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On the Margins of a Minority

Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner Translated by Haim Watzman

Publication Year: 2014

In medieval Europe, the much larger Christian population regarded Jews as their inferiors, but how did both Christians and Jews feel about those who were marginalized within the Ashkenazi Jewish community? In On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe, author Ephraim Shoham-Steiner explores the life and plight of three of these groups. Shoham-Steiner draws on a wide variety of late-tenth- to fifteenth-century material from both internal (Jewish) as well as external (non-Jewish) sources to reconstruct social attitudes toward these “others,” including lepers, madmen, and the physically impaired. Shoham-Steiner considers how the outsiders were treated by their respective communities, while also maintaining a delicate balance with the surrounding non-Jewish community. On the Margins of a Minority is structured in three pairs of chapters addressing each of these three marginal groups. The first pair deals with the moral attitude toward leprosy and its sufferers; the second with the manifestations of madness and its causes as seen by medieval men and women, and the effect these signs had on the treatment of the insane; the third with impaired and disabled individuals, including those with limited mobility, manual dysfunction, deafness, and blindness. Shoham-Steiner also addresses questions of the religious meaning of impairment in light of religious conceptions of the ideal body. He concludes with a bibliography of sources and studies that informed the research, including useful midrashic, exegetical, homiletic, ethical, and guidance literature, and texts from responsa and halakhic rulings. Understanding and exploring attitudes toward groups and individuals considered “other” by mainstream society provides us with information about marginalized groups, as well as the inner social mechanisms at work in a larger society. On the Margins of a Minority will appeal to scholars of Jewish medieval history as well as readers interested in the growing field of disability studies.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Quote, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

On one winter day in 1995 I found myself participating in the daily afternoon prayer service at one of the tiny synagogues that dot the Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market in Jerusalem. The synagogue’s gabbai (sexton of synagogue affairs) had flagged me down and asked me to come help form...


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pp. xi-xvi

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pp. 1-20

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, French scholar Julius Robert reported that the legend inscribed over the gate to the medieval Les Innocents cemetery in Paris read: “Beware the company of the madman, the Jew, and the leper.” While this is merely an anecdote, it is nevertheless a telling one...

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1. Leprosy as a Concept

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pp. 21-44

R. Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg (Maharam), a thirteenth-century Ashkenazi halakhic respondent, devoted one of his many responsa to the connection between leprosy and the laws of inheritance. The precise wording of the question posed to him has not survived, but his brief answer covers...

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2. Social Attitudes toward Lepers

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pp. 45-72

Although much can be learned about a society from exegetical literature, as was examined in the previous chapter, one of the most important literary sources for the historical and social research of medieval Jewish communities is halakhic codes, responsa, and ethical treatises. A few words about...

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3. What Is Madness?

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pp. 73-104

In the late twelfth or early thirteenth century R. Shimshon ben Avraham of Sens (1150–1230) was asked to voice his halakhic opinion about the validity of a divorce charter (Get) that was given to a woman described as “temporarily” insane. The petitioners described the woman as follows: “She is at...

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4. Social Attitudes toward the Insane

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pp. 105-136

Having established what the mind and thoughts of medieval European Jews considered a manifestation of madness or insanity, let us now examine how the men and woman deemed mad were actually treated in the medieval Jewish European communities. Did their behavior instigate rejection, ...

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5. The Physically Impaired

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pp. 137-156

In this touching opening to a responsum addressed in the second decade of the thirteenth century to R. Isaac ben Moshe of Vienna (“Or Zarua‘”), his older contemporary, Ravyah (R. Eliezer b. Joel ha-Levi of Bonn), wrote of his geriatric affliction: blindness. Beyond forcing him to limit his intellectual...

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6. Disability in Sacred and Private Space

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pp. 157-182

The medieval Ashkenazi anthology Zekher ‘Asah le-Nifle’otav, attributed to R. Judah he-Hasid, states: “He commanded regarding the sacrifices [that] it is a matter of propriety for the slave to appear before his master with a fine gift...

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pp. 183-190

In this book I have sought to foreground the historical discussion the story of individuals who regularly are in the shadow of obscurity. I have tried to turn our attention to those individuals in a past society who are usually doubly overlooked, both by their contemporaries and by modern observers using...


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pp. 191-236


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pp. 237-264


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pp. 265-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780814339329
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814339312

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2014