Jewish Responses to Spiritual Challenges


Regensburg Synagogue

Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue, 1519. Etching by Albrecht Altdorfer (German, Regensburg ca. 1480 – 1538).

Meeting material challenges in a rapidly changing environment constituted the first priority for the Jews of medieval western Christendom, one they accomplished by and large effectively. At the same time, these Jews encountered major challenges in the cultural and spiritual spheres, again in a rapidly changing and creative majority ambiance.

For the Jews of medieval western Christendom, the intellectual and spiritual threats were every bit as significant as the material. Maintenance of Jewish identity in the face of ongoing majority pressures toward conversion hinged on establishment of a creative Jewish minority culture that could comfortably compete with majority achievement.

Medieval Jewish polemical denigration of Christian majority culture should not obscure Jewish awareness of the vitality of medieval Christian civilization. It must be remembered that this vitality convinced Jews to remain in their home territories when these passed into Christian hands and—more strikingly—to migrate into Christian lands, some entirely new to Jewish settlement.

Jewish cultural and religious creativity in medieval western Christendom was stimulated from two directions. The first of these sources of stimulation was internal. The needs of Jewish life and the dynamic of Jewish religious obligation required ongoing engagement with the rich legacy of the past. That legacy had to be revisited and adapted to ever-evolving circumstances. At the same time, Jewish communities over the ages have benefited from the stimulation of surrounding societies. Despite the negative impressions fostered by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and by Jewish polemical devaluation, medieval European society was richly creative in a wide range of cultural domains, and the Jewish minority was stimulated by this majority creativity.

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