Voices from the Fire: Medieval Jewish Martyr Laments

Voices from the Fire: Medieval Jewish Martyr Laments March 2, 2015

Part of my Lenten reading was Susan L. Einbinder’s Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France. It’s a very readable adapted thesis which makes a few arguments–for example, that Jewish martyr laments shifted over time from proclaiming God’s covenant with the community, to depicting individual transformation of the martyrs; that the laments shift from emphasizing demographic diversity to exalting scholars as a sort of martyr elite; and that the laments show the degree to which an increasingly-persecuted minority was nonetheless shaped by the culture and fashions of their Christian surroundings. But Einbinder also wants to rescue these poems and songs as poetry, including liturgical poetry. She draws out their Biblical references and describes their metrical and other formal features in order to help us see their pathos and depth.

That’s my main thought about the book, which I’m glad I read. I did have a series of much smaller sub-thoughts:

* The last chapter in the book shows the growing early-modern fascination with magic and magic books, and the connection both Jews and Christians drew between Jewish books and magical powers. The Jews were, unsurprisingly, much more nuanced in separating reverence for Torah from magical use of books, whereas the Christians tended to see all Jewish books as talismanic.

While I was in the middle of this chapter I saw 1923’s The Golem at the AFI Theater, with musical accompaniment by Gary Lucas. It was a powerful testament to the longevity of the Magical Jewish Book trope.

Lucas noted afterward that many people have asked him if he thinks The Golem is anti-Semitic. He says no, and I agree: The movie, it seems to me, assumes that you’ll empathize with the Jewish community, and the Jews are the protagonists and heroes.

But also, the rabbi really does practice magic and invoke “spirits” (Astaroth! That happens!). The Christian emperor in the film simultaneously condemns the Jews for practicing the Black Arts, and asks the rabbi to come visit and show the court his magic tricks, so nobody’s innocent here, but… yes, actual spirits get invoked by the Jewish heroes and nobody seems to think that’s weird. (Plenty of other weirdness–The Golem is a terrific quasi-horror flick, with amazing interiors and costumes and effects, but its religious or cultural notes are quite odd–like when the rabbi says he’ll show the Christians a kind of magical movie of “our ancestors” and the ancestor he picks is the Wandering Jew.) “Save us, rabbi! Recite the fire spell or we shall all perish!” A strange thing to read while also reading Einbinder’s book about Jewish martyrs led to the stake.

* Einbinder’s book also asks whether the French Jews’ martyrological traditions protected them from the mass conversions which decimated the Jewish community of Spain right before Spain’s Christian rulers expelled their Jews. She looks at a period of time during which conversions peaked and then dropped, and notes, “Certainly, fervent and educated young converts were able to cause great damage upon defection.” Jewish converts to Christianity participated in “disputations” and charged the Talmud with heresy and blasphemy, which led to the banning and burning of Torahs and Talmuds.

There’s a contrast here–I don’t want to push it too far, because we know so little about the inner life and mentality of the medieval Jewish converts to Christianity–with the twentieth-century Jewish converts to Christianity who helped shaped the Vatican’s approach to Jewish people and faith. The Jewish Christians whose work influenced (among other things) Nostra Aetate seemed to feel that they had an ongoing responsibility to Jewish communities, and that the Church’s current approach to these communities needed reform. They did not simply pledge allegiance to the Church and turn away from the community in which they were raised. They saw their role as representing and advocating for the Jewish people to the Church, not merely the other way around.

So now you know why I tagged this post “Gay Catholic Whatnot.”

* Finally, there’s an element of martyr stories which is conspicuous in these laments by its absence. I hope it is obvious that I don’t say this to blame the martyrs (!) or champion their killers. And I know so little about Jewish martyrological texts; for all I know, the ones Einbinder didn’t address (for example, the prose chronicles) do contain this element. But it was striking to me that the martyr laments contain calls for God to avenge, and virulent depictions of Christianity and Christian ritual as impure fountains of filth, while never sounding a note of forgiveness for one’s enemies. There’s no “they know not what they do,” no, “Bless those who curse you.” This absence was, to me, a poignant reminder of how unnatural the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is: how brutal, one might say.

And especially brutal when mercy is so thoroughly absent from Christians’ own actions.


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