Varieties of Medieval Judaism
Dr. John C. Reeves
Office hours: TR 11:00-12:00; or by appointment
This course consists primarily of a comparative study of the literary expressions, with lesser attention given to the historical and ideological issues, of several varieties of Judaism evidenced in Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and Islamicate realms from approximately 640 CE to approximately 1492 CE.
In order to complete the assignments for this course, the following texts are required:
Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature (ed. David Stern and M. J. Mirsky; Philadelphia, 1990; repr., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).
Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (ed. Barry W. Holtz; New York: Summit, 1984).
Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (New York, 1972; repr., West Orange, N.J.: Behrman House, n.d.).
Hyam Maccoby, Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages (London, 1982; repr., London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996).
You are also required to have access to a Hebrew Bible (the Christian ‘Old Testament’) in a responsible English translation.
Moreover, you will also find on the bookstore shelves two recommended titles for optional purchase:
S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgement in One Volume (rev. and ed. Jacob Lassner; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
Stefan C. Reif, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo: The History of Cambridge University’s Genizah Collection (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000).
Supplementary required readings will be assigned or distributed by the instructor as needed.
a. Research project. One (1) formal research project to be presented in written form (approximately 12-15 pages, exclusive of notes and list of sources) that focuses upon a particular topic relevant to the intellectual universe of medieval Judaism. A suggested list of topics is provided later in this syllabus; otherwise, in consultation with the instructor, the student should select a topic of individual interest that permits such an extended exposition, analysis and/or evaluation. A 250-word précis of the paper, coupled with a brief oral seminar report, is due Tuesday, November 5 (and Thursday, November 7, if necessary). A final draft of the paper and its formal presentation orally to the seminar falls due the final week of class (i.e., December 3 and 5). The research project and its component parts (i.e., précis, final draft, and two oral presentations) account for 60% of the course grade.
b. Final take-home essay. Instead of an in-class three-hour examination, you will prepare a final essay wherein you will be expected to synthesize some of the major issues and themes discussed in class and in the required readings, and to demonstrate your knowledge of the specific source materials and facts which pertain to those issues and themes. This essay will be delivered to the instructor on the date and at the time officially mandated for this course by the UNC Charlotte administration. We will then spend some time discussing the insights and conclusions generated in these essays. The final essay and the accompanying discussion is worth 20% of the course grade.
c. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion, close reading, and analysis by both the instructor and class members comprise a significant portion of every class meeting. Preparation for every class often involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or written assignment(s). Students are expected to contribute to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic, and individual students may be periodically asked to initiate our collective examination and discussion of the topics. The instructor’s assessment of one’s attendance, class preparation, and informed oral contributions will constitute 20% of the final course grade.
d. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur.**
**In addition to fulfilling the aforementioned requirements, students taking this course for graduate credit will compile an analytical portfolio of their extracurricular (i.e., beyond that required for undergraduates) readings in the subject matter of this course. Items eligible for such treatment include the ‘Recommended’ sources identified later in this syllabus, bibliographical notices discovered during the course of ‘Required’ or ‘Recommended’ readings, and material uncovered during ongoing research for one’s project. Entries (consisting of formal bibliographic citation, brief summary, and evaluative analysis for each separate item) will be submitted to the instructor in written form at biweekly intervals, beginning the first week of September. Acquisition of special expertise in a particular topic may result in one or more oral presentations in lieu of biweekly submissions.
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-95+ A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some demonstrable proficiency in control of material and analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable academic work
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) All unwritten papers and unperformed assignments will be averaged as a 0 in the computation of the course grade. No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) All papers and written exercises are due on the dates scheduled in the syllabus, or on the date announced by the instructor in class (usually, the next class meeting). ‘Late’ submissions bear the following penalties: one day late/one letter grade; two days late/two letter grades; three or more days late/F. Please note: these ‘days’ are calendar days, not class meeting days. For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; B=85; C=75; D=65; F=30. An untyped paper or written assignment automatically receives the grade F, as do those typed papers which violate the required parameters or which the instructor deems physically unacceptable and/or grammatically incomprehensible.
3) All oral seminar presentations will take place only upon their announced dates and times. In other words (and please note well!), there will be NO MAKEUP PRESENTATIONS scheduled. Missed presentations will be averaged as a 0 in the computation of the course grade.
4) Attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One or two absences are unexceptional, three (3) is the limit of tolerability. Each successive absence lowers the Individual Involvement component of your assessment by one letter grade (4 = B, etc.); seven (7) or more earns an automatic F in that component. Be informed that absences amounting to 25% (or more) of the scheduled class meetings generate a failing grade for the course (regardless of all other grades in the course). Please note that the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
c. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
Rough Course Outline
1. Introduction: the taxonomy of classical Jewish literature from Bible to Zohar
a. Bible: contents, genres, analogues (written Torah)
b. Talmud and Midrash (oral Torah)
e. Folklore and legends
f. Speculative works
Back to the Sources, 11-211; 261-303; 403-29.
Rabbinic Fantasies, 3-30; 349-64.
James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 1-49; 549-60.
John C. Reeves, “Scriptural Authority in Early Judaism,” in Living Traditions of the Bible: Scripture in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Practice (ed. James E. Bowley; St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), 63-84.
Moshe D. Herr, “Midrash,” EncJud 11:1507-14.
A. Dotan, “Masorah,” EncJud 16:1402-82.
2. Medieval scriptural exegesis
Back to the Sources, 213-59.
Rabbinic Fantasies, 35-66; 91-119.
Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-83), 6:235-313.
Kenneth R. Stow, Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 135-56.
Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
E. I. J. Rosenthal, “The Study of the Bible in Medieval Judaism,” in idem, Studia Semitica (2 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 1:244-71.
Idem, “Anti-Christian Polemic in Medieval Bible Commentaries,” in ibid., 1:165-85.
Isaiah Sonne, “Biblical Criticism in the Middle Ages,” in Freedom and Reason: Studies in Philosophy and Jewish Culture in Memory of Morris Raphael Cohen (ed. Salo W. Baron, et al.; New York: Conference on Jewish Relations, 1951), 438-46.
Frederick E. Greenspahn, “Biblical Scholars, Medieval and Modern,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel (ed. Jacob Neusner, et al.; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 245-58.
Amos Funkenstein, “Medieval Exegesis and Historical Consciousness,” in idem, Perceptions of Jewish History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 88-130.
Elazar Touitou, “Rashi’s Commentary on Genesis 1-6 in the Context of Judeo-Christian Controversy,” Hebrew Union College Annual 61 (1990) 159-83.
3. Interreligious polemics
Maccoby, Judaism on Trial (entire).
Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, 3-74; 139-94.
Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-83), 5:82-137.
Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
S. D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts through the Ages (3d ed.; New York: Schocken, 1974).
Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).
Robert Chazan, Daggers of Faith: Thirteenth-Century Christian Missionizing and Jewish Response (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
Amos Funkenstein, “Polemics, Responses, and Self-Reflection,” in his Perceptions of Jewish History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 169-219.
Samuel Krauss and William Horbury, The Jewish-Christian Controversy: From the Earliest Times to 1789 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1995- ).
Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, “Some Neglected Aspects of Medieval Muslim Polemics Against Christianity,” Harvard Theological Review 89 (1996): 61-84.
Moshe Perlmann, “The Medieval Polemics between Islam and Judaism,” in Religion in a Religious Age (ed. S. D. Goitein; Cambridge: Association for Jewish Studies, 1974), 103-38.
4. Speculative and esoteric currents
a. The resurgence of apocalyptic: Sefer Zerubbabel, Shim‘on b. Yohai pseudepigrapha
b. Popular religiosity: Mesopotamian magical bowl literature
c. Intellectual religiosity: Hekhalot literature
d. Esoteric currents: Sefer Yetzirah, Shi‘ur Qomah, and Sefer ha-Bahir
e. Advent of Qabbalah: the Zohar
Back to the Sources, 305-59.
Rabbinic Fantasies, 67-90; 203-52.
Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-83), 5:138-285; 8:3-54.
Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed.; New York: Schocken, 1961).
______, Origins of the Kabbalah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar (3 vols.; London: Littman Library, 1989).
Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Rebecca M. Lesses, Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998).
Michael D. Swartz, Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
5. Sectarian currents
a. ‘Anan b. David and the origins of Karaism
b. Abu ‘Isa of Isfahan and Yudghan of Hamadan
c. David Alroy
Handouts of various primary sources
Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-83), 5:138-285.
Moshe Gil, A History of Palestine, 634-1099 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Idem, “The Political History of Jerusalem during the Early Muslim Period,” in The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period, 638-1099 (ed. Joshua Prawer and Haggai Ben-Shammai; Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1996), 1-37.
Avraham Grossman, “The Yeshiva of Eretz Israel, Its Literary Output and Relationship with the Diaspora,” in ibid., 225-69.
Steven M. Wasserstrom, Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology: Excerpts From the Early Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952).
6. Folklore and legends
Rabbinic Fantasies, 121-202.
Handouts of Chronicle of Moses, Midrash of Shemhazai and ‘Azael
Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-83), 6:152-234.
Eli Yassif, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 245-370.
Gerson D. Cohen, “Hannah and Her Seven Sons in Hebrew Literature,” in his Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures (Philadelphia and New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 39-60.
Idem, “The Story of the Four Captives,” in ibid., 157-208.
7. The Rambam (Maimonides) and his Significance
Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (entire).
Isidore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
Kenneth Seeskin, Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed (West Orange, N.J.: Behrman House, 1991).
Leo Strauss, “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” in Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (trans. Shlomo Pines; 2 vols.; Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 1:xi-lvi.
Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies (ed. Joel L. Kraemer; Portland, Or.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996).
Michael Fox, Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
8. The Cairo Geniza: A Window on the Life of Fatimid Jewry
Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, 77-136.
S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (6 vols.; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-93). See especially 1:1-28 for Goitein’s concise overview of the discovery and its significance, and Lassner’s 1999 one-volume abridgement for a sampling of the documentary evidence.
Idem, “Religion in Everyday Life as Reflected in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza,” in Religion in a Religious Age (ed. S. D. Goitein; Cambridge: Association for Jewish Studies, 1974), 3-17.
Idem, “Involvement in Geniza Research,” in ibid., 139-46.
“Genizah, Cairo,” EncJud 16:1333-42.
Solomon Schechter, “A Hoard of Hebrew Manuscripts,” in his Studies in Judaism: Second Series (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1908), 1-30.
R. S. Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 261-73.
Stefan C. Reif, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo: The History of Cambridge University’s Genizah Collection (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000).
Some Possible Research Project Topics
1. One possibility is to pick a project which focuses on a particular problem, issue, or theme. The suggestions proffered here are intentionally quite broad; it is assumed that after several weeks of work on a particular issue, the student will be able to refine the broader suggestion into a workable project. Here are some examples:
- Messianic movements in the Islamic world
- Interreligious polemic (or symbiosis) in the medieval era
- The role(s) of written Torah and oral Torah in medieval Jewish sectarianism
- The survival of Second Temple era literary sources (e.g., Ben Sira) or genres (e.g., apocalypse) in the Middle Ages
- A comparative study of Jewish and Christian (or Muslim) scriptural exegesis
- The significance of the Cairo Geniza for understanding (or problematizing) … (you fill in the blank)
- The nature of religious authority among Jewish communities during the medieval era
2. Another option would be to limit one’s focus to the close exposition of an issue associated with one primary source, or a related group of sources. Here are some examples:
- Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed — who is perplexed, and why?
- Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah — its purpose? its audience? their response? its impact?
- Medieval Jewish apocalyptic — its relation (if any) to earlier apocalypses? To contemporary Christian and/or Muslim apocalypses? To later Jewish literature (e.g., Maimonides’s Epistle to Yemen)?
- The Zohar — its relation to predecessors or contemporary sources?
- Mesopotamian magical bowls as an authentic expression of Jewish religiosity?
- The Siddur — its structure? its purpose? its message?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Study of the history and literature of medieval Judaism has spawned a tremendous amount of secondary scholarship—so much that I will only provide the following short list of important treatments. The required textbook authored by Cohen provides copious citations, as do the collections edited by Stern/Mirsky, Holtz, Twersky, and Maccoby. Lest one overlook the obvious, do not neglect the two important reference works which every student of Jewish studies should frequently consult: the Encyclopaedia Judaica (16 vols. + supplements; Jerusalem: Keter, 1971); and H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1991). These reference works provide numerous bibliographical suggestions for further reading, and I encourage everyone to learn how to use each of these latter resources.
These classic multi-volume general histories each devote several volumes to Jewish life in its medieval context:
Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews (6 vols.; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1891-98).
Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-83).
Note also the following general materials and sourcebooks:
Louis Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (3d ed.; 2 vols.; New York: Harper, 1960). See especially therein the following survey articles:
Judah Goldin, “The Period of the Talmud (135 BCE-1035 CE),” 1:115-215.
Shalom Spiegel, “On Medieval Hebrew Poetry,” 1:854-92.
A. S. Halkin, “Judeo-Arabic Literature,” 2:1116-48.
Walter J. Fischel, “Israel in Iran (A Survey of Judeo-Persian Literature),” 2:1149-90.
Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People (ed. L. W. Schwarz; New York: Random House, 1956). See therein especially the following pertinent articles:
Gerson D. Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” 143-212.
A. S. Halkin, “The Judeo-Islamic Age,” 215-63.
Gerson D. Cohen, “The Reconstruction of Gaonic History,” in idem, Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 99-155.
Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791 (Cincinnati: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938).
Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979).