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Religion Library: Judaism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Marc A. Krell

Title: Carolingian Empire in the 9th century Source:

Title: This illustration from a 1250 French Bible is thought by some to depict Jews (identifiable by Judenhut) being massacred. Source: contrast, the medieval Jews faced the greatest persecution when it was initiated by anti-government mass movements or popular uprisings. This was evident during the first Crusades in 1096 when overzealous knights and angry mobs went against explicit prohibitions in secular and ecclesiastical law not to kill Jews, who had a theologically protected status. Instead of going directly to Jerusalem to liberate Christian holy places from the Seljuk Turks, as they were called upon to do by Pope Urban II, these roving bands marched into the Rhineland and attacked Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Trier, and Regensburg. The Jews responded by either taking up arms against the Crusaders or, in many cases, turning their weapons on themselves rather than converting to Christianity. This act of kiddush ha-Shem, or martyrdom, became associated with the active use of weapons rather than a passive resistance to their fate.


Later in the 12th century, the Muslim extremist group, Almohades, "Proclaimers of the Unity of Allah," responded to the Christian reconquista in the 12th century by invading Spain to defend Islamic purity and domination. These treated the Jews in Africa and Iberia harshly and forced them to flee en masse into Christian conquered areas. Yet the Jews were not just pawns in a military chess match between Muslims and Christians. They were authorized by Christian kings to defend themselves from their enemies and were exempt from punishment for any opponents that they killed in battle.

Obviously, the medieval Jews did not have the political and military power to sufficiently defend themselves without foreign political alliances or to achieve territorial conquest. However, by carefully navigating the medieval political landscape, the rabbis were able to maintain a secure foothold for the Jewish community despite reoccurring political and religious insecurity. Ultimately, they were able to create a semi-autonomous political and religious empire by presenting themselves as the surrogate leaders for the ancient Jewish commonwealth in exile until its reestablishment in the messianic age.

Study Questions:
1.     How were rabbis both religious and political leaders?
2.     What can be said about the relationship between halakhic law and medieval royalty?
3.     Why were Jews permitted to travel freely, and receive royal protection?
4.     Who persecuted medieval Jews? How did they survive?


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