the only two works in this genre from this period written by Jews: Leon Modena’s Historia de gli riti Hebraici, Paris ,1637 [which was translated into English by the music theorist and roving scholar Edmund Chilmead and published in London in 1650 as The history of the rites, customes, and manner of life, of the present Jews throughout the world] and David Levy’s A Succint Account, of the Rites, and Ceremonies of the Jews, London, 1780; as well as 12 separate books of Jewish prayer, all translated “by and for Christians” (p. 74).
[2] Deutsch, p. 3.
[3] Ibid., p. 15.
[4] Ibid., p. 2.
[5] Ibid., p.246
[6] Ibid., p. 237.
[7] Ibid., p. 42. In the words of Elisheva Carlebach in her study Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany 1500-1750, “Of all the Jewish communities in western Europe, Italian Jewry paralleled German Jewry most closely in demographic structure and political predicament” (p. 7). Also, while German speaking Cologne, throughout the 1420s, and German speaking Regensburg, in 1519, expelled their Jews, both cities subsequently saw the publication of multiple ethnographic works about Jews. Although this may have more to do with the location of printing presses, it casts additional doubt on the casual connections Deutsch tries to draw between presence of Jews and writings of this sort about them.
[8] Carlebach, Divided Souls, chapter 6.
[9] For two of the more eloquent recent surveys on the topic, see Peter Gordon’s unpublished essay on his website “What is Intellectual History? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field,” (Revised Spring 2012) and Anthony Grafton’s “The History of Ideas:  Precept and Practice” in Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 2006).