Elisheva Baumgarten is the author of Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance, which provides a social history of religious practice in context, particularly with regard to the ways Jews and Christians, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members. Medieval Jews often shared practices and beliefs with their Christian neighbors, and numerous notions and norms were appropriated by one community from the other. This depiction of a dynamic interfaith landscape and a diverse representation of believers, Baumgarten offers a fresh assessment of Jewish practice and the shared elements that composed the piety of Jews in relation to their Christian neighbors.
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Penn Press: Why do you believe that previous academic texts focused so intently on the complexities of religious belief rather than the social history that impacted Medieval Jewish communities?
Elisheva Baumgarten: I believe that part of the claim was that Jewish history was a history of ideas, rather than a history of a people. This was in part because the history of people was that of countries, and Jews were in the diaspora without a homeland. The creation of the state of Israel (along with many other historical trends) led to a reconsideration of this position. From my perspective, the history of ideas position does not allow anyone but elite men to be part of Jewish history, and this is certainly incorrect from a historical perspective.
Why, in your opinion, was tension between Jews and Christians especially prominent in northern Europe?
This was the result of the close living quarters and the competing beliefs. Each religion also felt attraction to the other’s ideology/life style. For Christian scholars especially, Jews and their history of interpretation posed a challenge theologically; the existence of Jews posed a social and cultural challenge. For Jews the temptation of Christianity on all levels was constant.