Being Frum in Medieval Ashkenaz – By Julie Mell

Julie Mell on Elisheva Baumgarten’s Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz

Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women and Everyday Religious Observance,, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 344pp., $69.95
Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women and Everyday Religious Observance,, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 344pp., $69.95
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Long before second-wave feminism brought egalitarian practices into Judaism, medieval women were taking on rituals reserved for men. Jewish women were shaking the lulav, blowing the shofar, and donning tefillin and tzitzit in Ashkenaz, that is, in northwestern Europe as it is known in Hebrew. Perhaps even more surprising, some of the foremost halachic authorities were not objecting. But medieval women’s active assumption of “time-bound commandments,” commandments from which they were legally exempt, was not a form of proto-feminism. As Elisheva Baumgarten never fails to remind her readers medieval Ashkenaz was a staunchly hierarchical and patriarchal society. Neither the halachic authorities nor the women about whom they wrote ever questioned the categorical divide between men and women, even when they permitted women’s observance of the commandments reserved for men.

In fact, the same pious impulse that led women to break the gender boundary also led women to impose upon themselves what today would be considered gender exclusion. Particularly pious Jewish women, for instance, began absenting themselves from the synagogue in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, when their menstrual cycle rendered them impure. By the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this became the norm for all Ashkenazi women. Women’s exclusion from the synagogue, even when initiated by women themselves, contradicts the central aim of contemporary Jewish feminism, whether orthodox or reform to incorporate women as fully as possible in public synagogue prayer. Consequently, advocates of orthodox feminism will not find uncomplicated precedents for expanding women’s inclusion in public prayer in Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz. But they will find a fine piece of feminist history that recovers women’s experiences and uses gender analysis to transform our understanding of Jewish history and European history more generally.

As in her earlier book Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, Baumgarten crafts a remarkable piece of women’s (and men’s) history out of sparse and difficult rabbinic texts produced by elite men. She has perfected the method of the Annales School, the pioneers of social and cultural history, and she deftly applies this method to elite Hebrew texts from medieval Ashkenaz. The concept of piety, which Baumgarten uses to center her study, derives from Annalist historians like André Vauchez, who explored “lay piety” as a corrective to historians’ focus on the clerical elite and their texts. Similarly, Baumgarten shifts scholars’ focus from the male elite of the rabbis and their textual productions to the everyday religious practices of non-elite men and women.

Perhaps it is ironic that Jewish Studies scholars should need a nudge in this direction, for rabbinic Judaism has always been a practice-oriented religion in that what matters most is what one does and how one does it. The word “piety” may not resonate with contemporary Anglo-Americans, but its Yiddish equivalent frum does with orthodox Jewish readers. Frum is one of those little Yiddish words that has become part of the Anglo-American Jewish vocabulary. It is a loaded descriptor that characterizes a certain type of observant Jew — something more than shomer Shabbat (one who keeps the Shabbat as defined by the modern orthodox movement) and something different from a baal teshuvah (one who has returned to religious observance). It can describe someone who is exact about halachic observance or one who is overly concerned (even annoyingly concerned) with the correct observance of halachah in areas that are customarily problematic or contested zones. “Practicing piety” is nothing more than “being frum.” This fluid translation into Yi-nglish reminds us how close these medieval movements still are to the living pulse of contemporary Judaism.

Yet, the association with “piety” that will probably come readily to the minds of most readers is not that of orthodox Judaism, but of “pietism,” the intra-church devotional and renewal movements in Protestantism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Germany. Scholarship on lay piety in medieval western Christianity has encouraged an association with later Protestant renewal movements. Some bold historians have even designated the period the “medieval reformation.” One wishes that Baumgarten had excavated this conceptual history behind the category “piety” and analyzed more rigorously her own use. This would have lessened the kaleidoscope-effect, in which piety functions as a catch-all term for everything from radical new forms of religious expression to mainstream norms, from polemical identity marker to mundane, rote ritual. It also perhaps would have led the author to articulate explicitly one of the intriguing latent suggestions of the book — that European Judaism in the high middle ages was undergoing a movement of renewal and devotional enthusiasm parallel to and in conversation with western Christianity.

The book first takes up practices central to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — prayer, fasting, and charity. After discussing synagogue attendance in relation to bodily impurity, Baumgarten addresses fasting as a form of repentance. Then she analyzes the charitable giving recorded in the Nürnburg Memorbuch across genders. In the second half of the book, she focuses on women’s performance of time-bound commandments reserved for men, as well as the relationship between piety and hair, dress, and appearance. In conclusion, Baumgarten considers the tensions between internal piety (or its lack) and outward signs and symbols of piety.

Each chapter uses comparison as an analytic tool to cut deeply into the material. Jewish women’s practices are compared with men’s, and Jewish practices with Christian. For example, in her discussion of bodily impurity and synagogue attendance, Baumgarten compares and contrasts changing rabbinic concerns with male and female impurity. Medieval precedents for purity, she notes, were rooted in practices connected with sacrifice in the Temple. Any man with a seminal emission or woman menstruating or experiencing post-partum bloody flow were barred from bringing a sacrifice until they had washed with proper ritual immersion, as were those with skin disease or exposure to corpses. After the destruction of the second Temple, these regulations were transmitted and transformed by the rabbis in complicated and at times contradictory ways. While the rabbis constructed prayer in the synagogue as a substitute for sacrifice in the temple, the regulations on purity in the temple were not seamlessly applied to the synagogue. In high medieval Europe women’s impurity caused by menstrual or post-partum blood became heightened, and men’s impurity caused by seminal emission reduced. Whereas pious women began to refrain from entering the synagogue while impure, men, irrespective of their impurity, participated fully in communal prayers. In fact, regulation of male impurity from seminal emission in sexual relations was restricted in medieval Europe to attempts to prevent nocturnal emission outside of sexual relations, without it having any bearing on men’s synagogue attendance.

In analyzing these shifting concepts and practices, Baumgarten rejects two older lines of interpretation: (1) “natural” anxiety related to blood and (2) increasing familiarity with rabbinic laws on niddah (laws on women impure from bloody flow). Rather Baumgarten turns to contemporary social context — medieval European Christian communities and their gendered conceptions of bodily purity and impurity. Through a cross-religious comparison, Baumgarten not only suggests that the new Jewish practices emerged from contemporary European concerns with female pollution and impurity in sacred spaces, but she shows how medieval rabbis framed menstruation as a covenantal sign, defining Jewish identity over against Christianity.

This is just one example of how Baumgarten blazes a trail in the field of medieval Jewish history and law, one both important and long overdue. Texts and halakhah do not shape life and practice, rather it is the other way around. Social custom and contemporary cultural settings led medieval rabbis to discover new things in old texts: European concerns with women’s bodily impurity in sacred spaces led medieval rabbinic authorities to read old rabbinic texts on niddah in new ways. Baumgarten’s aim to uncover the history of social practice (rather than textual transmission) leads her to contextualize Jewish texts in Europe’s social and cultural history. In this endeavor, she joins a wide array of scholars at the cutting-edge of Jewish history. This work has begun to chart a richer and more multi-faceted history of Judaism than older scholarship, which assumed that Judaism was a product of internal transmission of pure texts. Even more significantly, it points to ways in which Jewish history may illuminate “general history,” just as women’s history illuminates “mainstream history.”

Baumgarten’s comparative approach uncovers the shared social structures shaping the lives of Jewish and Christian women in medieval Europe. Cultural and religious responses to these structures among Jews and Christians differed to be sure, for these structural changes were encountered and filtered through distinct religious traditions and even deployed as markers of identity in cross-religious polemic. But underneath the identity politics lies a substratum of shared social structures. Baumgarten leaves off historical analysis once she has pointed out the similarities that cross religious lines. But this type of comparison raises fundamental questions unanswered in this volume: Why did the gender norms shared across Judaism and Christian in western Europe shift in the ways that they did in the high middle ages? Why were women, Christian and Jewish, inspired by piety to push the boundaries of these gender norms? Indeed, why were men and women, Christians and Jews, electrified by new religious experiments in the high medieval period?

The comparison with Jewish practices opens a new horizon on old questions in the study of medieval Christianity. If these transformations happened across religious lines, then we must look beyond internalist explanations to shared social, economic, and cultural factors. Fully comparative work demands that a historian plumb the primary texts of Christianity as deeply as the Jewish texts. One hopes that Baumgarten in her next book, or the next generation of scholars inspired by her, will be brave enough or at least chutzpadik enough to do so.

For the time, though, I am thrilled with “the bird in the hand.” Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz is a remarkable book. It is a fascinating study of medieval Jewish religious observance that makes a significant contribution to Jewish history and our understanding of gender in medieval Europe.

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