Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ancient and Medieval Jewish History: essays by Salo Wittmayer Baron (Leon Feldman editor)

This collection of essays in honor of Prof. Baron's 75th birthday show the professor's virtuosity in understanding that Jewish history is not the 'lachrymose' record that Graetz and others claim.  Baron points out acutely that being the 'serfs of the royal chamber' actually safeguarded and protected the Jews from an overbearing and far reaching Church.  Baron discusses the the tug of war between Church and monarchies over the possession of the Jewish people.  He shows the actual protection given to the Jewish people in spite of the aggressive Churchmen's charges.

Baron gave a strong description of Saadya Gaon as a profound leader who really understood how to utilize his position of power to fight the heretical sect, the Karaites.  Some of the essays were, however, curious to me.  The one entitled "The Economic views of Maimonides" was very erudite in going through statements of the Rambam's Mishna Torah.  Nowhere, however, does the professor make clear that the Mishna Torah is only a restatement of Torah shebaal Peh, the oral Torah and rabbinic law.  Dr. Baron seems to imply the Rambam's novel interpretations were his independent views detached from the Oral Torah.  This criticism was already leveled at Baron by a contemporary, Solomon Zeitlin in a review of the original publication.  After reading Baron's essay, I thought Zeitlin's critique resonated on its own merits.

The essay on Rashi and the community of Troyes was also curious. Most of the essay was trying to establish the accurate demography of the Jewish community because the historical issue at hand was the lack of data on the town.  For historians, Troyes was too young and immature to have produced such a profound Jewish community with such a formidable figure as Shlomo Ben Yitzchak. Its history seems just to appear out of nowhere!; as if when Rashi comes back from studying in the Rhineland, Troyes becomes a great city of Jewish learning.  The lack of data baffles historians even today [Robert Chazan of NYU also brings out this point of wonder of about Rashi and his community]  Nowhere in the article, however, does one get a sense of how important or profound Rashi was to rabbinic interpretation.  He seems to be an important commentator, yet one never understands that Rashi becomes the middle man, the address for rabbinic understanding who far surpasses anyone else in Jewish history.  The novice and the scholar together must begin with Rashi to understand the Jewish rendering of scriptures and rabbinic texts.

Baron brings out profound irony when discussing the Reformation, Luther's and Calvin's religious revolutions.  That in spite of both Luther's and Calvin's vitriolic hatred of the Jews, their positions that demand the existence of differences of opinion within the Church require toleration and as a consequence of their arguments of acceptance and toleration of Christian sects, ultimately the Jewish people benefit in the growing pains of toleration.

These essays are worthwhile reading because one gets a sense of what animates a professional Jewish historian, one who has been called the greatest of the twentieth century.

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