Thursday, April 24, 2014

Judaism under the Sword and Cross

The Sefer Chasidim is supposed to be a paradigmatic book of the early German Jewish Pietistic movement, called the Ashkenazi Hasidim, who flourished from the twelfth and thirteenth century (and not to be confused by the later Chasdic movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the late eighteenth century).
Known for its ascetic customs and other-worldly orientation, the German Pietists have been given only a grudging acknowledgement by subsequent generations of religious Jews.  With its calls for fasting, rolling around nude in the snow, and dips in ice cold mikvehs, there was something too extreme in this movement for later, more temperate Jews.
Sefer Chasidim will not help this image.  While there are passages that admonish Jews not to be too holy, fast too much, or deny their bodies, there are other passages which revel in this.  This is a harsh form of Judaism and not for everyone.  The book also abounds with passages that can only be called superstitious.  The book is filled with invective against superstition, yet delves deep within bizarre speculations of supernatural cause and effect.
But don't get me wrong; the book is interesting.  Its shows Judaism during the crusader time period, when Jewish life in middle Europe was in great peril.  This work reflects that crouched, perilous position.

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