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The Pride of Jacob: Essays on Jacob Katz and His WorkJews about the Jews

jan peczkis|Monday, September 5, 2016

This anthology of articles gives many details on the biography of Yaacov Katz (1904-1998), as well as issues raised in his work. By way of introduction, author David Ellenson characterizes Katz’ gifts, to modern Jewish scholarship, as “by any standard immense”. (p. 97).

Jacob Katz has written many books. I invite the reader to click on, and read my detailed reviews, of the following works by Katz


Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Scripta Judaica, 3)

Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (Medieval Studies)

From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933

Owing to the many themes raised by Katz, and discussed in this anthology, I focus on a few issues in some detail.


The term AVODAH ZARAH, commonly translated as “strange worship”, is, according to author David Berger, “imprecisely translated as idolatry”. (p. 44). However, the two terms, for practical purposes, can be treated as approximate synonyms, as many scholars do.

Yaacov Katz had focused on the pioneering thinking of Menahem ha-Meiri. This medieval thinker was credited with excluding Christians from the category of idolatry. (p. 61). Berger takes a somewhat skeptical position of Katz’ premise. To begin with, ha-Meiri’s views were hardly representative of those of medieval rabbinical thinkers. Thus, Berger writes, “…the position of R. Menahem ha-Meiri, which is, in fact, striking in its atypical liberalism.” (p. 44). He adds, (quote) We shall soon encounter the emphasis by R. Menahem ha-Meiri on the deep and genuine divide between Christianity and paganism, but in the final analysis it is a daunting task to argue that worship of Jesus of Nazareth as God is not AVODAH ZARAH by the standards of Jewish law. (unquote). (p. 57).

According to Berger, halakhic decisions, regarding Christians as non-idolaters, were not generalized beyond the narrow context (e. g, business relations) that produced them. (pp. 60-61). Even within such narrow tailoring, they did not imply a fundamental Jewish self-transformation of its pejorative attitudes towards Christians. Thus, Berger concludes that (quote) Did medieval Ashkenazic halakhists ever mean to say—even in narrow applications—that Christianity is not AVODAH ZARAH? The answer to this question may well be no…If, as is very likely, TOSAFOT never meant to say that Christian worship is not AVODAH ZARAH for gentiles… (unquote). (pp. 60-61).

Halakhic decisions, regardless of their force, had only a limited impact on Jewish attitudes and conduct, including the deeply-embedded notion of Christians as idolaters. Thus, Berger quips , (quote) Visceral reactions, he [Katz] argues, can weigh more heavily than texts. Thus, Jewish revulsion at Christian rituals and symbols is no less important than formal halakhah in determining that Christianity is AVODAH ZARAH and inspiring the decision of martyrs…texts can occasionally be subordinated to “ritual instinct,” so that ordinary Jews will ask for permission to violate serious prohibitions that do not repel them while refraining from seeking dispensation to engage in behavior that is less objectionable to the legal mind but unthinkable in light of deeply entrenched emotions…They [intellectual arguments] were decidedly secondary to the emotions of group identification and the attraction of Judaism’s entrenched symbols. (unquote). (pp. 44-45).


Jews continued to see Christians as idolaters not only because of Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, and the Roman Catholic use of statuary, as well as the “inertia” of always having viewed Christians through the prism of idolatry, but also because of the implications of Jews as the Chosen People of God. That is, Jews retained an essentially exclusive (in fact, proprietary) view of God. Author David Berger cites the more-complete Hebrew edition of Katz’ EXCLUSIVENESS AND TOLERANCE, and refers to Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, a 12th-century tosafist, and the Riaz (Isaac Ben Moses of Vienna: 1200-1270; also known as R. Isaac Or Zarua). Berger comments, (quote) Thus, he [Katz] says, both R. Joseph Bekhor Shor and R. Isaac Or Zarua assert that Deuteronomy 6:4 affirms not merely that the Lord is God but that He is OUR God, thereby proclaiming that no other nation can claim Him as its own. (unquote). (Emphasis is by Berger). (p. 45).


One common left-wing construct revolves around the power disparity between a minority and the majority. Thus, we often hear that American blacks cannot be racist because blacks are powerless, and whites are the ones with power, so only whites can be racist. A similar line of reasoning is used in relation to the historical relationship of Jews and Christians: The Christian majority could be intolerant while the Jewish minority could not.

While power disparity is certainly real, the situation is more complex. Author David Berger writes, (quote) We can speak of theoretical tolerance and intolerance, but because the group in question has no authority to enforce its norms, we sometimes slip into a usage in which intolerance becomes synonymous with hostility…Powerlessness confers freedom to express hostility without the need for a real confrontation with the consequences. One can curse one’s enemies, condemn them to hellfire, list the innumerable offenses for which they should be executed and the many obligations that they must be compelled to discharge—and then go to bed. Power brings responsibility and subjects its bearers to the discipline of governing. Powerlessness provides the luxury of both untested tolerance and untested zealotry. Neither the tolerance nor the zealotry may survive the transition to power. (unquote). (p. 63).

[In the modern State of Israel, Jews are finally in a position of power. Critics of Israeli policies towards Palestinians could well argue that traditional Jewish tolerance has not fully survived the Jewish transition to power.]


Elisheva Carlebach points out that the Jews of Germany were being expelled from the Imperial cities in the first decades of the 16th century, culminating with the Regensburg expulsion of 1519. At that same time, Polish Jewry was flourishing. (p. 75).

Nowadays, we sometimes hear the Polonophobic Holocaust myth that the ghettos, in Nazi German-occupied Poland, had first been built by the Poles. In actuality, and unlike in Germany, there was no enforced Jewish space in Poland, even in the 16th century. (p. 76).
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