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Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Exile in Amsterdam 

Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of
"New Jews" 

Marc Saperstein 

Exile in Amsterdam is based on a rich, extensive, and previously untapped source for one of the most important and fascinating Jewish communities in early-modern Europe. 

The leading rabbi of this community, Saul Levi Morteira (ca. 1596-1660), a master of Jewish homiletical art, was known to have published one book of fifty sermons in 1645. Recently a collection of 550 manuscript sermons in Morteira's own writing turned up in the Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest. After years of painstaking study from microfilms and three trips to Budapest to consult the actual manuscripts, Marc Saperstein has written the first comprehensive analysis of the historical significance of these texts (some of which were heard, as they were delivered in the synagogue, by the young Spinoza). 

Saperstein begins by reviewing the broad outlines of Morteira's biography, his treatment by scholars, and his image in literary works. He then reconstructs the process by which the preacher produced and delivered his sermons. Moving on to the community, he presents information-derived from the sermons-about individuals and institutions in Morteira's Amsterdam. 

Focusing on themes Morteira considered crucial-confrontations with Christianity, ideas of exile and messianic redemption, and attitudes toward the "new Christians" who remained in Portugal-Saperstein shows how the sermons presented an ongoing program of adult education that transmitted the Jewish tradition on a consistently high yet accessible level to a congregation of immigrants who were now assuming a Jewish identity in Amsterdam with minimal prior knowledge. 

In order to illustrate and concretize, Saperstein presents in English eight previously untranslated sermons in their entirety, with full annotation. 

"The book bristles with a passion for the sermonic art. The author has a unique ability to empathize with and imagine the concerns of the seventeenth-century preacher, and an exceptional literary sensitivity to biblical intertextuality." Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Arizona State University 

"Saperstein's prowess and persistence in locating, deciphering, transcribing, and translating these homiletical gems are mind-boggling." Herman Prins Salomon, SUNY 

Marc Saperstein is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University. Two of his previous books (Jewish Preaching 1200-1800 and "Your Voice Like a Ram's Horn") have won national Jewish book awards. He is widely recognized as the leading contemporary scholar on the history of Jewish preaching. 

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Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.