A Remembrance of His Wonders

Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Askenaz

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David I. Shyovitz
Jewish Culture and Contexts
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , May
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $59.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249118.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The most striking demand made by David Shyovitz’s ​A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz ​is this: to slough off how we prefigure Jewish medieval Europe to have been, and to let it speak on its own terms. The book’s precise task is to excavate the native Ashkenazic commitment to and theorizing of nature, but it also serves as an exemplary framing of how to allow emic discourses into academic study. In evaluating this ambition, we must reckon with our placement within the story we are seeking to analyze. Our received notion of science is defined by the tradition of academic discourse (and its attendant beliefs and practices) which we have inherited, but must it be restricted to that specific, bounded phenomenon? Can there be other sciences? This question belies the creative place of the imagination in academic inquiry (constructing an otherwise), as well as the role tradition plays even in our most rational vocations.

While the insights of ​A Remembrance of His Wonders ​have broader implications for medieval Franco-German Jewry as a whole, its primary focus is a specific subculture within that population, namely ​Hasidei Ashkenaz ​(German Pietists). Counter to the reigning presumptions detailed above, Shyovitz presents a needed corrective to our understanding of the Pietists’ ideology, namely as active thinkers engaged in inductive and empirical reasoning through forms of experimentation, which yielded usable information about the world and the divine intentions that undergirded it. As Shyovitz writes, “the German Pietists say the natural world is profoundly imbued with theological meaning, and ... they invested considerable energy in attempting to understand its workings” (23). He (and they) connect this investment to a verse from Psalms, which gives the monograph its title: “He has created a remembrance of His wonders” (Ps. 111:4) For the Pietists, Shyovitz argues, these “wonders” were evidence of a Divine mind at work, discoverable in the patterned workings of the physical world. This was not merely evidence of a reverential disposition toward creation, situated within a supernaturalist, miraculous ideology (as argued by previous scholars). Rather it was a native, natural science, embedded within the piety of Ashkenaz. We can identify three main dialectics which occupy the author’s attention, all of which are interrelated: supernaturalism vs. naturalism, asceticism vs. humanism, and parochialism vs. cosmopolitanism.

Shyovitz does us a great service in organizing and pointing our attention to a previously understudied trove of sources of Hasidic empirical inference that clearly show, in the words of the author, that “theological truths can be derived from routine objects and phenomena found in the natural world” (37). Prior scholarship had consigned ​Hasidei Ashkenaz​ to the dustbin of irrationalism and supernaturalism, given its interests in magic and mysticism, but to Shyovitz’s reading of the Pietists, divine activity need not be seen as a totally other category, irrupting into the cosmos and rending it asunder. Rather, there inheres a kind of radical holism, in which all worldly phenomena are evidence of a persistent presence of the deity, even (or especially) in places less conventional or expected. Chapter 5 details the willingness of the Pietists to look beyond the proper and pleasant to find theological significance in the sewer and the bathhouse, as nothing can be a lacuna vis-à-vis the divine presence. Concomitantly, their investment in their surroundings brought them into contact with their non-Jewish neighbors, also often assigned a similar improper status. Indeed, their commitment to the world as the locus of divinity was dialogically engaged with the rise of incarnational theology in the Christian world in which the divine’s location was similarly immanently localized. Shyovitz aptly counters the presumed parochialism of ​Hasidei Ashkenaz​, displacing such a view with a more complex and nuanced image of how discourses and cultural practices of inquiry tend to lead to intertwining paths.

Chapters 2 and 3 show a clear correlation between Hasidic interest in the physical world and a productive, even positive, relation to the human body. In his subtly dialectical analysis of Pietistic penitential practices, Shyovitz shows that even an ascetic program still exhibits a fascination with and focus on the human body, which becomes the locus for the spiritual event and the site of meaning. Such an effort asks the scholar to disidentify with the thetic content of the practice (in which the body is defined as gross) and to look at it instead as a deeply invested, though complex, form of embodiment. This dialectic is perfectly captured in the words of Rabbi Eleazar, “wretched man is extremely dear to his Creator.” Shyovitz elucidates this point quite well: “Man’s embodiedness is not the source of embarrassment or disgrace, but rather occasions an outpouring of love for one’s Creator” (78). One wishes, however, that Shyovitz could have taken this point a bit farther, incorporating the erotic elements present within masochistic activity, showing that there is not merely (positive) pathos or (neutral) interest, but that (negative) pain itself could be recognized as a productive site of investment.

Within this analysis, there is a conflation of an appreciation for the devotion to the natural world, found within Hasidic texts, with a more active valorization of their approach. In particular, there were times in the book when Shyovitz seemed to collapse the Ashkenazic granting of meaning to the corporeal body and world with an endorsement thereof. For example, in the author’s analysis of Eleazar of Worms’ prayer commentary, when Shyovitz lauds the medieval writer for his refusal of “embarrassment or disgrace” in reference to the human body, he misses the dialectical inversion that packs the punch. The body is still seen (and experienced) as “wretched,” but it bears testament to God’s love that counters and displaces human sentiment and bias. Shyovitz is quite right in his insistence that Hasidei Ashkenaz​ find the human body meaningful. However, this is not an endorsement of the body-as-thing, but rather the body as a site of dialectical meaning.

Shyovitz is quite right to counter the conclusions of earlier studies, which regarded the Pietists as only interested in interventions and irruptions within the natural world, assuming that its only value was to indicate a supernatural will. He has provided more than enough evidence to reframe the project of Hasidei Ashkenaz​ as one that exposes the workings of the world as testifying not to the deity’s inconceivable will but rather to the wisdom, elegance, and grace of the divine mind. However, is that the same as a (robust) conception of nature? The semiotics of Hasidic naturalism do not lead to an isomorphic mapping of divine thought onto the workings of the world. Rather, the structure of creation testifies to theological truths, to justifications for belief, based on an extensive monistic sense that it is “bodies all the way down” (and up), all taking up space, all interacting similarly. Perhaps what we’re left with is a kind of empiricism without Nature, even a kind of cosmic immanentism. The fact that this is the kind of (admittedly quibbling) debate with which we are left after reading Shyovitz’s wonderful monograph is itself a testament to the book’s achievement and quality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Simonn Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David I. Shyovitz teaches history and Jewish studies at Northwestern University.

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