The video opens with Abba Eban walking meditatively down the central aisle of the Toledo synagogue, later renamed Santa Maria la Blanca by the Christians. There he reflects on the glories of Jewish life on the Iberian peninsula under the rule of Islam.|
The profound interaction of Jewish and Muslim cultures that was the hallmark of this remarkable period saw its origins in the mid-tenth century when Abd-al-Rahman III united the peninsula under his strong and capable rule. Students will learn from the program and the readings how this unique cooperation between Jews and Muslims and the cultural symbiosis which resulted were able to develop.
Seeking to make his country independent of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, whose international empire was discussed in the last chapter, Abd-al-Rahman declared himself a caliph, moved his capital to Cordova and undertook an extensive building campaign. Palaces, fountains, universities and libraries were constructed as the new monarch created a glittering cultural center to rival the Baghdadian capital.
As Abba Eban remarks while standing in the Great Mosque of Cordova, Abd-al-Rahman, in order to foster greater independence from the East, supported local Muslim scholars, enabling them to continue their intellectual activities. Encouraged by the Muslim example, the Jewish community and its leader, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a diplomat in the caliph's service, sought to free the local Jews from the cultural dominance of Baghdadian Jewry and its institutions. The student should note that only in such an atmosphere of political, intellectual and financial support was Spanish Jewish culture able to flourish. Hasdai and his coterie patronized poets, philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians, and breathed a new spirit and cultural vitality into Andalusian Jewry.
Chapter Four of the Study Guide explains how Hasdai ibn Shaprut's career marked a major watershed in Jewish cultural life in al-Andalus, the area of the peninsula controlled by the Muslims. As Professor Ruderman explains, Hasdai saw his mission as threefold: first, to serve the caliph; second, to seek the welfare of the Jews throughout the world; and third, to encourage Jewish learning. Al-Andalusi's testimony in Selection 1 of the Source Reader attests to Hasdai's role as the founder of Andalusian Jewish culture. And Selection 5 shows that this culture was not dominated by biblical and Talmudic learning but reflected a remarkable concern with poetry, philosophy and the sciences, among other subjects. Indeed, the Study Guide emphasizes that this was the curriculum for the creation of a new, prototypical cultured Jewish gentleman. Hasdai, however, was not concerned solely with the local Jewry. He was interested in and corresponded with other Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world. Hasdai's epistle to the Khazars, reproduced as Selection 2, illustrates the Jewish leader's personal interest in the fate of far-flung Jewry.
As the Umayyad Caliphate splintered into small petty kingdoms, Jews were still valued by the rulers and rose to high positions in the various governments. One such individual who became vizier to the king of Granada was Samuel ibn Naghrela, probably one of the most politically powerful Jews of the Middle Ages. Not only was Samuel a superb diplomat; he was a commander of his king's armies. He combined his military talents with his exceptional poetic abilities and wrote military verse, one of the first Jews in hundreds of years to engage in such an endeavor. A fine example of this writing appears in Source Reader Selection 3, in which Samuel exults in his victory over the commander of the armies of Seville, the chief enemy of Granada. Samuel possesses a simple faith in God, to whom he is thankful for his triumph.
Samuel was also a superb Talmudist, a brilliant grammarian and a noted polemicist. As a father, he cultivated his son Joseph to succeed him as vizier. But Andalusian Jewish courtiers were trusted by the rulers not only because of their reliability and expertise but also because the monarchs held the fate of the Jewish community in their hands as collateral for the Jews' good offices. Joseph, for unknown reasons, fell from grace in the Granadan court, and immediately thereafter the Jewish community of Granada was ransacked and many Jews were murdered. A poetic attack on Granada's Jews, which may well have reflected general Muslim resentment to such powerful Jews, can be found in Source Reader Selection 4.
Andalusian Jews, called Sephardim, were influenced by the Muslim cultural model and became superb linguists, mathematicians, astronomers and especially poets. Some examples of these Jews' poetry, which encompass a variety of subjects and moods, are compiled in Source Reader Selection 6. One of them, the great Jewish writer Judah ha-Levi, is also recited in the program. There he speaks movingly of his longing for the Holy Land, although he is living comfortably in the luxurious West.
Judah ha-Levi was also a first-rate philosopher. In his "Book of the Khazars," he attempted to demonstrate the superiority of Judaism over Christianity, Islam and contemporary philosophical doctrine. Ha-Levi describes the fate of the Jewish people among the nations of the world in an excerpt from the work found in Source Reader Selection 7.
Probably the greatest son of medieval Sephardic Jewry was an individual who, while born on the Iberian peninsula, spent most of his adult life in Cairo. He is beloved by Spaniards as well as Jews, and a monument to the illustrious Moses Maimonides stands today within the former Jewish quarter of Cordova, which is shown in the video. Maimonides was forced to flee Andalusia because of the intolerance of the fanatical Muslims who conquered the southern areas of the peninsula in the twelfth century. In Cairo, he became physician to the sultan, but most important from the vantage point of Jewish tradition were the great contributions to Jewish law and philosophy that he wrote while living in the Egyptian capital. The hectic daily schedule Maimonides followed is described in
one of his letters. It forms the first part of Selection 9, a compilation of Maimonides' epistles, and is read in the video.
Maimonides wrote an authoritative code of Jewish law, the "Mishneh Torah," and a philosophical masterpiece called "The Guide of the Perplexed." The latter was a bold attempt to synthesize the teachings of Aristotelianism with Judaism. Maimonides believed that law and philosophy were intimately connected; excerpts from his two major works appear in Source Reader Selection 8. As Abba Eban comments, his work served to "illuminate the work of scholars of other faiths for centuries to come."
The heyday of Muslim control over Andalusia came to an end. Slowly, the Iberian Christians who had been residing in the northern areas of the peninsula began to conquer the Muslim territories.
It was generally a time of resurgent Christian political and military power throughout Europe, with a resultant increase in commercial traffic among the Christians. European leaders turned to the Jews for help in establishing new centers of trade. In one such invitation, Bishop Rudiger, the feudal lord of Speyer, granted the Jews a charter of residence so that they might help improve Speyer's economy. Note the charter in Source Reader Selection 9 and the guarantees for Jews stated there. As Abba Eban notes, the Jews were allowed to practice fully their own religion.
Map 6 of the Study Guide shows the resultant growth of the Jewish communities throughout Europe. Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, known as Rashi, was one of the major founders of Jewish scholarship in these Northern European, or Ashkenazic, lands. A sequence of the video, filmed inside Rashi's study, shows where this great biblical and Talmudic scholar lived and worked.
However, Ashkenazic Jewish culture was not as open to its surrounding milieu as Sephardic culture, which had developed in receptive al-Andalus. Students should especially note the statuary of the medieval church shown in the program, in which. Judaism is portrayed as wearing a blindfold because of her refusal to accept Jesus. In such a culture, Jews perforce remained apart.
Triumphant Christianity sought to translate its perceived theological superiority into far-flung military gains. Pope Urban II called for a crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslim infidel. Urban's call to arms is depicted in the program. The problem for the Jews was that the rabble who attached themselves to the crusading armies often believed that, before fighting the Muslim infidel, one might as well begin with killing the Jews, the most accursed of God's peoples. Indeed, thousands of Jews were murdered and many were forced to convert to Christianity. Many Jews, in an unparalleled act of martyrdom, took their lives during the Crusades rather than convert to Christianity. The events at the city of Mainz were recorded in a heart-rending chronicle that is excerpted in Source Reader Selection 11. It should be noted that not
all Crusaders wished to kill the Jews. Compare Source Reader Selection 12, in which Bernard of Clairvaux demanded that Jewish life and property not be harmed. Yet theological distinctions on how Jews were to be treated were often lost on the Christian masses.
Rising anti-Judaism was the order of the day, although the German Jewish communities that were destroyed were quickly reestablished. The Jews were frequently associated with the. Devil and anti-Christ figures. Some of these perceptions are graphically expressed in Source Reader Selection 13. Once identified in the popular mind as satanic beings, the Jews were accused of all sorts of horrible acts. The most fantastic of these was ritual murder (see Source Reader Selection 14): Jews were believed to kidnap and murder Christian children in order to reenact the crucifixion of Christ. Often the Christians claimed the Jews used the children's blood in the baking of matzah, the unleavened bread that is eaten on Passover. These ridiculous accusations often led to the murder of Jews and the destruction of their property.
Virulent anti-Judaism was joined at this time by the intense feelings of economic competition that the rising Christian burgher class harbored towards the Jews who resided in the nascent cities. Since the Jews' help was no longer wanted in building the urban centers, they were pushed into moneylending, an important function in a commercial society but one that the Christians believed was forbidden to them by Christian law. Placed in an occupation that the Christians considered odious, the Jews were further alienated from the mainstream of society.
As the thirteenth century approached, the Church changed its official policy towards the Jews. It adopted new offensive postures towards rabbinic Judaism, arguing that rabbinic literature was full of blasphemies against God and Jesus and that it generally contained stupidities. In Paris in 1240 the Talmud itself was put on trial and Talmudic tomes were burned in the street. In Barcelona in 1263 a new trend emerged in the use of rabbinic literature. In a public disputation in which the Jewish protagonist was the noted Moses Nahmanides, Dominicans and Franciscans attempted to prove from rabbinic literature the truth and validity of Christianity. (See Source Reader Selection 18.) As the video notes, these attitudes must be seen as part of the thirteenth-century Christian preoccupation with heretical ideas and values.
Other evidence of the Church's negative attitude towards Jews can be found in thirteenth-century Church legislation such as the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, in which the Jews were accused of taking excessive usury and were forced to wear separate garb so that they could be identified as being different from Christians. In the video, note the illustrations of Jews wearing pointed hats and special badges.
The rise of anti-Judaism, coupled with increased economic exclusion, led to physical attacks against the Jews, such as those that occurred in the
town of York in 1190 and are movingly depicted in the TV show. Eventually, these factors caused the expulsion of the Jews from Northern Europe. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306 and from various areas of Germany over the course of the fifteenth century.
The Black Death
The pent-up anti-Jewish resentments exploded in the middle of the fourteenth century when the Black Death decimated Europe. The massacres of the Jews at this time precipitated a mass Jewish movement by the end of the fourteenth century toward the east, shifting the center of Ashkenazi life to Poland, Lithuania, and other eastern frontier lands.
The origins of the Black Death are difficult to ascertain, but it was clearly the Bubonic Plague, and was propagated by rats and unsanitary conditions in an era that had no notion of microbic infections. Seeking an explanation for the devastation of its populace, Christian Europeans started rumors that the despised Jews had poisoned the Christians' wells.
The resulting slaughters of entire Jewish communities were actually just an intensified manifestation of the religious and economic demonization of Jews that had accelerated in the preceding centuries.
The Jews had little choice but to flee the hatred, death, and destruction of medieval western and central Europe. While scattered Jewish communities would precariously remain in the Germanic lands, a wholesale exodus to the frontier areas of eastern Europe ensued.
Professor Ruderman, in a flashback on Jewish culture in medieval Europe, traces the intellectual endeavors of Ashkenazic Jews, especially those of Rashi, mentioned above, and of the ba'alei tosafot glossators who discussed Rashi's Talmudic commentaries. He also details the rise of new forms of mysticism, especially focusing on the doctrine of the sefirot. (See Source Reader Selection 16, which illustrates some of Ashkenazic Jewry's intellectual preoccupations as reflected in the ethical wills of two noted Jews. Selection 17 is a fine selection of responsa by a great halakhic authority, from which the student can observe how Jewish law was developed and adapted to new circumstances. Selection 18 indicates one Spanish rabbi's attitude towards the place of philosophical and mystical inquiry within Judaism: Solomon ibn Adret was concerned that the study of philosophy and mysticism could, in some cases, have corrosive effects on the practice of Jewish law and tradition.)
Tragedy in Spain
Although the Iberian peninsula in the thirteenth century had been newly conquered by the Christians, the Jews there, unlike those in the rest of Western Europe, played an important intellectual and economic role. It was they who translated Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin. Note the graphics of Jewish scholars in the program. They also helped the Christian rulers administer the new territories, reapportion the conquered land and revitalize the cities, and were engaged as diplomatic go-betweens with the defeated Muslim forces.
Even in Spain, the European land most hospitable to Jews, the influences of northern Christian Europe began to be felt. In 1391, violence against Jews erupted throughout much of the peninsula. Many Jews were killed and many others were forcibly converted to Christianity. One Jew's reaction to the tragedies of 1391 is seen in Source Reader Selection 14: in classic Jewish tradition, Solomon Alami turned inward and blamed the tragedy on moral shortcomings of the Jews.
Profiat Duran, a Jew who converted to Christianity, remained faithful in his heart to his Jewish brethren. An excerpt from his satirical work can be found in Source Reader Selection 20.
Since the converts were not easily assimilated into Christian society, calls arose demanding an inquiry into the sincerity of their conversion and their Christian practices. The Spanish Inquisition was launched and, according to its investigations, discovered that Judaism was threatening the Christianity of these new converts. The inquisitors, together with Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Castile and Aragon, decided to expel the Jews from their dominions unless they chose to convert.
Although Jews were expelled from other European countries, this expulsion was the most massive and repercussive, for it was on Spanish soil that the Jews had reached their highest positions in the Middle Ages and had entered into fruitful intellectual and cultural contact with the local inhabitants. Many Jews set sail in 1492, and a contemporary account written by Don Isaac Abravanel, the last of the great Spanish Jewish courtiers, speaks eloquently of the pain and suffering experienced by the exiles. With the elimination of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula, almost no Jews were left in Western Europe, and the period of medieval Jewish history was brought to a close.