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Book Reviews on Non-Jews in Ancient Rabbinic Culture and Medieval Ashkenaz

The blog of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization has posted two recent book reviews that may be of interest. The first is a review of Jenny Labendz’s Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Culture.

In Socratic Torah, Jenny Labendz sets out to challenge assumptions of insularity and parochialism among the rabbis of late antiquity. By laying out an alternative understanding of their perspectives and epistemology, she seeks to demonstrate that some rabbis in the Talmud did allow non-Jews to take part in shaping Jewish self-understanding. Labendz claims that such lesser-known worldviews which give a voice to non-Jews were probably more widespread than scholars have been willing to acknowledge. In doing so, she portrays the rabbis as cosmopolitan teachers, genuinely willing to venture beyond their immediate surroundings. She cites and echoes Erich Gruen in Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, who argues against “a blanket characterization of xenophobia and ethnocentrism regarding the ways societies – Greeks, Romans, Jews and others – related to other societies in the ancient world” (216).

The second is a review by Ethan Zadoff of Ephraim Kanarfogel’s The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz.

Since the early days of Wissenschaft des Judentums the characteristics and trends of the medieval Jewish intellectual world in Ashkenaz have endured as centerpieces of historical, lexicographical, and social and cultural inquiry. The exploration of this deeply rooted landscape has, and continues to receive, significant consideration from scholars examining the plethora of texts produced by Jews living in Northern France, Germany, Italy, and England, often for diverse interpretive goals. Of the contemporary scholars engaged in understating the various facets of the intellectual world of medieval Ashkenaz, Ephraim Kanarfogel has been one of the most prolific, investigating various facets of this rich history, from the legal contours of the Hasidei Ashkenaz to the mystical tendencies of 12th and 13th century Halakhists. Kanarfogel’s recently published book, The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz, paints a broad picture of the variegated intellectual landscape of medieval Ashkenaz and is crafted, at least partially, from a number of the theses developed in his previously published work. In brief, Kanarfogel argues that the interests of Ashkenazik rabbinic figures were much broader than Talmudic studies. While Ashkenazik scholars may have started their intellectual endeavors in engaging and studying the Talmud, they used this basis as the way to conceive and understand the contours of what Kanarfogel refers to often as “the multiple truths of the Torah.” Ashkenazik rabbinic figures exhibited multiple layers and levels of scholarship beyond that of the Talmud and Halakha, while advocating for wide ranging definitions of truth. In this context, an extensive variety of questions and different forms of textual and conceptual methods were undertaken by the Tosafists in order to navigate the meaning of truth.

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