- A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz by David I. Shyovitz
It has long been held that the Jewish Pietists in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Germany—the Hasidei Ashkenaz—were self-consciously and resolutely uninterested in the shape and character of the natural world in which they lived. Unlike the Jewish communities in Iberia and North Africa, who viewed the natural world through the lens of Greek science (this argument holds), the Jews of northern Europe turned their gaze inward, away from the wider culture in which they lived and away from the mechanics and meaning of natural phenomena. This allowed them to devote themselves instead to working to perfect their service to God through hypermorality and self-abnegation, values that also inspired a deep suspicion of the physical world. In A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz, David I. Shyovitz digs into the texts and traditions of Hasidei Ashkenaz to challenge the widely held assumption that the physical world in which human beings live or God's role in it held no significance for them.
Shyovitz casts this project as a bold revisionist take on the German Pietists' theology. And he is right to do so. From the opening pages of the book through the epilogue, he engages and challenges assertions offered by several towering figures in medieval Jewish history and thought—including Yoseph Dan, Gershom Scholem, Haim Soloveichik, Joseph Trachtenberg, and Elliot Wolfson—that the Pietists demonstrated no interest in theorizing or interpreting natural or physical phenomena of any kind. On the contrary, Shyovitz argues that the Pietists were intensely concerned with their physical environment and interpreted the natural world as an expression or reflection of God's divine essence. In addition, he links their preoccupation with the physical world to Christian debates about transubstantiation. Shyovitz frames this part of his argument as a response to Ephraim Urbach's 1955 call to historians of medieval Jewish thought to consider the Hasidei Ashkenaz as an [End Page 240] intellectual and theological movement shaped in part by the emerging schools of Christian scholasticism.
Each of the book's five chapters delves into a specific thematic concern presented by leaders of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, and each includes a section exploring a parallel philosophical or theological turn in the Christian world. The book's title alludes to Psalm 111:4: "He has created a remembrance of His wonders." Chapter 1 argues that the Pietists subjected this verse to intense scrutiny because they believed that it was an invitation to explore events and attributes of the physical world as an expression of divine interventions in the world that human beings inhabit and experience. In their meditations on the structure of nature and the assumption that God communicates through it, the Pietists advanced a hermeneutic method that fixed nature in reliable, predictable patterns precisely because nature reflects God's actions and attributes. Building on this claim, Shyovitz argues that as a result of the German Pietists' deep fascination with the form, function, and meaning of nature, this psalm was widely applied as a hermeneutical devise to provide an orderly theological explanation and interpretation of ordinary natural events, such as a sunset, as well as extraordinary, wondrous events that challenged the limits of human intellect, such as the process of creation.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 each deal with questions related to different layers of human embodiment or disembodiment. Here again, the book's approach offers a significant revision of previous scholarship. The brand of extreme pietism laid out in various texts by leaders among the Hasidei Ashkenaz, according to Shyovitz, demonstrates their preoccupation with the functions, mechanics, and significance of the human body. Viewing the human body as a microcosm of the physical universe (an olam katan, or miniature version of the world), the Pietists built on rabbinic models for understanding how the human body works and how it represents an expression of divine intention. According to Shyovitz, the German Pietists' writings show that "far from bemoaning human embodiment...