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Re(de)fining the Boundaries of the “Jewish Community” in Cairo Geniza Documents

Tue, December 18, 12:45 to 2:15pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 1 Ballroom

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Throughout much of the twentieth century, scholars of Jewish history assumed that the Jews of the medieval Islamic world lived in relatively closed, autonomous communities. Even as S.D. Goitein emphasized the “Mediterranean” character of the Jews whose lives are documented in the Cairo Geniza corpus, he still characterized such Jews as constituting “a state within the state and beyond the state.” By this he meant that the Jews of the Islamic world constituted an autonomous corporate body within their own state and simultaneously owed loyalty to Jewish religious authorities in foreign, sometimes even hostile territories. Over the past twenty years, however, social, political, and economic historians have re-evaluated the Geniza evidence; their work invites us to rethink the assumptions that past scholars had about the rigid boundaries separating medieval Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors.

This panel examines the points of contact between Jews who appear in the Geniza and individuals and institutions outside of the traditionally-understood boundaries of the Jewish community. In doing so, it seeks to refine our understanding of the meaning of Jewish communal affiliation in the medieval middle east. Brendan Goldman explores how Jewish merchants in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean interacted with naval vessels associated with Muslim states in order to ensure safe passage for themselves and their goods. Jennifer Grayson investigates the changing relationship between geonic rabbinic authority and the Abbasid State in Iraq during the late-twelfth century. Moshe Yagur evaluates the social meaning of threats to convert to Islam or accusations of past conversion articulated by both elite and non-elite Jews during times of conflict. Together, the papers invite a conversation about the shifting boundaries of medieval Jewish communities and the ways in which these communal borders were redefined in response to changes in the non-Jewish milieu.

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