Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flash Review II: Israel Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb

by J J Cohen

Israel Jacob Yuval's research has for a long time been -- paradoxically -- both influential and cited mainly at second hand, since relatively few scholars have the facility in Hebrew to read his work in its original. Most of these citations at one remove involve an article published in Zion (1993) in which Yuval argued for a relationship between the Jewish choice of mass suicide and the murder of loved ones during Crusader persecution, and the later circulation of the myth that Jews killed Christian children in mockery of the Passion. Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (trans. Barbara Harshav and Jonathan Chipman) offers in lucid English the author's patient exploration of a thesis that has proven extraordinarily controversial -- challenging as it does the received idea that medieval Jews were the patient victims of an antisemitism bearing little relation to the realities of Jewish medieval life. Scholars had assumed, in other words, that no Jewish story could be discerned in narratives like Thomas of Monmouth's twelfth-century account of the boy-martyr William of Norwich. Such fables were the hateful dreams of a society that wanted no real knowledge of its Jewish other. The Blood Libel consolidated Christian community through fantasy; the host desecration myths had nothing to do with matzoh or Pesach. As a result of such analysis, medieval Jews in much contemporary scholarship seem to inhabit the frozen timelessness that Christians ascribed to them. But shouldn't they be just as eligible for voice, modernity, the possibility of affects both positive and negative (i.e. a life as something more than a holy, docile and long suffering people)? Can the truth of medieval Ashkenazic Jewry amount to something a little more full than an early version of Fiddler on the Roof?

Yuval's thesis is in many ways profoundly commonsensical, allowing that a story involving blood and sacrifice and children might travel across religious boundaries and become something different, yet connected. Medieval Jews and Christians did not inhabit closed spheres. They learned from each other and even borrowed beliefs, rituals, eschatology. Much of Yuval's work demonstrates the ways in which these Jews were not passive victims to Christian violence, but possessed a well developed mythology of a Messiah King who would take vengeance against Christian violators. Jews could even dream of an End Time in which Christianity would be cleansed from the earth ... and imagine that one way to precipitate this apocalypse might be through spectacular acts of communal self slaughter.

Two Nations in Your Womb
is a provocative, compelling book. In my own work I've been interested in how every cultural/social/racial/whatever barrier erected to segregate difference into discrete categories always ultimately fails. Yuval's research demonstrates how Jewish and Christian thought interpenetrated, and how in the end a Jewish story can be discerned in ritual murder and host desecration narratives. His closing chapter on the millennial hopes of the thirteenth century (the Christian year 1240 marked the year 5000 of Creation for Jews) made me see a troubling episode from Mandeville's Travels in an entirely new way -- about which more later. For the time being, though, let me say that every medievalist interested in Jewish-Christian relations during the Middle Ages ought to read this book, offering as it does a complicated view of stories that have too often been treated as not much more than yet another lachrymose segment of the road leading towards the Holocaust.


Karl Steel said...

Sounds fascinating & necessary, and I indeed familiar with Yuval's thesis only secondhand.

Curious: does Yuval locate the origin of the ritual murder charge in the 1096 mass suicides of Rheinisch Jews, or does he, as he should, keep push it out, back and into other networks, to observe that these mass suicides themselves were inspired by storytelling. In this case, weren't the suicides in part a combination of the story of Masada and a reenactment of temple sacrifice?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jeffrey, it's really funny that you bring up Yuval. I have a student in my writing class who's working with the article you mention as part of his research project. Small academic worlds, eh?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Small worlds indeed, MK!

Karl, the short answer is NO: Yuval is most interested in the novelty of what happened in 1096, so you won't get a "lives ruined by literature" narrative out of him (it isn't about Josephus and Masada; it is about a newly vigorous desire to bring about the End Times by multiplying atrocities to the point at which God will intervene). The longer answer is a qualified YES, in that there is much reflection upon continuities in reading Torah even as liturgies are re-adapted. Still, Yuval argues that 1096 and its aftermath render the world of Christian-Jewish relations significantly different, so you won't find much meditation on continuities in his book.

Also, the English translation opens with a powerful scene of touching the past, in which Yuval brings his children to the site of a First Crusade massacre and reads the medieval Hebrew account of Jewish suicides/sacrifices to his own children.

Anonymous said...

Also, the English translation opens with a powerful scene of touching the past, in which Yuval brings his children to the site of a First Crusade massacre and reads the medieval Hebrew account of Jewish suicides/sacrifices to his own children.

I wonder what that reading does

Biografia e historia said...

My english level is low; however, I read in your blog, interesting ideas over the middle age.
Un gran abrazo.

EJSchorr said...

Prof. Cohen,

First I'd like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Eric Schorr and I'm the student using one of Yuval's articles within my final research essay for Mary Kate's writing course here at Columbia U. I wanted to share with you that I was privileged to meet Prof. Yuval last year while studying at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School. Prof. Yuval came to my Medieval Jewish History class, titled "Holy Life & Holy Death", and worked directly with us in examining the story of Rav Amnon of Magenza and the Unetaneh tokef prayer of Rosh Hashanah. I have since taken the primary source work we used last year, as well as Yuval's article in the original Hebrew, and am now writing my research based on a theory derived from these works. I believe that the advent of the Unetaneh tokef prayer was a dramatic shift from the suicidal/sacrificial reactions of medieval Jewry that you discuss here, to a more spiritual means of sanctifying God's name. What I wanted to therefore ask you however is if you see this shift as centralized or limited to the period of the crusades or if it progresses throughout the Middle Ages. In conducting my research I've been attempting to find other stories or primary sources that may lend as evidence to this theory.


Karl Steel said...

I'll interject here:
I believe that the advent of the Unetaneh tokef prayer was a dramatic shift from the suicidal/sacrificial reactions of medieval Jewry that you discuss here, to a more spiritual means of sanctifying God's name.
I'm not clear on this division between suicide/sacrifice and "spiritual" devotion. Surely the suicides were also devotional, and insofar as they were devotional, insofar as they were understood as sacrificial and as taking place within a religious context and as directed at God, they were "spiritual."

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Eric, thanks for writing. I'm sorry to say that I don't have much of use for you. The story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz seems to me partly based upon a Christian model (off the top of my head, St James the Mutilated), partly in stories of earlier Jewish martyrs, but other than its indication of Christian-Jewish interpenetration I don't know the materials well enough to guess if his martyrdom and production of a lasting piyyut indicates some cultural change.

When it comes down to it, most of the materials I've worked with are fairly early (aftermath of First Crusade rather than, like Amnon, second) so I have a lot of research of my own to do, especially in thinking about Christian reactions to Jewish millenialism. I hope you'll let me know how your own work proceeds, Eric: I wish you well with it.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Yes and to follow up with Karl: I'd like to hear more about what you mean by spiritual, since Amnon's dismemberment is as bodily as any sacrifice/suicide. Do you mean that what matters is the enduring prayer -- and that because it lives on as words, is more spiritual somehow? Because then I'd wonder what you make of the fact that all the martyrs/human sacrifices lived on via textualization, sometimes as chronicle, sometimes as additions to liturgy.

EJSchorr said...

Prof. Cohen, thanks so much for the response and insight. I appreciate the information, I only found that connections between Rav Amnon and the story you mentioned after some further research. In terms of the affect of Rav Amnon's piyyut affecting some lasting cultural change, that was sort of how I approached my theory about the story.

Based on that idea I wanted to respond to Mr. Steel and to your own questions about what I exactly meant. When I said "spiritual" I was attempting to show how the stories in the primary source I used in my research, "The Chronicle of Solomon bar Samson", illustrated scenes of physical sacrifice and sanctification of God. The story of Amnon however differs because, although incorporating physical dismemberment, ends with Rav Amnon ascending to heaven after his emotional deliverance of the Unetaneh tokef hymn. Ultimately, I guess I am trying to reconcile the original ideas of suicide and sacrifice with the advent of, as you say, "the enduring prayer" as a new means of sanctifying God's name.