Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures
Piet Van Boxel (Oxford University)
The Bodleian Library’s Hebrew manuscripts tell the story of how together Jews, Christians and Muslims have contributed to the development of the book. Covering a time span of 300 years between the thirteenth century and fifteenth century, the manuscripts bring to light different aspects of Jewish life in a non-Jewish medieval society. The social and cultural interaction between Jews and non-Jews in both the Muslim and Christian world is mirrored in the blending of the inherent elements of the manuscript such as decorative patterns, writing styles, script types and text genres. As a result Hebrew manuscripts produced in different geo-cultural regions look quite different, showing greater similarities to the non-Hebrew books produced in the same region than to each other. By importing elements of the host culture, the Hebrew manuscripts are proof of coexistence and cultural affinity, as well as practical cooperation between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the Middle Ages.
This year’s research theme at Penn’s Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies is Early Modernity—spanning roughly from the late 15th through the 18th centuries. This period is marked by several dramatic changes and transformations in European society, such as the printing press and the dissemination of knowledge in unprecedented and unforeseen ways, the discovery of the New World, the scientific revolution, and the breakdown of traditional sources of authority. These developments caused the shifting of traditional boundaries between various groups within and outside the Jewish world, such as Jewish and non-Jewish communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, men and women, educated and uneducated, and rabbinic and lay elites. In the fall we are organizing a mini-series on Jewish-Christian relations in the early modern period. Our Penn Lectures in the spring will range from sixteenth-century Venice to communal politics in seventeenth-century Amsterdam to imagined “Jews” in eighteenth century literature.
Piet Van Boxel, Ph.D is Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University. He lectured on rabbinic Judaism and served as the Hebraica and Judaica Curator of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where he also organized a well-attended exhibition of the Hebrew manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, presenting to the public their oriental and occidental political, cultural and socio-religious context. Professor Van Boxel’s research interests include Hebrew manuscripts and early Hebrew printing with special interest in ecclesiastical censorship of Hebrew books in sixteenth-century Italy. His doctoral thesis (Tilburg University; Holland, 1983) explores the multifaceted connections between the Counter-Reformation and rabbinic texts. He published several academic studies on Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations, among them “Man’s behavior and God’s Justice in Early Jewish Tradition. Some Observations” (1988); “Robert Bellarmine, Christian Hebraist and Censor” (2006); and “Hebrew Books and Censorship in Sixteenth-Century Italy” (2013). In addition to his academic publications he wrote and presented four television documentaries and many popular radio programs on Jewish and Jewish-Christian issues.
The Penn Lectures are made possible through a generous endowment from the Harry Stern Family Foundation and the Klatt Family. We are grateful to our partners Rabbi David Ackerman (Beth Am Israel), Dr. Philip A. Cunningham (Saint Joseph’s University), and Rabbi David Straus (Main Line Reform Temple), for their generous hospitality. For more information visit our website http://katz.sas.upenn.edu/public-programs  or call 215-238-1290.