Fair to Middling

Shulamith Shahar
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Shulamith Shahar

"Neshef masekhot be'ir ha'elohim" ("Masquerade in the City of God: Pluralism and Tolerance in the Middle Ages") by Yossef Schwarts, Broadcast University and Ministry of Defense, 196 pages, NIS 48

The Renaissance humanists invented the term "Middle Ages" to describe the period between the fall of Rome and their own times. It was a period they looked down on, and rejected as primitive and backward. Philosophers of the Reformation followed their lead, as did the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

The reputation of the Middle Ages was restored somewhat during the Romantic era, and recovered even more with the rise of nationalism. In the 20th century, the study of the Middle Ages received a boost from new schools of historical research, from socioeconomic analysis to gender studies. Today, even the educated layman knows that the Renaissance and Renaissance humanism also had their dark side - witch hunts, the spread of slavery, "legal violence" (torture under interrogation and draconian sentences reached a peak in the 15th and 16th centuries), and religious wars, which followed on the heels of the Reformation.

And yet Yossef Schwarts' little book, which has more substance to it than its small size belies, shows us that one of the most maligned facets of the Middle Ages - religion - can also be viewed from another perspective. Conventional wisdom has it that pluralism between the monotheistic religions is impossible. Schwarts claims that some of the more enlightened thinkers of the Middle Ages embraced something that was very close to pluralism. This was not a product of tolerance but of geopolitical circumstances, and an approach based on metaphysical and epistemological doctrines. Rationalism was a common denominator in all three monotheistic religions, each of which sprang from a seminal experience of revelation.

The author goes about analyzing this common denominator by proposing a different reading of a series of philosophical dialogues. The majority of these dialogues (as opposed to polemical literature) were attempts to carve out a group identity and to draw the line between one religious community and another. While each work is different, they all share the idea that interfaith discourse is possible and that there is a common rational basis for all monotheistic religions. They demonstrate the very willingness to articulate the principles of revelation using the tools of philosophical discourse. Schwarts' approach breaks with the Romantic conception of the Middle Ages, which looked for the spiritual and the magical in medieval culture, as opposed to cold, materialistic rationalism.

Focusing his attention on these dialogues, however, does not mean the author ignores the vicious Christian attacks on nonbelievers (mainly Jews), some of them purely literary and others accompanied by physical violence (such as the Paris Debate, which led to the burning of the Talmud in the 1240), or the Crusades and blood libels. In other words, Schwarts does not present these dialogues as a perfect reflection of history.

No victories

Schwarts begins his analysis with two dialogues from the late Hellinistic period - a text by Justin the Martyr, one of the first Christian apologists, which attempts to reach a compromise between faith and reason in talks with Tryphon the Jew; and a text by Minucius Felix in which the author, a Christian, confronts a pagan. Minucius' dialogue implies that the pagan will later convert to Christianity, but there is no indication in Justin's text what becomes of the Jew.

The next two treatises studied by Schwarts were written at the turn of the 11th and 12th century, before the West was exposed to the translated writings of Aristotle and his Arab commentators. One is by Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, who conducts a dialogue with a pagan philosopher, and the other is by Anselm's disciple and close friend Gilbert Crispin, who spars with a Jew. Both dialogues end without a victory for either side, but with the recognition that members of different religions can sit and talk as intelligent human beings, even if the mysteries of Christianity can only be probed in a Christian setting and dialogue does not necessarily lead to persuasion.

Then comes a chapter devoted to Rabbi Judah Halevy's "The Kuzari," a unique dialogue in the religious Jewish-Arab intellectual tradition. Although philosophical methodology and terminology are used, on the whole it adopts an anti-intellectual approach to religion. "The Kuzari" is a dialogue between the king of the Khazars, who has already converted to Judaism, and a Jewish scholar and "friend" who is summoned after the king rejects the arguments of Christian and Muslim thinkers. Reading between the lines, one sees that philosophy cannot explain religion or create a common denominator for interfaith discourse because religious faith is something that must be explained from within.

In Peter Abelard's "Colloquy Between a Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian," the characters come to him in a dream and ask him to judge who is right. He analyzes the contradictions between their revelatory experiences based on the rules of logic and dialectic, as he had done in the past in his commentaries on Christian texts and studies of revelation. Again, the dialogue ends without any clear victory for either side. The dialogue as a whole is not based on interpretations of Scripture, but on reason and morality. As Schwarts puts it, Abelard's work is the perfect illustration of a medieval ecumenical debate in which there is no chance of anyone winning. On the other hand, because there is no clear victory, it is possible to conduct a philosophical discussion that is deeper and more serious than the norm. The comments that Abelard puts in the mouth of the Jew about the price his people have paid for observing their religious customs is amazingly empathetic.

The Catalan missionary Ramon Llull developed a noncoercive system for disseminating Christianity in which human reason reigns supreme. Schwarts explores Llull's "The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men." The wise men are a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim who meet a pagan in the course of their travels and explain their beliefs to him. In the end, the pagan is meant to choose one religion, although his choice is never revealed. All the characters admit to a universal wisdom shared by the monotheistic religions. While Llull dreams of a single worldwide religion based on consensus, Schwarts wonders whether this is "a missionary ploy, cleverly manipulating other religions" or medieval-style religious pluralism.

Medieval mindset

Lastly, Schwarts analyzes "On the Peace of Faith" by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who some see as a pioneer of modern science and others see as the prime example of a medieval mindset. According to Cusa, all human beings are essentially Christians because Christ represents the union of human and divine nature in man. He expresses the hope for a universal religion that will leave room for different rituals.

One chapter is devoted to Jewish converts to Christianity and their role in inter-religious dialogue, both in literature and real life. Schwarts says that these converts, who based their arguments not only on the Bible but on post-biblical literature (thereby paving the way for other Christians to do so), were continuing a debate that had been going on in the Jewish community between the rationalists, supporters of Maimonides, and the rabbis and kabbalists who opposed him. Some of them were ultimately hybrids who never really severed their ties to Jewish culture, and sought to establish a new religious, philosophical and social identity, somewhere midway between their old Jewish community and the new Christian community. In another chapter, Schwarts explores the concept of galut - exile, dispersion - as a common denominator in all three religions. In yet another, he analyzes the idea of a "perfect language" as opposed to an "exiled language" in the work of Llull, Dante and the medieval kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. Despite the linguistic pluralism of the time, all three regarded Hebrew - the language of creation and the prima lingua of humanity - as God's sacred tongue.

The final chapters of the book offer a summary, clarify the concepts of pluralism and tolerance, and compare the views expressed in these medieval dialogues with those of the Enlightenment period and today. Schwarts concludes that Enlightenment thinkers viewed themselves as pioneers of human progress and made their value system the criteria for judging all moral and intellectual phenomena. From their perspective, however, morality plus reason equaled religion. In consequence, Christianity went back to imposing itself on surrounding cultures, this time employing "a winning combination of ideology (secular and modern) and activism (technology and colonialism) - a combination that was almost impossible to resist."

In our day, the idea of pluralism is widespread, but the globalization of the material side of life, together with the monolithic nature of power in this era of Western hegemony, end up creating a culture that is flat and one-dimensional.

There is no question that Schwarts' book contributes to our understanding of the complexity and nuances of medieval culture. Yet despite his repeated claims that the dialogues do not portray historical reality, one gets the feeling that he has gone overboard in his "rehabilitation" of the Middle Ages. Readers are liable to think that the world was more pluralistic and tolerant than it really was.

With the subject being inter-religious discourse, Schwarts did not have to write about heretics, but when he ignores the fact that they were persecuted and makes no mention of the Inquisition and the Crusades, the illusion of pluralism and tolerance becomes even stronger. Contrary to the norm, Schwarts differentiates between pluralism and tolerance. He says that one does not necessarily lead to the other. But this distinction only appears in the final chapters, and it is hard to free oneself from the impression created earlier in the book that pluralism and tolerance are interconnected.

In presenting the dialogues, Schwarts does not make the power balance sufficiently clear. The authors of these works were Christians (apart from "The Kuzari"), and the Jews, even if no one said so outright, were inferiors. The fact that a Jew and a Christian were debating as equals was only an illusion. Thus it is hard to accept Schwarts' description of the Middle Ages as a period characterized by "competition between revelatory religions." Did Judaism pose any real competition to Christianity in Western Europe during the Middle Ages (as opposed to Islam, which was indeed a competitor in some of the more peripheral regions)? Also difficult to accept is the notion that Rabbi Yehuda Halevy's journey to the Land of Israel was "part of the general flow in those days as Muslims and Christians rushed to fight and die for control of the holy places." The Crusaders wiped out all Jewish settlement in the Holy Land, and only a handful of Jews returned to live there after the conquests of Saladin.

But these criticisms do not diminish the importance of Schwarts' work. He has written an erudite, thought-provoking and fascinating book. Recommended.

Prof Shulamith Shahar's book "The Gypsies in the Early Modern Period in Western Europe" was published by Mapa and Tel Aviv University Press (in Hebrew).