Senior Fellow: May–August 2018
Research Project: Scepticism as Habitus. Halakhic Authority Constructed and Contested in an Early Modern Port Community
In the Jewish context, the development of scepticism can be traced not only in systematic works of philosophy and theology, but also in the strengthening or loosening of the bonds of public and private halakhic observance. In the twin Jewish communities of Pisa and Livorno, we find rabbinic and lay intellectuals striving to establish behavioural norms and social hierarchies in the face of complex and contradictory pressures characteristic of the cultural ambience of former conversos. The task was complicated by their geographic and commercial location within the Mediterranean world and by their close ties to the Jewish cultural life of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Cultural frictions were inevitable in such an atmosphere, and the ample communal records show us both the repeated efforts to create religious discipline and the reaction such efforts inspired. My work will focus on the efforts of one particular figure, Raphael Meldola, to articulate a rationalised and systematic rhetoric of halakhic normativity. Scepticism, I assume, was articulated in sets of daily practices that formed a habitus rather than a systematised ideology of change. The sceptic did not so much undermine an existing order as participate in a cultural debate that would be rationalised only slowly as part of a continuing discourse over proper cultural norms.
Bernard Cooperman holds the Louis L. Kaplan Chair of Jewish History at the University of Maryland.