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Reconstructing the Social History of Rabbinic Ideas

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 581-588 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0037

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How should Historians study the social context and the social impact of rabbinic ideas? This question poses a serious challenge precisely because rabbinic literature itself is so often aspirational rather than descriptive. The challenge is especially acute for those who seek not merely to trace the social history of rabbinic Jews but more specifically the social history of rabbinic ideas. Many scholars, including the present writer, seek to avoid this dilemma entirely by studying rabbinic literature with an eye toward intellectual history, tracing the evolution of rabbinic thought without making any claims about the relationship between elite exhortations and the Jewish masses. This simple solution, however, comes at the price of dismissing important aspects of Jewish history as unknowable.

Marina Rustow and Uriel I. Simonsohn, in contrast, confront head on the complex challenges of writing social history about two fundamental rabbinic ideas, namely the notion that Qaraites are heretics and the principle that Jews should not take recourse to gentile courts. Their recent books make significant contributions to our understanding of relations between Rabbanites and non-Rabbanites in the medieval Islamic world. This essay focuses particular attention on their equally valuable contributions to the field of rabbinic historiography, namely, their distinct yet complementary approaches to contextualizing rabbinic thought.

Heresy and the Politics of Community thoroughly disproves the once-prevalent presumption among historians of Rabbanite Judaism that the anti-Qaraite polemics of Sa‘adya Gaon effectively severed ties between Rabbanites and Qaraites, rendering the latter a marginalized, heretical sect. Rustow accomplishes this task by marginalizing the polemical literature of the Rabbanites, once central to historiography of Rabbanite-Qaraite relations, in favor of documentation from the Cairo Geniza. The questions Rustow poses to these documents are no less influential in shaping her revisionist history: they orient her work toward social dynamics instead of the issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy that animate polemical literature. “Rather than asking only what those accused of heresy believed that made them vulnerable to the charge, I have asked here about the causes and consequences of the accusations—if there were any consequences at all” (p. xviii).

Many of Rustow’s questions are profoundly political: who stood to gain from accusations of heresy, what power did Rabbanites have to make those accusations stick, and what power did Qaraites have to thwart such efforts? Rustow finds evidence in the Geniza for only four instances in which Rabbanites in the Fatimid empire purportedly accused Qaraites of heresy during the eleventh century. In each case, the accusers sought political objectives unrelated to Qaraite doctrines. The failure of these accusations to affect Rabbanite-Qaraite relations, Rustow demonstrates, reflects the degree to which Qaraites played key roles in Jewish communal politics, including those of Rabbanite institutions. “The history of heresy,” Rustow concludes, “encompasses not merely the ideas or practices ascribed to heretics, but the set of human circumstances that cause the label to be attached to them” (p. 348).

Rustow’s rich depictions of Rabbanite-Qaraite relations, woven from various genres of textual evidence and enlivened with especially effective case studies, demonstrate that even Rabbanite officials did not act on the anti-Qaraite polemic of such figures as Sa‘adya. Rustow documents the heavy reliance of geonim and other officials of the Rabbanite yeshivahs on Qaraite merchants and courtiers in their efforts to obtain, preserve, and extend their authority. She highlights wedding contracts drawn up in Rabbanite courts that preserve the rights of Qaraite spouses to follow their own ancestral customs, and she draws particular attention to Rabbanite use of Qaraite ketubba formularies as exemplary of Rabbanite respect for Qaraite norms. In one of her many case studies, Rustow shows how a Rabbanite from Toledo sought to help landsmen who had converted to Qaraism remain Qaraites in their new home, Jerusalem. “He did not seem to mind whether Ibn Fadānj and his wife chose Qaraism or Rabbanism. His only mandate was that of helping his fellow Andalusīs” (p. 261). The primacy of geographic ties over scholastic loyalty exemplified in this case encapsulates Rustow’s broader argument that by the end of the eleventh century the Babylonian Rabbanites, Palestinian Rabbanites, and Qaraites of the Fatimid empire effectively fused into a single territorially...

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