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Sifting the Cairo Genizah

Genizah fragment with Maimonides’ signature.

Everyone knows about the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered over 60 years ago, and about the new light they shed on the sectarian Judaism of late antiquity, the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, and possibly the prehistory of Christianity. Fifty years before that, the Cairo Genizah similarly revolutionized the picture of the Jewish Middle Ages.

Relevant Links
Digitizing the Genizah  Friedberg Genizah Project. Since 2004, a concerted program has been identifying, cataloguing, and transcribing the manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah as well as photographing and publishing them online.
What the Geonim Wrought  Robert Brody, Printing the Talmud. For roughly 500 years, the cultural and intellectual centers of the Jewish world were located east of the Mediterranean, and the master teachers of the age devoted themselves to transmitting, explicating, and applying the Talmud as a guide to Jewish life. (PDF)

Whether by coincidence or some trick of fate, two books have just been published about the Cairo Genizah. They bear seemingly opposite titles—Sacred Treasure and Sacred Trash (the latter being intended ironically)—and their authors also differ profoundly in background and interests. Mark Glickman, who wrote Sacred Treasure, is a Conservative pulpit rabbi with no scholarly credentials or literary background, writing with an amateur's gusto and approaching his topic as a grand adventure. By contrast, the husband-and-wife team of Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman are seasoned literary hands—she an essayist and editor, he a poet, translator, and winner of a MacArthur award; their book is meticulously researched, intricately crafted, and written with self-conscious dash and bravura.

The Hebrew word Genizah is derived from a root meaning to hide from view, and refers to an area traditionally set aside for disused ritual objects, including worn-out prayer books and other holy writings. Over time, anything that included writing in Hebrew, the holy tongue, or in foreign languages rendered in Hebrew letters, even business records and personal correspondence, came to be treated with similar reverence. The Cairo Genizah was housed in the Ben Ezra synagogue of Fustat (Old Cairo), which remained intact from the 11th century onward; and since the storeroom also contained writings dating from much earlier, it would eventually accumulate about a millennium's worth of material. These riches were emptied out in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; today, something like a quarter-million individual pieces of writing traceable to it, many of them mere scraps, are preserved in libraries throughout the world.

Roughly the first half of each book is taken up with the dramatic opening of the Genizah to Western scholarly eyes. Its existence had been known in Europe at least as early as the mid-18th century; some intrepid souls, gaining access despite the great reluctance of its caretakers to let anyone in, even managed to take pages out with them. This dribbling-out process would have continued had not Solomon Schechter, then teaching rabbinics at Cambridge University, recognized a Genizah leaf that came into his hands as being from the lost Hebrew original of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), a book in the biblical Apocrypha known at that time only in Greek and Syriac versions. Intent on finding and collating the entire book, Schechter secured funding, ingratiated himself with the chief rabbi of Cairo, paid innumerable bribes to the locals, and after four months of arduous labor filled, in his words, "8 big wooden cases" with manuscripts for shipment back home.

At the time, no one had any idea how much of Schechter's spoils was treasure and how much trash. The subsequent history of Genizah research, which takes up the remainder of both books, is a story of single-minded labor by archivists and scholars who classified, catalogued, preserved, deciphered, analyzed, and placed in historical context this abundance of writing. At first the focus was on locating the work of "great men" already known from other sources; but very soon it became clear that every humdrum fragment could help piece together what Jewish life was like a millennium ago. This was the insight that enabled the late S.D. Goitein to weave together a panoramic tapestry in his monumental five-volume A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizah.

The two new books must be evaluated according to their different purposes. Sacred Treasure, intended as a popular work, competently if superficially surveys the history, content, and impact of the Genizah writings, interspersing its narrative with the author's often intrusive personal reflections. Sacred Trash, which aspires to combine academic rigor with accessibility and literary and psychological insight, could have been the definitive book on the Genizah had the authors not let their predilections and biases run away with them. Since it is undoubtedly destined to attract the greater attention and praise, its flaws deserve as much scrutiny as its merits. 

In his jacket blurb, Harold Bloom hails Sacred Trash for vividly conveying "the romance of scholarship." The phrase is accurate, though the romancing is directed more at the scholars than at the fruits of their scholarship. True enough, they are a picturesque lot—their ranks include the American immigrant Israel Davidson, who started first grade at age eighteen; Haim (Jefim) Schirmann, lowered by rope from the roof of his Jerusalem building after a bomb blast, one hand clutching his violin; and Ezra Fleischer, who won an Israeli poetry contest while serving a jail sentence in Romania for Zionist activities. But not even the most delicious gossip, delivered here with wit and relish, can substitute for a satisfying account of the world revealed by the Genizah—and, as the personalities fly by in dizzying profusion, even gossip becomes tiresome.

The greater problem arises from Hoffman and Cole's principle of selectivity. Imaginative literature, especially poetry, is their household god. Two chapters are accordingly devoted to the Genizah's yield in that area, one of them entirely focused on the liturgical verse of a single poet, Yannai (sixth or seventh century C.E.), complete with original English translations and detailed arguments for his creative genius—without, it must be added, the slightest consideration given to the religious ideas and worldview embodied in his verse. It is as if one were to treat Bach's St. Matthew Passion without reference to the theology of Lutheranism.

And that points to a still broader flaw, which is the authors' alternating conception of Judaism itself either as an essentially content-less entity or as one whose finest expression is to be found in the work of its outliers and internal adversaries. Thus, an entire chapter is devoted to Genizah evidence of Jewish heretics and their writings. Some of this material, too, is titillating. But missing from the book is any equivalent treatment of the much more preponderant wealth of Genizah material attesting to and throwing a startling new light on the consolidation of the Jewish mainstream during this same period—scarcely anything about the establishment of the standard text and vocalization of the Hebrew Bible; about the emergence of the Talmud as a "book"; about the responsa of the Geonim, the masters of the Mesopotamian rabbinical academies, which helped mold a relatively uniform standard of Jewish practice; about the dissemination of rabbinic homiletical material; or about the careers, documented in striking new ways by material found only in the Genizah, of even so key a figure as Moses Maimonides.     

In short, no one reading this book would have a clue as to how, and to what dramatic ends, the materials of the Genizah have done for the understanding of a later and crucially important transition period in history what the Dead Sea Scrolls have done for an earlier. Although, in an Afterword, Hoffman and Cole more or less acknowledge these lacunae, they also shrug them off: "we've been guided in our choice of subjects by our noses." Besides, they stipulate, "one" or even "three" different books might be written about the Genizah, each emphasizing different themes from theirs.

Like Judaism itself, apparently, the Genizah can be anything you want it to be. This would have come as quite a surprise to the generations of Jews whose writings found their way into that storeroom, as indeed to the scholars who made it known to the world.

Lawrence Grossman is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.   

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S. on April 1, 2011 at 10:19 am (Reply)
Do either of these books mention S.A. Wertheimer?

Or do they continue the tradition of giving all the credit to Solomon Schechter?
Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole on April 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm (Reply)
Yes, we treat the question of Wertheimer’s contribution—and for that matter, the contributions of numerous others—to the discovery of the Geniza. We also go into great detail about just what it was that led Schechter to the Geniza, after he’d expressed little interest in it for years.
Which brings us to the review itself. We’re sorry that Lawrence Grossman found SACRED TRASH too lively and “intricately crafted” for his taste, but in his hostility to the vital and the imaginative, he completely misrepresents the book and overlooks the larger, deeper vision it puts forth—one which is most certainly engaged in a serious way with normative Judaism. Grossman’s tack—these are irresponsible authors who see what they want to see, and so scholars in the know will be shocked, etc.—is both tired and tiring. It’s also wrong. As the acknowledgements in the book make clear, numerous leading Geniza scholars read and vetted the manuscript and had no trouble whatsoever with our selection of material. On the contrary, they gave it their whole-hearted endorsement.
MFM on April 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm (Reply)
Fantastic. I look forward to reading it. Don't worry about one bad review; everyone's entitled to their opinion. People interested in the subject will want to see for themselves.
SW on April 2, 2011 at 10:16 am (Reply)
A reviewer who concludes, "Like Judaism itself, apparently, the Genizah can be anything you want it to be," is a reviewer who -- really, really -- actually is saying these books can be "anything you want" them to be. So enjoy, and think that reviews based on relativism are relatively relative. Or anything else you want them to be.
Ben joseph on April 3, 2011 at 12:20 am (Reply)
Reading this you might be forgiven for thinking no other books about the genizah exist. Start with Stefan reif and use his excellent bibliography to work from there.
Larry Yudelson on April 7, 2011 at 9:39 am (Reply)
Those interested in another perspective of the geniza should take a look at the historical novel, A Delightful Compendium of Consolation which uses the documents discovered as the basis for a wonderful adventure and romance.

Comments are closed for this article.

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