Review of Ephraim Kanarfogel, The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. 600 pp. $59.95.

By Ethan Zadoff

Since the early days of Wissenschaft des Judentums the characteristics and trends of the medieval Jewish intellectual world in Ashkenaz have endured as centerpieces of historical, lexicographical, and social and cultural inquiry. The exploration of this deeply rooted landscape has, and continues to receive, significant consideration from scholars examining the plethora of texts produced by Jews living in Northern France, Germany, Italy, and England, often for diverse interpretive goals. Of the contemporary scholars engaged in understating the various facets of the intellectual world of medieval Ashkenaz, Ephraim Kanarfogel has been one of the most prolific, investigating various facets of this rich history, from the legal contours of the Hasidei Ashkenaz to the mystical tendencies of 12th and 13th century Halakhists. Kanarfogel’s recently published book, The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz, paints a broad picture of the variegated intellectual landscape of medieval Ashkenaz and is crafted, at least partially, from a number of the theses developed in his previously published work. In brief, Kanarfogel argues that the interests of Ashkenazik rabbinic figures were much broader than Talmudic studies. While Ashkenazik scholars may have started their intellectual endeavors in engaging and studying the Talmud, they used this basis as the way to conceive and understand the contours of what Kanarfogel refers to often as “the multiple truths of the Torah.”[1] Ashkenazik rabbinic figures exhibited multiple layers and levels of scholarship beyond that of the Talmud and Halakha, while advocating for wide ranging definitions of truth. In this context, an extensive variety of questions and different forms of textual and conceptual methods were undertaken by the Tosafists in order to navigate the meaning of truth.

Kanarfogel begins the book with a discussion of the commonalities and differences in methodology, institutional structure, and substantive law of the Tosafist centers of Northern France and Germany. To illustrate points of divergence Kanarfogel draws attention to the prevalent role that leading rabbinic figures played in the local courts in Germany, compared to the paucity of activity (as suggested by the surviving evidence) for the leading rabbinic figures of Northern France, particularly in the latter half of the twelfth and first part of the thirteenth centuries. But despite the manifestation of a number of differences between the two intellectual centers, the commonalities that existed within and between Northern France and Germany, as well as the high degree of contact between them, meant that many rulings and practices did not adhere to a pattern of differentiation but brought the two closer together. Kanarfogel ends the chapter by offering a consideration of Christian scholastic influence on Tosafist dialectic.

Chapters two, three and four focus on various aspects of biblical interpretation.  Chapter two attempts to lay out the interpretive contours for three late twelfth century French Tosafists who were also students of Rabbenu Tam, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor of Orleans, R, Jacob of Orleans, and R. Yom Tov of Joigny. Kanarfogel shows how all three favored biblical interpretations that followed Rashi rather than their more immediate predecessor, Rashbam. In chapter three, Kanarfogel discusses two Ashkenazik rabbinic figures with German roots, R. Judah the Pious and R. Isiah de Trani who also composed Torah commentaries within similar dimensions, and then compares the approaches of these five exegetes with the more Talmudically inclined comments offered by other Tosafists of the period. Chapter four identifies additional Tosafists and rabbinic figures in the first half of the thirteenth century, such as R. Moses of Coucy, R. Yehiel of Paris and the brothers of Evreux, who pursued both peshat and drash in their biblical interpretations. For Kanarfogel, these Tosafist exegetes and their mostly peshat approach represent a sizeable portion of the Tosafist Torah commentaries that began to appear in the middle decades of the thirteenth century and continued into the early fourteenth century.

In chapter five, Kanarfogel focuses on the composition of piyyut by Tosafists in both Germany and France. He argues against the regnant historiography that views the development of piyyut in the post- first crusade political and intellectual context as a stagnant enterprise, which was not maintained as a focus of Tosafist activity or creativity. Instead, Kanarfogel argues that it is possible to identify defined areas of interest and patterns of Tosafist piyyut composition. Commemorative kinot and selihot were always produced, but Tosafists composed piyyutim for other occasions, including liturgical occasions, that can be defined as new and innovative. In chapter six, Kanarfogel continues a number of lines of argumentation that he developed in previous work, suggesting that there was a knowledge and awareness of magic and mysticism expressed by both Northern French and German Tosafists, but these perspectives were strengthened during the early thirteenth century in Germany, particularly by those associated with the Hasidei Ashkenaz. Kanarfogel pays particular attention to the authority of the German Tosafists and rabbinic scholars in the thirteenth century in this context and suggests a high degree of influence on both Northern French and Spanish scholars. Finally, in chapter seven, Kanarfogel questions whether the Talmudic-centric focus of the Tosafists masks notions of theological development amongst Northern French and German scholars. Given the various avenues of intellectual acumen analyzed, he concludes that both Northern French and German Tosafists expressed a range of views on a host of various theological questions, including the issues associated with anthropomorphism, messianism, the messianic era, and others.

Kanarfogel ultimately succeeds in offering the most sustained and wide-ranging effort to reconceptualize the nature and boundaries of Jewish intellectual life in medieval Ashkenaz.  Like his other works, this book is meticulously researched. Kanarfogel’s knowledge and use of medieval Jewish manuscripts is unparalleled; he cites or references more than 200 different Hebrew manuscripts and his citation of other scholarly works follows his pattern of well researched articles and books.

To be sure, one may question whether Kanarfogel could have positioned his conclusions in wider contexts.  For example, at the conclusion of the first chapter, Kanarfogel analyzes the parallels between the methods, hermeneutics, institutional structures and even the language utilized by Halakhists and canonists and churchmen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kanarfogel pays particular attention to the parallels in institutional structure, comparing the pre-crusade academies in Ashkenaz to monastic schools and the rise of cathedral schools to Tosafist academies as well as the use of dialectic in both the cathedral schools and the Tosafist academies.  But while the focus on institutions, the use of dialectic as a defining pedagogical feature of the institutions, and the ubiquitous nature of dialectic though transference, stands apart as an innovative way to understand the parallels- in part because Kanarfogel successfully underlines the parallel internal debates between Halakhists and churchmen in Germany and France respectively regarding the acceptance of dialectic as a useful methodological tool- the argument could be broadened in a number of ways. In particular, the argument could be augmented by placing the possibility of transferences and shared interest in the legal hermeneutical context within the contours of the broader historiographical debate concerning the perceived relationship between Judaism and Christianity during the high and later Middle Ages. Indeed, the parallel development between Halakhists and canonists both in regards to substantive law and legal methodology and hermeneutic has yet to be adequately studied and understood within broader conceptions of medieval social and cultural life. And yet, despite this fairly minor shortcoming, Kanarfogel effectively draws out the details of the diverse array of intellectual interests of Jews in medieval Ashkenaz and successfully challenges the dominant perception that medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic scholarship was lacking in intellectualism and broad scholarly interest.


[1] See pg. 26-35.


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