- Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Yisrael Yuval's provocative study of the polemical interaction of Judaism and Christianity grows out of his determination to re-imagine the nature of medieval European Judaism. Yuval's book promises a lively exploration of Jewish-Christian interaction, but the book's structure and topics make it difficult to appreciate fully this polemical dynamic between two religious cultures. That Judaism was affected by other cultures does not really seem shocking, but Yuval is arguing against what had been, or what he imagined was, an entrenched traditional attempt to sanctify the uniqueness of Jewish history. Even if he has created something of a straw man with this dichotomy, his book would have been useful if it had elucidated ways in which this history of influence between the religions had functioned. Unfortunately, the book's structure makes it difficult to explore and appreciate fully this polemical dynamic between the two religious cultures.
First, Yuval confuses competition with influence. His discussion of how early Judaism used the image of Esau as a way of indicting Christianity certainly shows that Jews were aware of and perhaps even threatened by Christianity. They were using the images of the biblical tradition to assert the primacy of Judaism as the true religion. It is not clear, however, how this polemical competition actually affected the internal evolution of Judaism. The threat of Christianity, particularly as it became an imperial religion, may have forced rabbinic culture to evolve as Seth Schwartz has recently argued. In this case, Jews were responding to the visible success of Christianity and its role in society rather than rhetorical images.
It is frustrating that Yuval turns away from the issue of polemical exchange to discuss the nature of vengeance and redemption in Jewish liturgical material. I do not understand how this section helps him establish evidence of Christian influence on Judaism. That Jews could imagine that redemption depended on or at least involved vengeance over their enemies seems independent of a particularly Christian environment. (Yuval seems to suggest a parallel development of this idea of redemptive vengeance in Crusading theology, but there is no exploration of how, if at all, this idea traveled between Jewish and Christian culture.)
Yuval then moves from the discussion of vengeance to the origins of the blood libel, which is equally frustrating since this material also seems as if it doesn't really belong in the book. Yuval has already published well-known articles in Hebrew from which this discussion is drawn. The argument here is that the actions of Jews who martyred themselves or killed their families during the First Crusade attacks in the Rhineland were notorious among Christians (something he cannot prove) and that this reputation for bloodthirstiness galvanized [End Page 130] Christians to imagine that Jews were capable of other violent crimes against Christians. Yuval's thesis has been criticized elsewhere. What is relevant for this review is that the issue of the blood libel's origins has nothing to do with the question of Christian influence on Judaism. Given the tenuousness of the evidence supporting his position, it is very difficult to imagine the blood libel origins as Judaism somehow influencing Christianity.
Yuval does conclude with a discussion of competing Jewish and Christian interpretations of Passover. He makes clever linkages between Passover and Easter as a way to see Passover as an extended polemic against Christian ideas about the incarnation. But he often goes too far, and ignores the problems with his own evidence. The most significant example of this is when he tries to make the burning of leaven into a self-conscious attack on the Eucharist. It may have occurred to some Jews that there was a polemical value in what they were doing, but there is no evidence that this became the underlying interpretation of the ritual. Nor is there any real...