What is it like to practice your faith in an environment dominated by another? To evolve as a people when all of the world around you moves to religious and cultural rhythms very different from your own? To maintain your unity as a living community—and always to be aware of that sense of community—even when your numbers have been scattered across many lands, without a common government, a common country, or even a common language?
Moreover, how might these circumstances affect not only your own history, but also the history of those other cultures through which you move? What might you take from them? What might you give them?
For 10 formative centuries, the answers to questions like these helped define a developing Judaism, whose history was forever affected by its encounters with the surrounding social, economic, political, and intellectual environments of both medieval Islam and Christendom. As a result of those encounters, new pathways of philosophical inquiry and religious spirituality would be formed. The Hebrew language would find new ways of artistic expression. And the role of Jews in the life of the surrounding community would be changed forever, sometimes even increased, as was the paradoxical case in Italy, by the very ghettoization meant to keep them isolated.
Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza presents an overview of Jewish culture and society from its rabbinic foundations in late antiquity until the dawn of modernity in the 17th century.
In so doing, it places a special focus on Judaism’s creative encounter with Christianity and Islam, giving us a unique perspective from which to examine the three major Western religions as they interact over time, and noting especially their ability or inability to tolerate and even appreciate the “other,” as viewed from the vantage point of the Jewish minority.
The course is taught by Professor David Ruderman, a widely honored scholar and teacher whose extraordinary array of achievements in illuminating Jewish history includes coauthorship of the two-volume Heritage: Civilization and the Jews Study Guide and Source Reader, created to accompany the landmark Public Broadcasting System series, and whose last appearance for The Teaching Company was leading an exploration of Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century.
An In-Depth Look at the Roots of Judaic Life and Thought
This time around, Professor Ruderman lets you experience the evolution of all of Jewish life during a critical period that also featured the emergence of two distinct intellectual threads: the rise of medieval Jewish philosophy and the appearance of Jewish mysticism and piety as the faith’s primary expressions of religiosity.
His lectures presuppose no previous familiarity with Jewish, Islamic, or Christian history, and reflect a commitment to establishing always the historical context within which the events he is describing can be understood. Even when he material can threaten to be philosophically complex—as in his examination of the two approaches to interpreting the mystical and esoteric traditions of the Kabbalah, or of the intellectual provocation and enduring controversy posed by the towering writings of Moses Maimonides, 12th-century rabbi and philosopher—Professor Ruderman is always clear.
The result is an introduction that is both broad and detailed as it examines the leading Jewish communities of the period, their political and economic structures, the social relations between Jews and non-Jews, and Jewish cultural and intellectual achievements in a premodern world dominated by two other faiths.
“By embedding Jewish history within the larger social and cultural spheres of the Islamic and Christian worlds,” notes Professor Ruderman, “the course ultimately raises the perplexing question of whether each of the three religious civilizations can learn to tolerate each other in our own chaotic and dangerous world, allowing each to live creative and dignified lives in the light of the mixed record of their past encounters and interactions.”
To explore that question, Professor Ruderman first introduces the rabbinic civilization that defined Judaism prior to the rise of Islam and then moves his focus to the Jewish community of Islamic Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries.
This is a period for which a multitude of source materials have enabled historians to compile a rich profile of the political, social, and intellectual life of the Jewish community in and out of the city, especially as regards the community’s relationships with the surrounding Islamic world. Professor Ruderman introduces you to the structures of both Jewish leadership and the forces of dissent before moving on to the Jewish experience in Spain and the political and cultural developments of what many have called that country’s Golden Age, when a second center of Jewish life arose to parallel the establishment of a rival center of Islamic life in Cordova.
The height of that age, the 9th to the 11th centuries (the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492), saw an intellectual and cultural explosion unparalleled in Jewish history, including great works of philosophy and law and the emergence of secular as well as religious poetry written in Hebrew—a dramatic change from the exclusively liturgical poems that had been composed for centuries.
A Fresh Look at the End of Augustinian Tolerance and the Roots of Medieval Anti-Semitism
Professor Ruderman then moves on to consider the long relationship between Judaism and Christianity from the 1st century until the Middle Ages, exploring the paths of Jewish movement into Europe and the birth of what came to be known as Ashkenazic Jewry; the economic and social conditions under which they fashioned their lives; and the gradual rise of Christian hostility that eventually overwhelmed the established Church position of Augustinian tolerance.
That tolerance had been based on Augustine’s position that the Jews had been decreed a life of misery for their rejection of Christ, and that their suffering as pariahs, unharmed and unconverted, would be testimony to that choice. But as the Crusades added the massacres of thousands of Jews—including many examples of deliberate martyrdom—to the Pope’s call for a crusade against the Islamic “infidels,” it was clear that a new aggressiveness against Jews and Judaism was coming to the fore, though the reasons were far more complex than mere religious hatred, as Professor Ruderman brings out.
These lectures span an enormous disciplinary range, moving back and forth among history, philosophy, religion, and art.
You’ll learn the origins of the Talmudùthe body of rabbinic literature that is the primary text of Jewish study—and the enduring importance of Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, known to us as Rashi, to its discussion and understanding. You’ll see how the Catholic Church, in elaborately contrived public “disputations” in which Jews were forced to participate, sought to lay an argumentative foundation for the increasing vilification of Judaism, even as violence against Jews was intensifying. And you’ll see, as well, the resilience of the worldwide Jewish community as it adapts to ever-changing conditions in its efforts not only to survive, but to endure and prosper.
“The complex historical record we have tried to reconstruct in this course can hardly offer us a blueprint on how we might live together in our own time,” notes Professor Ruderman. “But it at least offers the promise that coexistence is possible, that learning from each other is possible, and even appreciating each other is possible, as well.
“What it leaves us with … is a sense of hope.”