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The Jewish Community

Modern Scholarship on Medieval Communities

Elka Klein

The Jewish community has been well studied in the abstract. Salo Baron's three-volume work, The Jewish Community, was part of his life-long project of refuting what he dubbed "the lachrymose conception of Jewish history" by showing the breadth of Jewish political and social activity from the biblical to the modern period; despite his title, his focus extended beyond the local community to encompass all of Jewish society. Yitzhak Baer took a more technical approach to the subject in his important essay, "The Origins of the Organisation of the Jewish Community in the Middle Ages," published in 1950, in which he argued for the continuous survival of the idea of the Jewish community, representing the "religio-democratic spirit" of Judaism, from antiquity to the Middle Ages. His article spanned over a millennium; his primary concern in discussing the medieval sources was to determine the extent to which the community as an institution was influenced by European urban development.

Baer saw the community's development as a fusion of elements borrowed from the evolving medieval city with an innate democratic spirit which had been dormant for many centuries. Irving Agus argued against him that it was the Jewish community which was responsible for stimulating the revival of urban life (Agus, Urban Civilization, Heroic Age). More recent discussions have abandoned the search for democratic pedigrees, but have tended to follow Baer's agenda, using a model which opposes continuity of internal features and influence from the outside, and focusing on questions such as the ability of the majority to coerce the minority and, or the corporate nature of the community (Stow, "Medieval," and Alienated Minority, ch. 8; Blidstein, passim).

The majority of studies have assumed that structural similarities outweighed regional variations. There are exceptions. Albeck and Epstein analyze Spanish responsa; Neuman and Baer also discuss the community in a specifically Spanish context (Neuman, i, 44ff; Baer, History, i, 212-42). Finkelstein's edition of taqqanot (communal ordinances) focuses primarily on Ashkenaz (Franco-Germany). But even these exceptions do not address questions of regional variation or of the context of these communities within Christian society.

In part the questions which they address reflect their reliance on legal texts. Although questions of the basis of the community's authority and of majority rule or the degree of influence of European models are important, this approach cannot fully take into account the fact that communities operated at the local level where the everyday realities may have been more important in shaping day to day decisions. Studies of particular communities do exist; a few examples are cited in the bibliography below.

For Spain, a great deal of useful information about the relationship between the communities and the king is gathered in Yom Tov Assis' two recent books (Assis, Golden Age, Jewish Economy). Additional local studies are a desideratum.

Back to The Jewish Community: Introduction  Parameters of Communal Autonomy
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Copyright (C) 1998, Elka Klein. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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