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Sanctifying the Name of God

"The slaughter of the Jews in the Rhineland in 1096 is one of the better-known events of the First Crusade. Cohen analyzes the texts of the Jewish accounts of these massacres in light of the martyrdom tradition of Masada, well-known at that time, and the contemporary Christian cult of self-sacrifice. . . . Recommended."—Choice

Sanctifying the Name of God
Jewish Martyrs and Jewish Memories of the First Crusade

Jeremy Cohen

2004 | 224 pages | Cloth $37.50 | Paper $29.95
Religion / History
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations for Primary Sources

Introduction: The Persecutions of 1096

1. To Sanctify the Name of God
2. The First Crusade and Its Historians
3. Points of Departure

4. Last Supper at Xanten
5. Master Isaac the Parnas
6. Mistress Rachel of Mainz
7. Kalonymos in Limbo
8. The Rape of Sarit

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

I shall speak out in the grief of my spirit before my small congregation.
I shall wail and lament; for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
Be silent, hear my words and my prayer.
If only he would hear me.

The crusaders massed at the gateway
To blot out the name of his remnants.
Small children cried out to him with one voice:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one."

Thus the payyetan, the Jewish liturgical poet of the Middle Ages, recalled the massacres of the spring and summer of 1096, when, during the earliest months of the First Crusade, bands of armed crusaders attacked Jewish communities in western and central Germany. The crusaders converted those Jews whom they could, while others who fell in their path they killed. Jewish settlements of the Rhine valley—in Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Cologne and its suburbs, Metz, and Trier—and others including Regensburg and Prague to the east suffered serious losses in life and property. This marked the first major outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in medieval Christian Europe.

Why did the massacres occur? Some historians have argued that economically grounded jealousies soured the relations between German Jews and their neighbors; perhaps the still ongoing Investiture Conflict between the popes and the kings of Germany further aggravated existing tensions. Yet most of the evidence from both Jewish and Christian sources indicates that religious zeal motivated the attackers above all else. Consider the rationale that one of the Jewish chronicles of the persecutions of 1096, written in Hebrew during the first half of the twelfth century, put in the mouths of the crusaders. "Even as we set out on a long journey, to seek the shrine of the idolatrous deity and to exact revenge from the Muslims, behold the Jews, whose ancestors gratuitously killed and crucified him, live among us; let us first take our revenge upon them." (N/S 1; H 24) While labeling the Holy Sepulcher the "shrine of the idolatrous deity" clearly reflects the caricature of a Jewish voice, the contemporary French abbot Guibert of Nogent's confirmed that this very reasoning inspired attacks upon the Jews, as he described events in Rouen in 1096.

The people who had undertaken to go on that expedition under the badge of the cross began to complain to one another. "After traversing great distances, we desire to attack the enemies of God in the East, although the Jews, of all races the worst foes of God, are before our eyes. That's doing our work backward."
Different explanations for the massacres of 1096 are hardly mutually exclusive, but one must recognize that the motivation for the persecutions—at least insofar as those who wrote chronicles of the crusade understood it—had much to do with the ideology and conduct of Christian holy war. The pope who launched the First Crusade never instructed his knights to attack the Jews, and the fact that forcibly converted Jews openly returned to Judaism after the violence subsided suggests that the Christian establishment acknowledged the illegitimacy of the violence. Still, one can well appreciate how various factors contributed to the passion of the attackers: rampant hostility toward the "infidel," the long history of anti-Jewish teaching in the Catholic Church, an intense longing for the end of days that nourished the crusading spirit, and the code of vengeance that medieval knights generally followed. Thus set against the general background of the crusades, anti-Jewish violence should not be written off too hastily as deviating from the character of the movement and involving only a few, atypical warriors. Count Emicho of Flonheim and others who initiated the hostility enjoyed a degree of aristocratic status, and they seem to have believed firmly that crusaders had a moral obligation to punish the Jews. Such conviction also found an echo in a Latin chronicle of the First Crusade by the French monk Raymond of Aguilers, which recounts how God spoke of the Jews to the crusaders, as they neared the Holy Land in 1099: "I entertain hatred against them as unbelievers and rank them the lowest of all races. Therefore, be sure you are not unbelievers, or else you will be with the Jews, and I shall choose other people and carry to fulfillment for them my promises which I made to you." Even after the crusaders had battled intensely against the Muslims, the Jews exemplified religious unbelief for them; they, and not the Muslims, were the enemies of God par excellence, the greatest threat to God's covenant with his chosen people. Several decades later, the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux injected basic ideas of Christian anti-Judaism into his call for the Second Crusade, even as he worked hard to prevent violent attacks upon the Jews. His colleague the Benedictine abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny, in a well-known letter to King Louis VII of France, echoed our Hebrew chronicle's explanation for the pogroms against the Jews.
Why should we pursue the enemies of the Christian faith in far and distant lands while vile blasphemers far worse than any Muslims, namely the Jews, who are not far away from us but who live in our midst, blaspheme, abuse, and trample on Christ and the Christian sacraments so freely and insolently and with impunity?
Peter reiterated that Christians should not kill the Jews, but this, he hastened to explain to King Louis, establishes that "God has no wish to release them through the punishment of death, since he preserves them for a life worse than death."

Peter demonstrates how the ideology of crusading and Christian anti-Judaism went hand in hand; we see such linkage both in this letter of 1146 to King Louis and in a sermon "In Praise of the Lord's Grave," which Peter preached in the presence of the pope in 1146 or 1147. As he praised the holiness and importance of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Peter designated Jesus' grave the chief reason for a Christian to rejoice in Christ, that which truly facilitates Christian victory over the enemies of God. Today, he declared, the Holy Sepulcher embodies the Christian hope for final salvation, hope that has now spread throughout the entire world; only a few remaining Jews and the wicked sect of Muhammad still resist it. God has confirmed this status of Jesus' grave and the hope that it fuels in numerous ways, but above all in a miraculous fire that kindles the lamps in the Holy Sepulcher every Easter—a miracle that Peter's sermon discusses at length. Here, then, lies the route to salvation: Giving up the pleasures of this world, a Christian must cultivate the holiness, the memories, and the miracles enshrined in the grave of Christ, joining the universal assembly of faithful souls that it has attracted, and liberating it from the pollution of non-Christians. In this context, Peter depicted the Jews and their way of life as demonstrating by counterexample all that the crusader should strive for. While Peter's letter to King Louis associates the Jews with the sinful pursuit of financial profit, his sermon on the Holy Sepulcher develops the opposition more thoroughly. The Jews do not interpret Scripture properly, so as to comprehend the grandeur of Jerusalem and its holy sites and see the way toward eternal life. The Jews murdered the body of Christ that gave the Holy Sepulcher its sanctity. And thus the annual miracle of the fire there, recalling the flame with which God showed that he preferred the biblical Abel's sacrifice to Cain's and the prophet Elijah's to that of the prophets of Baal, carries another urgent message.

At the present time, O Lord ... you differentiate clearly between us and the Jews or pagans; thus do you spurn their vows, their prayers, and their offerings; thus do you show that these are repugnant to you.... In this way do you proclaim that the sacrifices, prayers, and vows of your Christians are pleasing to you. You direct a fire to proceed from heaven to the grave of your son, which only they respect and revere; with that same fire you set their hearts on fire with love for you; with its splendor you enlighten them, now and forever. And since the perfidious enemies of your Christ disparage his death more than his other acts of humility, in adorning the monument of his death with a miracle of such light you demonstrate how great is the darkness of error in which they are confined. While they despise his death above all, you honor the monument of his death above all; what they consider particularly shameful you prove to be especially glorious by means of so wonderful a sign. You reject the Jews like the hateful Cain, the Muslims like the worshippers of Baal, and you do not light a fire on their offerings.
The miracle of fire at Jesus' grave proves that God has rejected the Jews, like Cain, and the Muslims, like the idolatrous prophets of Baal. Jews and Muslims in Peter's eyes together embodied the threat of unbelief which endangered the Christian world and which therefore, paradoxically, held out the promise of salvation for those who would join the crusade and overcome it. Texts like these surely demonstrate how crusading and its ideology gave unprecedented forms of expression to Christian anti-Judaism, in all its depth and complexity. Modern historians have still not uttered the final word, as they attempt to define the importance of the 1096 persecutions in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Typically compelled by their attackers to choose between conversion to Christianity and death, the Ashkenazic Jews of northern Germany broke with historical precedent in no less striking a fashion. To be sure, some of them attempted to bribe the crusaders, to seek refuge with the local authorities, to flee altogether, and even to take up arms; but it appears that one of two outcomes awaited most of those Jews attacked. First, many opted for baptism, although Jewish and Christian sources testify that they generally did so under duress, "more for fear of death than for love of Christian doctrine." Over the protests of the Catholic clergy but with the approval of the German King Henry IV, most of the converts probably returned to Jewish life within several years of the violence. Still, one should not underestimate the extent or the significance of the conversions. Large numbers in some Jewish communities—Trier, Metz, and Regensburg, for example—evidently were baptized, as were smaller but sizeable numbers of the Jews of Mainz and elsewhere, and the shock of these conversions haunted the self-consciousness of Ashkenazic Jewry throughout the decades that followed. For their part, most of the crusaders and local townspeople who attacked the Jews apparently deemed their baptism an acceptable, if not a preferable, alternative to their death. As one Hebrew source recounts, in rationalizing their attacks on the Jews the crusaders resolved, "Let us first take revenge on them and wipe them out as a nation, and Israel's name will be mentioned no more, or let them become like us and confess their faith in the 'offspring of whoredom'"—a hostile Jewish caricature of Jesus. Significantly, no evidence suggests that Jews who accepted baptism suffered any physical harm. On the contrary, some accounts portray Christians preventing Jews from harming themselves so as to baptize them in good health, while others relate that Christians used torture to induce Jews to convert. We read, for example, of a Jew of Cologne named Isaac the Levite whom the Christian mob apprehended in the nearby town of Neuss.

They inflicted heavy tortures upon him. And when they beheld his suffering, they defiled [baptized] him against his will, since the blows with which they had beaten him left him unconscious. Having regained consciousness, he returned three days later to Cologne. He entered his house and, after waiting but an hour, went to the Rhine and drowned himself in the river. About him and others like him Scripture states (Psalm 68:23), "I will bring back from the depths of the sea."
The story of Isaac the Levite—which opposes the waters of baptism to those of the Rhine, each inducing both death and life of sorts—openly contrasts baptism with the second end that commonly awaited Ashkenazic Jews attacked in 1096, the death of the martyr. Here, too, Latin and Hebrew sources agree. Many of those attacked elected to die a martyr's death; and of these, very many took their own lives and those of their loved ones in order to avoid capture, torture, forced conversion, and death at the hands of the enemy. Christian writers recoiled at accounts of such behavior, as did the Latin chronicler Albert of Aachen when relating Count Emicho's attack on the Jews of Mainz:
The Jews, seeing that their Christian enemies were attacking them and their children, and that they were sparing no age, likewise fell upon one another, brother, children, wives, and sisters, and thus they perished at each other's hands. Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands rather than to be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised.
In such sacrifice of life 'al kiddush ha-Shem (in sanctification of God's name, as medieval Jews put it) and, perhaps, in violation of rabbinic rules against suicide, many students of Jewish history have beheld one of the distinctive hallmarks of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. Some have contrasted it sharply with the frequent preference of medieval Sefardic or Spanish Jewry for conversion (to Christianity or Islam) in the face of religious persecution.

Alongside the anti-Jewish violence and the readiness of many Jews to kill themselves as martyrs, yet a third dimension of the persecutions of 1096 compounds the novelty of this critical experience in Jewish history. For centuries the ancestors of these Ashkenazic Jews had recalled moments of national tragedy in liturgical poetry (piyyut), and an impressive number of piyyutim bemoan the suffering and casualties of 1096. Beside poetic laments of this sort, however, stand three Hebrew chronicles of the crusade, among the first works of local Jewish historical writing in medieval Europe. The chronicles include a relatively long text attributed to one Solomon bar Samson of Mainz, a somewhat briefer and entirely anonymous "Account of the Persecutions of Old" (often dubbed the "Mainz Anonymous"), and a more abbreviated report by Eliezer bar Nathan, a well-known Ashkenazic rabbi of the twelfth century. These Hebrew crusade chronicles have fascinated historians over the past century and more, and among the numerous published studies of these texts one can isolate several major avenues of inquiry.

First, some investigators have used the chronicles as windows to the actual events of 1096. Mined for information in this way, the Hebrew narratives have revealed the causes of the pogroms, the motivations and behavior of the Christian attackers, and the reactions of the afflicted Jews. The worth of these studies depends directly on the chronicles' factual accuracy, what some have called their "facticity"-a term I find grating and try to avoid. Such use of the chronicles to establish exactly what transpired during the crusade rests on several basic assumptions concerning the close relationship between historical events and the historical texts reporting them. Historians of all fields have hotly debated these assumptions in recent decades, and, while prominent scholars continue to write the narrative history that the Hebrew crusade chronicles appear to document, more and more skeptical voices have joined the conversation in recent years.

Second, other scholars have moved from the history of the events of 1096 to a history of the three chronicles themselves: their authors; the date, nature, and whereabouts of their composition; the relationship between them; and their varying degrees of reliability. Most readers have considered the two longer and more detailed of the three chronicles-the narrative attributed to Solomon bar Samson and the "Mainz Anonymous"—more valuable; yet investigators have still not reached a consensus concerning their chronological order and accuracy. For years some may have "favored" the longer Solomon bar Samson text as the oldest and best record of the violence and martyrdom; but votes had always been cast for the Mainz Anonymous, which now appears to have overtaken its rival. Here one must also consider the specific relationship between these chronicles and other Jewish and Christian texts of the period, both prose and poetry, just as one must identify criteria for determining which source should take precedence.

Finally, still other investigators have evaluated the importance of the Hebrew crusade chronicles in the development of Jewish historical writing. Since the publication of the long-forgotten Solomon bar Samson text and the Mainz Anonymous alongside the better-known chronicle of Eliezer bar Nathan at the end of the nineteenth century, these texts have ranked among the first and the most important genuinely historical works produced by medieval Jews. Yet our own generation has called this view into question, too. In his groundbreaking book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, historian Yosef Yerushalmi altogether denied that medieval Jews had a penchant for historical writing. Writing under the influence of the German sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and other students of collective memory, Yerushalmi argued that medieval Jews enshrined their communal memories above all in liturgy and in ritual, which bore no connection to the study or recording of history as such. These liturgies and rituals, he maintained, "are all like musical notations which, in themselves, cannot convey the nuances and textures of live performance," and thus "what was 'remembered' had little or nothing to do with historical knowledge in any sense that we would assign to such a phrase." Although Professor Yerushalmi reckoned our crusade chronicles exceptional, since they take a genuine interest in the events of 1096 that had just transpired, their constant use of ancient models and symbols to endow these events with permanent value means that "ultimately even they . . . pour new wine into old vessels." In response, historian Amos Funkenstein rejected Yerushalmi's sharp distinction between collective memory, laden down with cultural baggage, and more authentic historical concern; he proposed that we discern signs of real "historical consciousness" even in texts that are not specifically historical. From such a perspective, in spite of Yerushalmi's claim, the Hebrew chronicles of 1096 might number among sincere attempts on the part of medieval Jews to pinpoint the place of recent events in God's unfolding plan for the history of the world. In any event, as the study of traditional Jewish texts matures in our "postmodern" age, evaluations of our chronicles and their stories of Jewish martyrdom must grapple with the role that the writing of history plays in any society and culture. We must apply to the chronicles all those critical methods appropriate for interpreting a historical text, however radical or unwelcome the results might be.

As we have noted, this book addresses a somewhat different, though hardly unrelated, question: How have the persecutions of 1096 assumed meaning in Jewish historical memory and literature, both in medieval and in modern times? I hope to demonstrate how, just as with other momentous occurrences in the Jewish past—the crucifixion of Jesus and the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry offer instructive examples—the historian cannot root an understanding of the events of 1096 in any untainted, original, and therefore entirely reliable memory. Rather, the character and meaning of the persecutions as historical events have derived from a continuous process of collective memory and of historical writing. Within these processes, the more meaningful a culture deems an event in its past—that is, the more interest it expresses in interpreting those events—the more elusive the "raw data" of that event become. Put differently, we must recognize that the most accessible, provable "event" in question is not reported in the historical record standing before us but is the very composition of that record, an event which the physical text corroborates. The text provides better evidence of the historical setting in which it was composed than of the characters, circumstances, and developments in the story that it tells.

I have written this book in the hope that it will demonstrate how the historian must approach the relationship or "distance" between historical writings and the events they recount. Part One presents a selective overview of the vast historical scholarship on crusading, martyrdom, and the persecutions of 1096, hoping to supply the reader with an instructive "map" of the issues involved. Chapter 1 reviews the place of martyrdom in Jewish tradition and in crusader Europe generally; it seeks to portray the Jews' perplexing zeal for inflicting death on themselves against a more informed background. Chapter 2 then considers several highlights in the modern study of the persecutions of 1096: from their treatment by those who initiated the academic field of "Jewish Studies" in nineteenth-century Germany, to their reevaluation by present-day historians in Israel and the Diaspora. Having shown how the historical meaning of these medieval persecutions has varied widely in response to changes in modern sensitivities, Chapter 2 continues with a discussion of medieval historical writing, Christian as well as Jewish. We shall explore several models for assessing the value of medieval historical texts, models that require us to investigate the specific cultural climate of the crusade chronicles, to understand how the communities that recorded their stories had an impact on the meaning of the stories themselves. Based on this assessment of current research, Part One concludes by proposing guidelines for a rereading of the martyrs' stories, guidelines outlined and demonstrated in Chapter 3. Part Two then applies these guidelines to five episodes of Jewish self-sacrifice related in the Hebrew crusade chronicles. While my Aristotelian education has led me to elaborate a framework for my study before dissecting the martyrs' tales themselves—that is, to explore my points of departure before attempting to reach my destination—some readers might prefer to begin with the analysis of the stories in Part Two and only then return to the more theoretical issues discussed in Part One.

However one proceeds, the reader will hopefully leave this book convinced that the ideology—and graphic tales—of sanctifying God's name that the chronicles relate about the martyrs of 1096 teach us more about the twelfth-century Jewish communities which survived the persecutions than about the martyrs who did not. As historical sources, these chronicles pertain most directly to the context of their composition. Regarding the persecutions of 1096 that they recount, they are works of literature and martyrology as well as history, texts whose questions and answers still weigh heavily on us all.

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