Monday, April 27, 2009

The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity

From Medieval News:

Adam Shear, Pitt assistant professor of religious studies, is the winner of the prestigious National Jewish Book Award in the Scholarship category for his book "The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167-1900" (Cambridge University Press, 2008). The book follows the influence of the Kuzari and the way it has been read and understood over the years.

Reviewer Matt Goldish-author, scholar, and the Samuel M. and Esther Melton Professor of History at Ohio State University-describes Shear's book as a "masterful treatment" of the history of the "Kuzari," a 12th-century treatise composed in Arabic and an influential classic defense of Judaism by Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Judah Halevi, who lived in both Muslim and Christian societies. "In the course of following the "Kuzari" through history," says Goldish, "Shear sheds a great deal of light on a series of widely disparate intellectual milieus."

Shear surveyed the activities of readers, commentators, copyists, and printers that had taken place during 700 years to trace the ways the "Kuzari" became a classic of Jewish thought. In the course of his research, he found that conceptions of the work before the 19th century differed significantly from 20th century views. In modern Jewish thought, the "Kuzari" has often been contrasted with Moses Maimonides' "Guide of the Perplexed."

"While Maimonides and the Guide have been seen as representing a rationalist understanding of Judaism, Halevi and the "Kuzari" have often been seen as antiphilosophical and antirationalist," according to Shear. That may be an accurate understanding of what Halevi and Maimonides intended, Shear says, but his research found that medieval and early modern Jewish readers did not always see a sharp contrast between the two works.

"Although the "Kuzari" took an antirationalist position and offered a strongly ethnocentric view of Jewish identity, it also included a great deal of philosophical discussion and other information on Jewish history and practice. Many medieval and early modern Jewish intellectuals found the "Kuzari" compelling and useful in forming visions of Jewish identity that tried to reconcile reason and faith and to negotiate between universalism and particularism," Shear says.

One of the implications of Shear's research is a new focus on the 19th century as a period in which medieval and early modern paradigms for understanding Judaism were transformed and new ways of reading classic Jewish texts emerged.

The National Jewish Book Awards is the longest-running North American program of its kind in Jewish literature and is recognized as the most prestigious. Awards are presented in 16 categories and are designed to recognize outstanding books, stimulate writers to further literary creativity, and encourage the reading of worthwhile titles.

The winners will be honored March 5 at a gala awards ceremony at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

Shear joined the Pitt religious studies faculty in 2001. His areas of expertise include medieval and early modern Jewish cultural and intellectual history, the impact of print on Jewish culture and thought in the early modern period, and the cultural role of Jewish philosophy in the formation of early modern Jewish identities.

For me, the main items of interest include Shear's methodology and the relevance of the scholarship. Shear follows the Kuzari as a public text rather than focusing on its origins. It's a nice idea and one that I have employed rarely. Certainly, I should use this sort of approach in my diss.

The other thing that interests me is the relevance factor: Shear seems to do a good job of connecting the dots between a medieval text and conceptions of Jewish identity in their modern forms.

Follow-up: Because I have been interested in pursuing some sort of Jewish theme for the diss. - at least in one chapter - I did a little digging, and found a nice site from Jewish Communities and Records of the UK that may be helpful down the road. That site also contains an interesting history of what happened in England after the expulsion of Jews in 1290 and before their re-admittance in 1656.

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