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The transformation of Ashkenazi Jewish culture in the Early Modern Period

Final Activity Report Summary - TAJCEMP (The Transformation of Ashkenazi Jewish Culture in the Early Modern Period)

Jews living in medieval Germany, northern France and central Eastern Europe, the so-called Ashkenazi Jews, showed little if any interest in philosophy and sciences in spite of the fact that these subjects were intensively studied within the Christian environment. This is a very interesting anomaly of European cultural history. Our usual expectation is that a minority culture adapts to the dominant culture in the midst of which it exists. Ashkenazi Jews certainly accommodated their own culture to the Christian environment in another respect; why were philosophy and sciences exceptions for them?

Previous research efforts attempted to reply this question by assuming an essentialist notion of ‘Ashkenazi mentality’ that excluded any interest in philosophy and sciences. The results of this research pointed to a different direction. There was in fact some evidence for an Ashkenazi interest for philosophy and sciences from the late 12th century onwards. This was evidenced by unpublished manuscripts surviving from this period. It was not the Ashkenazi Jews in total but their rabbinic elite who ignored philosophy and sciences. Since intellectual life was ruled by the rabbis they could efficiently marginalise all intellectual streams that did not please them.

Therefore, the first research question was modified during the research course. Why did the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite ignore philosophy and sciences? We applied Itamar Even-Zohar’s polysystem theory to the relevant source material. The rabbinic literary polysystem in Ashkenaz managed to elaborate a cultural repertoire for Jewish society that was adequate for the Christian environment without becoming dependent on Latin Christian literary systems. In other words, philosophy and sciences were unnecessary, since Ashkenazi rabbis managed to invent its functional equivalents from their own intellectual resources.

However, at the beginning of the 15th century the Jewish community of Prague appointed three philosopher-rabbis as the leaders of the community. Philosophers not only appeared among Ashkenazi Jews but took over the rabbinic leadership of a large and prestigious Jewish community. This is a second anomaly, which was not identified and discussed as such in existing secondary literature. Although there were debates about the significance of the Prague circle of Ashkenazi philosophers at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, the social context of the phenomenon and its importance for the subsequent development of Ashkenazi intellectual life were not yet assessed in a complex way. The accomplishment of this task was the major objective of our project. The results could be summarised as follows.

At the beginning of the 15th century the town council of Prague installed a new astronomical clock at the town centre, at approximately three minutes walking distance from the Jewish quarter. The astronomical clock marked the transfer of the scientific knowledge from the universities to the public urban spaces. Until then, sciences and philosophy were studied only at the medieval universities, which Jews were not permitted to attend. Ashkenazi rabbis could therefore choose the policy of separation from scientific and philosophical knowledge. However, when scientific knowledge entered the public spaces of late medieval cities as well as the intellectual orbit of the laic urban decision-makers, Ashkenazi Jews could no longer ignore it. In addition to this pan-European development, the Jews of Prague had to face an intensive Hussite propaganda in which philosophical topics played a certain role. As a consequence the Jews of Prague started to demand from their leaders to possess scientific and philosophical knowledge which would be not inferior to that of the Hussite masters.

The Prague-circle of Jewish philosophers accommodated Greco-Arabic philosophical lore to the late medieval and early modern European reality in which they lived. For example, they modified Aristotle’s teaching in order to give account of such ‘undeniable’ phenomena of life such as divination, magic and witchcraft.