A Manuscript Is Not a Mirror

By Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg
Resident Scholar
Straus Center

A Page from the Golden Haggadah
A page from the Golden Haggadah

On Wednesday, April 28, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted Dr. Marc Michael Epstein, the Mattie M. Paschall and Norman Davis Chair of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College, for a special guest lecture in the Straus honors course, Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts: Torah as Art in Medieval Ashkenaz.

The course, taught by Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg, Straus Center resident scholar, is cross-listed between the Jewish studies and art departments at Stern College for Women and bridges visual and text studies of art and literature produced by the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz. The students were eager to hear from Dr. Epstein in person, having read and studied some of his novel interpretations of images in illuminated manuscripts throughout the semester.

The lecture, “Why a Manuscript is not a Mirror: Scientific Method and the Study of Hebrew Manuscript Illumination,” focused on the range of plausible interpretations available to those researching Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Dr. Epstein demonstrated the methodology he uses when ranking his observations along a “spectrum of plausibility,” using the Golden Haggadah as a case study. Rather than simply answering the “what” and “where” questions related to the manuscripts being observed, Dr. Epstein encouraged the students to probe the deeper “why” questions, that is, the questions about why Jews portrayed themselves or narrative scenes in a particular way. These questions, he noted, are less easily knowable with certainty but always the most interesting.

Rather than viewing manuscripts as a mirror, accurately reflecting the lives and belongings of those who commissioned them, Dr. Epstein argued they are more often a projector, not merely representational, but aspirational. And building on the theme of aspirations, Dr. Epstein encouraged the students to be bold in their own research and scholarship and congratulated them on having taken advantage of the opportunity to study in this truly unique subject offered through the Straus Center.

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