'Law's Dominion:' Jews in a globalized context - review

Were France’s Jews in the 1500s more integrated than previously thought?

 A VIEW of the flooded Jewish Ghetto during a period of seasonal high water in Venice, 2019. The book questions whether Jews in medieval Europe were as separate from their non-Jewish neighbors as believed. (photo credit: MANUEL SILVESTRI/REUTERS)
A VIEW of the flooded Jewish Ghetto during a period of seasonal high water in Venice, 2019. The book questions whether Jews in medieval Europe were as separate from their non-Jewish neighbors as believed.

Approximately two centuries after the expulsion of Jews from the area of Metz, they returned to settle there once again in the 16th century. Emerging economic opportunities and growing political standing granted the city more and more importance.

As the city rose in prominence, so did its Jewish community. During the early modern period, Metz boasted some of the great figures of Ashkenazic history. For example, Glikl of Hameln, Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschitz, and Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Ginzburg all called Metz home for part of their lives. This in and of itself could make Metz a worthy subject of study, but this community offers the student of Jewish history even more. Metz bequeathed to future generations an extensive communal register and a detailed record (Pinkas) of the proceedings of its beit din. This pinkas beit din is “the single largest collection of rabbinic court records currently in print.” Until recently, this treasure trove received little attention.

Diving into this extensive legal material, Jay Berkovitz in his recently published "Law’s Dominion: Jewish Community, Religion, and Family in Early Modern Metz" produces a case study of a prominent early modern kehilah (an autonomous European Jewish community). Berkovitz’s detailed research and rigorous analysis allow us to peek into areas of the life and culture of this community that were previously unknown. Berkovitz’s thesis is that an examination of these materials challenges prevalent notions of the kehilah’s place within its broader host society. While Berkovitz certainly demonstrates that the kehilah’s relationship to its surroundings was much richer and more complex than we may have imagined, the full import of his findings seems hard to gauge.

A common depiction of Ashekenazi life before the Emancipation imagines that when it came to internal matters, the Jewish community ran its own affairs. The host society, as long as it received taxes, was uninterested in what went on between Jews. By the same token, the Jews of the kehilah had little to no interaction with the outside world and were inclined to maintain their seclusion. The kehilah was a self contained entity that was largely insulated from the larger society. According to this conception, the emancipation of Jews in Europe opened up the floodgates that had previously separated Jewish society from the gentile world.

Berkovitz’s scholarly academic examination of the relevant legal material demonstrates that actually there was a good deal of accommodation, influence, integration and even acculturation between French society and the Jewish community of Metz long before the French revolution recast the status of Jews in France. He brings many examples. Communal decrees against over indulgence, hair styles and mixed dancing were clearly responses to inroads of societal trends and indicate an infiltration of the outside culture.

French flag in France (credit: REUTERS)French flag in France (credit: REUTERS)

The Beit Din records make extensive use of French legal terms indicating a knowledge of the language and proficiency in the French legal system. Despite a longstanding prohibition against going to gentile civil courts, the Metz community allowed a regular exception for recovering funds represented by bills of exchange. The Beit Din, breaking precedent of Jewish law, followed trends in French society of favoring mothers in custody cases. The Beit Din would even call in experts in French law to clarify matters where the Beit Din ruled on the basis of French law. Based on all this and more Berkovitz suggests that there was a significant degree of interchange and interdependence between the kehilah and the outside and that this relationship should best be characterized as porous.

Berkovitz himself invites his readers to judge whether this characterization of porousness is overstated (p. 349). Indeed, there are a number of reasons why one might downplay the significance of Berkovitz’ discoveries. His study focuses almost exclusively on the area of law and presumes that legal institutions reflect broad trends in society. Perhaps, what went on in the Beit Din was relatively marginal to the life of most members of the kehilah for most of their lives. In a similar vein, one might wonder if the Beit Din records written by specialists can be seen as indicative of familiarity with the French language amongst the broader membership of the kehilah.

On a more basic level, halachic conceptions of civil monetary law make this question even more complex. Embedded in Talmudic law, there is an allowance (at least according to some opinions) to make monetary stipulations that contradict Torah’s civil law (see Ketubot 83, for example). More broadly, the principle of dina demalchuta dina – the civil law of the land is the valid law for Jews, is taken by many halachic authorities to have far reaching ramifications. While we cannot do justice to this discussion here, suffice it to say that this flexibility around monetary matters that is built into the earliest iterations of Halacha makes the line between allegiance to Jewish law and assimilation of foreign law blurry. This is very important point for this discussion given that much of the Beit Din material that Berkovitz discusses addressed monetary matters.

And yet, while one should be cautious about drawing far reaching conclusions, the thorough research of this work is a crucial contribution to the exploration of the relationship between the kehilah and the larger world and it provides food for thought for those reflecting upon the place of Jews in our ever more globalized context. 

Law’s DominionBy Jay BerkovitzBrill Academic Publishing404 pages; $76