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Cultures in Collision and Conversation. Essays in the Intellectual History of the Jews
Boston: Academic Studies Press 2011. XIII, 367 S. = Judaism and Jewish Life. Lw. US$ 45,00. ISBN 978-1-936235-24-7.
Daniel Stein Kokin
The varied essays comprising this volume showcase the passion and precision, as well as original perspective, that have characterized David Berger’s scholarship. They also attest the range of his curios-ity and competence: while focusing on the Middle Ages, they also touch upon biblical literature and ancient history, and engage closely with contemporary concerns such as Zionism and messianic agitation in Chabad Hassidism.
A refreshing honesty and transparency pervade these pages. B. shares what is at stake in any given question, where he stands, and how this position grows out his larger intellectual and spiritual commitments. At his best, then (though not without the occasional lapse), B. manages the nearly impossible – maintaining academic rigor and dispassion without setting his confessional commitments to the side. Indeed, even as it notes the complications and occasional paradoxes that bedevil the relationship between the Jewish studies scholar and his lay and/or rabbinic audience or competition, taken as a whole this volume constitutes a powerful defense of the relevance of academic Jewish scholarship for Jewish communal life.
The tri-partite structure of this volume nicely reflects the central pillars of B.’s scholarship: Jewish interaction with the larger non-Jewish environment, biblical interpretation, and messianic longing. At the heart of section one, »The Cultural Environment: Challenge and Response« is a nearly hundred-page survey of Medieval and early Modern Jewish engagement with Islam and Christianity. Of great significance here is B.’s claim that »the very indifference of Ashkenazic Jews to philosophical study liberated them to examine the natural world with keen, unselfconscious interest« (217), whereas natural science aroused controversy in the Sephardic context, precisely be-cause it was closely-bound up with philosophy. Later in this section B. introduces one of his key methodological principles: resistance to claims of external influence on developments in Jewish culture or exegesis when internal explanations suffice (159–160).
A primary concern of the two articles comprising section two, »Interpreting the Bible«, is the moral status of biblical personalities or, rather, to what degree and how exegetes addressed their moral failings. In »The Wisest of all Men«, B. examines how Medieval exegetes reconciled Solomon’s sinful behavior with his unrivaled wisdom, though he is also interested in their respective concep-tions of Solomonic wisdom – practical scientific for aphilosophic French exegetes, akin to metaphysics for their Sephardic and Provencal counterparts. The tendency of the latter occasioned a fascinating dilemma concerning the relationship between Solomon and Moses. For to endow Solomon with the highest philosophical attainments among men was problematic in a cultural context which closely linked Mosaic prophecy with philosophical insight.
The second piece, »On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis« begins by noting the relative paucity of moral critique of the Patriarchs in pre-Modern exegesis – thanks in large measure to the polemical challenges faced at the time – though it also highlights a number of noteworthy exceptions. Thereafter B. shows how this situation changed in modernity – to show how the Torah itself critiques its characters now became a form of defense against Enlightenment-spawned criticism of bib-lical morality. The piece then morphs (somewhat unexpectedly) into a critique of the documentary hypothesis on the basis of the »linguistic and thematic patterns of subtlety and power which run through« (250) the book of Genesis. Thus an analysis of past polemic becomes an active participant in a present one.
The third and arguably culminating section of the book, en-ti-tled »Yearning for Redemption« displays the chronological range of B.’s scholarly engagement, with pieces addressing late antiquity to the late twentieth century. His essay »Three Typological Themes« accounts – in a manner as original as it is persuasive – for prominent themes of early Jewish messianism, the origins of which have long bedeviled scholars: the Messiah son of Joseph, the messianic dates which appear in rabbinic literature, and the anti-messianic villain Armilus. With regard to this pre-Davidic Messiah, B. rehabilitates in more successful terms Louis Ginzberg’s older theory as to the typological genesis of the Messiah son of Joseph on the model of the midrashic notion of the tribe of Ephraim’s premature – and thus fatal – departure from Egypt. He similarly shows how messianic calculations typologically re-enact the days of creation, the dura-tion of the first exile, and rather more arcanely, or at least sur-prisingly, the life-span of the Davidic ancestor Caleb. Finally, B. brilliantly links Armilus collectively with Romulus, Balaam, and Laban, revealing how rabbinic literature implicitly identified these three figures with one another as the first king of Edom.
Thereafter follows »Some Ironic Consequences of Maimonides’ Rationalist Approach to the Messianic Age«, which shrewdly argues that the very rationalism at the root of Maimonides’ account of the messianic denouement rendered impossible the absolute disqualification of a messianic pretender, thereby enhancing the very messianic activity it sought to moderate. The argument is appealing, though it downplays the significance of Maimonides’ introduction of the concept of the »presumed« Messiah, based on certain pre-liminary accomplishments. To my mind, it is this stage in the process, rather than rationalism per se, which is crucial, since it creates the possibility of open-ended messianic faith in a particular indi-vidual. A truly compelling account of the consequences of Mai-monides’ messianic doctrine would thus need to account for Maimonides’ decision to distinguish between the presumed and confirmed Messiah, especially given the clear tension between this distinction and his prescription simply to »wait and believe the general doctrine as we have explained« (cited on 280).
The essay on »Sephardic and Ashkenazic Messianism in the Middle Ages: An Assessment of the Historiographical Debate« is a model of careful historical analysis, with implications extending far beyond the messianic question that lies at its core. Primarily structured as a careful reading and comparison of two famous essays on Medieval Jewish messianism: Gerson D. Cohen’s »Mes-sianic Postures of Ashkenazi and Sephardim« and Elisheva Carlebach’s trenchant critique, »Between History and Hope: Jewish Messianism in Ashkenaz and Sepharad«, the essay is in fact essential reading for anyone interested in the contrast between these two centers of European Jewry. Of particular significance is B.’s response to Carlebach’s assertion that recent discovery of greater his-tor-ical contact between the two cultures than had hitherto been rea-lized militates against any sharp distinctions between these two Jewish cultures. He argues that established cultures do not undergo major changes »simply on the basis of books and reports brought by travelers or […] a few personal contacts« (302), thereby upholding the longstanding contrast drawn between the two.
The book closes with an endearing tribute to B.’s father, a bookseller and scholar in his own right. It is the fitting conclusion for a sterling volume in which personal commitments and academic interests run so closely together.