A Remem­brance of His Won­ders: Nature and the Super­nat­ur­al in Medieval Ashkenaz

David I. Shyovitz

  • Review
By – August 18, 2017

Were­wolf Bar Mitz­vah, spooky scary; boys becom­ing men, men becom­ing wolves.” This musi­cal refrain from a sketch in an episode of the NBC sit­com 30 Rock is not some­thing one expects to come across while read­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic work about the Pietis­tic group of medieval Jew­ish thinkers cen­tered in Ger­many known as the Hasidei Ashke­naz. And yet, in the scheme of the A Remem­brance of His Won­ders, this ref­er­ence is most appro­pri­ate. The book, writ­ten by David I. Shy­ovitz, a teacher of his­to­ry and Jew­ish stud­ies in North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, presents fas­ci­nat­ing case stud­ies of the rela­tion­ship between the afore­men­tioned medieval Jew­ish schol­ars and their think­ing about the the­olo­gies, and pos­si­bil­i­ties, of, the human body.

Seek­ing to com­bat the long-held schol­ar­ly per­cep­tion that the Hasidei Ashke­naz were an ascetic, anti-ratio­nal group who den­i­grat­ed the con­cept of the human body in favor of the spir­i­tu­al soul, Shy­ovitz amply demon­strates that these long-held schol­ar­ly per­cep­tions must be reex­am­ined. Tak­ing his read­ers through top­ics includ­ing the cor­po­ri­al­ism of God (the belief that God had a body), rab­binic explor­ers’ tales of one-eyed and no-head­ed crea­tures, the con­cept of mag­net­ism and its res­o­nance for reli­gious thinkers (see the medieval sug­ges­tion that just as met­als cling to each oth­er, man can cling to God), were­wolves, and even human excre­ment, among oth­er diverse areas of study, Shy­ovitz shows how these Pietists were not against valu­ing nature and the human body, but rather had an expand­ed view of these con­cepts that reflect­ed and respond­ed to the beliefs of their time, includ­ing those of their Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. Show­ing how Chris­t­ian thinkers wres­tled with the idea of Jesus as human, and how that informed their think­ing regard­ing the lim­its of the human body and its abil­i­ty to change, as well as the val­ue of its func­tions and flu­ids, Shy­ovitz makes a strong case for Jew­ish respons­es to, and deep think­ing about, such bod­i­ly-relat­ed issues. Whether it is recount­ing a claim by a Chris­t­ian thinker that the sup­posed abil­i­ty of human beings to change into were­wolves (i.e. be both human and some­thing greater) is proof for Jesus’ abil­i­ty to be both human and divine, or quot­ing a thir­teenth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish bib­li­cal inter­preter who, based on the bib­li­cal bless­ing in Gen­e­sis 49:27, Ben­jamin is a rav­en­ous wolf,” claimed that this son of the patri­arch Jacob had the abil­i­ty to turn into a were­wolf, this vol­ume is a fas­ci­nat­ing study of the his­to­ry of sci­ence, the­ol­o­gy, Rab­binics, Chris­tian­i­ty, medieval polemics, and the belief in the wondrous.

For both schol­ars and laypeo­ple, the book offers a refresh­ing­ly orig­i­nal look into ques­tions, texts, and beliefs that at first glance might seem eso­teric, mys­ti­cal, and of inter­est only to spe­cial­ists. In real­i­ty, the book, and the thinkers dis­cussed there­in, wres­tles with ques­tions that hold deep con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance: how do we think about our bod­ies in rela­tion­ship to the divine? How does the con­cept of nature relate to the idea of an all-pow­er­ful God? And how do peo­ple of faith attempt to form a reli­gious world­view that incor­po­rates the lat­est sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies? For any­one inter­est­ed in these ques­tions or, addi­tion­al­ly, for any­one inter­est­ed in find­ing out what oth­er sur­pris­es an aca­d­e­m­ic book that quotes Tra­cy Jor­dan from 30 Rock has in store, this book offers many wonders.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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