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The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz

In The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz, author Ephraim Kanarfogel challenges the dominant perception that medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic scholarship was lacking in intellectualism or broad scholarly interests. While cultural interaction between Jews and Christians in western Europe was less than that of Sephardic Jews, Kanarfogel's study shows that the intellectual interests of Ashkenazic rabbinic figures were much broader than Talmudic studies alone.

Kanarfogel begins by highlighting several factors that have contributed to relatively narrow perceptions of Ashkenazic rabbinic culture and argues that the Tosafists, and Ashkenazic rabbinic scholarship more generally, advocated a wide definition of the truths that could be discovered through Torah study. He explores differences in talmudic and halakhic studies between the Tosafist centers of northern France and Germany, delves into aspects of biblical interpretation in each region, and identifies important Tosafists and rabbinic figures. Kanarfogel also examines the composition of liturgical poetry (piyyut) by Tosafists, interest in forms of (white) magic and mysticism on the part of a number of northern French Tosafists, and a spectrum of views on the question of anthropomorphism and messianism.

Overall, Kanarfogel demonstrates that the approach taken by Tosafists was broader, more open, and more multi-disciplinary than previously considered. Medieval and Jewish history scholars will appreciate Kanarfogel's volume, which is the culmination of several decades of research on the subject.

About the Author

Ephraim Kanarfogel is the E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Law at Yeshiva University. Among his many publications are the award-winning books Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages (Wayne State University Press, 1992), and "Peering through the Lattices": Mystical, Magical, and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period (Wayne State University Press, 2000).


"An exceptional book that offers a dramatically new paradigm for understanding intellectual life in medieval Ashkenaz."—Jay Berkovitz

"This hefty volume will be a classic in the intellectual history of the rabbinic culture of the Northern French and German-speaking lands. . . . This book should be a basic part of any syllabus dealing with Jewish religious life in the twentieth century."—Shaul Stampfer, Religious Studies Review

"Ephraim Kanarfogel's new book is based upon extensive manuscript research, and it portrays the breadth and complexity of that culture. Kanarfogel writes at length about the activities of medieval Ashkenazic rabbis as judges in local Jewish courts, as exegetes on the biblical text, as writers of and commentators on religious poetry, and as practitioners of practical magic. A major portion of this hefty volume is devoted to describing the approaches to biblical commentary taken by a series of French rabbis, as found in a dense maze of unpublished manuscripts, which throw new light on the much better known work of figures such as Rashbam and Bekhor Shor. The dense material in this book, as well as the far-ranging perspectives offered by Kanarfogel on medieval rabbinic culture, will continue to enrich the study of Jewish life in the Middle Ages for years to come."—Pinchas Roth, Jewish Book Council

"Kanarfogel effectively draws out the details of the diverse array of intellectual interests of Jews in medieval Ashkenaz and successfully challenges the dominant perception that medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic scholarship was lacking in intellectualism and broad scholarly interest."—Ethan Zadoff, Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization

"Ephraim Kanarfogel's book The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz is a tribute to his deep knowledge of medieval rabbinic writings and his ability to mine these texts for invaluable historical information. . . In sum, this book demonstrates Ephraim Kanarfogel's encyclopaedic knowledge and erudition."—Elisheva Baumgarten, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Journal of Jewish Studies

"Kanarfogel's book offers many new insights into the literary activities of the Tosafists, especially with regard to the questions of genre, audience, methodology, transmission, and influence. It offers a nuanced view of Ashkenazic intellectual culture and challenges outdated scholarly preconceptions. . . . The book is a true bibliographical goldmine. Kanarfogel's mastery of primary and secondary sources is impressive. The fact that he often includes detailed discussions of manuscript sources makes the book all the more valuable."—Milan Žonca, Intellectual History and 232 Political Thought

"No one will disagree with Kanarfogel's core claim that the intellectual world of medieval Ashkenaz was rich,

complex, and exciting. And as he demonstrates, thinking about that world is pretty exciting, too."—Susan Einbinder, H-Net Reviews

"This is a solid and exhaustive presentation. . . This book is not an introduction for the uninitiated but rather a comprehensive exposition in English of the last four or five decades of research in the field, with many extensive footnotes of bibliography or reviews of the current scholarship. For academic libraries serving comprehensive graduate programs in Jewish Studies."—Roger S. Kohn, Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews

"With the publication of this volume, Ephraim Kanarfogel has solidified his status as the leading intellectual historian of rabbinic culture in medieval Ashkenaz. Through very close textual analysis, the author offers the reader a panoramic view that encompasses the manifold facets of this rich literary tradition, including talmudic study, biblical exegesis, poetic composition, and mystical and magical speculation. Without ever losing sight of the details, Kanarfogel has succeeded in painting the impressive and variegated scope of Ashkenazi cultural achievements on a much larger canvas. This result of many years of painstaking philological work is a breathtaking and sophisticated revision of one of the most important chapters in Jewish history that continues to inform the beliefs and practices of many living Jewish communities."—Elliot R. Wolfson, Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University

"The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz is an exceptional book that offers a dramatically new paradigm for understanding intellectual life in medieval Ashkenaz. It is utterly clear that from this point forward, the older, far less grounded perspectives will be set aside."—Jay Berkovitz, Professor of Jewish History at the University of Massachusetts

"Ephraim Kanarfogel distinguishes himself as a leading member of a small group of intellectual historians who enjoy free access to the literary production of the rabbinic sages of the Middle Ages. In the present study, he establishes that Ashkenazi rabbis did not limit their intellectual curiosity to talmudic studies or to halakhic issues, but went beyond it to engage in and create in other domains. His admirable achievement is based on the study of old as well as of most recent scholarship and most remarkably of minute research in hundreds of unpublished medieval works. We all look forward thus to his forthcoming studies."—Joseph Shatzmiller, Distinguished Professor of Judaica at Duke University

"This magnificent new study establishes Ephraim Kanarfogel as one of his generation's leading authorities on the rabbinic culture of medieval Jewry in northern Europe. The comprehensiveness of this survey makes it indispensable for all who wish to understand the history of rabbinic culture."—Marc Saperstein, Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck College and Professor of Jewish Studies at Kings College London

Wayne State University Press


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$64.99 USD

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Brothers from Afar

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Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics

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Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages

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