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Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History, by David B. Ruderman. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press: 2010.  326 pp.  $35.00.


In recent years, the Early Modern period, covering in its most inclusive usage the years between 1492 and the French Revolution, and incorporating the very important late Renaissance, Reformation and “Baroque,” has increasingly come to be accepted as a period in its own right, between the Middle Ages and Modern Times. The concept of an Early Modern period covering roughly the same time-span has also been adopted by Jewish historians on the descriptive level, although reservations have been expressed as to whether such a periodization can be justified on the basis of developments within the Jewish word, especially in view of the great differences between the various Jewish communities residing in the western Sephardi Diaspora, the Germanic lands, Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the Italian peninsula.

              The Jewish intellectual and cultural historian David Ruderman, Professor of Modern Jewish History and Director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been a leading scholar in the field of Early Modern Jewish history for over thirty-five years, has reviewed the vast literature on the Jews in that period and come to the conclusion that despite variations over time and in space, a distinct period designable as Early Modern does exist in Jewish history. The significance of this, he claims, is that Jewish history in this period can be reconstructed on the level of macro-history, as well as on the more customary level of micro-history. Additionally, he insists that Jewish society and culture in Early Modern Europe be viewed as more than merely a mirror of the Christian world and accordingly be considered from the internal perspective as well as the external. Furthermore, he questions the “teleological progression from pre-modern to modern that the term Early Modern surely implies.”

              In five chapters, not only considering intellectual developments exemplified by a history of Jewish ideas, literary texts and authors, but rather focusing on the interconnection of intellectual creativity and the political, social, and technological conditions that shaped Jewish history, Ruderman suggests what he considers the five most salient features of Jewish cultural formation affecting Early Modern Jewish history as a whole: 1) “Jews on the Move,” dealing primarily with an accelerated Jewish migration and mobility and their consequences; 2) “Communal Cohesion,” dealing with various kinds of Jewish communal development and self-government; 3) “Knowledge Explosion,” dealing with printing and the resulting creation of a connected Jewish culture and other consequences; 4) “Crisis of Rabbinic Authority,” dealing with the beginnings of a Jewish crisis in the seventeenth century, the Sabbatean turmoil and the birth of “Orthodoxy” in the eighteenth century, and other crises of early modernity: 5) “Mingled Identities,” dealing with the ambiguity of Converso lives, Sabbatean syncretism, the conflicting loyalties of Christian Hebraists, the mediating roles of Jewish converts to Christianity, and Jewish Christians and Christian Jews. Indebted to the works of scholars such as Jerry Bentley and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Ruderman invokes the concepts of “cultural exchange” and “connected histories” which recognize and appreciate differences in local conditions and cultural developments as well as general tendencies that vary from place to place but still reveal some commonality. He is especially sensitive to the pressure that developments of the period placed on the social and religious boundaries among Jews internally and between Jews and members of other faiths and ethnic groups. In short, “all five factors suggest a blurring of what constitutes Jewish identity with a variety of new options for Jewish self-definition,” yet still deal with common experiences to address the meaning of Early Modernity.

              Well aware of the pioneering nature of his work, Ruderman does not present his argument dogmatically, but rather as hypotheses to be examined and expanded or modified as appropriate. He acknowledges that some may claim that different factors were more significant, citing for example Hasidim, the rising importance of popular culture, and transformations in the status of the family and women, but gives his reasons for not assigning primacy to those factors. Indeed, at a panel devoted to this book at the meeting of the AJS in Boston in December 2010, it was suggested that perhaps the new position of women could be added as a sixth characteristic of the Jewish Early Modern period. However, there appeared to be a majority view that basically the patriarchal orientation of Jewish society remained intact during the Early Modern period, and that, for example, Glueckel of Hameln basically represented only an exceptional example of the continuity of the position of medieval Jewish women.

              After presenting his five overlapping points, Ruderman turns to some further specific important considerations. Chapter Six presents his thoughts on “Toward Modernity”: when did the Early Modern Period begin and end, what was the relationship between the early Haskalah, early modernity, and the Haskalah, and how should the Modern Era be viewed in the light of the Early Modern? Finally, an Appendix contains three insightful discussions of Jonathan Israel’s pioneering interpretation of Early Modern Jewish Culture, of Jewish historians on the Early Modern Period, and of “Early Modernity in European and World Historiography.”

              In the course of his concise and suggestive analysis, Ruderman supports his presentation with a wealth of examples and very complete endnote documentation that is recapitulated in the bibliography of secondary works. This book is a seminal work dealing with a very current topic. It should attract a very wide readership among both Jewish and general historians and engender much fruitful and stimulating discussion. Those involved in the field should find much of interest, and newcomers a most readable introduction to the period and the issues that it poses. Ruderman modestly considers this book an outline for charting an agenda for future study, and it is only natural to hope that he himself will continue his fruitful research and reflections along the lines that he here suggests.

Benjamin Ravid

Brandeis University