Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Exclusiveness and Tolerance by Jacob Katz

Jacob Katz discusses and analyzes the ties between Jews and Gentiles throughout the post Talmudic era and shows an historical evolution of attitudes of Jews toward gentiles and Gentiles towards Jews.  He shows that in the beginning of the Middle Ages when life for the Jews was almost welcomed by the reigning Kings, there emerged a certain tolerance in doing business with the Christian community. The harsh Talmudic dictums about the prohibition in dealing and doing business with Gentiles are halachically foregone. One sees, according to Katz that economic necessity and changes in interpretation of Christians creating a category of Gentile not in the same category as the idolaters of the Talmud and thus permitted with whom to do business.

Nevertheless with the growth of the temporal strength of the Church one witnesses the rising polemics and accompanying tensions between the two communities.  Katz points out that the Jewish community was very dependent on the Christians for its livelihood and thus needed to be flexible in business but he shows quite conclusively that the Jewish community of Ashkenaz were steadfast in their belief of Judaism’s innate worth and stubbornly refuse to commit apostasy.

With the Crusades and the Ghettoization of the Ashkenazim, indifference occurs and an insular attitude develops where the Jewish community is completely indifferent to the Christian outside world.  No real religious controversies are recorded like previously during the time of disputations.  What Katz points out are the unusually tolerant statements of the 13th century Provence rabbinic authority HaMeiri toward Christians and Christianity.  Although Prof. Katz mentions that HaMeiri must have witnessed the Expulsion from France, he does not offer any explanation of why HaMeiri is so tolerant. He clearly expresses the logical process to such an Halachic stance but he never offers possible practical reasons.  The explanation of such positive and tolerant attitudes could stem from fear of the Church as noted by a current rabbinic authority [Minchas Asher] does not occur to Katz. {This is probably because the critical historian is limited to the sources laid before him and his method precludes him to go beyond them}

This study is critical in understanding Moses Mendelsohn’s attitude of tolerance.  He has a very close relationship with Lessing, the leading literary figure of his day.  He also has a correspondence with the Christian theologian, Lavater. He has a live and let live attitude.  Mendelsohn believes, however, that Judaism is a revealed religion based on Reason.  This implies that one could conceive it through thought.  Lavater challenged Menelsohnn to convert to Christianity if religion is based on Reason implying that there are not really any significant differences between the majority religion and the minority religion.  Mendelsohn hesitates to express his true view that he could never convert to Christianity because he is not convinced Christianity is a religion based on Reason.  He actually believes that it is irrational.

Mendelsohn’s attitude may be problematic as we see so many of his followers commit apostasy, yet his vision is nothing short of utopian but it does not come to fruition.  Acceptance of the Jew is never realized and the enlightenment period is short lived.

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