Book Reviews

in European Judaism

Steven Fine, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-6740-8879-5 (cloth), 12 + 279 pp., £22.95

Steven Fine achieves something that eludes most writers on Jewish Studies. He presents the results of serious research with clarity and enthusiasm and occasionally with passion, leading general readers into a complex subject without intimidating them, while offering those with specialist knowledge an introduction to an important issue, in this case a central Jewish symbol. Endnotes include the sources of his research, and outstanding bibliographical essays the wider background reading. He strikes a nuanced note in this lavish book that the Menorah fully deserves.

Gershom Scholem long ago demonstrated that the Star of David, regarded by many as the Jewish symbol par excellence, is a late arrival that gained prominence only in the late nineteenth century. In antiquity and after it was rather the Menorah that could claim such status, and early examples have been found scratched into wall-plaster in Jerusalem, carved into stone in the Galilee and impressed on coins struck before as well as after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Inspired to undertake this project by recollections of his mother’s humble chromium-plated Hanukah lamp (Fine recalls that the term ‘Hanukiyah’ was coined by Ben Yehuda), and by his professional involvement in the study of the relief-carving of plundered Temple treasures on Titus Arch in Rome, the author is haunted now by its role in what he calls a recent ‘slippage towards darkness’ (p. xii) in the hands of politically radical elements, including those who in 1995 murdered Prime Minister Rabin, to whose memory the book is dedicated.

Fine opens with his own close encounter with the relief carvings on Titus Arch, leading to the discovery of traces of colour that had not previously been noted. He details reports of the fate of the Temple treasures since the fall of Rome, where they were carried after the destruction of the Temple, until their disappearance from all but legend. One version claims the Menorah was taken to Carcassonne in southern France and then to Byzantine Jerusalem to be concealed in the vast Nea Church, where recent excavators of its ruins sought the treasure in vain. Early-twentieth-century savants cherished the faint hope of finding an object which, due to its prominence on the Roman Arch, became a symbol of national identity. Robert Graves was one of those who popularized the story of its survival, but reports that it is in the Vatican have, despite persistent repetition, failed to bear fruit.

Uncertainty seems the norm in Menorah matters. Biblical descriptions of buildings and their appurtenances are notoriously unclear, and the design of and number of such candlesticks in the Tabernacle and the two Temples remain as vague as their significance. Some saw the seven lights on the Menorah as the ‘eyes of God’, while the seventh-century poet Yannai equates them with the planets. Versions of the lamp appear in Jewish as well as Samaritan prayer, in the writings of Church Fathers, in the works of the Venerable Bede, and even on early Muslim coinage. Fine examines ancient and later depictions, from Roman gold glass, the third-century Mishnah and Dura Europas wall paintings, to mosaics found in Byzantine synagogues.

Medieval rabbinic commentators failed to agree on its appearance. Maimonides argued that the arms of the lamp were straight rather than curved, a reading now revived by Chabad Hasidim, partly in order to distance the movement from the more familiar version adopted as the symbol of the State of Israel.

Fine highlights the Talmudic interdiction against reproducing Temple equipment, which is why Jews traditionally refrain from making or owning a seven-branched candelabrum (Menahot 28b). As a result, the symbol is generally encountered in the form of the nine-branched Hanukah lamp, a design he traces from fifteenth-century Italy, via eighteenth-century Poland to the monumental gift of British parliamentarians to the Knesset made by the sculptor Benno Elkan (whose name is consistently misspelled here ‘Beno Elkin’, a rare error in this well-edited book).

A possible quibble is Fine’s failure to explore the process by which the Titus Arch’s seven-branched Menorah was adopted as a model for the Hanukah lamp. The branched ‘Hanukiyah’ still coexists with the older back-plate variety known since the Middle Ages, in which a row of lights stands in front of a reflective shield. The use of the Temple design for the festival lamp is a vital part of the story that needs to be told.

The Menorah acquired political significance in the late nineteenth century, appearing in diaspora synagogues aspiring to the status of the Temple, despite Reform disdain for sacrificial worship, and inspiring the historian and scholar Haham Moses Gaon of Bevis Marks Synagogue in London to imagine himself participating in the parade of exiles illustrated in the Arch, and implicitly also in their eventual return in messianic times. The symbol later appeared on the cap-badge of the Jewish Legion in the Great War, the first Jewish fighting unit since the revolt against Rome, and survives in the symbol of the right-wing Betar youth movement, both founded by Wolf Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who in some ways dominates the later history of the Menorah’s significance.

The symbol became ubiquitous in Zionist art, to the extent that archaeological discoveries featuring a menorah were reported as major news items, and the motif served as a powerful national symbol even prior to independence, during decades in which Europeans were much preoccupied by such symbols. It was an obvious choice for the seal of the State of Israel, although the final design raised the ire of Salman Schocken, the graphically aware book publisher and founder of Ha’aretz who accused the artists of insensitivity. It later became the symbol of the protest movement of Russian refuseniks, and is a continuing focus of Chabad opposition to the secularity of modern Israeli society.

As the Jewish equivalent of the Holy Grail, it has been the fate of the original Menorah and other Temple artefacts to feature in tales of sacred quests based on the slenderest of historical evidence. Reports that it lies in the mud of Rome’s River Tiber are as poorly founded as statements that it is held in the basement of the Vatican. The most enduring of such narratives can be traced to the writings of the eccentric Rabbi Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg (grandfather of the novelist Mordecai Richler), who read Arthur Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Jew’s Breastplate’, and linked his retelling to the Maharal of Prague, a hero of Jewish folk-legend whom Rosenberg was the first also to link to the story of the Golem.

The Haredi community is in the habit of taking reports of the treasure’s survival in the Vatican particularly seriously, some travellers claiming actually to have seen it. The fifth Lubavitch rebbe described how he had been in Rome, but could not approach the rabbi who might have afforded him access without entering his synagogue, which was too ‘modern’ for him. The cost of seeing the Temple treasures was in this case too high. Stories of almost but not quite seeing the treasures continue to this day, despite Catholic rapprochement to Jews that makes such concealment impossible to take seriously.

Fine’s last chapter, entitled ‘Illuminating the Path to Armageddon’, that includes an account of right-wing ‘post-Zionism’, makes disquieting reading. He focuses on the ‘Temple Institute’ in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, a former member of Knesset for the now-banned Kach party, and a follower of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who was reported to have urged the Israel Defence Forces to ‘blow up the mosques’. Rabbi Ariel, who thought fit to deliver a funeral eulogy for Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of Muslims at prayer in Hebron on Purim 1994, avoids involvement in illegal actions. But his organization encourages support for the revival of the Temple service by commissioning ritual objects and glossy volumes by mainstream publishers, in this way pushing, as Fine puts it, ‘both Zionist/Israeli realpolitik and Orthodox Judaism towards messianic fulfilment’ (p. 217). He adds that its golden menorah, installed just opposite the Kotel, ‘might … be seen as a threat both by those looking outward through the windows of the Al-Aksa mosque and by mainstream Israel’ (p. 219).

Fine’s account of ‘apocalyptic post-Orthodox post-Zionism’ (p. 229) takes us ‘to the centre of modern Israel’s struggle between normality and the End of Days’ (ibid.), and makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of rightward pressures in Israeli society. This is a book to enjoy, study and give as a gift. Its fine colour illustrations include most of the objects discussed in the book, and ensure that it is a visual delight as well as a stimulating piece of research.

Jeremy Schonfield Leo Baeck College London; Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

Larry Tabick, The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Readings, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 2014, xl + 376 pp., ISBN 978-0-8276-0948-8 (pb), £18.99

The cover of The Aura of Torah makes this book already a pleasure to own: it features a colourful, seventeenth-century miniature of a rabbi reading the Torah. Behind this beautiful front image, there is a spiritual companion to the weekly readings.

In his introduction, Rabbi Larry Tabick explains the title’s meaning. The Torah has two auras. The first aura is visible in the printed editions of the Pentateuch, in which the Hebrew text is surrounded by a ‘halo’ of commentaries and translations. The invisible aura, on the other hand, is the aura of holiness and spirituality. It discloses deep spiritual truths and reveals hidden realms. However, it is often difficult for those who seek enlightenment to find it in the Torah. The spiritual truths seem deeply buried underneath the plethora of stories, laws and rituals. Tabick points out that Jewish mystics and spiritual teachers were aware of the fact that, at first sight, the Torah does not offer the spiritual guidance and inspiration that many seek. Thanks to their ingenious, highly creative exegetical skills, these mystics nevertheless managed to perceive the Torah’s invisible aura and grasp Scripture’s esoteric meaning. Yet, ironically, their works are often notoriously difficult to read, let alone translate. The highly complex nature of many mystical texts thus presents another obstacle for those seeking spiritual enlightenment in the Torah.

However, under the expert guidance of Tabick, the reader is introduced to an anthology of texts that disclose the esoteric meaning of Scripture. Very useful is Tabick’s brief historical overview of the different schools of thought within the Jewish mystical tradition. He first introduces the reader to the merkavah mystics of late antiquity, but since this tradition does not explicitly engage with Scripture, it does not feature in the actual commentary. The author continues with the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the German pietists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who meticulously scrutinized the biblical texts, and whose leaders are quoted a few times in the book. The historical overview is, understandably, mostly devoted to the origin, development and doctrines of the Kabbalah. The author offers a clear and succinct exposition of the complex concept of the ten sefirot, the different aspects of God’s personality. The kabbalists extensively studied the Torah, as evidenced by the manifold Kabbalistic commentaries, and with their theories they cast a whole new light on the meaning of Scripture. Tabick also discusses Yitzchak Luria’s radical reinterpretation of the doctrine of divine emanation, and the profound impact of his teachings, such as the concept of tikkun olam (‘repairing of the world’), on the Jewish world, most notably on Shabbetai Zevi, the failed messiah. The Hasidic movement, founded on the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, further popularized the Kabbalah and shifted its focus towards human psychology, or rather mystical psychology. Tabick also gives voice to the historical opponents of the Hasidic movement, the mitnagdim, and he concludes his overview with the surge in popular interest in Kabbalah in modern times.

Tabick has ordered his text material according to the weekly readings, and each parasha is commented upon in three different texts, which have been carefully selected and translated by the author himself (the appendices provide the original texts and short biographies of the mystics and spiritual teachers quoted in this book). His gender-neutral translations and rendering of the Tetragrammaton with ‘Eternal’ should make every reader feel addressed. Although Tabick draws his sources from a wide variety of material, the Hasidic teachings dominate his commentary. The author is clearly inspired by the Hasidim, but he certainly does not treat them with blind adulation, as evidenced, for example, by his critical stance towards the concept of the tzadik. He rather believes in the spiritual potential of every human; each individual has the ability to become a tzadik. Tabick nevertheless admires the Hasidic emphasis on anti-materialism, mystical psychology and God-centred living.

The author has made a painstaking effort to present the often difficult and convoluted texts as clearly as possible. In order to reach Scripture’s esoteric layer, the mystics frequently employed ingenious yet abstruse exegetical methods. Moreover, usually their commentaries are heavily influenced by the earlier rabbinic exegesis of Scripture. To facilitate the reader’s understanding of the predominantly Kabbalistic-Hasidic writings, each text is followed by Tabick’s helpful notes, in which he provides biblical and rabbinic references and explains underlying concepts – such as Kabbalistic symbolism – wordplays and gematria. Otherwise many textual elements would have escaped the reader’s attention. Tabick concludes each section with his application of the spiritual lessons to the present day. Tabick’s choice of texts, enriched by his personal observations, will leave the reader in awe of the profound scriptural understanding of the Jewish mystics, who managed to discover a spiritual layer underneath the seemingly most mundane passages in the Torah.

The Aura of Torah is a testament to Rabbi Larry Tabick’s profound love for Jewish mysticism, most notably Kabbalah and Hasidism. He has made highly complex texts accessible to a wider audience, enriching the reader’s spiritual understanding of Scripture. Tabick is clearly concerned with the advancement of each individual’s spiritual progress. In his commentary on Leviticus 25:23 in parasha Be-har, Tabick quotes Moshe of Sudylkov, grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who taught that ‘we are only passing through – spiritual beings, not unlike God – sojourning through a physical universe’. With The Aura of Torah, Tabick has delivered an inspiring and important guide for our spiritual quest here on earth.

Alinda Damsma Leo Baeck College, London

Jeremy Cohen, A Historian in Exile: Solomon ibn Verga, Shevet Yehudah, and the Jewish-Christian Encounter, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, 248 pp., $65.00/£56.00, ISBN 978-0-8122-4858-6 Hardback; Ebook, $65.00/£42.50, ISBN 978-0-812-29327-2

Solomon ibn Verga’s Shevet Yehudah is one of the most important Jewish texts from the generation of the expulsion from Spain. Virtually all scholars who have written about the 1492 expulsion and its immediate aftermath have used ibn Verga’s book as a significant source, as have scholars who have published studies of Jewish historical writing. But to date, only one rather short though extremely important book has been devoted to ibn Verga’s text: Yosef Yerushalmi’s The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the Shebet Yehudah.1 Jeremy Cohen’s full-length study is therefore a welcome arrival.

Ibn Verga’s intriguing book raises many questions. As Cohen notes at the beginning of his study, hardly anything is known about the author, except that he left Spain in 1492, lived in Portugal before, during and after the forced conversion in 1497 of all Jews on Portuguese soil, apparently leaving shortly after 1506. It is an ongoing challenge to fit this work into a specific literary genre; it appears to be a mixture of historical narrative, historical fiction, religious disputation and polemic, natural science, and other types of material as well.

What, precisely, was its purpose? What were the author’s sources? Why does the author seem to blur the lines between historical accuracy and literary invention? Why are there so many chronological cruxes in the work? Why so much apparent repetition? Why is the book organized the way it is – with apparently minimal concern for chronological order; is there any coherence at all to its organization? Does the author reveal the influence of Renaissance thinking? How influential was the book on subsequent Jewish writers? All these are questions effectively addressed by Jeremy Cohen, but compelling answers are not always available.

Shevet Yehudah is included in all modern discussions of medieval and early modern Jewish historical writing, and indeed it includes accounts of historical events, such as the anti-Jewish decrees of the Visigothic King Sisebut, the 1096 Crusader massacres of Rhineland Jews (though apparently without direct knowledge of the actual accounts written by contemporary German Jews), the French ‘Shepherds’ Crusade’ of 1320, the anti-Jewish violence of 1391, and the Lisbon massacre of 1506, as well as a detailed account of the Disputation of Tortosa in 1413–14, to which Jeremy Cohen devotes a lengthy chapter in the book under review (chapter 2). Historical figures play a significant role, especially in the account of Tortosa: Benedict XIII (the ‘antipope’ of Avignon), Gerónimo de Santa Fe (formerly Joshua Halorki), Rabbi Zerachiah Halevi, Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov. Yet most of the Gentile figures named are not clearly historical. Ibn Verga devotes long chapters to debates, many involving a wise Spanish king Alfonso and a Christian scholar named Thomas ‘the Sharp’, both apparently the fictional creation of the author (chapter 1). It has been characterized as ‘folklore, not history’ (Isidor Loeb) and as a blend of ‘fact and fancy’ (Abraham Neuman); as Cohen puts it, it is a text that reveals the ‘tendency to blend history and folklore in a semi-homiletic reflection on the past’ (p. 7).

This distance from conventional historical writing is illustrated by a passage that Cohen presents as the opening paragraph of his book (p. vii): a heart-wrenching narrative of suffering refugees from Spain that is clearly more homiletical than historical.2 The author introduces his narrative with ‘I heard from the elders who had left Spain that in a certain ship…’, with no indication of who the elders were or where the ship was heading. A ‘plague broke out and the captain cast them in an uninhabited place’, with no hint of where. One Jew is walking with his wife and two children; first the wife and then the children die. The climax is presented as a direct quotation of what the sole survivor said, including the accusation, addressed to God, ‘that you are doing much to make me abandon my religion’ – but insisting that nevertheless he will remain a Jew, and ‘nothing you [God] have brought or will bring against me will help you’. There is no indication how the author could have known exactly what the isolated man said in a direct quotation of twenty-five words in Hebrew (forty-eight words in English).

The story, as Cohen indicates, clearly ‘lacks historical particulars’. But, although it is extremely popular with other scholars as well as Cohen,3 the claim that God brought about the death of the refugee Jew’s wife and two children in order to make the survivor abandon his faith is, to say the least, theologically problematic. To single this out as a passage that ‘encapsulates the life experience, the world, and the agenda of the author’ (p. vii) and is characteristic of ‘the collective suffering and desperation of Iberian Jews at the end of the Middle Ages’ (p. vii) seems like a generalization not fully justified by the source material.

Much attention is devoted to the ritual murder accusation. In his chapter devoted to this topic (chapter 4), Cohen presents a useful chart outlining the details in each of the nine incidents presented by ibn Verga, showing that in most cases, despite the criticism of Jews attributed to significant figures (most of them fictional), the king was responsible for an outcome that was on the whole good for the Jews. The message is consistent with what Yerushalmi called ‘the royal alliance’ as characteristic of Jewish political strategy: the assumption that – despite the expulsion from Spain and the universal forced conversion in Portugal – Jews are safest when they have access to the king, who can protect them from attacks from those in lower levels of society.

Important and intriguing chapters are devoted to debates relating to problematic passages in the Talmud, to Martyrs and Martyrdom, and to problems presented by Conversos and Conversion, voluntary or compelled, leading to a final chapter on the purpose of ibn Verga’s work. This topical organization imposes a useful structure to chapters that often seem haphazardly presented in the original text.

A general point about the title, which Cohen consistently refers to as Shevet Yehudah, though the usual practice in English translations is for such titles to be rendered in English (Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, Gersonides’ The Wars of the Lord, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov). The only translation of the title in Cohen’s study refers to the author’s ‘Shevet Yehudah (The Scepter of Judah)’ (p. 2). But this Hebrew phrase is extremely ambiguous, which may be why Cohen and many other scholars writing in English use the Hebrew title. It obviously alludes to the well-known biblical verse, Lo yasur shevet mi-Ye-hudah, usually translated as ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah’ (Gen. 49:10), referring to the autonomous rule of an individual (Judah) or of a principality (Judea). The Hebrew phrase can also refer to ‘the tribe of Judah’ as paramount among the Israelite tribes. But the brief introduction written by ibn Verga suggests a significantly darker meaning in the title. Calling upon the Jewish people to repent, he continues:

May their sins be atoned by what has happened to them, and may He say ‘enough’ to their sorrows. I have called this narrative ‘Shevet Yehudah,’ for he [Judah] was the one who ruled first, and who saw more than others the essence of the rod of His wrath (shevet evrato, Prov. 22:8), may He be blessed. And so the prophet said, ‘For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen’ (Isa. 3:8).

‘Shevet’ here clearly refers not to a sceptre of sovereignty, but rather to a rod used for physical punishment; what is emphasized here and throughout the book is not a golden age in the past or future, but the calamities of Jewish life throughout the period of exile. (The Spanish translation of 1927 is entitled La vara de Judá, using a word much closer to ‘rod’ than to ‘sceptre’).4 There is a poignant irony in the author’s use of this title, emphasizing how different the contemporary reality is from the usual understanding of the original phrase in Genesis.

It remains surprising that the Hebrew of ibn Verga’s book has been fully translated into Yiddish (1591), into two German editions (1855–56, 2006) and Spanish (1927), but never into English. The distinguished historian Yosef Yerushalmi, who died in 2009, had worked on and completed a translation some time ago.5 While there is no reference to this translation in Cohen’s Preface, Introduction or body and notes of the current book, his Bibliography lists: ‘The Scepter of Judah (Shevet Yehudah). Tr. and interpreted Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, ed. Jeremy Cohen. 2016 (forthcoming)’. The date listed was obviously premature, but hopefully we may look forward to the publication of Yerushalmi’s fine translation, edited by the author of the book here under review, that will make this masterpiece of early modern Jewish response to catastrophe accessible in its entirety to English readers.

Marc Saperstein Leo Baeck College, London

Note
1

Hebrew Union College Annual Supplements 1 (Cincinnati, 1976). Yerushalmi’s book actually focuses on a single chapter of ibn Verga’s book – chapter 60, translated in Yerushalmi on pp. 1–3 – along with a full discussion of other relevant contemporary sources. The Lisbon Massacre is mentioned by Cohen only in passing (p. 58).

2

Cohen refers again to this narrative with the direct quotation of the central figure on p. 129, and again in the last four lines of the book, p. 182. The incident does not have this centrality in the book itself, appearing three-quarters of the way through the modern Hebrew text, p. 122 of 164 pages.

3

The passage was also a favourite of the Israeli scholar Haim Beinart. See his The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2002), 279, at the conclusion of a long section on ‘The Implementation of the Edict in the Kingdom of Seville’.

4

Cf. also Michael A. Meyer, Ideas of Jewish History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 110: ‘The Staff of Judah’, a word that perhaps expresses the ambiguity of an implement that can be used for support or for harm.

5

I was asked by the prospective publisher to write a review of the translation, which I submitted with enthusiastic support in the spring of 1998.

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Contributor Notes

Dr Jeremy Schonfield is John Rayner Reader in Liturgy at Leo Baeck College, London, and Supernumerary Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Alinda Damsma, PhD (2008), is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic at Leo Baeck College, London.

Marc Saperstein is currently Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck College following a five-year term as its Principal.