Date of Award

2018

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History

First Advisor

David B. Ruderman

Abstract

ABSTRACT

THE ORGANIZATION OF HALAKHIC KNOWLEDGE IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE:

THE TRANSFORMATION OF A SCHOLARLY CULTURE

Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg

David B. Ruderman

Far from being abstract and immaterial, knowledge is impacted in myriad ways by non-intellectual factors, such as technology, organization, culture, and erudite practices. The scholarship of halakha, Jewish religious law, is a millennia-long tradition that was shaped by historical changes in its particular contexts. In sixteenth-century Europe specifically, historical circumstances — the advent of print, the dislocation of the Jewish communities of Ashkenaz (the German lands) reconstructed in Eastern Europe, and the shift to systematic organizational paradigms introduced by newly dominant works — led to a complete reordering of halakha. Drawing upon methods from the history of knowledge, social and cultural history, book history, media studies, and studies of knowledge-organization, this dissertation shows that the changes taking place in Europe between the 1470s and the 1570s influenced a profound transformation of the halakhic system. These changes in technology, organization, and community, fundamentally transformed Jewish law, which became more ordered and therefore more easily accessible, transmissible and applicable than its predecessor. To argue this, the dissertation’s first two units examine the shift from personal manuscript collections to printed books, from heterogeneous compilations to hyper-structured codifications, and from a panoply of localized customs to unified, universalized, Jewish law. The third unit studies the evolution of one form of halakhic writing – the responsum, epistolary exchanges about legal problems – to examine how the abovementioned changes shaped halakhic texts and their structure. An analysis of responsa as they evolve from letters, to documents in the rabbinic archive, to published works, displays the scholarly practices and forms of logic specific to each one of these media against the backdrop of the larger shifts in the history of knowledge. As a whole, this study shows that, in the sixteenth century, halakhic culture transformed from a flexible, heterogeneous, and personal universe to an increasingly stable, homogenous, and generalized legal system that henceforth shaped Jewish legal study and adjudication.

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