Medieval Judaism

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Medieval Judaism

Diaspora and Reestablishment.

Judaism came to Europe as a result of a process known as diaspora (from the Greek "scattering"), which can refer to any number of migrations of Jewish communities when they were forced to leave their homes and live among Gentiles outside the Holy Land. Major diaspora occurred after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century b.c.e., after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the first century c.e., in the early medieval period following Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, and in the late medieval period linked to Christian inquisitions and persecutions. Medieval Jewish religious communities were quite diverse as the various diaspora movements resulted in pockets of settlement all over the Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European world. Those settling in Spain, known as the Sephardim, created a golden age of Jewish culture in Muslim Andalusia. Those who settled in Germany and eastern Europe following the diaspora of late antiquity and the early medieval period were known as Ashkenazim (from a word meaning "Germany"). These two groups came to be distinctive in their liturgy, religious customs, and pronunciation of Hebrew, but both revered the Torah, the scriptures which constitute the Jewish "Law," identified by Christians as the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Both were also guided by rabbis, the teachers of classical Jewish tradition who, after the second diaspora in the first century c.e., came to serve as legal and spiritual leaders for the Jewish communities.

Torah and Talmud.

Among the various groups of Jews who settled in Europe, some chose to hold on to the traditions of the Talmud (from the Hebrew word for "study"), a collection of commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures that had begun as an "oral Torah" in the first century b.c.e. and was eventually codified by rabbis. Those inclined toward liberal education embraced more philosophical understandings of their traditions, while others adopted more decidedly mystical approaches to God. Centers of higher learning known as the yeshivah (yeshivot) began to arise in cities with significant Jewish populations. Among the more famous were Córdoba in Spain, al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, and Mainz in Germany. These schools began to produce scholars, rabbis, and poets who made rich contributions to medieval Jewish tradition. As early as the ninth century, a Jewish movement developed that saw the Talmud as a departure from the divinely revealed truth of the Torah, which was the supreme authority in matters of faith. This group, which drew ideological inspiration from the eighth-century scholar Anan ben David of Baghdad, soon became known as the "Children of the Text" or the Karaites (Qaraites, literally, "readers"). The Karaites abstained from eating meat, seeking treatment from physicians, and using lights on the Sabbath. They practiced personal interpretation of the scriptures and challenged Orthodox Judaism's juristic interpretations of God's Law. In the midst of this awakening, a Babylonian scholar, Saadiah ben Joseph (882–942), rejected the more radical Karaite notion of completely eliminating Talmudic interpretation, but he did endorse the return to the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. In order to provide a fuller appreciation for the language and voice of the scriptures, he had the Hebrew texts translated into Arabic for Jews in Muslim-controlled areas. He also introduced the idea that the Creator may have had some purpose for giving humans a rational side, one that might lead them to a greater understanding of God's purposes. Reflecting the Aristotelian naturalism and logic that were beginning to be introduced into Jewish thought through intellectual interaction with the Arabic culture, Saadiah's most famous work, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Sefer Emunot ve-De'ot), carved the way for the tradition of rationalism in the rabbinic authority of Judaism. After this period, rabbis moved in two directions, either embracing or rejecting the role of philosophical reason in Jewish theology and practice, a pattern that would be repeated among Christian philosophers and theologians several centuries later when these same Aristotelian ideas began to form part of the European university curricula.

The Jewish Intellectual Movement in Muslim Spain.

As Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers were introduced to Jewish schools, reason and revelation began to be seen as working hand in hand to bring about a more balanced and enlightened system of Jewish thought. Many of the Babylonian scholars (in modern-day Iraq) who held such notions migrated to the Muslim-controlled portion of Spain (al-Andalus), where they founded universities such as the tenth-century Jewish Academy at Córdoba and encouraged new interpretations of Jewish tradition infused with the light of philosophical reason. One such scholar, Judah Halevi (1075–1141), argued that while philosophy might be compatible with the Torah's depiction of the Almighty, the revelations in the Torah gave a much more complete rendering of the human relationship with God. Halevi's view warned against too rigorous an incorporation of philosophy and supported the interpretive role of the rabbi in Jewish religious life. Other eleventh- and twelfth-century Spanish scholars, rabbis, and poets, such as Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, and Abraham ben David Halevi ibn Daud, were quite supportive of Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies. Out of this growing and diverse intellectual Jewish environment came Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), the most famous and influential Hebrew scholar and philosopher of the medieval period. When Maimonides and his family had to flee Córdoba and relocate in North Africa to escape Muslim persecution, Moses continued his education within a liberal Jewish philosophical and theological environment. His writings—based upon the scriptural traditions, the Mishnah (the authoritative legal tradition), Aristotelian principles, and some ideas of his own—emphasized a practical, ethical, rational, and balanced Jewish life. His greatest work, the Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim), sought to articulate Jewish belief in light of Torah revelation, faith, reason, science, and philosophy. Maimonides felt that faith must supplement human reason, which can only go so far. He also taught that miracles might be explained rationally, and scriptural accounts that defy reason might better be interpreted in a more allegorical fashion. Some of his realizations concerning God, the soul, and the place of humanity were written into the Thirteen Articles of Jewish Faith, which formed a creed that was used in later medieval Jewish worship.

Christian Opposition.

As the general knowledge of the Hebrew language declined in northern Europe, European Jews began increasingly to rely upon interpretations of their tradition in the form of the Talmudic texts instead of a direct reading on their own of the collected Hebrew scriptures. Although medieval Christians accepted the entirety of the Hebrew canon as what they called the "Old Testament," they harbored much suspicion concerning the Talmudic traditions. Certain writers such as Peter the Venerable (1092–1156), the abbot of Cluny, went so far as to suggest that these texts contained material that was blasphemous to Christian belief. (Scholars are not in complete agreement as to whether or not Peter actually read the Talmud.) In 1240 at the request of Pope Gregory IX, Jewish books were seized from synagogues throughout England, France, and Spain, and a trial at the city of Paris was conducted accusing Jews of being discontent with the "Old Law" of Moses and affirming another law, the Talmud. In France, rabbis were imprisoned and forced to defend their position in disputations with Christian scholars. In May of 1248 the Talmud was condemned at Paris by the Christian commission. Cartloads of the document had been burned, and the practice continued throughout Europe over the next few decades. However, Innocent IV had made certain provisions for some tolerance of the Talmudic traditions inasmuch as they were not harmful to Christian teaching and assisted Jews in coming to the light of conversion, against their old ways. In the early fifteenth century, repeated condemnations of the Talmud under (the extremely anti-Jewish) Pope Benedict XIII continued, but many of these statutes were reversed by Pope Martin V in 1419 at the behest of a Jewish delegation to Rome.

Mysticism in the Kabbalah and Zohar.

The Jewish word qabbalah (tradition) is often equated with a movement toward medieval Jewish mysticism which has its roots in scriptural accounts of visions, such as the "visions of the chariot" in the text of the prophet Ezekiel or apocalyptic notions from the book of Daniel. Works of the philosopher Philo, ideas from the Talmud, and lost books like the Sefer Adam (Book of Adam) also contributed to these mystical ideas. The major texts of the Kabbalah (or Qabbalah) were composed or edited sometime in the late twelfth century, likely in Provence or Spain. Many scholars suggest that the development of the Kabbalah came as a reaction against the Jewish philosophical schools in Spain that emphasized a more rational approach to one's faith. The Kabbalah was written in various chapters over many decades and is comprised of several strands of mystical thought from gnostic ("secret knowledge") to theosophical (concerning intuition and perception of the spiritual or divine) and visionary. At the heart of the work was the notion of uncovering hidden symbolic meanings and secret wisdom by interpreting the arrangement of words and numbers in the Hebrew scriptures. The interplay of letters, numbers, and their ciphering was believed to yield speculative insights into the nature of Godhead, on the principal that one who searches to find God in the "beyond" comes to discover that what one is seeking actually lies within. The Kabbalah addresses such issues as how a perfect God might create an imperfect world. Did God compromise Himself by bringing forth the finite from His infinite splendor? Interpreters went so far as to think they might be able to use Kabbalic ciphering to predict or identify the Messiah. Certain movements connected to Kabbalic spirituality would go on to produce a series of false messiahs in central Europe, which proved to be of tremendous disappointment to the medieval adherents of this mystical path. The Zohar, a part of the body of the Kabbalic literature touted to be the mystical work of an earlier Talmudic sage but later discovered to have been composed in the late thirteenth century by Moses de Leone, attacks those who would neglect the commandments or seek solace in the rationality of things philosophical, and seeks a deeper penetration into the mysteries of the Torah. The human body is seen as a composite soul, as a perfect balance of male-female, reflecting spiritual elements, those "holy forms" of God that can be unified in humanity with the supernatural soul of God.

The Medieval Hasidic Movement.

Ashkenazi Jews in Germany developed a form of hasidic (pious) practice between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Their focus seems to have been on the love of God, not the more prevalent legalistic notions of fear or punishment. They were strict and demanding of themselves, feeling they should provide an example to the world, but lenient toward those outside their immediate communities. The Hasidei Ashkenazim were concerned with educating people toward an ethical life. Their Sefer Hasidim provided a guide toward a moral conversion of the heart. It was their fear that the world of humanity was besieged by demons and spirits of evil. Some became attentive to the power contained in the names of God and were attracted to the Kabbalist literature. Others were interested in living lives of a more ascetic nature. These German Ashkenaz communities were often caught up in sporadic persecutions by Christians. It was said that the greatest expression of one's love for God could be shown by enduring a martyr's death. Stories of pious Ashkenazim, exhibiting acts of charity, love, and moral rectitude, continued to provide inspiration for European Jews for centuries beyond the Middle Ages. The medieval movement is distinct, however, from the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth and subsequent centuries, whose members, distinguished by conservative clothing and hairstyles, can still be found today in communities in Israel, Canada, New York City, and elsewhere.

The Developing Spiritual and Legal Roles of Rabbis.

In the period before there was widespread Jewish migration to Europe, the title rav (rabbi) had been given to one who had received a type of ordination based upon his ability to teach and judge the law or his mastery of the Talmud. It was not quite like sacramental Christian clerical ordination, but it was conferred by the Sanhedrin or leading teachers of the community. During the diaspora in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, the title "rabbi" became one of respect but most generally was applied specifically to those who were experts regarding Jewish law, particularly those formally trained by other Talmudic scholars. By the Middle Ages, then, rabbis were scholars, teachers, judges (particularly in Muslim Spain), and preachers, but not necessarily clergymen. Among their responsibilities, medieval rabbis were charged with composing commentaries on the scriptures, Talmud, and Halakah (legal texts), as well as works on ethics. One of the most famous contributors to this body of commentary known as the Midrash was Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) who emphasized the notion of uncovering the "plain meaning" of texts, both scriptural and Talmudic. Also produced by the rabbis were the responsa, which were legal opinions, arguments, or precedents, some of which even became codified into medieval Jewish law. Examples of the responsa might include a discussion of the ethical questions faced by Jewish tailors employed to sew crosses on the clothing of crusaders, the issue of allowing candles to burn on the eve of the Sabbath in a Jewish home, or whether it was permissible for the windows on one's house to be constructed so that one could look out into the house of a neighbor. Medieval ethical treaties were composed by rabbis such as the Spaniard Jonah Gerundi and the German Judah Samuel, responsible for Sefer Hasiydiyum. Because of the variety of roles they performed, rabbis sometimes faced ethical problems themselves, since they were not, at least in theory, to receive payment or salaries for their rabbinical functions, even though many, for example, were expected to serve as judges for their people. Thought and practice regarding compensation of rabbis began to change during the fourteenth century, and, similar to the medieval Christian controversy over lay investiture, the issue of governmental interference in rabbinical appointment became a problem. Some Spanish rabbis were even required to pay the royal treasury certain fees for their appointment.

The Synagogue.

While it seems logical that synagogues might be the natural and most essential center of medieval Jewish religious life, this was not necessarily the case. Sites for other activities, such as the miqveh (a ritual bath for women) and schools for both younger and older children, far outweighed the importance of a formal house of prayer and worship. In medieval Judaism, individuals could pray wherever they liked, as long as the area was clean, and there was no obligation to attend services regularly at the synagogue. However, group prayer, by a minyan of ten or more adults, was encouraged under Jewish law and required for certain prayers or for the reading of the Torah. Because of this practice, and also because Jewish worship was so often officially proscribed in the medieval era, private homes were often used for these gatherings. In fact, in many Muslim cities, construction of a large synagogue was prohibited. In European Christian cities, according to canon law, Jewish congregations could maintain small synagogues, but new and enlarged buildings were not allowed. Although very few synagogues from the medieval period have survived (those that have were often converted into churches), descriptions have been pieced together from limited archaeological evidence and extant historical accounts. At the center of the worship space was usually located a large table on which the Torah scrolls could be rolled out and read. In Spain the scrolls remained upright in containers from which the scripture text was then moved to the proper place and recited. To store the Torah scrolls, many worship spaces had arks, which ranged from chests large enough to hold several scrolls to decorative niches constructed in the walls. The more elaborately decorated synagogues had desks or stands where prayer leaders could be located and even elevated pulpits (minbar) for preaching. In some worship spaces there were seats, but in many medieval synagogues, as in most medieval churches, the congregations would stand. Participants would often face the minbar or ark, which was oriented in the direction of Jerusalem. One of the oldest surviving synagogues from the medieval period is at Worms in Germany, dating to the late twelfth century. Its floor plan may have been borrowed from monastic chapter houses with two large intersecting halls. Wings of the structure possibly served as galleries for women who remained separate from men in some synagogues. The Worms synagogue had two exterior arched entrances with adjacent arched windows, and a ceiling that was vaulted in the style of Christian churches and supported by columns with decorative floral patterns. Building styles of this type endured and became a common architectural plan for synagogues throughout eastern and central Europe.


The Midrash was a body of folkloric commentary gathered by rabbis from the third through the twelfth centuries to explain difficult passages of the Hebrew Old Testament. Tracing its origins to Moses, who was believed to have received teachings directly from God and then begun a chain of oral transmission through subsequent generations (the "Oral Torah"), the Midrash was especially known for its clarifications of elements of the book of Genesis and the story of the Creation and Fall of man. Many of these midrashic explanations were of striking charm and originality, and they were often incorporated by Christians into their own retellings of Bible stories, probably first transmitted when social relationships developed between some medieval rabbis (or "Hebraei" as Christians called them) and Christian commentators interested in the original Hebrew text of scripture. They were also known through the Historia Scholastica, a glossed Bible abridgment by Peter Comestor, dean of the Cathedral at Troyes, France, written about 1170. This work served as the basis of popular Bibles as it was widely translated into vernacular languages, and its Latin text formed part of university study. Peter Comestor seems to have acquired a considerable amount of Hebrew learning through direct or indirect contacts with rabbis, most particularly the work of Rashi (1040–1105) in the Jewish community of Troyes.

The Midrash is especially important to the study of medieval art and literature because, in various forms, rabbinic explanations of scripture were used in Byzantine and Catalan painting. Particular representations of Moses in art, for example, are based on midrashic additions or glosses to the story of Moses in the Book of Numbers, and images of a tall, upright serpent who has not yet lost his legs appear in representations of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. An example of one of these midrashic glosses—apparently known to the author of the Middle English poem Patience—attempts to solve a problem in the Old Testament book of Jonah. The difficulty, which is glossed in the work of Rashi, is the puzzling fact that, in the Hebrew text, the gender of the whale who swallows the reluctant prophet Jonah changes from masculine to feminine from one verse to the next. Actually, Rashi said, there were two whales, a male and a female. Jonah was first swallowed by a male whale, and finding his quarters pleasant, he was not penitent. Then God commanded him to be spat up and swallowed by a pregnant female whale. Jonah now found himself so crowded and squeezed on every side by baby whales that he called out to the Lord for mercy.

Such midrashic glosses so captured popular attention that church authorities were concerned lest they form a sort of parallel Bible, and, as a result, there was something of a campaign to discredit them. For example, a Dominican friar, Raymond Martini, who died in 1285, quotes in Hebrew from midrashic glosses and follows them up with Latin translations in his Pugio fidei, a controversial work directed against the Jews. Even more significant was the Extractiones de Talmud, which consists of charges made during the Dominican "trial" in 1240 of the Talmud for advancing positions contrary to Christian doctrine. The Extractiones mainly single out Rashi from among the French Jewish rabbinic commentators for condemnation, and a great deal of his writing is quoted very exactly by the compiler, Thibaut de Sezanne, who is thought perhaps to have been a Jewish convert to Christianity since he obviously was working directly from Hebrew manuscripts.


H. H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

Robert Chazan, ed., Church, State, and the Jew in the Middle Ages (New York: Behrman House, 1980).

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews. Trans. Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia, Pa.: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909).

Norman Roth, ed., Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah (Philadelphia, Pa.: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1987).

Colette Sirat, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

see also Philosophy: Philosophy among the Muslims and the Jews

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Medieval Judaism

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