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  • Monday, February 27, 2023 - 5:15pm to 6:30pm

Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion, sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

We will be welcoming Talya Fishman (Penn) for a talk entitled “Material Devotion and Matter in the Culture of Medieval Catalan Jews.” Talya writes: A range of scholars have explained the rise of private material devotion in Europe of the Late Middle Ages with reference to Christian doctrines, whether that of Incarnation, which affirmed the idea of divine materiality, or of the Re-Creation made possible when the embodied Christ rectified the sin of Adam. It is commonly assumed that medieval European Jews developed no praxes of private material devotion, as they spurned these theological notions and took pains to observe the Second Commandment, even having, in the words of one twentieth century scholar, “a fear of the image”. The falsity of the latter claim has been shown not only from close readings of the Bible, Philo, Josephus and rabbinic sources, but also by the growing physical evidence of Jewish artistic production –on the floors and walls of ancient synagogues. These findings, however, do not point to private material devotion.

My talk will make the case that Jews of the culturally-united areas of Catalonia, Aragon and Rousillon engaged in a specific, text-centered practice of private material devotion in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The visual springboard for this practice were the illuminated images of cultic implements from the Tabernacle and the Temple that adorn the frontispieces of more than 20 still extant medieval Hebrew Bible codices. I will present evidence for the way in which they were used, and speculatively reconstruct the socio-cultural settings in which the tomes might have been encountered, not only by Jews, but also by Iberian conversos, baptized from 1391 onward. 
 As an intellectual and cultural historian in Penn’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Talya Fishman studies developments in Jewish culture between the 9th and 18th centuries within their broader Christian or Muslim contexts. Along with many articles, she is the author of Shaking the Pillars of Exile: “Voice of a Fool”, An Early Modern Jewish Critique of Rabbinic Culture (Stanford, 1997) and Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Penn, 2011), winner of the Jewish Book Council’s Nahum M. Sarna Award for Jewish Scholarship.