Joseph A. Skloot to Present on : "Blood and Guts in Jewish Law" at the Paris-Sorbonne University

Monday, January 25, 2010

HUC-JIR is proud to announce that Joseph A. Skloot, a Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University and Rabbinical Student at HUC-JIR/NY, was accepted to present a paper at a conference on "Norms and Normativity in History" at the Paris-Sorbonne University.  The paper was based on research compiled for Skloot's senior thesis at HUC-JIR advised by Rabbi David Ellenson.  The conference is jointly sponsored by the History Departments of Columbia and the Sorbonne and was organized by faculty and graduate students in the field.

Below is a summary of Skloot's paper:

"Blood and Guts in Jewish Law:
The Laws of the Forbidden and the Permitted and Religious Norms in Rabbi Moses Isserles' Glosses on the Shulchan Aruch"

Joseph A. Skloot, Columbia University

Jewish culture has had, since the rabbinic period (c. 100-700 CE), a theoretical concept of “norms” (minhagim, in Hebrew) alongside “law” (halachah). "Norms” were those practices (both stringencies and leniencies) that Jewish communities took upon themselves in addition to or in opposition to what was understood as the law itself. They existed as a “shadow” system of religious behavior and obligation whose status in relation to the halachah was ambiguous.

In my paper, I will examine Rabbi Moses Isserles’ (Poland, 1520-1572) glosses on the most important compendium of Jewish law, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch (“the Set Table,” 1550s). Traditionally, Isserles’ glosses have been understood as a corrective to Karo’s work. According to this view, Karo sought to publish a practical guide for all aspects of Jewish living. However, being a Sephardic Jew (a Jew from Spain and the Middle East), he followed the typical Sephardic approach, hewing his views to precedents set by the Talmud and the standard medieval legal codes--especially that of Maimonides. Isserles, being an Ashkenazic Jew, sought to set the record straight by cataloging the various “norms” of diverse Ashkenazic localities and appending them the Karo’s work.

In recent years, the view above has been subject to revision. Elchanan Reiner has argued that Isserles’ glosses actually eliminated more norms than they preserved. In my paper, I will build on Reiner’s argument by demonstrating—through a close reading of Isserles’ glosses on Karo’s “laws of blood” (laws dealing with animal slaughter, known as hilchot dam, in Hebrew)—how Isserles was able to both impose formerly localized Ashkenazic norms on widely-dispersed, increasingly urban Polish Jewish community, on the one hand, and use classical mechanisms of Jewish jurisprudence to give Polish Jews leeway to break free from those norms, on the other. This paradox was at the center of Isserles’ legal project: the creation of an independent Polish Jewish culture that cherished the norms of its Ashkenazic forbearers while adhering more rigorously to the legal precedents established by earlier rabbis, even Sephardic rabbis.

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