Elisheva Baumgarten offers a fresh assessment of Jewish daily practices in medieval Ashkenaz. The first study to address the practices of men and women together, Baumgarten explores how Jews who were not learned alongside those who were expressed their convictions and reinforced their identities as Jews within a Christian world.
2014 | 344 pages | Cloth $69.95 | Paper $32.50
Religion / History
View main book page
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Standing Before God: Purity and Impurity in the Synagogue
Chapter 2. Jewish Fasting and Atonement in a Christian Context
Chapter 3. Communal Charity: Evidence from Medieval Nürnberg
Chapter 4. Positive Time-Bound Commandments: Class, Gender, and Transformation
Chapter 5. Conspicuous in the City: Medieval Jews in Urban Centers
Chapter 6. Feigning Piety: Tracing Two Tales of Pious Pretenders
Chapter 7. Practicing Piety: Social and Comparative Perspectives
R. Judah said: The hasidah is a white stork. And why is she called hasidah? Because she shows kindness (hasidut) to her companions.The talmudic passage above offers an etymological explanation of the Hebrew term for stork (hasidah) by connecting the stork's behavior to the word hesed (kindness) and its derivative, hasidut (piety). During the Middle Ages, the famous French commentator Rashi (Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, d. 1105) understood the stork's kindness through her custom of voluntarily distributing food to her friends, an act of sharing that was in no way obligatory (see Figure 1). Other commentators have provided alternate interpretations for her gentle behaviors, such as allowing others to tread on her and showing mercy to her friends. Moving from animals to humans, the adjective hasid (pious) and the noun hasidut are used in Jewish texts since late antiquity to describe forms of religious behavior and fervor, as well as individuals known for their devotion to God.
—BT Hullin 63a,
This is a white bird, cygonia, and why is she called hasidah? Because she acts with kindness (hasidut) unto her friends with food.
—Rashi, Leviticus 11:19, s.v. "hasidah"
This book presents a social history of pious practice, focusing specifically on the Jewish communities of northern France and Germany during the High Middle Ages. In Practicing Piety, I wish to revive the sense of piety implicit in Rashi's comment and to examine pious observances in their social settings, among medieval Ashkenazic Jews and the cultural currents in which they were immersed. For the purpose of this study, I have defined the term "pious" broadly, ranging from acts that were seen as unusually devout to practices that can be seen as a dedicated fulfillment of one's religious obligation. By focusing on social practices and the ideas they expressed, I have aimed to capture the religiosity of Jews whose modes of observance are far more accessible to us than their convictions. Throughout the book, I contend that these acts were no less critical to the development and coalescence of religious identity than intellectual engagement with theological concepts.
Piety is often associated with the Jews of northern Europe, much as medieval Christian society is well known for its fascination with piety, which was sometimes expressed by extreme asceticism. The spirit of holiness and sanctity in European life was not the exclusive purview of Christian clergy and the aristocracy. Rather, this aspiration was prominent in the lives of the laity whose efforts to integrate piety into their religious practice is often known as "lay piety" or "popular piety." As a result, piety was an intrinsic feature of both medieval Jewish and Christian life as well as a means for each community to manifest its expression to members of the other faith, making explicit the social tensions and divisions between these competing religions.
Practicing Piety focuses on observance rather than intellectual legacies and, by extension, on the widest sweep of Jewish community members possible, rather than the few who authored medieval compositions. The medieval Hebrew sources that have reached us are all products of a select circle of scholars, a fact that presents significant barriers to the consideration of other segments of the community. My primary tool for pursuing a wider representation is a constant comparison between the actions of both men and women, in every aspect of medieval Jewish society. Such gendered reading also facilitates a gauge of how deeds and practices were perceived when performed by the non-elite. That is to say, piety was determined by its social context: the pious were identified among their contemporaries by their actions, while their distinctive conduct set a standard for the religious values in their cultural milieu. Just as the kindness of the hasidah was conveyed by her deeds, so, too, Jews in medieval Ashkenaz would merit a reputation for piety based on actions that reflected on their coreligionists as well as on themselves.
Following feminist theorists, I have used gender as a principal measure for signifying the exercise of power and struggles over authority, since scholars have demonstrated that gender is often a lightning rod for societal tensions and shifts. Conflicts regarding identity and institutional control are often imposed on and reflected by women. In terms of this study, women practiced piety and piety was practiced on them. Therefore, a comparison of Jewish women's and men's observance is central to this volume.
The second emphasis of this study locates the Jewish community, its practices and beliefs, in the context of medieval Christianity. Situating Jewish communities within Christian society while also investigating the role of gender in both groups allows for a dual comparison, assessing certain practices among Jews and Christians and between men and women of each religion. I approach the medieval Christian world as a vibrant and multi-faceted environment where Jews of Germany and northern France encountered deep hostility as well as a home where the Jewish community (co)existed. This complexity, on the spectrum from hostility to acceptance, was a constant component of the daily rhythm of medieval Ashkenazic life.
In the pages that follow, I set the stage for this volume by surveying the medieval Ashkenazic communal frameworks and sources I have examined. I then address the parameters of religious comparison with an overview of the wider social framework in which Jews and Christians lived side by side and an outline of how social historians have addressed Christian and Jewish piety, including the Ashkenazic phenomenon known as Hasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietism. Finally, I consider how Jewish and Christian societies, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members.
The Medieval Jewish Communities of Germany and Northern France
The Jewish communities that dwelled in the areas known today as Germany, northern France, and their environs during the twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century occupy the heart of this study. This region is generally referred to as "Ashkenaz" in historical writing about medieval Jewry. My decision to examine areas that are part of contemporary Germany and northern France stems from the close contact that existed between their communities and relies on medieval territories that roughly correspond with modern entities rather than on actual borders.
Whereas a number of French Jewish communities date back to the early Middle Ages, little documentation from the ninth and tenth centuries is extant. Nonetheless, scholars recognize that the Jews of northern France played a vital role in the urbanization of Europe during the Carolingian era, a culture of trade fairs and active commerce. By the High Middle Ages, substantial communities—numbering several hundred families—lived in the large cities of France (Paris, in particular), while many smaller Jewish communities— sometimes just a few families—had been established along trade routes. During the ninth and tenth centuries, Jews also settled along the banks of the Rhine River in cities that, over time, became prestigious Jewish establishments. Among these, the "Shum" communities— Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, together with Cologne, Frankfurt, Würzburg, Nürnberg, Regensburg, and other urban centers—became home to notable rabbinical figures and leading merchants. Additional communities on trade routes in central Europe also grew and thrived during the Middle Ages.
Frequent travel between centers of learning along major rivers in northern Europe led to a permeating familiarity among the Jews of these communities. While some prevailing patterns changed over time—in the tenth and eleventh centuries, students often traveled from France to Germany, whereas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that tide was reversed—there was significant movement within this area, not only by individual merchants but by their families.
The Jews of northern France and Germany maintained close contact with each other and with Jews who shared their customs in other locales, specifically Bohemia, Austria, and Italy (where many Ashkenazic Jews originated and later emigrated). Selected texts from these regions are examined here as well. I have not included the Jews of England as a distinct group in this discussion, since sources from that community are not plentiful enough to provide an adequate picture of daily pious practice. However, following scholars who have suggested that English customs most closely resembled the practices of Jews in northern France, I refer to evidence from England at various points in this book. As such, the corpus that forms the basis for this study was shared by Germany, northern France, and neighboring areas. However, since some texts from which I have drawn demonstrate that medieval Jews were well aware of local differences, I have sought to balance the evidence suggesting that many customs were common to Jews living throughout Ashkenaz and textual references that indicate distinct practices.
This geographic breadth is also necessary because extant sources cannot adequately describe the practice in any one location for most of the topics examined here. Therefore, as in my previous work, I set out to reconstruct medieval practices and ideas by aggregating sources from various places and contexts, forming a sort of bricolage. Another limitation that characterizes medieval sources is the relative homogeneity of available texts, despite their varied genres. This phenomenon is especially evident among the Hebrew material.
The main body of sources examined in this volume was written between the First Crusade (1096) and the Black Death (1349). My analysis of select writings dated after the Black Death highlights some of the shifts in observance that resulted from these cataclysmic events and explores the extent to which observances continued without change, were accentuated, or became transformed after the mid-fourteenth century. Despite the fact that the ninth and tenth centuries were formative for Jewish communities, t heir Christian neighbors, and their respective institutions, relatively sparse Latin texts and even fewer Hebrew sources have come to us from this period. By comparison, the relative abundance of Hebrew sources from the late eleventh century onward allows for a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the lives of Jews in medieval Europe. This pattern of source transmission is paralleled in the Christian world, where we find a wealth of sources from the twelfth century forward, as many scholars of social history—especially of piety—have noted.
For this study, I rely on the classic rabbinic texts composed by medieval Jewish men: commentaries on the Bible and Talmud, compendia of halakhic discussions, and formal responses to questions from community members. I have also mined collections of stories, exempla from Sefer Hasidim and elsewhere, custom books, communal records, and manuscript illuminations. In some cases, I have included sources that are found only in manuscripts, thus incorporating content that was overlooked or censored by later copyists, especially as practices changed over time. I also consulted parallel Christian materials: penitential and preaching manuals and biblical interpretations along with statutes and collections of exempla. In addition, I have delved into the abundant scholarly work on Christian society that, beyond its obvious informing role, has further sensitized me to nuances within the Jewish evidence that I otherwise might not have recognized.
Toward a Social and Comparative History of Jewish and Christian Medieval Piety
Research on medieval Jewish piety has primarily focused on reactions in Ashkenaz to the First Crusade (in 1096) and later persecutions, from the Rindfleish attacks of 1298 in many German communities, repeated expulsions from parts of northern France in the early fourteenth century, to the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century. The deaths of many Jews at their own hands or by attackers during assaults on their communities transformed those who died into martyrs (kedoshim) in a way that has been interpreted by subsequent generations, including modern historians, as the ultimate and uniquely Jewish expression of pious devotion to God.
A second historical phenomenon that reinforced the association of Jews in medieval northern Europe with piety relates to the rich and varied writings that were produced by the intellectual elite of Jewish communities in medieval Germany and northern France. These medieval authors were instrumental in portraying the Jews of this period as pious through their religious guidance for fellow Jews and their overarching approach to Jewish observance. Furthermore, these are the medieval Jewish personages that have been most rigorously studied since the late nineteenth century.
Whether explicitly or by implication, scholarly narratives have positioned the Jewish community and its piety at odds with their Christian counterparts. After all, when medieval Jews opted for death (kiddush hashem; lit., sanctifying the Divine Name), either actively or passively, that decision was the direct consequence of their refusal to embrace Christianity. Similarly, Jewish intellectual culture was often seen as a significant internal achievement amid, and at times despite, perilous circumstances. This approach focuses on points of crisis and confrontation at the expense of considering everyday life, thereby highlighting interreligious tensions in medieval society over harmonious aspects of coexistence, effectively obscuring the interplay of tension and coherence that fostered a sustainable social environment.
A more inclusive approach for evaluating Jewish life in medieval Germany and northern France was suggested during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and has reemerged periodically, recently regaining currency by pointing to the affinities between Jewish and Christian cultures alongside the separate identities that medieval Jews and Christians were actively producing and propagating. Present-day scholars have suggested that, despite the clear distinctions between Jews and Christians, in theory and in practice, adherents of these two religions shared far more than previous studies have assumed.
During this period, the Christian communities among whom Jews resided were undergoing significant social and religious changes and doctrinal revisions. Beyond the Crusade movement, which marked much of the period in question, new doctrines were being instituted and more firmly established, such as celibacy of the clergy, which was transformed in the eleventh century; the growth and expansion of monastic orders throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and, most notably, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which redefined the role of laity in medieval Christian society and reassessed central doctrines, including transubstantiation and the sacraments of baptism, marriage, confession, and the Eucharist. Not only were Jews cognizant of many of these changes, but recent studies have demonstrated that they had bearing on their lives as well. Living side by side, Jews and Christians alike were participants in the growing urban life of the High Middle Ages.
Perhaps most dramatically, the Black Death had significance for Jewish as well as Christian societies while also serving as a catalyst for change in Europe's Jewish communities and in European attitudes toward Jews; thus, the mid-fourteenth century serves as a suitable closing frame for this inquiry. At that time, the expulsion of Jews, which had begun in England in the late thirteenth century and took place in France during the early fourteenth century, spread to many cities in Germany. In response, many French and German Jews moved south to Spain or eastward to Poland. One result of these forced and voluntary migrations was the creation of a new Jewish geography as well as a new chapter in Jewish-Christian relations.
Following this view of medieval Jewish-Christian coexistence, the High Middle Ages can be defined by a shared environment of burgeoning urban centers, with concomitant economic and social expansion. Despite the ideological and theological tensions that existed between Jews and Christians during this period, Jews lived comfortably in medieval urban centers where Jewish scholarship flourished. In fact, many religious tensions and polemics of that period were founded on mutually held ideas and common values, and the violence of that era often drew its meaning from the dissonance of coexistence rather than a desire for separation.
Scholars have also discussed how Jews as a minority culture adopted ideas and practices from their Christian neighbors, even if they may have appropriated them subconsciously. Leaders of both religious communities strove to underscore the differences between their religions in an effort to bolster distinct identities in a milieu where Jews and Christians dwelled in close proximity and had similar daily routines. Although Jews often resided in specific city districts during the centuries studied here, they rarely lived in the segregation that typified later periods. From a historiographical perspective, modern concerns regarding the process of identity development have informed recent attempts to examine degrees of engagement versus separation of Jews and their neighbors in earlier periods.
While some scholars view these reassessments as simplistic attempts to formulate "either-or" statements—to categorize Jews as being either so intimately connected to non-Jewish society as to practically belong to "their" world, or so thoroughly set apart that contact was meager at best. In contrast to these approaches, and following other recent studies, I have pursued a middle ground by assuming the distinctiveness of the Jewish communities while associating them with their cultural surroundings. With regard to religiosity, there were no intermediate categories of religious belonging: one was either Jewish or Christian. The clear designation of membership in the Jewish minority (or not) may have allowed Jews and Christians greater latitude for nurturing their beliefs and practices: namely, the pious aspirations that characterized both societies. Devotion to God was not merely a common feature of medieval Jewish and Christian life; it was also a source, if not the driving factor, in the need for distinction and a trigger for the production of marked differences and separate religious identities, a "narcissism of small differences." As I suggest throughout this study, within the medieval atmosphere, a competitive piety developed that simultaneously emphasized mutually held ideas about religious expression and heightened divisions between Jews and Christians. These religious connections are herein examined from multiple vantage points—moving along a continuum from seeing Jewish and Christian societies as two separate faith communities to viewing them as a shared unit—but at all times as entangled with each other, bound by what has recently been termed "histoire croisée" or "connected histories." Throughout this book, I reflect on how medieval Jews and Christians might have been aware of one another's customs, practices, and beliefs.
The assumption that Jews and Christians were in continuous contact and shared local circumstances as well as many values and understandings is the product of social and cultural perspectives that have become integral elements of historical inquiry, particularly in medieval studies, over the past decades. Historians have increasingly focused not only on the intellectual pursuits of the literary elite but also on how the general population lived in relation to and in contrast with the authors whose texts have reached us. Researchers have also sought out the connections between daily life and the cultural mindsets of those who were unlikely to express themselves in writing. In studies of medieval Christian Europe, this heightened interest in social and cultural history has translated into the laity—women, children, and uneducated men—as well as the poor, the sick, and outcasts receiving more attention in historical writing and inquiry, whereas the clergy had been the dominant subject of prior scholarship.
While scholars of medieval Jews have participated in this trend, as exemplified by the work of Shlomo Dov Goitein on the Cairo Geniza, the articulation of a Jewish social history, especially in medieval Ashkenaz, has been far from straightforward. How do we embark on such an endeavor when the sources at our disposal were composed by the ruling elite (almost without exception) and represent their values? Furthermore, these writings, predominantly religious commentaries and compilations, lend themselves most naturally to intellectual analysis rather than social history.
Previous scholarship includes a number of remarkable works on the lives of Jews in medieval Ashkenaz, such as writings of Adolf (Abraham) Berliner, Moritz Güdemann, and Israel Abrahams in late nineteenth-century Germany, Austria, and England, respectively. Without a doubt, Salo Baron's multi-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews attempted to veer away from legal and intellectual history by describing how Jews actually lived. Baron notes that the contrast between "Jews" and "Judaism" is theoretical rather than real, and his work endeavors to strike a balance between the experiences of the community as a whole and the individuals within it.
Jacob Katz, another pioneer in social history, aimed first and foremost to map the models of Jewish society by examining their breakdown with the advent of modernity. Of particular interest for this study, Katz also devoted attention to the field of Jewish-Christian relations, noting that the distinctions between Jews and their neighbors were not always as robust as historians were wont to believe. Katz's work, which remains paradigmatic, concentrates on what the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to as the habitus, a set of dispositions that generate practices and perceptions, rather than the lives of actual persons. An element that Katz's work shares with Baron's is a near exclusive focus on adult males as societal representatives.
Following Katz, a generation of scholars, especially in Israel and North America, has sought to delineate the social and cultural lives of medieval Jews. Robert Bonfil's work on medieval and Renaissance Italy outlines structures rather than everyday practice. Bonfil and Ivan Marcus have introduced anthropological theory into medieval Jewish historiography and numerous scholars have followed their lead. Studies of defined groups, such as children and women, have become more common.
The Search for Popular Piety
Despite these studies, most research on Jewish communities in medieval Ashkenaz has investigated halakhah and its development; that is to say, most scholars have assumed that halakhah shaped Jewish life without reflecting at length on how the realities of Jewish life shaped halakhah. This is especially evident in discussions of piety and religious practice, which are most typically examined in the context of legal requirements and rulings, rather than as components of daily practice that might not necessarily conform to prescriptive rules or that were the product of imitation and not the product of book learning.
Medieval piety has generally been presented within the history of halakhah, the domain of the learned male elite, reasoning that, if piety is defined as devotion to God that exceeds the letter of the law, then a requisite level of halakhic familiarity is necessary preparation for pious action. Indeed, knowledge of Torah and Jewish law has been seen as a sign of piety, in and of itself. One of the most important recent studies on this topic is Ephraim Kanarfogel's Peering through the Lattices, where the author applies a broad definition of piety—"self-denial and humility"—and examines the use of notarikon and gematriya in his investigation of intellectual trends and evidence of pious and, especially, mystical ideas. As a result, his study combines and often fuses piety with mysticism and magic. Kanarfogel's book is highly relevant to the present study because he convincingly demonstrates how widespread such pious practices were, albeit among elite males. However, in his search for the internal stimuli of piety, Kanarfogel emphasizes the intellectual motivations for select practices rather than their practical aspects.
As noted above, the definition of piety that I propose steers away from privileging elite circles of learned men by examining the field that scholars of other religions refer to as "lay piety" or "popular religion." Moreover, I prioritize praxis, and only then do I turn to beliefs and ideas. These interrelated choices are informed by the methodology presented in studies of lay piety in Christianity and Islam. In the context of medieval Christianity, for example, André Vauchez presents three definitions of Christian lay piety: folkloric customs, which have been treated as the lot of the uneducated; extreme piety (such as flagellants and Crusaders); and pious acts related to everyday religious beliefs and performed throughout society, irrespective of the practitioner's status. This third category forms the core of this study. Although lay piety has often been seen as a grab bag of superstitions and magic, per Vauchez's category of "folkloric customs," this area has recently been recognized as a useful lens for understanding past societies. I follow scholars who have narrowed the distance between "high culture" and "popular culture," by arguing that, in terms of religious customs, fewer differences divided the elite from the less educated than has often been posited. Furthermore, for a member of the elite to be acknowledged as pious, wide social recognition was needed. As a result, even acknowledgment of the piety of distinguished individuals was dependent on their social context. Thus, although I do not claim that elite practices represented society as a whole, when sources refer to the pious acts of community members in general, I presume that they were often performed by the privileged as well. This societal trend seems logical, especially given that this study is based on textual sources written by the educated elite.
With this definition of piety as my guide for focusing on practice, I have tried to uncover the religious lives of Jews who were not part of the intellectual echelon by examining how their behaviors were reflected and molded by those who wrote authoritative texts. One approach to searching for popular piety that I ultimately rejected was to seek out deviance as an opposition point that could assist in the identification of pious practice. Numerous studies use deviance (or heresy) as a guide for locating the norm. While this approach lends itself to the demarcation of boundaries between who belongs and who does not, whether socially, religiously, ideologically, or otherwise, it serves to identify perceived outsiders rather than insiders who might hold any of a range of conventions. As a result, the use of deviance in this search for practices that were deemed inappropriate would not have strengthened my ability to access piety; and, in some cases, it would have hindered my effort, since deviance may help to uncover accepted standards, but it is not the inverse of piety. While both deviant and pious observances depart from the norm, they do not necessarily occupy the same axis.
Furthermore, defining a practice as deviant if it diverged from common conduct presumes that rituals were regularly performed as prescribed within medieval books and manuals, and that anyone who acted otherwise was considered a sinner. In this study, I try to discern how medieval Jews observed the law while going beyond their perceived call of duty; I have not attempted to write a history of how the learned elite believed religious customs should have been carried out. As we shall see, those considered pious were at times ridiculed for practices that exceeded halakhic mandates.
Despite these drawbacks, scholarship on deviance has provided a perspective that I find useful in the search for piety. Scholars of deviance have asked questions that inform my research, such as the following: Who holds the social power to label a practice as deviant? Why are certain labels used? What are the criteria for a given definition? And, how did this categorization function socially? Stated differently, labeling and classification come from the collective audience rather than the individual, regardless of whether one is being defined within or beyond a specific category.
Following these insights, the relationship between the collective and the individual is central in this study. On the whole, the practices examined in this book were publicly performed, although the definition of the public sphere varies slightly for each ritual. Many of these practices could have been easily discerned, and could have been learned on the street or in the synagogue without elaborate explanation. I have tried to straddle the individual and the communal realms by focusing on rituals that were performed by individuals yet were also seen as reflections of corporate religious identity.
One subject that exemplifies some of the definitions and distinctions that I have outlined and that is worthy of particular attention is the Ashkenazic pietist group from the Rhineland known as Hasidei Ashkenaz, or German Pietists. This appellation has been used to describe Samuel b. Judah (twelfth century) and two of his disciples, his son Judah (known as Judah the Pious, d. 1217) and Judah's student, Eleazar b. Judah of Worms (d. 1220), along with their assumed followers. These rabbis composed influential works—Sefer Hasidim and Sefer haRokeah among them—in which they present their ideas for conducting pious lives, in constant fear and awe of God. Some scholars have described their philosophy and outlook on life as "sect-like" and too radical to be widely influential, others as consonant with the Christian practices of their time, and still others as theoretical rather than practical. Many scholars have studied these texts for the mystical worldviews and the theological principles set forth in them. Without distracting from their importance for the history of mysticism, my reading of them concentrates on the evidence of practice reflected in them. These guidebooks outline behavior for their contemporaries who wished to raise the level of piety in their lives; therefore, they serve as important sources for this study. One of the questions I ask when examining materials that originate with Hasidei Ashkenaz (whose leaders first lived in Speyer and Worms, then in Regensburg) is to what extent the pious practices that they recommended were already widely known; or, in other words, how innovative were these teachings in their immediate vicinity and in northern France? That is, were these zealous versions of the practices that other Jews performed less stringently?
These questions are related to a key issue that has been raised in research on Hasidei Ashkenaz: should they be called "Pietists" as a defined group rather than "pious," without any specifics to indicate their unique position in medieval Jewish society? The claim that Hasidei Ashkenaz should be denoted as "Pietists" has been promoted by Ivan Marcus, Haym Soloveitchik, and others, in studies that have been instrumental for those seeking to delineate the intellectual and doctrinal contours of pietistic thought over and above its social framework. Haym Soloveitchik has studied a number of pietisms, German and otherwise, in an effort to articulate the distinctions between them. In contrast to Soloveitchik and Marcus, I am not seeking to distinguish between the pious and the Pietists. Rather, I am investigating the rituals that were performed by Jews who wished to fulfill their religious obligations; thus, I use the term "pietistic" to characterize the attitudes of leaders such as Judah and Samuel, who occupy the far end of the religious spectrum. In some cases, these "pietists" are presented as virtuosi, stellar examples of ardent belief and ascetic practice. However, my main interest lies in how pious practice was promoted, diffused, and explained within the medieval world, not the intellectual biographies or thought processes of the rabbis and individuals whose praxis characterize them as extreme rather than representative. Much as the word hasid (pious) conveyed different meanings and inflections in medieval texts, so it is in this study, where it can carry prescriptive and descriptive senses that allow a more nuanced understanding of Jewish society in medieval Ashkenaz.
Piety and Gender
Gender serves as a critical prism for examining piety in this study, which is motivated by the desire to include community members who are rendered nearly invisible in medieval accounts but who surely composed a considerable segment of the medieval Jewish population. Adult men who were not especially learned represent one such category, since most male members of medieval Jewish communities were neither halakhic authorities nor learned scholars, yet information on them is especially sparse. Another significant group within the community's fabric were women. Children, too, constituted a meaningful cohort of the community to whom I refer throughout this book.
The piety of medieval Ashkenazic women, like that of the entire community, has most prominently been noted in descriptions of their deaths, by the Crusaders or by their own hands. Women's piety has further been remarked upon in the context of religious rituals, especially those defined as "positive time-bound commandments," such as precepts related to the holidays and the obligations of tefillin and tzitzit. As feminism and gender theory have increasingly influenced Jewish studies in the past two decades, research on medieval Jewish women has flourished. Of special note is the work of Judith Baskin, who was one of the first scholars to address these issues in the Ashkenazi context. Avraham Grossman has provided the most comprehensive overview of medieval Jewish women thus far in his comparison of Jewish life in Europe and Islamic lands, which includes the status of Jewish women in their environs. Grossman's work dedicates one full chapter plus occasional references to aspects of daily religious practice among medieval Jewish women. Most recently, Bitha Har-Shefi wrote her dissertation on select halakhic developments pertaining to women in Ashkenaz during the Middle Ages. While I concentrate throughout this volume on the comparison between Jewish and Christian piety in northern Europe, I occasionally reference examples from Jewish life in Christian Spain and Muslim lands.
Practicing Piety seeks to move scholarly discourse on medieval Jewish women a step further by studying the pious practices of Jewish women and men, separately and together. In some instances, women serve as representative examples of the less educated members of the community, leading to comparisons of men's and women's observance. At other times, I examine how women's piety was defined in contrast to men's practices, generally and from specific angles, by asking how gender produced, preserved, and challenged social hierarchies as a means of privileging the deeds of one group over another in discrete contexts. Thus, gender serves as a tool for examining broader patterns of piety and offers a fuller view of community members. Although they did not compose our transmitted texts, this more diverse Jewish population is present in the writings that we have, for they are featured in them and their lives shaped these texts even as they were reciprocally guided by them. Prioritizing practice when examining the past is hardly new, particularly when studying the religious lives of women. This approach is especially pertinent in medieval Jewish history, given the absence of texts produced by women and the scant writings intended for them as a readership.
Gender serves not only as a category of differentiation but also as one of comparison in the Jewish-Christian context. Despite the deep divergence in their religious beliefs presented above, Jews and Christians shared a patriarchal outlook that enforced and perpetuated hierarchal gender relationships, where women were considered subservient to men. Although one can point to contrasts between Jewish and Christian societies that were crucial in determining the life paths of their members, such as the centrality of celibacy in Christianity and of marriage among Jews, I would argue that these distinctions did not eradicate gendered conventions. As such, gender can reveal divisions and commonalities, while it also exposes power struggles and ideological shifts, since women and their bodies frequently personified cultural borders and barriers. From a historiographic perspective, it is noteworthy that while scholars have labored to distinguish Jewish men from their Christian peers, these same researchers have been far less hesitant to categorize Jewish and Christian women as a homogeneous group. My attention to gender gives voice to both perspectives, assessing medieval women by religion and as one cohort.
My research relies on testaments to the involvement of medieval Jewish and Christian women in religious life and their ongoing quest for piety. Indeed, medieval Jewish and Christian authors alike have remarked that women led active religious lives. As Berthold of Regensburg (1220-1272) states: "You women, you go more readily to church than men do, speak your prayers more readily than men do, go to sermons more readily than men do." Some Hebrew sources convey this same message. Scholars have argued that a major shift in the perception of women, their roles in society, and the overall conceptualization of gender relations took place during the High Middle Ages, with a general trend toward excluding women's ritual and religious practice from the thirteenth century onward, after a period when women enjoyed relative freedom. Many other variables of medieval life were also in flux during the thirteenth century, as manifested by both internal Christian turmoil and transitions in key elements in Jewish-Christian relations. I have explored the intersection of gendered conventions and concepts with the fervor for piety to detail some of these changes.
An added benefit of comparing medieval Jewish and Christian societies for the purpose of this study is the information contributed by the substantial literature on piety—especially lay piety and gender—in the Christian world, which has further elucidated the settings in which medieval Jews practiced piety. One significant finding from recent work on gender and piety among medieval Christians in northern Europe is the remarkable encouragement of lay piety by Church authorities that increased during the Middle Ages. The centrality of confession, a hallmark of medieval Christianity, affirms this interest in the pursuit of piety by clergy and parishioners alike. Recent studies have also focused on the composition of popular guidebooks for lay practice during the thirteenth century. This work has led me to ask new questions of contemporaneous Jewish sources, by way of contrast and comparison.
Admittedly, the routes available to Christians who wished to pursue religious life were more numerous and far broader than the options that existed among Jews. Beyond lay piety, additional alternatives were open to medieval Christian men and women, including formally joining established orders (that lived among the laity or within cloistered communities) and privately exercising chastity at home. These paths often entailed taking vows of celibacy and adopting an ascetic life. Jewish society, with family life as the expected norm, had no equivalent structures. However, on average, medieval Jews may have had higher levels of participation in communal rituals and prayers than Christian laity; and the modest size of Jewish communities may have, at times, softened the disparity between leaders and members.
Jews and Christians differed not only in the available choices in spiritual life, but in their performance of analogous deeds. Each religious group had its own vocabulary, reasoning, and concepts associated with their actions. The differences in language go beyond translation, for "piety" and "pious" emerge from the Christian context, but they are not synonymous with the Hebrew terms "hasidut" and "hasid" or "hasidah" of Jewish parlance. Likewise, tzedakah (charity) is not identical to alms (elemosyna) or caritas, and each religion had its own definition of ritual purity. Furthermore, the artifacts for expressing devotion to God differ between the two religions, such as tefillin (phylacteries) and Torah scrolls among Jews in contrast to Christian relics and rosaries, despite the resemblance found among rituals related to some of these objects. I enlist these distinctions to illustrate how Jews nurtured and accentuated their separate religious identity. That is to say, similarity does not imply sameness, nor does comparison serve to equate or simplify distinctions between the two religions; rather, these nuances contribute to the clarification of these intricate relationships.
On a certain level, the dual focus on piety as seen and defined within the Jewish community and as understood in cross-religious dialogue results in some slippage between the notions of piousness and Jewishness in this book. While this may at first seem incongruous, I would argue that this ambiguity reflects the complexity of medieval Jewish life, since members of Jewish communities were constantly involved in reinforcing their stance in the eyes of fellow Jews and in their Christian environment.
The practices herein include classic deeds that express devotion to God with an emphasis on how they were practiced in medieval Jewish communities and how their performance changed during the Middle Ages. Anthropologists have discussed the challenge of finding a consistent meaning in any given practice or ritual behavior over time. Indeed, I am interested in the ritualization of daily activities rather than the absolute coherence of symbols. The acts of piety that were performed on a regular basis are myriad, and they took place in a range of settings. This study includes home-based and public practices, including the synagogue, at home, and on the street. These activities offered avenues for the expression and production of religious identities for all community members, be they learned or not.
Medieval Jewish men and women could have practiced one or many of the customs discussed in the chapters that follow. They could have been exceedingly devout or hoping to conform to the conduct that their society considered appropriate. From that perspective, even without earning the label pious, one could still perform pious observances that were considered not only good but virtuous, fulfilling one of many religious obligations. Moreover, piety meant different things in different settings. Yet as meaningful as these actions could be for an individual, being classified as pious reflected on the community at large and its members' shared values.
Medieval epitaphs reflect varied degrees of piety. Some of the deceased were called pious (hasid/ah), whereas others were termed righteous (tzaddik/ah). Yet others were said to be upstanding (hagun/ah) and important (hashuv/ah). While the first two adjectives suggest devoutness and the latter two status, they often combined with one another, implying that these traits were seen as more intertwined than discrete. In my eyes this entanglement is suggestive of the range of pious practices and beliefs that were expressed within the medieval community, a spectrum rather than a predetermined set of practices.
Each chapter in this book concentrates on a core topic through which piety was expressed, presented from a specific angle that highlights the key issues of this study. Three central attributes that have characterized many religions since ancient times—prayer, fasting, and charity—are conveyed in the first three chapters. In the Jewish tradition, these observances are explicitly linked to atonement on Yom Kippur: tefillah, teshuvah [lit., repentance], and tzedakah in the corresponding Hebrew terminology.
In the case of prayer, the subject of Chapter 1, I concentrate on how synagogue attendance and avoidance correspond to corporeal purity as a prerequisite and impurity as an impediment to participation in communal prayer. By comparing the roles of men and women alongside Jewish and Christian concepts of purity and impurity, I track changes in synagogue practice during the medieval period.
Chapter 2 concentrates on fasting as a form of repentance, describing the development of Jewish fasting from late antiquity to medieval Europe with particular attention to its medieval features, and contextualizing Jewish fasting practices in their medieval Christian context. The comparison of these Jewish rituals with Christian observance focuses on patterns of daily life by detailing the distinctions and similarities between Jewish and Christian activities.
Charitable giving is the focus of Chapter 3, using data from the Nürnberg Memorbuch to present a case study of donations that were contributed as gifts for the soul (pro anima) in the Nürnberg Jewish community during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Here I explore gender distinctions by examining tensions between the control of resources and the desire to make contributions as evidenced in this extraordinary record.
Chapter 4 studies the well-known practice of Ashkenazi women performing positive time-bound commandments that are typically considered in the realm of exclusive male praxis. This discussion reflects on the scholarly attention that this topic has received in earlier studies of women's history and piety in two ways: first, by locating the evidence of women's deeds within the context of conventionally male observances; and, second, by demonstrating how these practices developed and were transformed during the medieval period. I argue that class rather than gender played a role in the initial practices adapted by women, and I document the cultural trends in the thirteenth century pertaining to male practice that led to further changes in women's practice.
In Chapter 5, I consider piety as displayed via hair, dress, and appearance and ask how Jews established themselves within and in contradistinction to the majority culture. Here I underline the importance of what medieval Jews and Christians noticed on the streets of their cities, a topic that has largely been ignored to date.
In Chapter 6, rather than investigating piety per se, I present textual evidence of pretenders: Jews who feigned piety and whose deceptions were discovered. Unlike religious deviants, these individuals mimicked communally recognizable pious behavior, were later revealed as frauds, and then were called to account by community leaders. These stories provide another context for reflecting on male and female piety and impropriety. Chapter 7 draws together many of the recurring social and comparative themes of the entire study.
This introduction would not be complete if I did not reiterate that most topics covered in the volume pertain to many religious cultures, certainly medieval Christianity and Islam. For example, fasting and charity were common methods for expressing piety in all three religions. So, too, corporeal impurity during prayer was a concern among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Despite the pervasive nature of these themes, their associated rituals were adapted over time and space. The chapters in this study address how Jewish men and women displayed piety within their Jewish communities and in the context of the northern European Christian urban spaces where they lived, making vivid their roles as active participants in this culture. Their performance of religious deeds made explicit their views on proper religious conduct, their relationships with God, and especially links with one another. Much as Rashi defined the piety of the stork as intrinsically tied to the friends with whom she shared her food, this study endeavors to describe how Jewish piety was defined within the social context of the medieval urban centers of northern France and Germany.