Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World)
Susan L. Einbinder
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When Crusader armies on their way to the Holy Land attacked Jewish communities in the Rhine Valley, many Jews chose suicide over death at the hands of Christian mobs. With their defiant deaths, the medieval Jewish martyr was born. With the literary commemoration of the victims, Jewish martyrology followed. Beautiful Death examines the evolution of a long-neglected corpus of Hebrew poetry, the laments reflecting the specific conditions of Jewish life in northern France. The poems offer insight into everyday life and into the ways medieval French Jews responded to persecution. They also suggest that poetry was used to encourage resistance to intensifying pressures to convert.
The educated Jewish elite in northern France was highly acculturated. Their poetry--particularly that emerging from the innovative Tosafist schools--reflects their engagement with the vernacular renaissance unfolding around them, as well as conscious and unconscious absorption of Christian popular beliefs and hagiographical conventions. At the same time, their extraordinary poems signal an increasingly harsh repudiation of Christianity's sacred symbols and beliefs. They reveal a complex relationship to Christian culture as Jews internalized elements of medieval culture even while expressing a powerful revulsion against the forms and beliefs of Christian life.
This gracefully written study crosses traditional boundaries of history and literature and of Jewish and general medieval scholarship. Focusing on specific incidents of persecution and the literary commemorations they produced, it offers unique insights into the historical conditions in which these poems were written and performed.
to the Hebrew genre.11 Martyrdom, I have claimed, was a problematic solution to the physical, intellectual and spiritual crises generated by persecution. The idealized ﬁgure of the martyr embodied attributes that offered Jews a way to live as Jews under pressure—until the moment when dying as a Jew remained the only option. The evidence scattered through Christian chronicles, trial documents, and ﬁscal records makes clear how deeply the ideal of martyrdom as a destiny of last resort was shared by
part was the conclusion of a paper I presented at the Center for Jewish Studies in Philadelphia in March 1999. That paper, “The Fire Does Not Burn: Martyrological Conventions in the Blois Laments,” has been incorporated into chapter 2. 22. Jordan, 2001. I thank Professor Jordan for making a copy of this paper, delivered in October 1996, available for reading (and quotation) prior to publication of the conference volume. 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid. Jordan spends some time discussing the applicability of
in Habermann, 1945a, pp. 90–92, v. l. 36. R. Eleazar bar Nathan, “Elohim zedim qamu ‘aleinu,” in Habermann, 1945a, pp. 84–86, vv. 25–28. 37. Ibid., vv. 37–40. 38. R. Qalonymos bar Judah, “Et haqol qol Ya’aqov,” in Habermann, 1945a, pp. 64–66, vv. 25–28. 39. See Yuval. 40. The Blois incident and poetry are discussed in detail in chapter 2. 41. For a discussion of the incident and review of the sources, see Chazan, 1968 and 1994; Einbinder, 1998. Again, scholars have been more attentive to the
of martyrdom with a major liturgical theme. The shift in focus from acts of multiple sacriﬁce in which adults slaughter loved ones to a personal gesture of self-offering is also marked in our poem by allusions in vv. 7, 8, 11 to Ezekiel. Here again, it is not a literal reading of the lament’s verses but their biblical overtones that create meaning. As we saw in the second chapter’s treatment of the Blois laments, earlier depictions of the auto-da-f´e often drew on biblical allusions to Sinai,
9, ii. 17. Ephraim Kanarfogel’s recent study illuminates the degree to which even the “rationalist” Tosaﬁst scholars may be included among the believers in mystical doctrines. See Kanarfogel, 2000. 18. The editions of the Sefer Raziel consulted were Warsaw, 1812 (reprinted in Jerusalem: 1976); Rodelheim, 1865; and Brooklyn, 1949. The Sefer Raziel hamal’akh is a composite work, including among other things the introduction to the Sefer ha-razim, described by Michael Swartz as “an early handbook of