Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Agesjan peczkis|Tuesday, August 16, 2016
This work is mostly about the internal affairs of Jewish communities in Europe. Owing to its exhaustive detail, I focus on a number of items relevant to Jewish-gentile relations. [My review is based on the 1993 hardback edition, by Jacob Katz and Bernard Dov Cooperman.]
CHRISTIANS ARE NOT IDOLATERS. BUT WHAT EXACTLY DOES THAT MEAN?The author repeats his earlier contention that, owing to increasing commercial contacts with Christians, combined with the fact of Talmudic prohibitions against Jews dealing with heathen, the Jews were thereby forced to disavow Christians as idolaters, and to reframe the Talmudic antigoyism as applicable only to the non-Jews of ancient times (Canaanites, Romans, etc.). The same line of reasoning was employed as a defense by Jews during medieval disputations.There are numerous problems with Katz’ chain or reasoning, which I elaborate in my review of Katz’ Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Scripta Judaica, 3), to which I refer the interested reader. In the present book, Yaacov Katz weakens his own argument, as he admits that, (quote) While contemporary thinkers acknowledged that Christianity at least approximated belief in one God, this view never penetrated deeply into public consciousness, and it is questionable whether it was even integrated into the philosophies of these thinkers themselves. (unquote)(p. 25). [Katz does not go far enough. In normative practice, Jews commonly reckoned Christians as idolaters--even in recent times. See the first comment under this review.]R. Moses Isserles (1525-1572) permitted Jews to engage in the trade of Christian religious objects. He called the Rosary “strings of knots called PTOR HAVILIM” (p. 20), which apparently is a play on PATER NOSTER, and which means “unravel vanities”. (p. 261). [The informed reader probably realizes that, in Jewish thinking, vanity and polytheism are conflated.]THE DUAL MORALITY OF THE TALMUD IN CONTEXTAuthor Jacob Katz portrays, what he acknowledges as the duality in Jewish law and ethics, as something that was primarily relevant to the time when Jews lived on their own land, and needed methods to protect themselves from the contamination of the pagans that lived among them. This could include such severe Talmudic measures as permitting theft from a gentile, refraining from saving a gentile’s life, and even the destruction of gentiles. (p. 32).
[So what’s this commonly-voiced complaint about Polish anti-Semitism? If Jews can defend their culture from inimical pagan influences, as Jews see fit, why cannot the Poles defend their nation and Catholic culture from inimical Jewish influences, as Poles see fit?]
Of course, the issues ran deeper. Elsewhere, Jacob Katz acknowledges (p. 36) that Jews assumed themselves to be better than other peoples.
HALAKHIC DECISIONS REGARDING "JEWS CAN CHEAT GENTILES": AN INTRODUCTION
The author squarely examines this controversial and oft-emotional issue. He goes into considerable detail.
Let the reader first consider, for example, the situation where a gentile thought that a bowl he was selling was made of copper, when it was actually made of gold, and the Jewish buyer knowingly and admittedly shortchanged the gentile. In a similar situation involving the sale of barrels, the Jewish buyer "relied on the gentile". [BABA KAMMA 113b. I invite the reader to look this up in the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino version), as I did.]
Now let us examine the ramifications of the foregoing. Whatever the merits of the Talmud-does-not-apply-to-Christians argument, many of its provisions certainly can. Consider Ya’ir Hayim Bacharach (b. Moses Samson, d. 1702). Katz comments, “R. Bacharach was not only a halakhic expert; as is well known, he was also possessed of broad erudition and was familiar with current events…Note that Bacharach also ruled that from a halakhic point of view it was permissible to profit from a gentile’s error.” (pp. 270-271).
Note that Bacharach said this now 1,200 years after the last of the Talmud had been written down! We thus clearly see that this was NOT a long-defunct issue of Talmudic times, applicable only to ancient pagans. Moreover, it remained a subject of ongoing rabbinical debate, as elaborated in the next section.
HOW UTILITARIAN ARE JEWISH ETHICS?
As noted earlier, the antigoyism of the Talmud had to be softened because the circumstances of Jewish life in Europe prevented its full implementation. Thus, Katz writes, (quote) The conditions under which Jewish society lived necessitated the cancellation of those laws concerning relations with gentiles that, if followed, could have brought tragedy down upon the community. Questions of ethics aside, utilitarian considerations forbade the Jews of the Middle Ages and of sixteenth through eighteenth centuries to rule that theft from a gentile was permissible. But such rules could not simply be arbitrarily revoked. Rather, traditional methods of exegesis, the twisting of the legal ruling in the desired direction, were used to negate the tradition. In this manner, already in the Middle Ages it was declared that theft from a gentile is forbidden. Indeed, IF THE MATTER MIGHT BECOME KNOWN TO GENTILES and thus result in the "desecration of God's name," even misleading a gentile was forbidden. Under similar circumstances one was obliged to return something that a gentile had lost. Still, the fact that these two rulings, returning the lost article and not misleading the gentile, DEPENDED ON WHETHER OR NOT THE MATTER MIGHT BECOME KNOWN bears witness to the fact that the older rule was not negated in principle. Profiting from a gentile’s error when the Jew had no part in that error was not forbidden, and the Jew could do so with no pangs of conscience. During the Middle Ages and into the modern era we continue to find halakhic authorities deciding which of two Jews had the right to profit from a gentile’s mistake when there was some doubt as to who held the property in question first. (unquote)(Emphasis added). (pp. 33-34).
[The reader should consider the practical implications, of taking advantage of a gentile's mistake, in light of the fact that, for many centuries, Jews had knowledge and experience with monetary matters in a way that few gentiles did. The consequences are not difficult to deduce. How often did it happen, for example, that a Polish peasant or even nobleman turned to a Jewish usurer for help, while not fully understanding either the financial consequences of indebtedness, or his vulnerability to being taken advantaged of?]
IMPLICATIONS OF UTILITARIAN ETHICS
We can now move beyond what I call “hard utilitarianism” (e. g., the fear of being caught) with what I call “soft utilitarianism” (e. g, not defiling oneself). Katz (p. 272) cites Zvi Ashkenazi (1660-1718), who wrote that the Torah command for Jews not to harm plants or animals [or the GOYIM] is not for the sake of the object of the action, but for the Jew—so that he can implant upright qualities in his soul.
What about the emergence of ethics as abstract—as opposed to utilitarian—principle, among the Jews? Katz consider this a relatively recent development. (p. 37).
JEWS, FARMING, AND REAL ESTATE
The author rejects the argument that Jews generally avoided land ownership, and agriculture, because they were forbidden to do so. They did so by choice. In medieval Poland, there had been no restrictions on Jews owning land (p. 273), and the prohibitions against land ownership, in other nations, were no more decisive than those, for example, directed against Jewish involvement in coin minting, in which the Jews nevertheless engaged. (p. 41).
Instead, Yaacov Katz repeats the argument that Jews avoided owning land because they constantly anticipated relocation, and so needed their wealth to be portable. This, too, is not supported by the facts. Please click on, and read my detailed review (October 23, 2012), of The Chosen Few : How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 (Paperback)--by Maristella Botticini [2014 Edition].
JEWS ACTIVELY UPHOLD JEWISH ECONOMIC PRIVILEGES. (WHY JEWS WERE BOYCOTTED)
The author dissents from the notion that Jews created capitalism. Instead, Katz sees Jews as eventual large-scale participants in the pre-existing gentile-created state capitalism and free-market capitalism. (pp. 45-on).
In particular, Katz rejects Werner Sombart’s contention that Jews were long committed to the principles of free trade. He writes, (quote) …many communal ordinances were intended to protect the economic interests of Jewish society from external competition, and this consideration provided a convincing argument, or at least a rationalization, for maintaining monopolies among members of Jewish society: Unrestrained competition was ultimately to the benefit of the non-Jews upon whom the Jews depended for their livelihood. In order “not to lose Jewish money”, it was necessary for Jews to limit competition among themselves. (unquote). (p. 50).
According to Katz (p. 278), the foregoing principle was based on the Talmudic phrase, “The Torah cares for the money of the Jews” (YOMA, folio 39a)(and regardless of the exact context of its Talmudic usage). [In the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino version) YOMA 39a, reads, ‘The Torah has consideration for the money of Israel’. See also YOMA 44b.]
[Consider some implications for this in terms of Polish-Jewish relations. The centuries-old Jewish hegemony over Poles was maintained in part by the naturally self-perpetuating character of inequities, and in part by Jews “sticking together” to drive nascent Polish competitors out of business. This was answered by the (much-condemned but frankly understandable) Endek-led boycotts of Jewish businesses in pre-WWII Poland. There was no other way of ending the Jewish economic dominance of Poland, and of creating appreciable numbers of business opportunities for Poles.]
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