It’s a cliche to say that the world’s major religions have long influenced and been influenced by each other. Jesus and his followers were Jewish; Maimonides was indebted to Islamic philosophers; Mohammad saw the Koran as an extension of Jewish and Christian texts; and so on. At a time like today (when the three monotheistic faiths feel deeply defensive about their place in the world) this message bears repeating.
Three new historical works do just that, and in the process remind us that history is not only a catalogue of crimes and grudges, but also a record of productive and enriching encounters.
The first book is "Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to The Early Kabbalah," (Princeton) by Peter Schafer of Princeton University. It suggests that the feminine conception of God at the heart of the 12th century kabbalistic revolution may owe more to the influence of the cult of the Virgin Mary in France than to ancient Jewish ideas that had remained dormant during intervening centuries. The monograph is fascinating, if limited in its appeal to those uninterested in the history of Jewish mysticism. But Schafer’s primary historiographical concern (what constitutes "influence") is more broadly relevant.
"I follow the increasing trend in recent scholarship to reject the static and erratic image of Judaism and Christianity as hermetically sealed against one another, forever frozen, as it were, in a perpetual state of hatred and fear," he writes. Instead, it’s possible to think of two religious cultures as partners "engaged in a process of creative adaptation … a process that gains its vitality through mutual exchange." And so the degree to which Jewish thinkers in late medieval Provence were influenced by their neighbors’ cult of Mary is less important than the fact that two religious concepts (the veneration of Mary as a divine intercessor and an appreciation for the feminine, Shekhinah dimension of God) emerged more or less simultaneously, with who knows how much intellectual cross-pollenization.
The second book is "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" (Little, Brown), by Yale University professor Maria Rose Menocal. This story is much better known among Jews than Christians and Muslims, in part because for centuries it was the gold standard for Jewish communities hoping for full integration into European society. Its reappearance in this lively historical survey some months after 9-11 reminds us that the current antagonism between Jewish, Christians and Muslim cultures is not the only possibility, and that a multi-religious society of immense material, intellectual and political success is possible.
In the introduction to this book the literary critic Harold Bloom wonders if Menocal’s vision of Andalusia "may to some degree represent an idealization," and indeed massacres such as the one against the Jews of Granada in 1066 suggest the enlightened Islamic kingdom was not quite paradise on Earth. And yet the cultural ferment during that time was immense and long lasting, with Arabic philosophy and culture the nourishment for Maimonides’ fusion of Jewish and Greek philosophic ideas, and Arabic poetry a goad to Samuel ha Nagid and others’ reinvention of Hebrew poetry.
This brings us to the third, and most provocative, book, a radical new translation of the Christian Bible, "The New Covenant, Commonly Called the New Testament" (Riverhead), by poet and classicist Willis Barnstone. Just out in paperback, this volume gives Jesus and his followers back their Jewish names and contexts, reminding us that Jesus preached to and about Jews in Aramaic, not in third-century Greek, and not in 17th-century English. The translation is a challenge ó to Christians who believe they can remove the Jewishness from Jesus, and to Jews who believe that that the Gospels have nothing to teach them. Barnstone counts the New Testament (or New Covenant as scholars are now calling it) as the last great book of the Jewish biblical imagination, and sees in it a masterwork of world spirituality that he hopes Jews might be able to now read without fear.
Barnstone suggests that his "reformation" of the text might bring "silence to mediate controversy, understanding to mediate sectarian wrath, and peace to mediate the stranger."
But Barnstone recognizes that his translation, like Menocal’s reimagining of Al-Andalus, might be a kind of idealization, and in its strident openness be, like much that is newly translated, initially "greeted not with openness but fire." For saying that things can work out, and that influence can produce joy as well as anxiety, can be as threatening to people as a sword.