Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Jew of Unbelief / The Jewish Neighbor

by J J Cohen

More Leeds-directed and still rough thoughts, following upon this post. A portion of the introduction that I'll likely condense, it's probably the last piece of the keynote I will share here. Let me know what you think.

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By the twelfth century Ashkenazic Jewish communities cohabitated with Christians in cities across France, Germany, and England. As in Gerald of Wales’s narrative of the mocking Jew, literary and historical texts suggest that these Jews could offer through their rituals and their words a sharp challenge to Christian self-assurance. Pulled into contemporary deliberations over epistemology and religious faith, the Jews became a community intimately involved in questions of orthodoxy and unbelief.

In his groundbreaking essay “The Jewish Minority in Mediaeval England” (1974), Paul Hyams observed that “No devout Christian could see a Jew at Eastertide … without an uneasy feeling that his very presence cast doubt on the fundamental dogma that the Messiah had come.” Christians were fascinated with Jewish incredulity, partly because Jews got to say what Christians sometimes thought but could not safely express. “Jew” might therefore function as a synonym for “heretic,” for the kind of person who might declare -- as does Simon of Tournai earlier in Gerald of Wales’s text -- “God Almighty! How long will this superstitious sect of Christians and this modern invention endure!”

Thus when Margery Kempe is interrogated about her orthodoxy by the archbishop of York, “sum of the pepil askyd whedyr sche wer a Cristen woman er a Jewe” (1.52). The Jew, in other words, could function for Christians as a vehicle useful to express apprehensiveness about their own creed, uncertainties that could be vanquished as the Jew receives his inevitable comeuppance. Now, medieval Jews really did disparage Jesus as “the Hanged One.” They questioned Mary's virginity. They insisted that God had engendered no son, that the messiah was yet to arrive. But I don’t think we possess in examples like the one Gerald provides cases where Christians were listening attentively to their Jewish neighbors. The mocker of Saint Frideswide’s miracles perishes, after all, with his final imprecation unrecorded. For Gerald it suffices that his dying words constituted a blasphemy; their specific content was irrelevant. The Jew of Unbelief is mainly a Christian fantasy. He exists within and for the Christian imagination.

The Jew of Unbelief is a figure frozen in time, enacting in the modern day a script inherited from the New Testament Passion. Just as biblical Jews disbelieved and murdered Christ, modern ones will repudiate and perhaps sacrifice the children of Christ. The Jew of Unbelief may therefore join the other Christian-imagined Jews so well detailed in recent scholarship: the Spectral Jew (Steven Kruger), the Hermeneutic Jew or “living letter of the law” (Jeremy Cohen), the Virtual Jew (Sylvia Tomasch), the Protean Jew (Denise Despres), the Jew of the Book (Anthony Bale). Such fantasy figures enabled Christianity to envision itself as distinct from its Judaic source (a difficult and ongoing project: see especially Daniel Boyarin’s work on the partitioning of Judaism and Christianity). In all of these imaginings the Jew is not coeval: he is an intrusion into modernity of a superceded past. The real life extension of such excision of the Jew from contemporaneity and lived reality is physical and property-directed violence. Negative representation and temporal distancing cannot be divorced from the pogroms that marked the last decade of the twelfth century in England. No coincidence, I think, that Gerald of Wales could be writing in Lincoln in the 1180s about the punishment of a saint-doubting Jew, and that the city could witness violence against its Jewish residents in 1190.

In the “Prioress’s Tale,” Jewish agency in the death of the litel clergeon is made evident through divine revelation – as it must be, for the Jews in Chaucer’s imagined Asia live in geographic separation from the Christians, in a ghetto that demarcates and bounds a purely Jewish expanse. According to Gerald the suicide of the Jew who cast doubt upon saintly efficacy is revealed in the most ordinary of ways: by the Christian servants and nurses who form a part of his family’s household. The religious quarantine that Chaucer described was never the historical experience of the England in which he wrote. Although Jewish families might have clustered in an area, no ghettos existed. Until the Expulsion of 1290, Christians and Jews shared urban space. They lived alongside each other and were domestic intimates. Coinhabitation meant that Jews were necessarily a living people, contemporaries, to their Christian business relations, employees, neighbors. I make that obvious statement because I think we do not acknowledge it enough. We tend to adopt the perspective of the medieval stories we interpret, narratives that may not be able to enact a geographical separation like Chaucer did, but offer textual orderings of the world undergirded by temporal and cultural partition.

So, to return to the domestic employees who ratted out the Jewish parents in Gerald’s story of the mocking Jew: did the Christian nurses, servants and neighbors who dwelled with and alongside the Jews see their employers and business relations and acquaintances as locked in another time, a time that is not (as Gerald would say) “in modern times”? At Oxford, Lincoln, York, Norwich, London – in all of those large cities where Jews and Christians cohabitated, shared more than simply space – could something happen between Christian and Jew that might yield a narrative other the timeless one provided by the Jew of Unbelief, whose narrative is by, for and about Christians alone? How do we free medieval Jews from their freezing in typological amber? How do we escape the temporal tyranny practiced against them, and give medieval Jews the possibility of a fully inhabited, living and changing present, as well as an unpredetermined future? How do we restore to medieval Jewishness the same mutability discernible in Christian identity and belief? Can we find places where orthodoxy and orthopraxy break down, to discover an improvised space of relations where the relations that unfold within a heterogeneous community might be rather different from officially produced and publicly professed creeds? Can we glimpse in lived praxis a coinhabited space where Christian and Jewish convivencia is not detemporalized but extemporalized, unfolding differently from what orthodox narratives might suggest?

Gerald’s narrative of Jewish-Christian difference, for example, is also a narrative about Christian reliance upon Jews – in this case, not only as doubt-expressing doppelgangers, but for employment as nurses and servants. Within Gerald’s text exists oblique acknowledgment of a mixed (if stratified) household, one in which Jews and Christians tangibly and mutually depend upon each other. Antisemitic texts often reveal a fuller domain than they intend to depict, a sublunary world in which we might witness, however fleetingly, narratives of coinhabitance more vivacious and complex than the reductive, hostile, and historically frozen representations at their surfaces.
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After this opening I move to two antisemitic texts from later periods: Matthew of Paris's narration of the Hugh of Lincoln story, and the Mandeville-author's fantasy of the Jews enclosed in the Caspians who await the freedom Antichrist will bring. My key terms are conjunction and coinhabitance. We'll see how this all plays out ...

7 comments:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I have been trying to think of an intelligent comment, but am so wrapped up in work etc at the moment that I simply have not been able to concentrate on this. Perhaps some comment is better than none? My own argument is that things change: conditions and relationships in local communities in the later twelfth century were very different a hundred years later. Feel free to ignore if that is useless/obvious or both. This is looking great anyway ...

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence. I am trying to mediate between what changes (relations take on forms specific to shifting social contexts) and what remains constant (a detemporalizing element that enacts partition; an extemporalizing element that enables amity). We'll see if it really gels or not ...

Sarah Rees Jones said...

You know that reminds me of the recent coverage of the Roma who were forced to flee Belfast because of attacks of their homes. Immigration to belfast has greatly increased since the end of the troubles - and the press represented this as a dichotomy between a society predisposed to racism because of recent historically conditioned sectarianism on the one hand, and the natural kindness of Belfast families and churches to the Roma forced from their homes.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Very nice. I think this will be cool. It makes me think about the frozen temporalities in Robertson's appeal to Augustine in On Christian Doctrine, and Augustine's caution against reading like a Jew. Which in turn raises comparable questions about the relation between lived social experience and exegetical tradition in texts like Piers Plowman, etc.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks so much for the vote of confidence, Stephanie. Frozen typologies and the possibilities of reading like a (stone-hearted) Jew are in fact what connect this to my bigger medieval prehistory project, which is centered around stone. I don't think this will be a chapter in that book, but who knows.

Jonathan Hsy said...

I'm so glad to read these postings as you build toward the Leeds plenary - the questions you ask here are so compelling. It strikes me that this project is as much about temporality as it is about spatiality - shared urban spaces (literal and literary), but also a more theoretical coinhabitance and a heterogenous, experimental "space of relations," as you posit. Kempe's "Jew-ish" moment during the York interrogation strikes me as a curious textual instance, though: do space and time collapse here? (At this moment in the city of York, Kempe simultaneously occupies role of static, atemporal "Jew of Unbelief" and a living/animated "Jewish neighbor." I don't know if that makes any sense.)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for that, Jonathan: it amkes a great deal of sense. You're right, at the heart of my project is a meditation on how temporality AND spatiality get rethought through neighboring. And the more I write that, the more I seem to stick to that gerund rather than a motionless noun like neighbor.