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  • On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability Among the Jews of Medieval Europe by Ephraim Shoham-Steiner
  • Nicholas L. Sauer
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner. On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability Among the Jews of Medieval Europe. Translated by Haim Watzman. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2014. Pp. 288. Cloth $49.99. ISBN 9780814339312.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner’s On the Margins of a Minority is indispensable to a range of disciplines including medieval history, Disability Studies, and Jewish Studies. Shoham-Steiner’s work represents the next step in excavating the lives of the ill and disabled, groups that for far too long have been invisible to the historical record. His book is intellectually indebted to Irina Metzler’s Disability in Medieval Europe (2006), but succeeds in charting new scholarly territory because of its specific focus on disabled Jews. Shoham-Steiner meticulously reconstructs the twice-marginalized status of disabled Jews as Others in the eyes of both medieval Christendom and Ashkenazim. He is the first to investigate disability in these multiple contexts, making On the Margins of a Minority a path-breaking study.

The book is divided into six chapters, a pair of chapters each devoted to leprosy, mental illness, and physical disability. In the first chapter of each pair, Shoham-Steiner investigates the social and metaphoric significance of the condition—“Leprosy as a Concept” or “What is Madness?” for instance—and how that significance was shared by medieval Europe’s Jews and Christians alike. He points out that Christian and Jewish societies saw leprosy “as the physical manifestation of an internal moral failing or lack of faith.” (43) He goes on to argue that there existed a subtle difference, however, between the two societies’ responses to leprosy. Unlike the Christian authorities, Jewish civil and religious leaders could not afford to banish their lepers. Such banishment would lead to a weakened Jewish community, one already under threat by the surrounding Christian world. Thus medieval Jewish elites “grappled with the desire to banish and segregate the leper” and the obligation “to include lepers within Jewish society.” (43) This example illustrates the struggle at the heart of Shoham-Steiner’s topic of analysis: the balancing act that Jewish elites—particularly rabbis—performed to maintain religious and social order on one hand, and make leprous, mad, and disabled Jews active participants in the community on the other.

Because of the limited primary source material related to the lived experience of the disabled, Shoham-Steiner relies on elite rabbinic and medieval Christian perceptions of disability. He is restricted to “the exegetical, homiletic, and ethical literature, as well as guidance manuals” of Jewish religious authorities and to scant burial records. (13–19) He acknowledges that what we know of medieval Jewish life has been transmitted principally by these religious authorities, and that consequently it is their world—one that values order, sameness, and tradition—that has survived in the source material. (17) Thus, On the Margins of a Minority is equally—if not more so—a study of medieval rabbis’ reaction to disability. As the author admits, “[m]any of the sources that underpin this study were not written by the individuals under investigation but rather by external observers who mentioned the mad, the lepers, and [End Page 202] the disabled in their accounts”; this is a challenge that historians of medieval “women, children, and the poor” also have in common. (4) This narrow focus on elite voices is the major weakness of the book, but an unavoidable one. In many cases, elite sources are the only extant documentation of disabled lives in the Middle Ages.

In an attempt to assuage this dilemma, Shoham-Steiner reads the existing elite sources against the grain. The author teases out nuanced insights from medieval texts like the Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious), which commands that disabled individuals not be called to the Torah. The Sefer Hasidim argues that this prohibition is meant to save the disabled from mortal embarrassment. Here a regulation meant to show respect and sensitivity instead creates an atmosphere of even more acute marginalization. Shoham-Steiner comments that the disabled “display the same defects that disqualify animals...


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