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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Judaism and Early Modern Culture

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Judaism and Early Modern Culture

For many scholars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The Merchant of Venice has posed pressing and often unsettling questions about the dramatist’s understanding of Jews and their relationship to Christianity.  Janet Adelman’s Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice argues that the play reveals an instability in Christian thinking: on the one hand, Christianity supersedes God’s original covenant with the Jews; on the other, the ongoing presence of Jews is an uneasy reminder that they remain, in some sense, “inside” the Christian faith, as its site of origin.  This problem, which frequently resolves itself into Jewish particularism versus Christian universality, is at the heart of Lisa Lampert’s Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare, which argues that in Christian thought, both Jews and women as such are too “particularized”; only through supersession (in the Jewish case) or figurative masculinization (in the case of women) can they be redeemed.  Judaism also plays a significant role in Julia Reinhard Lupton’s complex Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology, both academic study and, as she calls it, “humanifesto” for the “literature of citizenship.”  Beginning with the observation that citizen and saint belong to different polities, Lupton argues that citizenship insists that the citizen must abandon allegiance to the particular community and its traditions, but in so doing it renders itself inadequate to the full task of sustaining the “good life.”  As Lupton points out, Judaism became the paradigmatic “particular” in the Pauline writings: Christianity itself became a new forum for defining universal citizenship, over and against Jewish “tribalism.”

Warning against attempts to cast Milton as a rabbinical scholar in his own right, Jeffrey Shoulson’s Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity argues instead (overlapping with Achsah Guibbory, discussed later) that Milton and his contemporaries frequently interpreted seventeenth-century crises as “analogous” to epochal moments in the rabbinical tradition.  Milton’s own work frequently problematizes the relationship of modern Protestantism to the Old Testament, yet his meditations on eschatology, suffering, and so forth frequently evoke rabbinical parallels.  A more detailed case study of how Christians engaged with the rabbinical tradition is on offer in Chanita Goodblatt’s The Christian Hebraism of John Donne: Written with the Fingers of Man’s Hand, which combines the theoretical approaches of Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes with a learned background in Jewish and Christian exegesis.  Focusing on Donne’s sermons on Penitential and Prebend Psalms, Goodblatt offers exceptionally detailed accounts (with tables) of how Donne appropriates the work of such exegetes as Kimhi or Rashi to establish the importance of the Bible’s “literal” (that is, historical) meaning as the ground for all others.  More broadly, Achsah Guibbory’s Christian Identity: Jews and Israel in Seventeenth-Century England demonstrates the inadequacy of conventional accounts of Christian-Jewish relations—anti-Semitism versus philosemitism, the “Jewish Other”—to accommodate the appropriation of Jewish history during the Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration.  Jewish sufferings could be harnessed by Anglicans for the Royalist cause … or, later, by persecuted Quakers to describe their own state.