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Introduction: Study of the Bible

Medieval W. Christendom
The importance of the Talmud to medieval Jewish life should not obscure the centrality of
the Hebrew Bible on the medieval Jewish scene. The Bible, in different ways, formed the second
pillar of Jewish life in medieval western Christendom. It was firmly planted at the heart of Jewish
liturgy, bringing every Jew into constant contact with it; it was the grounding for the sermons that
served as the central form of life-long Jewish education; it supplied the major symbols that oriented
Jewish living in normal times and during periods of persecution and stress; it absorbed the creative
energies of leading figures in the Jewish communities of both south and north; it served as the
foundation upon which innovative thinkers in the realms of Jewish mysticism and philosophy built
their systems; it was the major bone of contention in the ongoing Christian-Jewish debate.

Study of the Bible was part and parcel of the school curriculum, especially in its earliest
phases. In a sense, Bible study continued all through a Jew’s life, via engagement with Jewish
liturgy in both the synagogue the home. The daily and holiday liturgy was (and is) replete with
numerous biblical passages and images, and the major Jewish festivals of the year were (and are)
rich in recollection of biblical happenings and symbols. Thus, every Jew attending synagogue or
celebrating a Passover seder at home was in fact fully engaged with the Bible at one or another
level. This basic engagement was deepened by the sermons regularly delivered by the rabbis, which
were based on biblical verses and incidents. Through these sermons, biblical perspectives, themes,
and symbols were regularly reinforced.

Bible commentary absorbed the creative energies of many of the most important intellectual
figures in the Jewish communities all across Europe. Once again, Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes in
northern France emerged as a dominant figure, both in terms of his own writings and his stimulation
of followers throughout northern Europe. In the south, the legacy of Jewish life under Islamic rule
shaped somewhat different traditions of Bible commentary. Giant figures such as David Kimhi of
southern France (Radak) and R. Moses ben Nahman (Ramban/Nahmanides) of Spain wrote
important commentaries still widely read and pondered.

The centrality of the Bible, its stories, and its symbols meant that every spiritual movement
developed by medieval Jews either began with reflection on biblical motifs or at least had to insure
that its insights could be proven consistent with biblical thinking. Much of the Christian anti-
Jewish polemical literature and the Jewish anti-Christian counter polemics revolved necessarily
around disparate understandings of the biblical corpus and message.

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