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The Jews of Medieval France: The Community of Champagne

THE JEWS OF MEDIEVAL FRANCE: THE COMMUNITY OF CHAMPAGNE by Emily Taitz [Greenwood Press] $59.95

Extraordinary rabbinic literary talents— that continue to impact upon Jewish lives today—blossomed in the Jewish community of Champagne in the 11th and 12th centuries. Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, or Rashi, is best known for his exhaustive commentary reinterpreting the literal meaning of the Torah, and his grandsons. Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) and Rabbi Jacob ben Meir (Rabbeinu Tam), along with other disciples, wrote glosses on the Mishna and Gemara (called Tosafot) that are still studied today. It was in Champagne that the traditional Jewish methodology developed of answering contemporary halakhic questions on the basis of examining earlier texts. Nevertheless, Champagne’s Jewish community died by the end of the 12th century. In this lucid scholarly work, Taitz describes the economic, social, political and religious trends that set the stage for, and eventually caused the demise of, this unusual community.

At the beginning of this period, local fairs flourished in an unprecedented way in an economy that thrived on cultural diversity and tolerance. Money and money-lending became increasingly important—impacting Jews in ways that were positive in the short run, but brutal in the long run. Books, especially the Bible for Christians and the Talmud for Jews, became more readily available to people and importantly influenced people’s thought and behavior. Eventually, however, the monarchy’s consolidation of power over local nobility, plus the increasing power of the Pope and the Church, came together as a force for cultural homogeneity. Ultimately an environment came into being that was inhospitable to Jews, who, though they adopted the language and many of the customs of the people around them, kept an irritatingly enduring core of religious ideas and traditions.The Crusades, and the ‘trial’ of the Talmud followed by the burning of 12,000 Talmudic volumes in Paris in 1242, culminated in the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306.

Taitz, co-author with Sondra Henry of Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers, writes a satisfying history that also weaves the roles of women into the various trends she discusses. She cites, for example, several takkanot (rabbinic decrees) designed to protect women. One required a husband who would be traveling for more than 18 months (quite common then) to support his wife and children while he was away, and to stay home for at least six months on his return. Another decreed that if a man was known to be a habitual wife beater he may not live with his wife, but must continue to support her. Taitz also mentions that Jewish women sometimes managed and sold land during that era, and were commonly moneylenders. There was also even known to be a Jewish female physician in Paris in 1297.

Altogether, an insightful history of a very important Jewish era.