Ashkenaz at the Crossroads of Cultural Transfer II: Tradition and Identity. Saskia Dönitz / Elisabeth Hollender / Rebekka Voss, Universität Frankfurt am Main, 28.11.2016–30.11.2016.
Reviewed by Saskia Dönitz
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (February, 2017)
Ashkenaz at the Crossroads of Cultural Transfer II: Tradition and Identity
A crucial element for identity and self-understanding in medieval and early modern Ashkenazic Jewish society (Central Europe, Italy and Poland-Lithuania) is the attitude toward tradition. Cultural memory is manifested in the texts, rituals, and objects through which the collective identity of a group is constituted, maintained and reproduced. This cultural heritage ever rooted in the past, is constantly being adapted to the present. This dynamic process necessitates modifications in the interpretation of the cultural heritage which form that collective identity.
The international conference “Ashkenaz at the Crossroads of Cultural Transfer II: Tradition and Identity,” hosted by the Seminar für Judaistik at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main (sponsored by the Thyssen Foundation and the Gesellschaft zur Förderung Judaistischer Studien in Frankfurt am Main e.V.) focused on this cultural transfer in time and the attitude towards tradition. The conference explored how Jewish traditions were used and re-appropriated to construct medieval and early modern Ashkenazic identity. The cultural objects involved in transfer over time within Ashkenazic space include a variety of texts, oral teachings, rituals, ideas, and beliefs that often are grouped under the heading “tradition.” These elements have been treated as the stable foundation of Ashkenazic Jewish identity which needs no explanation. As such, modern scholars tend to view them as constants in Ashkenazic culture throughout time. This second conference on “Ashkenaz at the Crossroads of Cultural Transfer” (the first conference was held in 2012) questioned this assumption of stasis: its participants probed the dynamics of the many components that define Ashkenazic culture and examined them longitudinally, from their origins to their development and influence over the centuries.
The conveners of the conference, SASKIA DÖNITZ, ELISABETH HOLLENDER and REBEKKA VOSS (Frankfurt), opened with a theoretical reflection of cultural transfer in time, and its application to the study of medieval and early modern Ashkenaz. It was emphasized that Jewish literary activity is known for its abundant interpretations and reformulations of past traditions. In the theoretical part, the significance of choice and selection was considered in the light of the metaphor of the “crossroads.” These considerations were probed in the second part on the example of the contrasting transmission of liturgical poetry (Piyyut) in manuscripts and print. While medieval Ashkenaz negotiated its identity vis-à-vis biblical and rabbinic literature, late antique mysticism, liturgy, and geonic interpretations of Jewish law, early modern Ashkenaz forged its identity on all of these factors plus medieval Ashkenazic culture itself, especially with the invention of print and the selection processes involved.
ELISHEVA BAUMGARTEN (Jerusalem) opened the first session with the thesis that biblical literacy, i.e. the in-depth knowledge of biblical figures and their stories, was abundant in Jewish medieval society. She contrasted the example of the three youths in the Book of Daniel and the rabbinic story of Abraham in the furnace and demonstrated how these stories functioned as models for martyrdom as well as a warning against apostasy. The development of these stories was furthermore influenced by the Jewish-Christian struggle inherent in biblical hermeneutics of both sides. OREN ROMAN (Düsseldorf) introduced the Ashkenazation resp. Yiddishization of biblical epics in Yiddish and analyzed how the Biblical tales were adapted to the Medieval German literary context. One of the issues raised in the subsequent discussion was the Sitz im Leben of this popular literature, in which situation were people listening to these stories and wether these tales were performed by professional readers.
The following session dealt with Masoretic traditions in Ashkenaz. TALYA FISHMAN (Philadelphia) exemplified Ashkenazic Masoretic activity by sketching the function of the Okhla ve-Okhla as the basis of midrashic exegesis derived from the Masora. The infiltration of Oriental traditions into Ashkenazic Masoretic traditions felt at least from the 13th century onwards was demonstrated by HANNA LISS (Heidelberg). She moreover pointed out that the manuscript transmission of the Ashkenazic Masora traditions need much more scholarly examination, especially the importance of figurative Masora which includes a particular form of exegesis.
The final session on Monday turned the discussion to Early Modern reception of Ashkenazic halakhic traditions. EPHRAIM KANARFOGEL (New York) took the example of Aryeh Leib Heller’s Qezot ha-Hoshen in which he compiled a repository of the earlier traditions and illustrated Heller’s reading of the Rishonim up to the Shulkhan Arukh. EDWARD FRAM (Beer Sheva) demonstrated the change of halakhic rulings concerning the slaughtering and consumption of meat in the 16th century when Josef Karo and Moses Isserles revised the customs and rulings followed in Ashkenaz up to this time.
The public evening lecture held by KATRIN KOGMAN-APPEL (Münster) in the Jewish Museum/Judengasse was dedicated to the role of manuscript illumination in the Middle Ages. It was shown how text and illustration did not always match, the illuminator sometimes followed or invented exegesis that lead away from the biblical text and its content, representing an exegetical genre of its own.
The second day started off with a discussion on the extent of the influence of the Palestinian Talmud on Ashkenazi scholarship. RAMI REINER (Beer Sheva) showed that although the Yerushalmi was known in Ashkenaz the famous Rabbenu Tam preferred not to use it in his teachings. The discussion circled around the question why one of the brightest minds of Ashkenazic scholars ignored this source and preferred the Bavli. JOSHUA TEPLITSKY (Stony Brook, NY) introduced the library of David Oppenheim, a 17th century private manuscript and print collection which is now part of the Hebraic collection at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Teplitzky focussed on Ashkenazic texts and on sources stemming from Worms. The inventory of one of the greatest Jewish libraries ever accumulated allows to reconstruct Oppenheim’s understanding of the Ashkenazic textual “tradition”.
The second session began with DAVID SHYOVITZ’s (Chicago) paper on the souls of animals and their role in the eschatological scheme ruminating the question how Ashkenazic Jewry considered the borders between humans and animals, linking the subject to recent discussions among scholars of the Middle Ages. REBEKKA VOSS (Frankfurt) continued the theme of Ashkenazic eschatology and sketched the development of the Jewish notion of the last world emperor (Endkaiser) from the early Middle Ages to its application on Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. She showed that in the 16th century, this last king of Edom (Rome) was not only viewed as doomed to fall in the messianic future, but also as a positive, quasi-messianic savior figure, drawing on contemporaneous Christian political prophecies.
The session after lunch involved the discussion of the term “Hasid” from Antiquity to the High Middle Ages by EPHRAIM SHOCHAM-STEINER (Beer Sheva). He demonstrated the continuous use of the term “Hasidim” in Ashkenazic communities, contrasting “Hasidim” (pious) with “Hakhamim” (sages) based on the frequency of its use regarding the communities in Cologne (Hasidim) and Mainz (Hakhamim). AVRIEL BAR LEVAV (Raanana) and MAOZ KAHANA (Tel Aviv) discussed the impact of Sefer Hasidim, its author Judah he-Hasid and the reshaping of Ashkenazic society in the 16th to 18th centuries. Both Sefer Hasidim and the ethical will of Judah he-Hasid were exploited by the Hasidic movement in the East and reappropriated in the second edition of Sefer Hasidim by Wistinetzky/Freimann in 1924.
ANNELIES KUYT (Frankfurt) topped the day off illuminating the treatment of Hekhalot literature by Eleazar of Worms. She pointed out that Eleazar quotes from what we know as Hekhalot literature, but it is by no means clear if he regarded this literature to belong to mysticism and if he really had access to the bulk of Hekhalot literature known to us today.
The third day started with ISRAEL YUVAL (Jerusalem) lecturing on the reception of the story of Oedipus among Ashkenazic Jewry. He discussed how the Graeco-Roman pattern of killing the fathers was replaced by the imperative to honor the fathers in Judaism. The example served to portray the Jewish attitude towards authoritative orality in a Christian environment that based itself on scriptural tradition. The subject of the reception of Hellenistic and Second Temple topics was continued by SASKIA DÖNITZ (Frankfurt) who traced the Ashkenazic reception history of Josephus/Yosippon stressing that not only the model of the martyrs was of interest, but also the ideal of the warrior was transmitted through retellings of the events especially of the Maccabean revolt in Ashkenazic narratives and poetry.
The final session was dedicated to Yiddish literature. CLAUDIA ROSENZWEIG (Ramat Gan) took a look at what is called “other stories” in the Ma’se Bukh, besides hagiography and tales from the talmudic tradition. She discussed them as “fairy tales,” understood by their readers as tales of another world. LUCIA RASPE (Frankfurt/Berlin) presented the transmission history of the Yiddish Minhagim books composed in Italy in the 15th century in need for written testimonies concerning Ashkenazic customs after Jews migrated to Italy. She showed that these works represent the Western Ashkenazi tradition and did not depend on Eastern sources as was hitherto assumed.
The conference successfully demonstrated the importance of reception history in research on memory and identity of the Ashkenazic Jewish communities in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. One of the intriguing questions involved the social setting of literacy, whether literature written in a given genre and language was intended for a certain group (e.g. women) or should rather be situated in a certain situation (Sitz im Leben, e.g. evening reading, Shabat afternoon). How deeply was Jewish Ashkenazic society immersed in biblical, historical, Yiddish, ethical literature? How was traditional literature received and transformed? The influence of the respective environment could be shown for most of the examples discussed. Finally, the lectures exemplified how tradition and the multifaceted attitude towards it shaped and characterized Ashkenazic Jewish identity in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern time.
Elisheva Baumgarten (Jerusalem): Biblical Models Transformed: A Useful Key to Everyday Life in Medieval Ashkenaz
Oren Roman (Düsseldorf): Tanakh-Epos: Early Modern Ashkenazic Retellings of Biblical Scenes
Talya Fishman (Philadelphia): Cultural Functions of Masorah in Medieval Ashkenaz
Hanna Liss (Heidelberg): The Challenges of the Infiltration of Oriental Textual Tradition into Ashkenazi Bible Text Tradition
Ephraim Kanarfogel (New York City): Moving from the Medieval to the Early Modern in Rabbinic Scholarship and Method: Aryeh Leib Heller’s Use of Texts of the Rishonim in His Qezot ha-Hoshen
Ted Fram (Beer Sheva): What Divides Ashkenaz from Poland in the Sixteenth Century?
Public Lecture in the Jewish Museum (Judengasse)
Katrin Kogman-Appel (Münster): The Visualization of Midrash in Medieval Jewish Art
Rami Reiner (Beer Sheva): The Yerushalmi on Rabbeinu Tam’s Bookshelf
Joshua Teplitsky (Stony Brook, NY): Collecting, Nostalgia, and Constructing Medieval Ashkenaz in the Oppenheim Library
David Shyovitz (Chicago): “Man and Beast You Redeem, Oh Lord”: Animal Eschatology in the Theology and Art of Medieval Ashkenaz
Rebekka Voß (Frankfurt): The Last King of Edom: The Jewish Last Emperor Prophecy from the Early Middle Ages through the Sixteenth Century
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner (Beer Sheva): The Development of the Term “Hasid”
Avriel Bar Levav (Raʽanana): Sefer Hasidim as Source of Early Modern Death Rituals
Maoz Kahana (Tel Aviv): The Stormy Afterlife of a Medieval Pious: Rabbi Yehuda He-Chassid’s Will in the Early Modern Era
Annelies Kuyt (Frankfurt): Hekhalot! Or not? Eleazar of Worms and Hekhalot Literature
Israel Yuval (Jerusalem): Why the Jews Do Not Have an Oedipal Complex? The Case of Ashkenaz
Saskia Dönitz (Frankfurt): Ashkenazic Use of the Past: Rewriting Second Temple Literature
Claudia Rosenzweig (Ramat Gan): Pleasant Stories in Old Yiddish
Lucia Raspe (Frankfurt/Berlin): Minhagim Books: From Hebrew to Yiddish
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