"There are already many fine books on the history of the Jews in the Middle Ages," writes Theodore L. Steinberg, an English professor at State University of New York, in the preface to his Jews and Judaism in the Middle Ages (Wesport: Praeger, 2008). So why another one?
"All of those other studies, as excellent as they are, presume a certain degree of knowledge on the part of the reader--knowledge of Jewish customs and traditions and beliefs, as well as a general knowledge about the Middle Ages," he continues.
If you have never been to a synagogue service, don't know many observant Jews and perhaps just discovered an interest in Judaism after finding Jewish ancestry in your family tree, this is the book for you. Beginning with the first chapter, "Jews and Judaism, What Are They? and continuing with "Talmud and Midrash," Steinberg skilfully guides the reader through a crash course on Jewish history since the advent of Christianity. He introduces us to the rabbinical traditions of Judaism, Mishan, Gemara and all the flowering branches of halakah or Jewish law. We learn why Jews were blamed, and tolerated, by the Church. We learn about everyday life in cities where Jews, Christians and Muslims mixed, Jewish occupations, their literature, philosophy and the Cabala, all major areas of intersection with Christian society.
Appendix I has a good chronology of important events, from the life of Rabbi Akiva, which overlapped with that of Saul/Paul to the infamous date of 1492.
Singular Figure of Joseph Jacobs
Another masterwork on Judaism intended primarily for non-Jewish readers is Joseph Jacobs' Jewish Contributions to Civilization. An Estimate (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1919). This began life as the Australian Judaic scholar's Studies in Jewish Statistics, published in an anthropology journal in 1891, at the height of his fame. It was to be the first volume in a trilogy, the second book devoted to individual, rather than collective, contributions to European culture, the third a philosophical answer to anti-Semites about the value of Jews in the modern secular state. Alas, Jacobs died in 1916, leaving only notes for the second book and nothing at all of the third.
For Jacobs the watchword is always "judicious." He never exaggerates Jewish influence, emphasizing again and again that the number of Jews at no time, probably, rose above one-half of one percent in Western Europe, outside of countries where Jews were tolerated such as Moorish Spain and Poland/Lithuania under the Jagellon dynasty.
Did Jewish thinkers transform medieval philosophy from the stale dogmas of the theologians into more modern ideologies? Maybe, but they were only part of the movement.
His considered assessment of the Jewish contribution to medieval fables and folklore, one of his academic specialties, is "about one-tenth" of the material. There are those today, however, who would go so far as to say all of troubadour poetry and half of courtly love romances were inspired by the Judeo-Arabic tradition of Spain and southern France, with deeper roots in Arabia, Egypt and Babylon.
Did the Radanite ("From Persian rah dan, knowing the way") merchants plying the Silk Road in the early Middle Ages introduce all the choice import goods and enlightened ideas we associate with the East?
Europe owes to the Jewish Radanites the introduction of oranges and apricots, sugar and rice, Jargonelle pears, and Gueldre roses, senna and borax, bdellium and asafoetida, sandalwood and aloes, cinnamon and galingale, mace and camphor, candy and julep, cubebs and tamarinds, slippers and tambours, mattress, sofa, and calabash, musk and jujube, jasmine and lilac " (p. 203)
But their influence was limited. Beginning in the twelfth century, Venice took away the monopoly on the Levantine trade, just as Lombard merchants replaced Jews as bankers and moneylenders throughout most of Europe. The transition to a moneyed economy, according to Jacobs, was not due to Jews.
On the subject of Jews and capitalism, including stock exchanges and paper money, Jacobs takes a Ciceronian position. He denies that any Jews were involved with the South Sea Bubble, Mississippi Scheme of John Law or other experimental business models of the day. He does not even think that Jews fostered acceptance of bills of exchange or letters of credit. He points out that even with the Dutch East India Company, Jews had only very moderate ownership (although we wonder if like the silent partner behind the usurious kings of medieval times the partners named Coen and Hendricks and the like chose rather to have their names out of it), while the Jewish presence was absent at the first exchanges in Antwerp and London, and later minimal.
We think he might be too circumspect here. The Jewish role in the discovery, exploration and development of the American colonies is set forth in detail in Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Donald N. Yates, Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America (Jefferson: McFarland, forthcoming this fall).
Jacobs is particularly harsh toward his contemporary Werner Sombart, who wrote an enthusiastic and eulogistic apology for the Jews in economic history (Die Juden und das Wirschaftsleben, Leipzig, 1911, trans. by M. Epstein, 1913, The Jews and Modern Capitalism). Jacobs calls the European professor of economics' work a "farrago of fantasies about Jewish life and religion" (259). The dour Victorian explicitly rejects Sombart's equation of the American way of business with Jewish practice and influence ("what we call Americanism is nothing else than the Jewish spirit distilled"). Again, however, we think Jacobs is bending over backward not to appear partisan. His objections to Sombart's arguments seem academic and petty if Sombart was on the right track, as most people concede today.
Prudent or Prudish?
In the same way, we feel that Jacobs' inability to detect any Jewish influence in the Puritans, or indeed the entire Reformation, is willfully blind. "It cannot be by chance," he writes, "that the three most prominent voices among the Politiques [advisors to French king Henri IV], who laid down the principles which were to result in the Edict [of Nantes, granting toleration to Protestants, 1598]-- Michel de l'Hopital, Jean Bodin and Michel de Montaigne--were all partly of Jewish race" (p. 281). But what he gives with one hand Jacobs takes away with the other, for he goes on to say that the influence of these men stopped with the borders of France, while "freethinkers" in other countries like Spinoza certainly did not meet with much success.
And of course, looking ahead to the eventual playing out of these policies, we cannot attribute either the American Bill of Rights or French Revolution to Jews, can we? Jacobs has a bowdlerized version of Jewish influence. He is willing to take modest credit for the good things Jews introduced, while letting their Christian imitators line up in the limelight and get the glory, but he doesn't want to admit that Jews might have been responsible for or at least complicit in some evils in modern society, such as communism, the militaristic state and free love ("the sexual vagaries of Enfantin," p. 308).