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Book Review: Self-Denial and Temptation

Devoted to 13 stories taken from Ashkenazi thirteenth century manuscripts, this book provides an opportunity to discover a largely unknown part of Hebrew literature.
Dr. Avital Davidovich Eshed is a Research Fellow at the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a position she has held since 2009, and a lecturer in the Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. In 2018, she was a visiting lecturer on Women’s Studies and Judaism at Harvard Divinity School WSRP. Dr. Davidovich Eshed’s research focuses on the history of women, gender, and sexuality in medieval Jewish culture and

“Self-Denial and Temptation,” the new book by Professor Rella Kushelevsky, is devoted to 13 stories taken from Ashkenazi thirteenth century manuscripts. It provides the general public with an opportunity to discover a largely unknown part of Hebrew literature. In this review, Avital Davidovich-Eshed discusses the uniqueness of the Hebrew story in the Middle Ages, which reflects a Jewish world that differs from that of the more familiar rabbinic literature.

A dragon and a brave warrior, Satan, a ghost and an angel, a modest and faithful bride, a seductress wife, a prostitute, a king, three thieves, a scholar and a simple cook – these are just some of the multi-colored figures that populate the pages of “Self-Denial and Temptation,” which is devoted to a discussion of 13 stories from the Ferma 2295 Manuscript written in the thirteenth century in northern France. These stories, which appear in various forms in the literature of the Sages and in other collections of stories from the Middle Ages, both from the east and the west, took a unique form in Ashkenaz and they are printed here for the first time.

The Aggadic material in the literature of the Sages and in Hassidic stories has for many years been the focus of academic research, and is accessible to the general public. In contrast, the rich and unique corpus of the Hebrew story from the Middle Ages is known to only a few outside of academia, and even within academia there is still a great deal of research to be done. This literature, which emphasizes the mystic, the sensual and the irrational within Jewish culture and history, adds an essential layer to the deeper understanding of Jewish cultural history, which often has the image of producing only scholarly Torah-centered works.

The very name – the Middle Ages – for a period of over one thousand years hints at its neglected importance and its image as a static and dark period between two periods of enlightenment – the culture of classical Greece and Rome and the European Renaissance. (The Jewish Middle Ages are similarly defined – from the closure of the Babylonian Talmud at the end of the fifth century until the expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century). Researchers of the Middle Ages in general have proven not only that this thousand-year period is not monolithic, but furthermore that it was a period of cultural productivity and progress in a large number of fields, including medicine, philosophy, law, literature and architecture. For the Jews as well, the Middle Ages was a period of cultural development, and it is sufficient to mention the literary works produced during the Golden Age of Spain or the scholarly endeavors of Rashi and the Baalei Tosafot in northern Europe.

An impressive but less well-known literary phenomenon is the development of the Hebrew story during the Middle Ages. In addition to the inclusion of stories within works of Halakha, Mussar and historiography, the trend during the Middle Ages towards a division between genres also led to the creation of separate collections of stories. Alongside new versions of stories from Jewish tradition, these also included new versions and translations of works from popular literature, such as the exploits of Alexander the Great and the stories of King Arthur.

In this context, “Self-Denial and Temptation” provides an excellent opportunity for the general public to discover the unique complexity that characterizes the world of the Hebrew story during the Middle Ages. The stories in this collection reflect the internal tension – both class tension and ideological tension – that characterized the Ashkenazi Jewish community, as well as the complicated and challenging encounter between Jewish culture and the culture of the Christian majority.

An important innovation of the book is the placing of stories in their unique historic and cultural context of “Ashkenaz Hassidut,” and the attempt to understand and explain them within that context. Ashkenaz Hassidut (as opposed to the Hassidut which developed in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century) was an elitist group that was active in the Rhine region in Germany during the second half of the twelfth century and in the thirteenth century. Its main thinkers, Rabbi Shmuel Hahasid, Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid and Rabbi Eliezer of Worms developed a Mussar philosophy based on strict norms of self-denial and a unique philosophy of the esoteric.

Each of the book’s chapters is devoted to a presentation and comprehensive analysis of one story. Kushelevsky brings together the Ashkenazi version with previous Jewish versions, versions of the Middle Ages from the Moslem world and parallel versions from the Christian world. The comparisons make it possible to identify the fixed elements in the story, and illuminate new elements that were added, omitted or reworked in the Ashkenazi version.

Although the structure of the book enables a reading of each of the chapters on its own, the book’s strength lies in a cumulative reading, in its ability to present the reader with the genre’s broad diversity. This facilitates a clear elucidation of various aspects of Ashkenaz culture: the view of heaven and hell as actual places; the sanctification of God’s name as a central religious value in light of the attacks on Jews during the Crusades; the philosophy of repentance, the importance of intention in serving God and other principles of Ashkenaz Hassidut; various feminine images and norms of matchmaking and marriage; liturgical poetry and prayer in their connection to the mystic traditions from the “Hehalut literature”; the centrality and importance of the community and the dialectic consciousness of tradition as continuity and renewal; and the effects of the Christian world of symbols and mythical and magic thinking, which was influenced by European culture. The book ends with a multi-entry appendix that includes a list of Jewish versions of each of the stories in the book, arranged in chronological order.

In the introduction to the “Book of Memories”, a wide-ranging anthology copied and edited by Eliezer ben Asher Halevy, an Ashkenazi Jew who lived in the fourteenth century, he writes:

“I have seen many external books scattered here and there. I made an oath to myself to collect and compile them together into one book. I gathered for myself words of the scholars and their puzzles, and on the book I wrote them for lovers of allusion and plays on words and for people of wisdom […] in order that they be thought about and read and that people would become wiser and would know the truth, some of the deeds done on earth […] I did not rest until I had finished the compilation since I was very devoted to it […] and I sat on it for many days. And I worked very hard on it until I had connected the subjects to one another and had set it like a gem in its setting and in the hooks of the loops” (from the scientific edition of the Book of Memories, edited by Eli Yassif, Tel Aviv University Press, pp. 69-71).

The description by Eliezer Ben Asher reveals the complexity of the copier’s work in the Middle Ages. It can be compared to the intricate work of a jewelry maker, which requires professional skills and ability alongside dedication and perseverance. In many ways, it appears that this description is also applicable to the research done for this book. The versions of the stories that Rella Kushelevsky copied from the Ferma manuscript and analyzed indeed deserve to be called gems. Although she took them out of their original settings and placed them in a new context, that new framework and the analysis she provides bring out the special light of each story.

The publishing of the scientific edition of the collection of Hebrew stories from Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages is a welcome event, not just for researchers of the Middle Ages but also for lovers of stories in general. Those of the readers who are captured by the charm of the Ashkenazi story can expect additional gems in the future as a result of the joint effort by Rella Kushelevsky with the historian Elisheva Baumgarten of Bar Ilan University – this time on stories from the Oxford manuscripts.

Note: The above text was translated from the original Hebrew by a third party. The author does not take responsibility for any marginal disparities between the original text and this translation.

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