The Intel­lec­tu­al His­to­ry and Rab­binic Cul­ture of Medieval Ashkenaz

Ephraim Kanar­fo­gel
  • Review
By – May 2, 2013

Many edu­cat­ed Jews, if asked to say some­thing about Jew­ish life in medieval Europe, would first men­tion mar­tyr­dom and per­se­cu­tion. If pressed to describe the spir­i­tu­al and intel­lec­tu­al life of Jews at that time, they might think of Rashi’s Torah com­men­tary and the Tosafot who wrote on the Tal­mud. But there they would stop, and for exam­ples of oth­er types of cre­ativ­i­ty they would prob­a­bly turn to oth­er parts of the medieval world, most notably the Gold­en Age” of Spain. But the Jews of medieval France and Ger­many were, in fact, cre­ative in quite a num­ber of ways, writ­ing poet­ry, exeget­i­cal works, and even phi­los­o­phy. Schol­ars have been dim­ly aware of this for quite some time, but much of this addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al has nev­er been pub­lished and thus has not influ­enced our per­cep­tion of medieval Ashke­naz­ic Jew­ish culture. 

Ephraim Kanarfogel’s new book is based upon exten­sive man­u­script research, and it por­trays the breadth and com­plex­i­ty of that cul­ture. Kanar­fo­gel writes at length about the activ­i­ties of medieval Ashke­naz­ic rab­bis as judges in local Jew­ish courts, as exegetes on the bib­li­cal text, as writ­ers of and commenta­tors on reli­gious poet­ry, and as prac­ti­tion­ers of prac­ti­cal mag­ic. A major por­tion of this hefty vol­ume is devot­ed to describ­ing the approach­es to bib­li­cal com­men­tary tak­en by a series of French rab­bis, as found in a dense maze of unpub­lished man­u­scripts, which throw new light on the much bet­ter known work of fig­ures such as Rash­bam and Bekhor Shor. The dense mate­r­i­al in this book, as well as the far-rang­ing per­spec­tives offered by Kanar­fo­gel on medieval rab­binic cul­ture, will con­tin­ue to enrich the study of Jew­ish life in the Mid­dle Ages for years to come.

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