Ear­ly Mod­ern Jew­ry: A New Cul­tur­al History

David B. Ruderman
  • Review
By – September 26, 2011

In Ear­ly Mod­ern Jew­ry, David Rud­er­man offers read­ers a com­pre­hen­sive, mul­ti-region­al view of a peri­od of Jew­ish his­to­ry whose schol­ar­ship has mush­roomed with­in the past decades. Giv­en the sheer num­ber of sec­ondary sources, and the region­al diver­si­ty cov­ered, Rud­er­man sets him­self a chal­leng­ing and ambi­tious task, which he meets with mixed results. 

Rud­er­man explores five phe­nom­e­na that he believes best char­ac­ter­ized Jew­ish cul­tur­al his­to­ry in the Ear­ly Mod­ern peri­od. They are: increased mobil­i­ty due to invol­un­tary expul­sions and vol­un­tary migra­tion; increased com­mu­nal cohe­sive­ness across geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries; the expan­sion of knowl­edge due to the print­ing press and print cul­ture; crises in rab­binic author­i­ty cou­pled with the fre­quent inci­dence of mes­sian­ism; and final­ly, the blur­ring of reli­gious iden­ti­ty, as the obser­vance of Jew­ish rit­u­als became more about indi­vid­ual agency rather than rab­binic or com­mu­nal pressure. 

A few dif­fi­cul­ties ham­per the first two chap­ters. The first chap­ter, on increased mobil­i­ty, would ben­e­fit from more dis­cus­sion of how the expul­sions and trav­els under­tak­en by Jew­ish mer­chants in the Ear­ly Mod­ern peri­od dif­fered from sim­i­lar trends in the Mid­dle Ages. In chap­ter two, the region­al dif­fer­ences cre­ate a some­what mud­dled dis­cus­sion, although the com­mu­nal cohe­sion that Rud­er­man wish­es to high­light comes through clear­ly. The final three chap­ters are stronger, clear­er, and more per­sua­sive, par­tic­u­lar­ly Ruderman’s descrip­tion of how the advent of print­ing trans­formed the expe­ri­ence of Torah study, bring­ing diverse com­men­taries togeth­er with the cen­tral text of the Tal­mud, a method of study that con­tin­ues to this day. Despite a few ini­tial flaws, this is an inter­est­ing, use­ful intro­duc­tion to Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture dur­ing a peri­od of dynam­ic change.

Sara Lib­by Robin­son received her Ph.D. in Com­par­a­tive His­to­ry from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. Her forth­com­ing book, Blood Will Tell: Vam­pires as Polit­i­cal Metaphors Before World War I, is sched­uled for pub­li­ca­tion with Aca­d­e­m­ic Stud­ies Press.

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