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Middle Age & Renaissance

Holy Societies Holy Societies
Friday, February 19, 2010 | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

In the Hebrew calendar, Sunday February 21 is the seventh day of Adar, the date traditionally marking the death of Moses on Mount Nebo, overlooking Canaan, alone with God. The Lord's personal oversight of Moses' interment, in a place "unknown to this day" (Deuteronomy 34:6), inspired the rabbis of the Talmud to praise the act of burying the dead with dignity as an expression of true (because unrecompensed) kindness and indeed of imitatio dei, the injunction to follow God's ways. So it is that the seventh day of Adar is designated by tradition to honor the institution of the Hevra Kadisha, the "holy society"...
Fakes Fakes
Thursday, February 11, 2010 | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

The celebrated French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy had some explaining to do this week when it emerged that  a philosopher he'd respectfully cited was a figment of somebody else's imagination. Jewish history boasts its own roster of hoaxes and fabrications. Most famously, the Zohar, purportedly the teaching of talmudic mystics, was largely written in the 13th century. Another product of the Middle Ages was a pseudo-talmudic text imposing extraordinary stringencies on menstruating women.  In both cases, the authors clearly believed they were enunciating things that the ancients must have themselves believed. The authors of the Golem legend similarly believed that if Rabbi...
Mediterranean Maimonides Mediterranean Maimonides
Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

Civilizations come and go. Their greatest surviving creations remain. Such is the case with the work of Maimonides (1135–1204), a towering thinker, known to Jewish tradition as "the Great Eagle," who continues to defy easy characterization. Two new biographies depart from past treatments to situate the thought of this master philosopher within the Arabic civilization of his time, and more generally in the prism of the Mediterranean world. To the late scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein, the Mediterranean was a gracious, cross-cultural society that reached its apotheosis in the person of Maimonides' son Abraham, a Jewish devotee of Sufism. To Maimonides' more recent biographers, it...
Ezekiel’s Tomb Ezekiel’s Tomb
Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

Twenty-five centuries have passed since exiled Jews first wept for Zion by the waters of Babylon. Today only eight Jews are left in Iraq. Their story is not as well known as that of their European brethren, but in the Babylonian Talmud, for starters, Babylon-Iraq was home to the most influential post-biblical book in Jewish history. That it would become so was due to the Geonim, another extraordinary set of Iraqi rabbis who flourished in early Islamic times and whose most significant figure was Saadya ben Joseph (882/892–942). After the Middle Ages, creativity extended outward as well, with Iraqi Jews founding other...
The Harshness of Creation The Harshness of Creation
Wednesday, January 13, 2010 by | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

Like the 2004 tsunami that devastated southeast Asia, yesterday's catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, a poverty-stricken country with a legacy of home-grown violence and suffering, inevitably provoked the terrible question: where was God? One answer derives from Jewish religious sources, and specifically from the teachings of the Kabbalah. It has to do with tzimtzum, or contraction: that is, God's own contraction and limitation of Himself in order to make space for the finite—and invariably flawed—worlds of physical nature and human action. The idea was most famously developed in Safed, Palestine by the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria as part of a complicated, esoteric myth...
Some Things Never Go Away Some Things Never Go Away
Monday, January 4, 2010 | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

Nine years ago, according to recent reports in the Israeli media, the head of the country's leading forensic institute admitted to having transplanted tissues and organs—corneas, skin, heart valves, and bones—from deceased Jews, Palestinians, and foreign workers. It seems that the families of the decedents, while consenting to autopsies, had not consented to transplants. The practice was halted and the physician dismissed from his post. Old news, then. But the exact nature of the doctor's past actions, limited if clearly unethical, was lost in the furor aroused by the surfacing of this old news in late December. In Britain, the Guardian...
Emancipation & Its Discontents Emancipation & Its Discontents
Monday, December 14, 2009 | Jewish Ideas Daily » Daily Features

“One day [Jews are] being completely segregated, [and the] next thing you know, Napoleon comes through town, tears down the ghetto gates, and we can do whatever we like, sort of.” Thus the author Michael Goldfarb, describing the thesis of his recently published book, Emancipation. Especially in the cases of France and Germany, Goldfarb writes, there is no denying the profoundly liberating energies that were unleashed when the Jews, like a spring suddenly uncoiled, were enabled to join the larger societies in which they lived. Nor can there be any proper understanding of the larger course of modernity apart from this...
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Editors' Picks
Plato and the Talmud Alan Avery-Peck, Review of Biblical Literature. Philosophically, "Athens" and "Jerusalem" represent wholly incompatible viewpoints on the truth. Not so, argues a new book. (PDF)
In and Out of the Ghetto Roni Weinstein, H-Net. Meet Benedetto Blanis, a Jew in early modern Florence who taught Hebrew, alchemy, and kabbalah to one of the Medicis.
Next Year in Worms Michael Brenner, H-Net. The place where Rashi (1040–1105) studied and where the oldest European synagogue stood is now devoid of a Jewish community; but the memory lives on, if selectively.
The King's Talmud Geoffrey Clarfield, New English Review. Why Henry VIII needed to consult the Talmud, and what happened to the multi-volume edition he imported to England.
“The Center of the Whole World” Noam Dvir, Haaretz. A 16th-century German collection of maps includes a rendering of Jerusalem, a city "whose size and splendor marvels the imagination."
A Grisly Medieval Mystery BBC News. Seventeen skeletons of adults and children, found at the bottom of a well in Norwich, England, may be the remains of Jewish victims of persecution in the 12th or 13th century.
A Forgotten Diaspora Tobias O. Green, H-Judaic. Little-known Portuguese Jewish outposts in western Africa in the late-16th and early-17th centuries maintained lively trade relations with places as distant as Amsterdam, Morocco, and Brazil.
Dining under Siege Ronit Vered, Haaretz. On display at a museum in Jerusalem is the largest and most beautiful collection of Crusader kitchen utensils ever discovered in Israel.
Cities of Jewish Success Allan Nadler, Forward. From Bialystok in the east to Worms in the west, the story of great European centers of Jewish civilization is one of tremendous achievement followed, sooner or later, by crushing tragedy.
Her Secret Life Renée Levine Melammed, Jerusalem Post. María López, who chose baptism over expulsion from Spain in 1492, was later convicted of Judaizing and burned at the stake. Was she a crypto-Jew, or wasn't she?