Here, at long last, is the draft of my review of The Spectral Jew, to be published some day in a non-medieval venue, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts . As you will see, I am a Big Fan of this book.
The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 320 pp. Paper. ISBN 0-8166-4062-9. $26.00.
First, a warning. Readers of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts may expect of this book what friends and strangers who saw it tucked beneath my arm over the past month anticipated upon glancing at its provocative title. The Spectral Jew is not, in fact, about Jews who have died and yet linger in this terrestrial realm as ghosts. The volume contains no undead beings, no revenants or ectoplasm or postmortem unfinished business. The Jews in Steven Kruger's book are spectral in the specialized sense developed by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx: ambivalent and temporally convoluted figures who intertwine past and present, reality and fantasy. A specter in Derrida's elaboration is an entity that, at the moment it is conjured away, paradoxically must be conjured into being. The performance of those obsequies that are supposed to lay the specter quietly to rest only acknowledge that the spirit is restless, more quick than dead. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock has recently employed the same Derridean concept to excellent effect in his edited collection Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Weinstock observes that "as something from the past that emerges into the present, the phantom calls into question the linearity of history" (4). It seems fitting, then, that a book about spectrality written by a medievalist for medievalists should nonetheless be reviewed in JFA.
Whereas the essays in Spectral America examine hauntings of a directly supernatural kind, though, The Spectral Jew concentrates on a historical minority who lived among an often hostile majority, a group whose spectral effects upon Christianity are to be traced in discursive realms like theology, philosophy, and history writing. How this "spectral logic" works is most lucidly expounded in Kruger's nuanced discussion of Jews who converted to Christianity and the texts that record their change in identity. "The prior, Jewish self must be conjured up," he writes, "so that self may be made to disappear" (111). This invocation would seem to enact a simple and permanent supersession (from Jew to Christian, just as the Old Law supposedly yields to the New Law, and the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament). Yet because the preconversion Jew is invoked in order to tell the story of the emergent Christian, a perturbing simultaneity takes the place of this linear movement: "even at the moment of its disappearance, the specter is, if liminally, present – as that whose disappearance is necessary for the emergence of the new, Christian self" (111). The identity of the convert is thereby haunted by his former self.
Thus a clean break or a complete transformation might be declared, but such a neat parceling of past and present seldom in fact proves the case. For example, when the Spanish convert Peter Alfonsi composes a narrative about his becoming Christian (the Dialogi contra Iudaeos, written early in the twelfth century), he creates a text in which his Christian self debates his pre-baptism self, a Jew named Moses. Peter and Moses are angry with each other, Moses feeling that he has been betrayed and Peter arguing that his prior Jewishness has been wholly left behind. Even if the text ends with a repudiation of Moses, it also terminates without a reconciliation between these two opponents who are one person, leaving them together in a ceaseless contemporeneity: "A residue of Jewish identity is thus ineffably inscribed within Peter's celebration of his own embracing of Christianity" (123).
Notably, Kruger describes this residue as queer. The term is appropriate considering the volume's detailed discussion of how from the Christian point of view Jewish otherness intertwines differences in gender, race, social identity (as merchants and bankers) and sexuality as well as religion. Indeed, given the book's central trope of spectrality, it is intriguing that so much of the analysis foregrounds the bodies of the Jews, for it was upon Jewish flesh that their alterity was made to rest. Thus Kruger cites medieval authorities on the bad smell of Jews; their monthly bleeding; the feminization circumcision supposedly works; the special allure of Jewish women. These physical deviations were connected to the spiritual defects of blind literalism and obdurateness. Indeed, considering that Kruger maps this Christian obsession with Jewishness bodily debility so well, it is unfortunate that he does not make some use of a recent critical ally to queer theory, disability studies, a field that might have expanded the book's critical vocabulary.
A problem for the historian with the kinds of Jewish-Christian interchange narrated by Peter Alfonsi is that they ultimately rely upon the silencing of the Jewish interlocutor. In what was to my mind the most moving section of the book – moving because it makes explicit what the stakes of spectralization are, the loss of voice and perhaps the loss of life by living, breathing persons – Kruger is able to discern even in silence the possibility of Jewish endurance. Kruger is examining the records of debates that were staged between Christian councils and Jewish leaders forced to answer to them. The rules for these public performances and the texts that record them are clear from the start: such "disputations" must generically unfold as Christian triumphs over Jewish deficiency. What do you do when you are a rabbi forced to enter such a performance as the speaker for all Jews, your role as loser handed to you in advance? What can you say against an authority that has already judged you as wrong? Is it any surprise that the textual record will record repeatedly that "The Rabbi publicly confessed that he knew nothing more with which to respond"? Such moments when Jewish words fail to appear could be read as an acknowledgement of Christian victory, with "the rabbis as participating in their own erasure." Yet such episodes of
Jewish self-censorship and silence might also be read as resistance -- a refusal, increasing as the debate proceeds, to participate in a process over which the rabbis have no control. That is, silence may be one strategy for staying Jewish -- for the rabbis' maintaining an integrity as Jews -- in a situation where doing so by presenting honestly the varying and sometimes discordant traditions of Jewish interpretation or by strongly proclaiming one's beliefs seems increasingly impossible. (200)
A strength of the book is Kruger's power to find these resistant voices even when they seem to have been reduced to taciturn acquiescence.
Much of the material that Kruger examines will, I admit, be primarily of interest to scholars who study the Middle Ages. Yet despite its obvious erudition the book is written in a generous style that invites non-medievalists into its argument. A further strength of The Spectral Jew is its careful contextualization into a moment of complexly layered cultural clash. Because many of the texts Kruger examines originate in an Iberian milieu, Muslims appear among the Christians and Jews as yet another group engaged in a struggle to define itself while being defined in terms it never chose. Scholars of the fantastic will find much to emulate in the book's historical precision; its careful unpacking of the overlapping layers that form human identity (race, religion, sexuality); its deftness in deploying critical theory while paying minute attention to context. If, as Kruger argues, the conjuration of the spectral Jew "haunts the projects of Christian Europe" (and, implicitly, undoes them), what minority voices and silences might we find spectralized in our own culturally turbulent times? Could one speak of the "the spectral Indian" in the United States? Mustn't one?