Aztec Birth Customs and Early Modern European Jews – By Adam Shear

Adam Shear on Yaacov Deutsch’s Judaism in Christian Eyes

Yaacov DeutschJudaism in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe, trans. Avi Aronsky. Oxford University Press, 2012, 320 pp., $74

Christian thinkers have always been interested in Jews and Judaism. Some biblical exegetes in late antiquity and a handful more in the Middle Ages turned to rabbinic commentaries on the Old Testament under the assumption that these Jewish sources would help them understand the Hebraica veritas, or at least its literal sense. But these Christian exegetes concurred with theologians that the rabbis and their flock were blind to the figurative meanings of the text and thus unable or unwilling to accept the new covenant of Christ foretold in the old. The image of blind synagoga not only resonated powerfully in sculpture and painting but also reinforced a theological construction of an ossified and outdated religion, stuck in a literalist reading of the Old Testament. While some of these Christian views of Judaism were for internal purposes of exegesis or homiletics, Christian discourse on the Jews also served polemical purposes, both apologetic, to shore up Christian faith from within, and missionizing, to open Jewish eyes to the truth.

As historians like Amos Funkenstein and Jeremy Cohen have pointed out, medieval Christian exegetes, theologians, and polemicists were slow to recognize the differences between the religion of Old Testament Israel and that of contemporary Judaism which depended not only on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament but also on the post-Temple rabbinic canon. While Christians must have observed some of the rituals and practices of their Jewish neighbors and perhaps noticed differences from biblical accounts (including New Testament accounts), the prevalence of a literary rather than an ethnographic paradigm delayed the production of scholarly literature that accurately described contemporary Judaism rather than repeating descriptions from older texts.

Change began in the 16th century and accelerated rapidly in the later 16th, 17th, and 18th when hundreds of works published in a variety of European languages described the practices and customs of contemporary Jews. Jewish converts to Christianity produced many of these works, offering up severe critiques of their former co-religionists and justification for their conversion. Such literature participated in a larger outpouring of Christian Hebraist scholarship in early modern Europe that included new works on old topics such as Hebrew grammar and the biblical text but also studies of previously underexplored areas such as rabbinic texts and Kabbalah. Authors of these works emphasized the role of direct observation of Jewish practices in their accounts. While such claims of going beyond mere textual study were sometimes marketing fluff or even outright deception — and over time, the proliferation of such works allowed authors to rely heavily on earlier literature and less on direct observation, resulting in a return to a kind of literary paradigm — the focus on contemporary Jews and on direct observation constituted a dual novelty.

A few historians have pointed out the ethnographic thrust of these works and their relationship to an emerging literature on the customs and practices of non-European others in the age of exploration and colonialism. Although some individual works have received attention, Yaacov Deutsch’s Judaism in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe gives us their first comprehensive survey. Deutsch first defines the genre, distinguishing works primarily devoted to description of Jewish customs from works in which incidental accounts of a particular Jewish ritual might appear (such as in a travelogue). He also offers a complete bibliography of such works as well as comparative tables showing which topics (i.e., which rituals and practices) appear in which. By looking at a much wider range of texts than previous historians had, and by more sharply defining the genre, Deutsch not only sets the agenda for further study but also offers a preliminary tracing of broad trends in the nature of these ethnographic descriptions and their development.

There were four basic modes of depicting Jewish rituals in this ethnographic literature: (1) Jewish practices as constituting or reflecting superstition; (2) Jewish practices as reflecting or projecting popular anti-Christian sentiment; (3) rituals that translated learned theological or polemical refutations of particular Christian doctrines into practice; and (4) Jewish practices depicted in a neutral or semi-neutral fashion, and not as reflections of superstition, prejudice, or polemic. The mix varies over time and remains subject to the vagaries of individual interest on the part of different authors, but Deutsch argues that we can discern at least two clear patterns, one synchronic and one diachronic. Christian authors who converted from Judaism tend to emphasize anti-Christian elements in Jewish practice, while other Christian authors tend to emphasize Jewish superstition and deviance from biblical norms. Over time, the first three modes seem less prominent as neutral descriptions appear more often. Deutsch finds a clear “weakening of the polemical impetus from the mid-1700s.” Deutsch chose his case studies in way that allows him to track the changes over time by focusing on practices that drew a great deal of attention across a variety of the tracts: the observance of Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), birth rituals (particularly circumcision), and Jewish dietary practices. These areas highlight key areas of difference between Jews and Christians (dietary laws, circumcision) and hot-button theological distinctions (differing scenarios for atonement, expiation, and sin; Pauline distinctions between circumcision of the flesh and circumcision of the spirit).

Deutsch also calls our attention to how these writings fit into a larger ethnographic discourse emerging in Europe in the same period. He presents a strong case for including Christian views of Jews in the historiographical discussion about the emergence of anthropology and comparative religious studies as products of early modern European encounters with non-Europeans. The long history of European Christian writing about Jews and Judaism has tended to obscure the parallels between descriptions of the non-Christian internal minority (Jews) and descriptions of the non-Christian populations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. But Deutsch’s convincing case for the novelty and prevalence of the ethnographic turn in Christian writing about Jews requires us to see such literature as part of the larger picture. And, as Lynn Hunt, Margaret C. Jacob, and Wijnhard Mijnhardt have recently shown us, this task is facilitated by Picart and Bernard’s Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous le peuples du monde (1723–1737), the culmination of all the early modern European views of “others.”

That these discourses not only ran parallel but sometimes intertwined emerges in one the examples in Deutsch’s carefully chosen case study on birth rituals: one of the depictions from the 16th century describes a custom of hanging a bow on the wall when a Jewish boy is born (to instill a hostile and martial attitude in boys) and a loom on the wall when a Jewish girl is born. Deutsch notes: “there is not even the slightest hint of these customs in the Jewish literature, but a similar praxis is recorded in the early modern accounts on Aztecs.” The author of the book on Jewish practice apparently had read ethnographic descriptions of Aztec birth rituals, and so he “takes a custom that epitomized the gendered division of duties in Aztec society and alters it into an expression of Jewish animosity toward Christians.”

Most of the ethnographic literature on non-Europeans was written by European observers and not by “native” informants themselves. But 75% of the ethnographic descriptions of Jews in the early modern period were written by converts to Christianity who were born and raised as Jews, with 90% of the 16th-century works falling into this category. This complicates the discussion of outsider/insider ethnography to a considerable extent. The author of the transposition of Aztec into Jewish custom was himself a converted Jew and presumably never witnessed such a bow/loom hanging in his own youth. First-hand observation did not always displace polemical agendas and reliance on literature in the 16th century.

History is never a linear march toward more understanding and more insight.

Deutsch points out that, however slanted or polemical, this literature generally took some authentic elements of contemporary Jewish practice as the basis for its descriptions. The early modern ethnographies may have reflected a different kind of anti-Judaism than the impulse that gave rise in the medieval period to blood libel and ritual murder accusations: “while the accusations that were raised within the context of the medieval blood libel inquiries were outright lies, many of the ‘claims’ against Jewish rituals, customs, and prayers in the ethnographic works are corroborated by contemporaneous Jewish sources.” Thus, although these ethnographies have a polemical purpose, they often have “valuable ethnographic content.” Deutsch does not invoke Gavin Langmuir’s well-known distinction between “chimerical” fantasies that constitute anti-Semitism and “realistic” differences that give rise to “anti-Judaism.” Nevertheless, his findings here suggest that two such modes co-existed in early modernity and indeed into the modern period, allowing for a more neutral description of Judaism on the one hand and continued blood libel fantasies (or the modern-day equivalent, the conspiracy theories of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) on the other. History is never a linear march toward more understanding and more insight.

Although most of his work constitutes a contribution to a general history of early modern Europe and to the Christian side of the history of Jewish-Christian relations, Deutsch also offers a methodological path toward using these texts as evidence for Jewish practices and thus contributing also to an internal history of Jewish religious life. These slanted and biased depictions do not straightforwardly supply information on Jewish culture. So he proceeds cautiously, outlining an approach that seeks to correlate the descriptions in these texts with contemporary Jewish literature on law and customs. In cases where no Jewish source describes a custom, he suggests that we assume an ideologically-inflected transposition from other texts, as in the case of the bow/loom hangings. In other cases, we can use one of these ethnographies to revise our view of something already known in Jewish texts. The convert Antonius Margarita described the breaking of a plate at an engagement ceremony in the first text of this genre (from 1530), though the first Hebrew source that mentions this iconic Jewish practice appears only in the seventeenth century.

French Jews. From the 1901-1906 Jewish Ecyclopedia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
French Jews. From the 1901-1906 Jewish Ecyclopedia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Deutsch’s careful work makes a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe and to the history of Jewish-Christian relations. His survey of the landscape will enable other historians to offer new case studies and make better use of this literature as sources in their research. His effort to accentuate the more neutral tone and more realistic depictions that characterize some of this literature moves beyond a methodological contribution and offers new possibilities for understanding the place of Jews and Judaism in early modernity. Deutsch argues that the broad trend coheres with the secularization of discourse about Jews in opposition to the theological categories that dominated medieval thinking.

Such changes in Christian discourse about Jews need to be related to the broader Enlightenment discussion about Jews and Judaism, a point Deutsch makes in the conclusion, echoing work by Adam Sutcliffe and others. But I am not sure these works point the way toward a secularization of Christian thinking about Jews or an understanding of Jews as an ethnic group rather than a religious group. The move away from theological (literary) constructions of difference toward ethnographic ones does not necessarily entail a move away from religious constructions. The ethnographic literature that emerges in this period certainly reflects a broad awareness of other religions besides Christianity, Judaism, and Islam among European intellectuals, and some evidence indicates that Europeans questioned the connection of religion to ethnicity and nation. But debates during the Enlightenment about toleration hardly extend to atheism, and the emerging notions of a secularized (i.e., non-religious) public sphere seem to continue imagining religiously particular private spheres.

While it may be tempting to see a proto-secular nationalist identity for Jews emerging in the early modern period, I think this may go too far and obscure the revolutionary nature of the secularist ideologies that did emerge among Jews (and in some non-Jewish thinking about Jews) in the late 19th century. To be sure, Deutsch does not go so far as to suggest that a direct line connects the early modern ethnographic literature to an ethnic and racial understanding of Jewish identity. But his findings do support a view of some shifting ground in Christian understandings and constructions of Jewish identity in the early modern period, and his work on the early modern ethnographies should be pivotal in future discussions of these questions.

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