Debra Kaplan. Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 272 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-7442-0.
Reviewed by Dean Phillip Bell (Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies)
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Recontextualizing Early Modern German Jews
In this engaging and well-crafted book Debra Kaplan addresses a number of themes that have become central in the study of early modern Jewish history. While building upon the important scholarship of the past generation on the theme of Jewish and Christian interactions, she offers new insights through the examination of significant developments in a rich historical and geographical context. Throughout Kaplan evinces careful analysis of a wide range of sources and scholarly studies, sensitive historical interpretation and close reading of her materials, and an ever-conscious eye to balancing conditions affecting early modern Jews with broader local developments.
Kaplan explores the intriguing case of early modern Jews in and around Strasbourg. Although Jews had been formally expelled in the later Middle Ages, Kaplan finds evidence of frequent Jewish visits to the city and robust social and economic interactions between Jews and local Christians--for example, as demonstrated by litigation in city courts, correspondence with city magistrates, and Hebrew and Judaica instruction of local reformers. Kaplan also addresses the ways that perceptions of and interactions with Jews could change under varying conditions, with Jews at times serving as rhetorical and polemical foils for larger concerns. Such encounters, she contends, also helped to shape Jewish identity and existence.
The volume is comprised of seven chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, which examine a range of themes and draw from a diverse range of sources. In the first chapter, Kaplan provides a very useful overview of the development and structure of the medieval and early modern city of Strasbourg, focusing particularly on the unique political and religious development during the Reformation period that made it a thriving economic and relatively tolerant setting for diverse individuals and groups. In the second chapter, Kaplan provides a similarly broad and useful overview of the history and development of the Jewish community in Strasbourg before the expulsion in the fourteenth century, and of the regional and rural Jewish settlements that developed in the later Middle Ages and into the sixteenth century. Here she insightfully addresses questions of larger political conditions and the transformation of Jewish notions of community as a result of the demographic upheavals associated with these new settlement patterns, pointing in particular to the creation of regional associations of Jews who shared resources and developed common customs and practices. At the same time, Kaplan appropriately cautions that many Jews did continue to maintain broader connections with the Jewish world beyond the region and that within the region Jews did not live a completely separate existence from their Christian neighbors, with whom they interacted in many spheres of daily life.
In perhaps the most intriguing chapter, Kaplan culls the archives for details about Jewish and Christian interactions in Strasbourg and its environs. What she finds are significant interactions and shared spaces in Alsatian villages and towns as well as frequent and developed interaction in Strasbourg itself. Uncovering several compelling court cases, Kaplan demonstrates that Jews had a great deal of social exchange and intimacy with a range of Christians, from neighbors to business partners and even civic officials. She cautiously notes that there is evidence that some legislation prescribing Jewish behavior--such as demarcating clothing--appears to have been practically ignored. Indicative of the extent of interaction, perhaps, is the fact that both Christian and Jewish leaders attempted to limit or regulate contact between Jews and Christians. Kaplan focuses her attention in chapter 4 on the relationship of rural Jews with the city market, along the way constructing a helpful context that outlines the permeable boundaries between city and countryside as well as Jewish and Christian relations. Reviewing a range of professions practiced by Jews from trade to medicine and, in much greater detail, moneylending at various levels, Kaplan also examines both the prescriptive legislation intended to regulate Jewish presence in Strasbourg and several individual cases that complicate theoretical restrictions with practical realities. Here again Kaplan weaves a cogent narrative that utilizes better known sources and episodes, such as the activities of Josel of Rosheim, along with valuable archival materials. Kaplan argues that Jews were able to carve out space for themselves within the city, even as they were subject to restrictions, limitations, and banishment. What is more, Jews apparently were comfortable enough to engage local processes and legal and political structures, casting the impression that they were much more integrated within the broader society than previous generations of scholars have assumed.
This relatively positive situation, Kaplan contends, changed dramatically after 1570 when a new and much more confessionally minded regime in Strasbourg rescinded previous Jewish rights to conduct business and make use of the city and areas under its jurisdiction, reducing, if not eliminating, Jewish involvement in many aspects of life in which Jews had previously engaged. In chapter 5 Kaplan explores this shift in more detail, evaluating through case studies as well as broader legal developments the position and activity of Jews within the context of a city struggling to define its religious and political identity and position. After 1570, Kaplan asserts, “regulating interactions with Jews was thus part of this comprehensive program for maintaining proper and orthodox Lutheran behavior in Strasbourg” (p. 102). A decrease in the number of court cases involving Jews as well as the increased legislation and its pronounced anti-Jewish rhetoric reflected the attempts by city magistrates to more closely fix boundaries between Jews and Christians. The political and economic exigencies and needs that had allowed the Strasbourg magistrates to place practical concerns above doctrinal demands were less in play by the 1570s, affecting notions of tolerance as well as the practical position of the Jews.
In further assessing this transformation Kaplan reviews the very rich Christian Hebraism that had developed in Strasbourg by the beginning of the Reformation. Strasbourg had been a robust center of humanist learning (with such figures as Jacob Wimpheling, Sebastian Brant, and Geiler von Keysersberg). Kaplan also reviews some of the major Reformation-era personalities who embraced Hebrew and frequently drew from and engaged Jewish sources--including Wolfgang Capito, Paul Fagius, and Immanuel Tremellius--pointing out both their intellectual and polemical interests in Hebraica. Kaplan also devotes attention to the means of acquiring Hebrew skills among such Christian scholars, noting their interactions with Jewish teachers and their familiarity with Jewish practices. Still, although they utilized their knowledge of Jewish sources, this did not mean that they translated such knowledge into greater tolerance for or acceptance of Judaism. What is more, by the middle of the sixteenth century, a new generation of Hebraists had emerged, who were influenced by the development of Strasbourg as a center of reform and as a city seeking to maintain and develop its religious identity in the midst of confessionalization. As a result, these later Hebraists were interested more in preserving than defining the faith of the city and they spent more effort in developing pedagogical tools than doctrinal works. At the same time, these theologians drew stricter boundaries between Christians and Jews, as exchanges with the latter appeared to be increasingly problematic. Hebraism became part of the Protestant tradition itself, with its own instructors taught by Christian teachers without the aid of Jews, further marginalizing Jews in early modern Strasbourg.
In chapter 7 Kaplan turns to the important question of the impact of the changes associated with the Reformation on the Jews themselves, with particular attention to the work and experiences of Josel of Rosheim. Kaplan explores Josel’s engagement with history as a means of defining and informing his contemporary Jewish society. She also discusses his complex and often nuanced reaction to broader contemporary events and individuals, including central reformers and city magistrates. Josel utilized biblical typologies to steel his co-religionists, but also, when appropriate, to articulate shared heritage and values with non-Jewish leaders. Turning to the seventeenth-century text of Asher Levy of Reichshofen, Kaplan also places her discussion within the context of broader developments in historical writing and memoir writing, finding important similarities in the goals and foci of both Jewish and Christian writers. While Asher referenced events shared by Jews and Christians, however, he, like Josel, revealed Jews and Christians as two fundamentally separate groups and his history was similarly guided by a notion of divine providence that was specifically connected to the Jews.
As noted above, Kaplan’s book is a well-crafted study that contributes to an important and growing field within Jewish studies and which will have resonance for scholars working on early modern Germany as well as more broadly afield. Despite the useful general and local historical contexts that she provides, Kaplan misses some opportunities to further develop her argument and penetrate more convincingly related fields both within and outside Jewish history. A broader reading of additional work on confessionalization, for example, would have forced Kaplan to ask other questions and deepen the general picture she paints of increasing marginalization of Jews by the end of the sixteenth century--a phenomenon that may not have been so clear in other German contexts. At the same time, greater discussion of confessionalization--in terms of theory and practical implications--might have allowed Kaplan to make bolder statements about Jewish identity and engagement with Christian culture and local society than are evinced in the book. Kaplan also misses a valuable opportunity to place the intriguing history on Strasbourg more firmly into dialogue with other Jewish experiences, particularly in south Germany, where a rich range of studies has added greatly to our knowledge of Jewish experiences in early modernity. That having been said, this volume is a welcome addition to the field and it is highly recommended.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Dean Phillip Bell. Review of Kaplan, Debra, Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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