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Book Reviews 151 Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, by Jacob Katz. Translated and with an afterword and bibliography by Bernard Dor Cooperman. New York: New York University Press, 1993. 392 pp. $40.00. This book was published in Hebrew some thirty-five years ago and shortly thereafter came out in a rather inadequate English translation which, however, omitted the scholarly apparatus. It has now been reissued, with endnotes, in a fluent translation by B. D. Cooperman that includes an afterword by Professor Cooperman appraising the impact which Katz's work has had on Jewish historical studies in the intervening decades. Tradition and Crisis was greeted on the occasion of its first appearance with a considerable amount of reserve. Social history based on Weberian models was still relatively unfamiliar to western historians then, and Katz's highly structured exposition put numerous prominent backs up. We have come a long way since. Nowadays social historians take their cues from the more exotic anthropologists and engage in textual saturation analysis which, did we not possess their explicit assurances to guide us, would strike us as pure Ranke. Heavy reliance on Weber such as characterizes Katz's book is looked upon as quaint, perhaps lovable, but no more than a simplistic first step in the direction of genuine analytical hiStory. In the light of all this, what has turned out to be truly lasting in Katz's work? First, and this is fundamental, is his insistence that the history of the Jews, precisely like that of other peoples, is not merely reactive-not just a series of more or less successful adaptations to institutionalized antisemitism-but rather organic. It grows not merely out of the external circumstances of the diaspora, but out of the internal dynamic of Jewish life as well. Second, and this is the point around which the book revolves, is the argument that the early modern period, rather than being a featureless extension of the middle ages, in which life hardly changes for the Jews who were effectively excluded from whatever benefits Renaissance and Reformation bestowed on western man, was in fact an era of considerable gestation in Jewish society: a gestation that produced most of the mindsets that were to define Jewish life in modern times. Third, the two most spectacular and best-known upheavals in Jewish life in the eighteenth century, the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment) and the Hassidic movement, were not antithetical poles, united only by their utter dissimilarity and by their contemptuous rejection of one another, but rather were related, though opposed, reactions to a single 152 SHOFAR Spring 1994 Vol. 12, No.3 phenomenon: the generalized European crisis of the post-Reformation era. In the east, the surprisingly successful but marginalized and over-specialized series of arrangements that had allowed a very large number ofJews to survive and, in many cases, prosper in what was, by anybody's standards, a highly hierarchical and egregiously backward social order, were being toppled by a broadly based social upheaval. The collapse ofthe system that had sustained the world of the stetlacb called into question the whole of the Law-centered world of the eastern Ashkenazim. In the west, the regression of religious antisemitism, due in part to a generalized secularization of life and to some extent to the intellectual positions taken by Enlightenment figures, led to a society which, if it did not actively sympathize with the Jews, was at least sufficiently neutral to religious differences to make plausible the aspirations of the more adventurous and prosperous among these to achieve a degree of social equality without giving up their religious identity. It might be added that these two diverse responses-arrant mysticism and detached rationalism-rather than being limited to the exceptional circumstances of the early modern period, have traditionally characterized Jewish life throughout the diaspora and well before, a point that Katz did not miss. Finally, Katz's methodology was path-breaking. His extensive use of the halakhic texts (the responsa of prominent rabbis to questions concerning the interpretation of the Law) was in itself novel. These had seldom been drawn upon as historical, rather than religious, sources. But, more...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 151-152
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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