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Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Fruit of Her Hands: The Tale of a Medieval Jewish Woman Survivor

Why did I decide to read this book?  It's about a medieval woman who studied Talmud and married a very prominent Rabbi.  I have read Maggie Anton's books about Rav Hisda's daughter, and I'm interested in reading about other Jewish women who were scholars. Unlike Rav Hisda's daughter, who is mentioned in the Talmud, the protagonist of this novel is fictional.  The Rabbi she married, Meir of Rothenberg known as the Maharam, is an important historical personage but we know nothing about the woman he married, his married life or his household.  Many of the major events described in the novel are nevertheless well-documented and known to have either happened to Meir of Rothenberg, been witnessed by him or occurred within his lifetime.  See Wikipedia article on Meir of Rothenberg.

                                                     


The description says that the protagonist, Shira, was rebellious. Shira's father, a  Rabbi in Falaise, France, had allowed Shira to study in the same classroom as his own students when she was a small child.  She never assumed that she would be limited to the domestic sphere when she married. Considering how repressive her husband was toward women in general in his official pronouncements, modern readers might not think she was rebellious enough.   Although her relationship with Meir had its stormy periods, she evidently loved him and was notably loyal to him even when she didn't agree with his opinions.  She tried to do what was expected of her as a Rabbi's wife.  As such, she played a supportive role in his life.
 
I was most interested by the censorship theme in this novel.   This theme first raised its ugly head in a collision of extremists.  None of the participants were willing to compromise.  This sounds like a description of many current political figures in the U.S.

 On one side was a rather notorious trouble making student of Shira's father known historically as Nicholas Donin.  When I first saw that name, I knew that it wasn't possible that this could have been the name by which he was called as a Jewish student. Beginning in the medieval period, Jewish men have typically had secular names in the language of the country where they reside, and religious names in Hebrew or Yiddish.   Nicholas would not have been an acceptable name for religious purposes.  These would have included his studies of religious texts.  It astonishes me that none of the students who were his opponents in the novel raised this issue.  I think that it's probable that he actually had a Jewish religious name that vanished from the historical record.  Maybe it was Nachman or Naphtali.

Regardless of what his actual first name might have been at the time, Nicholas Donin thought that Jews should stop reading the Talmud because the only book they needed was the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides who was a Jewish leader in Islamic Spain and Egypt.   Maimonides was brilliant and very highly regarded by current Jews, but why toss out all other perspectives?  I was shocked that all the other students and their instructor, Shira's father, wanted to toss Maimonides.  They maintained that Maimonides was a heretic.  I had never been taught that Maimonides was ever viewed by any Jewish community as a heretic.  I knew that the Jews of the Arab world and the Jews of Europe lived and thought differently, but I hadn't expected ringing denunciations. I imagine that Maimonides may have been too much of a scientifically oriented rationalist for European Jews who lived in a context where both rationalism and science had been demonized by the Church.  It seemed like all the Jews in France, with the exception of Nicholas Donin, were united in opposition to Maimonides and actually wanted to burn his books.   Since Jews had no authority to burn books,  they asked the Church to do it.  Shira's father expelled Nicholas Donin from his school.  Later Rabbi Yechiel of Paris excommunicated him.  That was Act One of the censorship battle.

Once censorship becomes thinkable, it will happen again.  Act Two happened a year later.  Nicholas Donin had converted to Christianity and become a Christian monk.  He proceeded to travel to Rome, and convince the Pope that it was the Talmud that needed to be burned.  Then he returned to Paris to enforce the Pope's new edict.  The Jewish community of Paris, where Shira was now living with her husband, was horrified.  Yet I couldn't help but think that karma was biting them back.  If they had been conciliatory and inclusive toward Nicholas Donin and the works of Maimonides the previous year, they wouldn't have been fighting for their right to study Talmud.  Fanaticism has always had a destructive impact.   Am I blaming the victims?  In this case, the victims had previously been persecutors.  There is a lesson to be learned from this role reversal. 

 By the way, both Act One and Act Two actually happened. See this You Tube video on the subject.

One of the domestic disagreements that Shira had with her husband was also theological.  Her husband was opposed to the marriage of  their Paris maidservant to a sculptor of gargoyles.  He thought it was idolatry.  Shira disagreed.  As a fan of fantasy novels, I was interested in this disagreement.  I learned something I hadn't known before about gargoyles.  Their role wasn't religious, but functional.  Their purpose was drainage. The gargoyles funneled rainwater from the cathedral's Gothic spires to the street level.

 There's another argument in favor of gargoyles that Shira missed. It's useful to know the exact wording of the ten commandments if you're getting into a debate with a Rabbi about one of them.  In this case, it's the second commandment.  Let's take a look at what it actually says:





Are gargoyles a creature seen in the heavens, on the earth or in the water?  No, they are not.  They are completely imaginary.  So not only aren't they made with a religious purpose, but they aren't images of anything real.  I am confident that the idolatry case against gargoyle creators should be dismissed. 

Despite the fact that Shira didn't bring up my argument, the Maharam conceded that Shira was correct.  She won that particular dispute.

As students of medieval history know, the situation for Jews in Europe continued to decline.  Shira and her husband had to deal with all the terrible manifestations of Christian persecution.   If there was any peace and joy to be had in Shira's life, it was temporary.  I was impressed by Shira's ability to persevere and recover from every horrible trauma that she and her community endured.   Shira may not have been a feminist in our terms, but she was a strong woman.  I am here today because there were women like Shira who sustained their families, and picked themselves up after every disaster.  

 
                                                      



                                              

                                                

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