Medieval Islam & The Dialogue Against the Jews (Peter Alfonsi)

Petrus Alphonsi (d. 1116) was a Jewish Spanish physicianwriterastronomer, and polemicist, who converted to Christianity in 1106. He is also known just as Alphonsi, and as Peter Alfonsi or Peter Alphonso and was born Moses Sephardi). Born in Islamic Spain, he mostly lived in England and France after his conversion (wiki). He is the author of Dialogue Against the Jews in which a protagonist names “Petrus” argues for Chrisitainity against a Jew named “Moses.” The dialogues reflects a contest between Alfonsi and his previous self. In the course of the dialogue against Judaism, there is an interesting chapter (5th Titulus) in which “Moses” asks why “Petrus” did not convert to Islam, which “Moses” describes in glowing terms. “Petrus” will go on to trash Islam, but the opening gambit put in the mouth of a Spanish Jew, a polemical persona of the Christian author’s former Jewish self is itself nothing short of remarkable for this particular image of Islam in medieval times. I am not so interested in posting here the response from “Petrus.” I want to rest for now with the image of a perfect religion.

Here’s what “Moses” had to say about Islam:

Moses: Up to this point, you have shown how worthless and inconsistent the faith of the Jewish nation is in every respect, and how irrational and unwelcome is its service to God; or you have demonstrated and disclosed, with the clearest arguments, why you have withdrawn from the faith of this same nation, and you have shown me the extent to which I have remained in error up to now. But I wonder why, when you abandoned your paternal faith, you chose the faith of the Christians rather than the faith of the Saracens, with whom you were always associated and raised. For I should like to bring to bear whatever obstacles I shall be able to, not only in regard to the Hebraic [sect] but even against that sect, so that, just as you hold out an argument about our [faith], so, too, you will hold out anargument concerning that one, with which it can be demolished. For you were always, as I said, associated with them and you were raised among them; you read [their] books, and you understand the language. You ought to have chosen this [part] before the rest, which is known to be more pleasing and more suitable than the others, so that I would take their role for myself. Indeed [their] law is generous. It contains many commands concerning the pleasures of this present life, by which fact divine love is shown to have been greatest toward them. Equally, it promises ineffable joys to its practicing members in return. If you should investigate the basis of this law, you will find that it is grounded on an unshakable foundation of reason. It is interesting that a  sign of this, namely, that God loved them and was unwilling to burden them with many precepts but spared them instead, is that he only commanded them to pray five times each day, but that to have perfect purity always before they pray, they should properly wash the buttocks [culum], sexual parts, hands, arms, mouth, nose, ears, eyes, hair and, last, the feet. Once having done this, they declaim in public, confessing the one God, who has none like or equal to him, and that Mohammad is his prophet. Also, they fast for an entire month during the year. On the other hand, when fasting, they eat at night time, but abstain during the day, so that, from that time of day when they will be able to distinguish a white thread from a black one by sight, until the sun sets, no one eats or drinks, nor presumes to befoul himself by intercourse with his wife. After the setting of the sun until twilight of the next day, however, it is always permitted to them to enjoy food and drink and their own wives, as much as pleases them. If someone is burdened with an illness or is on a journey, however, for as long as the period of his languor or his journey shall last, he is permitted to eat and to enjoy whatever he will; yet nevertheless later he should correct, when he is at liberty to do so, what he had fulfilled less from the necessity either of the illness or of the journey.

Moreover, all are commanded to go to the house of God once each year, which must be seen in Mecca, and there to worship, for the sake of a solitary self-examination; and, having clothed themselves with seamless garments, to circle it and, just as the law commands, to throw rocks backwards from between their legs to stone the devil. Moreover, they say that Adam constructed this house for the Lord when he had been banished from paradise, and it was a place of prayer for all his children, until Abraham came. Abraham, the servant of God, strengthened and restored it, however, and offered vows to the Lord in it, and offered sacrifices, and after [his] death left it to his son named Ishmael, and across all the centuries it remained for him and for all his children a place for praying, until Mohammad was born. After he was born, God promised it as an inheritance to him and to all his generations, as they claim. Besides this, their prophets are commanded to despoil, to capture, to slay, to pursue, and to blot out in every way the adversaries of God, unless they have chosen to repent and to be converted to their faith, or unless they have paid the tax of servitude imposed on them. All flesh is permitted to them to eat, moreover, except the flesh and blood of the pig [and] likewise carrion. And they reject whatever has been consecrated in the name of anything except God. In addition to this, it is permitted to them to have four lawful wives at the same time, and, having divorced one, to accept another at any time, though only so long as they never exceed the number four. This is observed in divorce, too: that it is permitted to divorce and to remarry the same one, up to three times. It will be permitted to have female slaves [empticiae] and captives, as many as [a man] will, and he will have unrestricted power for selling them and buying them back again, [yet] in such a way that once he has made one pregnant, he can in no way bind her by the yoke of another servitude. It is also granted to them to take wives from their own kin, so that the bloodline [sanguinis proles] may increase and so that the bond of amity grow stronger among them. You yourself know very well that among them legal judgments regarding claims to property are the same as they are among the Hebrews, so that the plaintiff proves [his case] with witnesses and the defendant defends himself with an oath. Moreover, they accept only the most worthy and proven persons as witnesses, and those whom they can believe without an oath. In certain other respects, as well, they keep to the practice of the law of Moses, so that he who has shed the blood of a man is punished with the same punishment, and a man who has been caught in adultery is stoned along with the adulterous woman. Moreover, a man who has engaged in fornication with another woman will be subject to eighty lashes. Such a punishment as this is laid down for a thief: for the first and second offense he will endure eighty lashes, for the third he will lose a hand, for the fourth a foot, and one who has removed a limb from any man may redeem [it] with an appropriate price. All these precepts were set forth by God, lest, if any license for acting were too broad, ruin should quickly befall the entire people. They are commanded to abstain always from wine, since it is the kindling for, and the seedbed of, all sin. These are [only] the principal commandments of the law, since it would take too long to tarry over individual ones. And God promised to those believing in him and in Mohammad, his faithful prophet, and to those fulLlling the commandments of his law, a paradise, that is, a garden of delights, irrigated with Mowing waters, in which they will have thrones everlasting. The shade of trees will protect them, and they will not suffer from either cold or heat. They will eat from the kinds of every fruit and of every food. Whatever appetite suggests to any one, he will immediately set before him. They will be clothed with silk garments of all colors. They will recline in delights, and the angels will pass among them as table servants with gold and silver vessels,16 offering milk in the gold ones and wine in the silver, saying: “Eat and drink in complete joy, and, behold, what God promised you has been fulfilled.” They will be joined to virgins, whom neither human nor demonic contact has violated, more beautiful in form than the splendor of hyacinth and coral. These goods will be given to believers, whereas for those who do not believe in God and his prophet Mohammad there will be infernal punishment without end. Regardless of the number of sins by which every man is bound, yet on the day of his death if he shall believe in God and Mohammad, he will be saved on the day of judgment with Mohammad intervening for him. Since from childhood, no less, you have known that these things and many others, which would take too long to enumerate, were written and were held in the greatest veneration by the entire race of the Saracens, then why have you followed the Christian rather than the Muslim [Muzalemitica] religion? Will you better enjoy the felicity of the present life and equally enjoy that of the future life as well?

Petrus Alfsonsi, Dialogue Against the Jews, translated by Irven M. Resnick, (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006), (146-50)

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Virtual Reality Of Holocaust Memory

There is probably no way around that the future of Holocaust memory is going to be virtual. As explained here by Esther Zandberg, architecture critic at Ha’aretz, “The litany of new terms appearing in ads for virtual exhibitions at Holocaust museums are somewhat disconcerting: ‘experiential,’ ‘technological innovation,’ ‘virtual reality,’ ‘augmented reality,’ ‘an exhibition that changes the rules of the game,’ ‘a revolution in Holocaust commemoration.’”

Assuming that technological systems determine the form of culture, and that our own contemporary culture is technological, the only question is how to do make the Holocaust virtual,” with what skill, with what kind of “realism,” and with what kind of ethical circumspection. These are critical matters of taste and tact. My own interest in this relates to the “sense” conveyed in these kinds of display formats.

The philosophical point that should catch the eye relates to “semblance” and simulation. As explored already by Susanne Langer in Feeling and Form (1953), especially in relation to modern art, the semblance of sight, sound, feeling, smell, taste, event that is carried in viritual systems falls under an overarching semblance of “life.” Zandberg captures some of this in her article. “The transition to advanced media that breathe ‘life’ into the displays is particularly necessary now, Ulaby writes, ‘at a time when hate crimes have risen sharply and members of Congress have trivialized survivors’ experiences. Holocaust museum directors say [survivors’] stories are more important than ever.’”

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Moral Meaning and the Holocaust (James Loeffler)

This piece here by James Loeffler on the one and the many and the Holocaust and comparative analysis is superbly nuanced. Of particular interst is Raphael Lemkin and the formulation of intenrational protocols defining genocide. While I do not necessarily disagree with Loeffler on the imperative to compare, this one line caught my attention as the nub of a critical problem. In a this discussion of law, “moral” is a keyword. There is the danger of moral equivalence, on the one hand, and the challgenge of moral action and moral reasoning, on the other hand. According to Loeffler, “Not all Holocaust scholarship must be comparative, but we cannot dismiss wholesale the comparative study of genocide if we wish the Holocaust to bear moral meaning.” I’m not sure, though, if instances of catastrophic suffering, each one unique in its own uniqueness, should be burdened by the burden of having to carry “moral meaning.” That demand seems unduly harsh, but maybe Loeffler meant legal meaning, legal action, legal reasoning, which would make more sense. Morally, maybe do not compare x and y, assuming that there is nothing more cruelly parochial, nothing more “morally meaningless” than what is perhaps the dumb experience of collective human suffering.

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(ADL) Anti-Semitism Algorithm

Critics of the ADL are invited to pile on, but, for all that, I am posting here a precis and the full report here of their Online Hate Index. It’s an AI program whose alogrithm tracks anti-Semitic content at Twitter and Reddit. Controversies surrounding the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and to anti-Semitism and Israel are referred to here in this article at the JTA here as well as here by the ADL Of more interest to me is virtual reality, the interface between anti-Semitism and technology, the challenge of scale as it informs the expression of hate online, and the correlation between human and machine learning. With Elon Musk about to take over Twitter, the project has new urgency. There is this article here at the JTA for a brief sketch on anti-Semitism at Twitter.

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(James Loeffler) After Charlottesville: Antisemitism, Race, Law (Rudolph Lecture)

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Sefat Emet Passover

I added here a digest of the Sefat Emet on Passover to this digest of the Sefat Emet, but you’ll have to scroll down to the bottom or word-search “Passover.”

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The Hasidic Seder Plate is an Objet de Fantasie

I’ll post more later from Batsheva Goldman-Ida’s Hasidic Art and Kabbalah, but I want to share these three pictures in particular for the Passover holiday. In part, I’m choosing these three photographs because they are themselves rather remarkable. The photographs by Shlomo Dov Yudovin (1892–1954) were taken as part of the famous An-Sky ethnographic expedition to Volhynia and Podolia between 1912-1914. Goldman-Ida informs us that the three photographs are now in two separate collections: one in the Yudovin collection in the Isidore and Anne Falk Information Center for Jewish Art and Life of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, the other two in the collection of the Center “Petersburg Judaica” at the European University of St. Petersburg (Hasidic Art and Kabbalah, p.157).

Hasidism has an object quality to it that looks like these fantastic things. The photographs by Yudovin are well-lit in their frozen sharpness while the plates convey the sense of bright and metallic forms of animal life. This form of Jewish spirituality is not abstract. Its animality is critical. The utter weirdness of the elaborate arrangement caught in the photographic emanation is both naturalistic and supra-naturalistic. The brittle figures float off the surface of the plates. They are transformed in the natural order of supernatural things, in the supernatural order of natural things. As per Goldman-Ida, these old Hasidic seder plates belong to a romantic and eclectic nineteenth century tradition of “magnificent tableware.” Like the religion of Hasidism, the old Hasidic seder plate is itself what she identifies as an objet de fantaisie. The tableware were in fashion in Russia from 1840 onward and known as “galanterie.”

I want to speculate that the origin and character of these seder plates tell us something about the religious fantasy life of Hasidism, a tradition traced by Goldman-Ida back to Mannerism in sixteenth-century Italy, “The eclecticism of the early decades of the nineteenth century … was swept by revival after revival. Classicism sustained a long popularity; the Rococo was reborn; the Renaissance and the Baroque appear incongruously side by side. A designer would often select a style from this wide choice for its associations…. One important characteristic prevailed: plates in the Rococo, Renaissance, Gothic, Chinoiserie, and Baroque styles all evince a passion for extravagant ornament” (pp.160-1).

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(Marc Chagall) Les Israélites mangent l’Agneau de la Pâque (1931)

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(Still Lachrymose) The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom (Robert Chazan)

Invaluable for students of Jews and Jewish Studies is the focus Robert Chazan puts on Christians and Christendom in this neat little survey. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 is maybe the best one-stop-shop historical study explaining what happened to the medieval Jews in western Europe, primarily in France and Germany with an eye on southern Europe, Britain, and Spain. While it includes chapters and sections on the (religious) culture of the Jews., the emphasis is on political history: the shifting conditions of Jewish society in relation to Christian secular and ecclesiastical elites, an emergent burgher class, and popular anti-Jewish animosity. The arc to this telling of the story starts with our own non-knowledge about Jewish life in western Europe prior to the eleventh century, official charters and papal rulings encouraging and protecting Jewish settlement and Jews from abuse and harm, the intensification of Christian devotional life around the suffering humanity of Jesus, Crusader massacres, money-lending, blood libels and other rumors about Jewish blasphemy, anti-Jewish disputations, the putting of the Talmud on trial, the Black Death, more massacres, and a wave of expulsions that concludes the period.

Chazan wants to resist the lachrymose version of medieval Jewish history on what basis? The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 is consistently, almost uniformly bleak despite this or that silver lining in the main body of the study; the concluding non-lachrymose epilogue works something like a backstop. Going back to Salo Baron, cultural creativity has always been the salve that binds up for non-lachrymose historians the deeply painful parts of this period. To look past catastrophe is to lose oneself in Jewish cultural creativity. One enters into the inside of the historical frame and to see there quotidian life alongside all the beautiful things, the holy and fantastical things. At the same time, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 can do this only incidentally because its topic is political history, not an exploration of cultural memory; also because it looks at its subject in the round, from the beginning to the end.

One thing made clear to the reader is how the politics for Jews in northern Europe was precarious and double-edged. In France and England, political authority was centralized, whereas in Germany there was no strong central authority. In both cases, royal elites invited Jewish settlement into the territories under their rule and then expelled Jews under their territorial authority. For their part, ecclesiastical elites maintained the synthesis articulated by Augustine to subjugate but not to slay the Jews, even as that synthesis began to give way as the Church and Christian life became increasingly aggressive in the twelfth century. Elite political actors in centralized political systems in England and France were able to protect the Jews until they found it politically expedient to expropriate their property and expel them from the territories under their control as these began to expand. In contrast, political life was decentralized in German speaking lands, which meant that elite political actors were unable to shield Jews against popular animus, scattered abuse, and moments of overwhelming violence (pp.170, 219-31). Socially isolated and uniquely vulnerable to economic ruin, Jewish life could flourish in western Europe only under indefinite protection.

Non-lachrymose in The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 would be the analysis of the in-between time in relation to place, the conceptualization of Jewish society as one marked by extraordinary mobility, economic adroitness, self-government, skillful political maneuvering, and cultural creativity. Chazan goes so far as to see in this a vanguard of modernity” (p.287, emphasis added). Jewish life is described as expanding, evolving, adapting, absorbing into a larger and dynamic cultural framework for living as Jews and Jewish society move from a predominantly Muslim milieu into a Christian one (p.23). (That the Jewish medieval world could only look this way by comparing these aspects to modernity is itself worth noting.)  Chazan charts a five-hundred-year population shift of Jews further and further east, pulled into the hinterlands of western Christendom, finally into Poland and Hungary. On the one hand, the very newness of Jewish communities in medieval northern-western Europe contributed to an original sense of their foreignness. On the other hand, the span of even only a couple centuries is already a long time, creating a sense of belonging in England, and even more so in France and Spain.

Very lachrymose is this conclusion regarding that sense of belonging. “Just as the Christian majority was deeply ambivalent about the Jews in its midst, so too the Jewish minority was ambivalent and uncertain about the majority Christian ambience in which it found itself” (p.76). With the author wanting to overcome “folk memory,” the epilogue does nothing to dispel the stark heaviness that weighs down the overarching political narrative in the main body of the book. Instead of ordinary lived life, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 follows the documentary evidence that marks this period, some of which Chazan collected in Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (1980). The two volumes can be read in tandem, one with the other. Neither study does anything to document “warm human contact” between Christians and Jews. That “voices in modern Europe” who today espouse diversity “have come to revaluate and esteem the medieval Jewish contribution to the ideal of a heterogenous society” is something of a head-scratcher (pp.285-6). That western Europe was no longer a center of Jewish life by the end of this period is itself a lachrymose thought.

A study of Jewish women and Jewish folk piety, the work of Rashi, Tosafists, Hasidei Ashkenaz can do the non-lachrymose work in ways that a comprehensive survey that sets Jewish life in its Christian cultural and political context cannot. These cultural linings would be charming fragments of the past; they flare up to us in the present, tugging at the fold between a sense of timelessness and time, place and placelessness. My suspicion is that the historians can only win in the struggle with lachrymose folk memory by deciding to freeze-frame this or that item or moment. In contrast to this kind of local study, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 follows a five-hundred-year arc with a beginning, middle, and end. It is not a static picture. There is no eternal present. This is not a study of a large people in their own land. The Jews do not remain in place. In time, the Jews are moved out.

Not static and very lachrymose is what Chazan himself calls “the dynamics of deterioration” are traced to the twelfth century (pp.239-42). As more Jews move into Christian domains, the more Christians actually come to meet living Jews and to know something of their traditions even. Now the deleterious image of the Jew drawn from the Gospels, the emotional imagery of the Crucifixion, and ecclesiastic law are brought into play, determining parameters of Jewish life defined in terms of enmity (p.34). No longer ambivalent, Chazan calls this medieval vision of Jewish enmity “an overwhelming image.” Meant to excite Christian piety, the Jews are no longer biblical stock figures; they are enemies in the “here-and-now.” Assumed is that these images “reflect,” or I would say shape, widespread perceptions. More fluid and less containable than doctrine and policy, the wild and excessive anti-Jewish imagery, never subject to church control, hangs over the gothic edifice of Jewish life in the medieval Christian west (pp.66-70). It is impossible to look past that gaze.

Thinking about The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500, I’m not sure what the historian brings to folk memory apart from more precision.

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Stone Cold Truth at Tablet is Schlock

Tablet Magazine is not a serious outlet. It comes across as petty and small bore. The Sunday New York Times on Sunday, April 10, 2022 ran wrenching stories about massacres in Ukraine and state repression in Russia as it seems to be slipping into totalitarianism. In the middle of it all, Tablet pays for a full-page ad. Under the bold banner of “stone cold truth,” Tablet buries rightwing Jewish bullet points in a pile of schlock: “The Kashrut of Fake Pork,” “Separate and Unequal for Jewish Groups on Campus,” “When Ray Charles Sang ‘Hava Nagila’ with David Ben-Gurion,” “This Isn’t Obama’s Iran Deal. It’s Much, Much worse,” “Why Yiddish is Funny,” and the like. A few pages over, Holocaust museums also pay for a full page ad protesting Russian aggression and genocide in Ukraine.

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