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Changing the Rules of the Game: Jewish Culture in a Nascent Global Context

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 2 Ballroom

Abstract

While the premise that traditional Jewish society shifted dramatically as a result of the crisis became almost self-evident among many historians, this lecture presents an alternative thesis: the change was a longue durée process in which Jewish society shared similar experiences of change as the non-Jewish European and Ottoman societies during the early modern era. The deep cultural and religious changes - unlike political or economic ones - in early modern Jewish society were relying on the traditional heritage of books and erudition and took place under the guise of traditional rhetoric. Yet behind the screen of continuity we can find bold innovations of fundamental elements of Jewish cultural heritage, such as the dissemination of mystical-kabbalistic lore, halakhah, ethical literature, pietistic activity and control of sexuality, shaping individual consciousness, community life, and the status of the rabbinic elite. As I will argue, change was a process that shaped Jewish modernity between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, in response to global changes taking place both in Europe within the Christian tradition and in the Ottoman Empire bearing the standard of orthodox Sunnism.
One of the central agents for change was R. Joseph Karo. R. Karo’s biography and activity reflect the dominant role of the Sephardi diaspora and its contribution to re-shaping Jewish religious tradition. He was both a leading halakhic authority, leaving his mark via his double codification project of Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, and an active mystic, documenting his experiences in a mystical diary. This combination enabled him to suggest a major shift in the parameters of Jewish culture.

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