Tag Archives: David Nirenberg

David Nirenberg on the Jewish-Muslim relations in Christian Spain

David Nirenberg, of the University of Chicago, does micro studies of Jewish life in Spain based on legal documents. He offers a nuanced approach to the topic of interfaith relations in Spain. He points out that there is no simple calculus to say if a society was tolerant. His big insight is that Jewish –Muslim relations were mediated by Christians and both minorities modeled themselves on patterns of the host. He shows that many of the incidents were local events of urban fear of the other.  Think of the movie “Do the Right Thing” or the Crown Heights incident between Jews and the Black community.  A bit of Zygmunt Bauman on Judeophobia and urban tensions could probably really sharpen an already fine article.

Here is the fine article of his online that gives many of his conclusions from his book.

David Nirenberg, What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us about Muslim-Jewish Relations? CCJR Journal Spring / Summer 2002. 17 -36

I give some of his general principles and there cases: Tax Collection, Butchers, and Holy Week

First, no history as long and complex as that of Muslim and Jewish interaction can be explained by exegesis of a single text, even when that text is as foundational as the Bible or the Qur’an. Such prooftexts can sustain any number of interpretations over time, some of them quite contradictory, as anyone familiar with the Talmud (for example) knows.

Second, societies cannot be classified as tolerant or intolerant merely through the accumulation of “negative” or “positive” examples. Our understanding of the history of Muslim (or Christian) relations with Jews has to be rich enough to explain both the periods of relatively stable coexistence and the periodic persecution that marked Jewish life in both civilizations. Any account of Muslim-Jewish relations that does not simultaneously make sense of, for example, the brilliant career of Samuel Ibn Naghrela and the terrible massacre that ended his son’s life is obviously inadequate, for both are very real products of the same society. And finally, historians are not accountants, toting up the assets and liabilities of this and that society in order to declare a particular tradition more solvent (or in this case, more tolerant) than another.

The positions Jews and Muslims took vis-à-vis each other in Christian Spain cannot be understood in any simple sense as the products of “Jewish” or“Islamic” cultural attitudes toward one another. They were that, of course, but they were also very much influenced by what Jews and Muslims understood to be Christian interests and ideologies.Sometimes the arguments were purely economic or pragmatic.

Jews also were the tax collectors, officials, scribes of the chancery, and those employed in land and sea services. A Jew acted as magistrate, and as such sentenced [Muslims] to punishment of whipping or lashes.

The competition sometimes made for strange bedfellows. When the Jewish butchers of Daroca succeeded in acquiring a royal monopoly on selling halal meat to Muslims, the Muslims joined with the Christians in lobbying to have the Jewish meat market shut down. Moreover, the winner was not predetermined. The episode is revealing in that it confirms an important point: Christians were the ultimate arbiters in this competition between Judaism and Islam. Hence any arguments in the contest needed to be made with an eye on the Christian audience.

Each year during Holy Week, in Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, crowds of Christian clerics and children participated in ritualized stone throwing attacks on Jewish quarters called “killing the Jews.” In 1319, a group of Muslims tried to make the practice their own.

Walmart, Love and Universal Ethics

Pope Benedict of the Week

David Nirenberg a Jewish professor of (Jewish) history and social thought at the University of Chicago offers a review in the TNR of Benedict’s recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” He likes the message of love over market values, but asks: Why does it have to be framed as Catholic and not universal?

Benedict’s teaching differs from that of his predecessors in at least two important ways. The first is evident in the key term in his analysis: “love,” rather than “justice,” “natural law,” or “human reason,” the terms that were favored by some of his predecessors

As Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, we must divide our attention between 1) a self-interest in the lowest possible price for whatever object we desire; and 2) the needs of that object’s producers, of the environment in and from which it was made, and of the moral and fiscal balance of global trade (hence “consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing”); and 3) an openness to the loving “spirit of the gift.” Benedict is not simply suggesting a moral yardstick for the marketplace. He is claiming that every commercial exchange needs to become a loving act modeled on the gratuitous gift of Jesus Christ.

And only Catholicism, Benedict tells us, can achieve the universal fraternity necessary for authentic community: “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.

The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism. Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.

In a de-secularizing age, and with our faith in self-interest shaken by economic crisis, we should want to draw on the wisdom in that ocean of thought. But if those teachings are to contribute to global “unity and peace,” they will have to be taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them. This does not mean, as Benedict fears, that Christianity (or any other religion) must become “more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance,” or that “there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.” Values are not a zero-sum game. God’s place in the world is not lost when one religion tries to translate some of its truths into helpful good sentiments for those of other or no faith

Full review

To which Michael Sean Winters replies at NCR and at his blog at America that he likes the perspective of the historian but disagrees with the need for universalism

his article is so refreshing and so frustrating. On the one hand, he understands that the advent of capitalism and its values represented a “reversal of a millennial moral consensus”

If Nirenberg truly believes that Benedict’s vision is narrowed by his insistence on truth to the point of preventing dialogue, why write a review of the encyclical? Nirenberg’s effort disproves his own claim.

Who is correct?

I think A Jewish Call For Social Justice by Shmuly Yanklowitz is closer to David Nirenberg in that he discusses social justice without any claims of truth or higher values. But is Jewish pragmatism enough? Is Winters correct that David Nirenberg, and most Jews, are more utilitarian than principled?