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Crisis and authority in early modern Ashkenaz


The social and intellectual foundations of medieval Judaism were shaken by a series of developments that included the invention of printing, advances in scientific knowledge, humanism, and the commercial revolution. In early modern Ashkenaz, the ensuing crisis centered on questions of ritual transmission and leadership. Minhagbücher composed in seventeenth-century Worms and Frankfurt urged the preservation and reinstatement of medieval customs relating to synagogue worship and rituals practiced in the home, while in some cases newer customs were also incorporated. However, the writings of Rabbi Ya’ir Ḥayyim Bacharach were more far-reaching in response to the crisis of authority, as is evident in his forthright independence in matters of ritual and law. Customs could be considered authentic, in his view, provided they were textually based, were proven to be historically reliable, and enjoyed popular consent. His decision to consult kabbalistic sources—a departure from the resistance Kabbalah had encountered in early modern Ashkenaz—rested in part on the theological appeal of mysticism. Reflecting contemporary political philosophy and jurisprudence, Bacharach’s unequivocal endorsement of lay communal authority hinged on its elected status and on the legitimacy of law founded on principles of equity and justice.

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Correspondence to Jay R. Berkovitz.

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Berkovitz, J.R. Crisis and authority in early modern Ashkenaz. Jew History 26, 179–199 (2012).

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  • Seventeenth Century
  • Ritual Practice
  • Communal Governance
  • Communal Legislation
  • Communal Enactment