Violent Hermeneutics of Sacred Space in Jewish and Christian First Crusade Literature

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM
McHenry Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Uri Shachar, University of Chicago
In the spring of 1096 a mixed mob of crusaders and burghers waged a series of attacks on Jewish communities along the Rhine River. They murdered many, and forced many others to choose between conversion to Christianity and death. In the following decades numerous Jewish authors erected a comprehensive and unique body of literature commemorating and lamenting the persecutions. These texts glorify communities that chose to perform a collective ritual suicide, but valorize no less those who attempted to execute an armed battle against the Christian assailants. Modern scholars of medieval Judaism have asserted that the main purposes of these texts were to put forth a theological interpretation of the tragic events and to educate future generations of Ashkenazi Jews on the ideal response to such circumstances.

In this paper I will, however, seek to appreciate the dialogical dimension in these texts, and to dwell on the way they deploy ideas on interreligious violence in thinking about the mechanics of a Jewish spiritual identity. Liturgical poems and prose narratives that relate combative encounters between Jews and Christians in Mainz, Speyer and Trier employ a sophisticated typology that draws on images of the Temple Mount to establish urban topography as sacred space. These texts think of violent confrontations as opportunities to perform a polemical hermeneutics that accounts for the association between a spiritual condition and the land, and that validates a pious program of martial spirituality.

Finally, this paper will read these figurations of Jewish militant piety alongside contemporary local chronographic and theological traditions, to show the degree to which they operate within an urban space of signification. It will attempt to demonstrate how narratives about ritual violence were in fact also directed against parallel Christian strategies of spatial hermeneutics that both justify such attacks and render urban topography meaningful.

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