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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2007
Number 66
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Examining Historiography

Sanctifying the Name of God: Jewish Martyrs and Jewish Memories of the First Crusade by Jeremy Cohen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

A Review Essay by Matthew Schwartz.    

How reliable are the several twelfth century Hebrew chronicles that recount the story of the crusaders’ massacres of Rhineland Jewish communities? Can we take them at face value, granting a certain leeway for human error or a few minor scribal inaccuracies? Most modern historians accept these stories as essentially factual primary sources. However, in a display of considerable erudition, Professor Jeremy Cohen of Tel-Aviv University alters the direction of the investigations.

Labeling himself a revisionist and not a denier, Professor Cohen argues that the chronicles of the massacres were written some years after the first crusade and reflect many influences beyond the simple recounting of the events as they actually happened. This must be the case, he argues, with all historical writing, so that in truth every historian or chronicler presents his own version of events and is by definition a revisionist. A history book teaches more about itself and its writer than about the events it describes. A later reader as well as the writer likewise carries some amount of baggage into his understanding of events.
It is naïve, writes Cohen, to expect historians to reconstruct accurately and objectively the events of the past, although this has been the usual aim of nineteenth and twentieth century historians. It is more useful to inquire how the twelfth century historians viewed these events – not history but historiography.
Why then did these chroniclers write? Cohen points out that, after all, clearly the writers were not themselves victims of the massacres. They were either survivors or children of survivors, maybe people who had accepted baptism under pressure or force and returned later to Judaism. Indeed some of the stories in the chronicles describe people who did not die in the initial onslaught but only some days later. The writers may have suffered from survival guilt or a need to rationalize the baptisms of themselves or family members. The crusades were a deeply frightening experience which left people resentful and traumatized and ever fearful of tomorrow.
Cohen argues also that despite their mutual hostility, the Jewish writers were influenced by trends in Christianity of that time; e.g. both admired martyrdom – and the Jewish stories can display motifs similar to Christian accounts of the crucifixion, as though to say “our martyrs are better than yours.”  Also twelfth century Jews were more involved in the general culture than is usually acknowledged. Jews were aware of the crusading ideology developing in that time and certain ideas of holiness and messianism seemed to be sprouting in both religions.
In George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, when General Burgoyne is asked what history will say about the events leading up to the Battle of Saratoga, he replies: “History will tell lies as usual.” A burgeoning group of writers indeed holds that it is impossible to achieve a wholly accurate knowledge of historical events, and we must limit ourselves to studying the writers and why they wrote what they did in the way that they did. Focusing on the relationship between the historian and his data, Professor Cohen offers in the early chapters, a detailed study of both traditional and post-modern approaches to the Rhineland massacres.
The final chapter critiques several stories of Jewish martyrs: Rachel of Mainz, Isaac the Pious and others. Cohen interprets these stories almost as though he were studying novels, not historical texts. He finds analogies in biblical motifs, which indeed implies a high degree of both knowledge and literary sophistication on the chroniclers’ part. This is certainly in some measure valid, although the comparisons can seem stretched. Does the word toran (mast) really compare to the word Torah? (p. 100) Did the Jewish chronicler really intend to compare Rachel of Mainz to Mary at the crucifixion? (pp. 123-4)
A lengthy discussion goes on to explore the background of Rachel of Mainz in Jewish traditional sources, primarily in terms of the biblical Rachel. Professor Cohen sees the matriarch as a barren and bitter woman betrayed by her father-in-law (sic) and irrationally despondent.  Giving her son the name Joseph was obsessive. “Rachel is a consummate tragic heroine, the Bible’s equivalent of Antigone…” 

This view is mind-boggling and shows a lack of understanding of the Greek ideas of heroism and tragedy and a failure to recognize the enmeshment of Antigone, daughter/sister of Oedipus, with her dysfunctional family. After all, the members of Antigone’s family died miserably, she herself by suicide.
Professor Cohen offers a provocative view of the story of Judah of Cologne who performed what seems almost a ritual murder with sexual symbolism on his son and the son’s fiancée as the crusading mob approached, although to suggest that this story borrows from legends of the antichrist seems excessive. In any case, it should not be surprising that people under terrible threat  often responded with less than perfect clarity of mind and perhaps also with an inclination to the macabre. It is amazing that so many Jews indeed held to their basic life principles and accepted death rather than baptism.

This is a well researched and intellectually honest book. One can well accept Professor Cohen’s argument that historians gain much from the historiographical approach. Yet, as he acknowledges, many scholars will not accept his views on the crusade chronicles. The book goes far in displaying an indecisiveness and unwillingness to accept the importance of textbook facts or even the ability to know them. Facts must remain an important part of historical study. There also seems to be certain determinism in Professor Cohen’s way of understanding writers. People are indeed influenced by environments both societal and personal, but how they are influenced is not always predictable. We know that two people can grow up in the same household and one can become a fine citizen and the other a gangster. More important, people can overcome or alter factors in their background. Is a historian so limited and biased by his ambience that he can never produce something original or different? Even historians change their minds. There is something Hellenic and fatalistic in such a deterministic approach. Is Professor Cohen pulled between tendencies toward the Jewish vs. Greek views of human history?

Although Jews did interact in some ways with the general society in the Middle Ages, the basic views of martyrdom remained very different. Rabbinic texts praise martyrs who gave their lives rather than violate the essential ways of the Torah. However, Judaism is deeply life oriented and a martyr’s death is something to be accepted when necessary, not something to seek joyously.  This contrasts to early Christian martyrs who deliberately glorified death, sometimes in the arena pulling a reluctant animal close to them. The early third century narrative of Perpetua in Carthage describes vividly that martyr’s great longing for death. And is not the crucifixion a primal moment of Christianity. Typically, the Jews of 1096, did what they could, albeit not very successfully, to flee or find protection from the overwhelming force of the crusader hooligans, accepting martyrdom only as unavoidable. In some cases, Jews fought back, and the chronicler’s record that in one community 500 armed young Jews joined the local noble’s soldiers to drive away their enemies.

Professor Cohen assigns an Amos Oz novelette on the crusades to his classes to set the tone for his approach to the chronicles. Oz’s story is a great read, yet it remains fiction while the chronicles are not. Nor indeed are the chronicles simply textbook histories or straightforward compilations of data.  They are more dirge or lamentation, a genre that goes back many thousands of years and is well represented in Jewish literature. They are not merely recording or transmitting data but also feelings and ideas. The chronicles are closer in nature to the piyyut of those times. One writer, R. Eliezer of Mainz, was a prominent Talmudic scholar and liturgical poet as well, who recorded several commemorative poems in his brief crusade chronicle.
Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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