- (The Jews of Provence and Languedoc. Renaissance in the Shadow of the Church)by Ram Ben-Shalom
This impressive tome is a considerable scholarly achievement. In it Ram Ben-Shalom, who for many years was associated with the Open University of Israel and is now a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, surveys the history of the Jews in the Midi (Provence and Languedoc) in great detail. The book has two parts. Part I (7 chapters) describes the early history of the Jews in the Midi; their institutions; the place of women in the community; the ups and downs in the relationships between the Jews and the Church, including the religious polemics; and, finally, the last expulsion of the Jews from Provence (1498). Part II (11 chapters) is devoted to intellectual history, or, as Ben-Shalom puts it, "the cultural renaissance of the Jews in Provence." Ben-Shalom devotes one relatively short chapter to the traditional religious studies in the yeshivot and to religious currents and is clearly interested mainly in the extrahalakhic intellectual pursuits: poetry, the translation movement, the reception of rationalist philosophy and the controversies that surrounded it, the Kabbalah, and ideas about messianism and redemption. The 100-page bibliography bears witness to Ben-Shalom's very wide reading over many years. Particularly praiseworthy is the fact that he draws on a wide range of original documents in many literary genres, including poetry. As a consequence, many developments are described in minute detail with a stunning wealth of information. For the foreseeable future, this book will be the point of departure for all research and teaching on the Jews in the Midi.
Unsurprisingly, the book has no overarching narrative of the kind that many historians offered in the past century, except perhaps for the implicit but consequent over-emphasis of purported intense intellectual contacts, exchanges, and convergence of agendas between Jews and Christians in the period surveyed. Past generations of historians adopted what came to be called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history," which unduly stressed the antagonism between Jews and Gentiles. Today, it seems, the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme, and Ben-Shalom (as no few others) is intent on seeing a half-full glass where others see one that is half empty, creating what may be dubbed a "rosy conception of Jewish history." This was also the tendency of his Medieval Jews [End Page 288] and the Christian Past(2006), now available in English. 1In this short review I will survey the book with special attention to the extent and nature of Provençal Jewish intellectuals' awareness of the surrounding Christian Latin culture, a topic over which Ram Ben-Shalom and I have exchanged our (different) views more than once.
I begin with a first critical distinction (not made in the book), that between those engaged in the practical arts (notably physicians and astronomers) and the other intellectuals (notably philosophers). Whereas Jewish physicians (and occasionally astronomers, too) had strong contacts with their Christian confreres (especially from the early fourteenth century onward), in philosophy and natural science the Provençal Jewish awareness of Christian thought was minimal until the end of the fourteenth century. Here another distinction needs to be introduced: The situation in Provence differs from that in the Italian Peninsula, where figures such as Hillel of Verona, Judah Romano, and Emmanuel of Rome were conversant with the surrounding culture. As a result, whereas Latin-into-Hebrew translations of medical literature were done in both Italy and the Midi, until the early fifteenth century nearly all Latin-into-Hebrew translations of philosophical literature were produced in Italy, and almost none in the Midi. In my view, it is undeniable that the Jewish intellectuals in the Midi turned their backs on the increasingly fruitful surrounding culture. I consider this to be a major social-cum-intellectual datum of medieval Jewish history that calls for explanation, all the more so given that for many of their coreligionists in Italy the...