Boettcher on Saperstein, 'Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of "New Jews"'

Marc Saperstein
Susan R. Boettcher

Marc Saperstein. Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of "New Jews". Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2005. xxii + 585 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87820-457-1.

Reviewed by Susan R. Boettcher (Department of History, University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Low-Countries (August, 2008)

Preaching in Spinoza's Amsterdam

Scholarship on the Amsterdam synagogues has been strong for some time; through the works of Miriam Bodian and Yosef Kaplan, we have a much clearer picture of the Jewish community in early modern Amsterdam than for most other cases. The 2006 publication of Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006) and Jonathan Israel's recent books on radical Enlightenment have marked a gradually increasing interest on the part of a wider readership on the life, times, and contexts of the Jewish thinker Baruch Spinoza. Marc Saperstein's monograph can be read in light of this latter trend, since he acknowledges that the wildly contrasting and sometimes self-contradictory features of the historical image of Saul Levi Morteira (d. 1660) have stemmed largely from depictions drawn from Morteira's role as president of the bet din that pronounced the herem on Spinoza in 1656. Saperstein effectively clarifies, in chapter 1, the confusing picture both of Morteira's identity and his intellectual life. For instance, against tradition and the Jewish Encyclopedia, which made him a Sephardi, definitive evidence in these sermons suggests that Morteira was a descendent of the Katzellenbogens, one of the most distinguished Ashkenazi families of early modernity. Even so, this book on preaching to the "New Jews" of Amsterdam does much more than that. It reconstructs the ideals of the moral and ethical universe of an important religious community in tradition and shows how the social and intellectual circumstances elucidated in Bodian's and Kaplan's research were addressed in instruction directed at Jews who were still learning to be Jewish.

At the basis of this study is an important discovery: 550 of Morteira's manuscript sermons, which survive in the Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest in the eminent rabbi's own practically illegible hand. These constitute perhaps as much as one-third of Morteira's total assumed oeuvre, a remarkable sample on which to draw in elucidating the preaching of Spinoza's teacher. Saperstein is an unparalleled expert in the history of Jewish preaching, and he effectively integrates this new information into the scaffolding of his earlier work on the topic. Particularly useful here are Saperstein's extensive reflections on the relationship of the written and oral versions of the sermons as well as the performative aspects of preaching these particular texts, which take up chapters 2, 3, and 4. Readers approaching the book from the perspective of comparative homiletical studies, especially from the Christian perspective, may be surprised at how many similar problems confronted both the pastor and the rabbi in early modernity: both, for example, tended to write their notes or texts in a language other than the one in which their homilies would eventually be preached. One interesting aspect of Morteira's preaching was that the relative stability in his sermon audiences meant that he could assume that community members might remember important aspects of previous sermons, and he used both organizational and textual techniques to remind them of their previous knowledge. Saperstein concludes that Morteira did not repeat his sermons much more quickly than seven years after their original delivery--an interval that assumes an impressively attentive congregation, particularly in comparison to the sermons of evangelical preachers on the continent, which were often repeated in three-year cycles. Thus, his works can clearly be seen as a developing body of teaching imparted to a particular group rather than a series of isolated moralistic disquisitions intended to transmit specific doctrines that had to be pounded into the brains of disinterested listeners. Indeed, considering the relatively low level of Jewish knowledge that must have prevailed among many of his audience members, as Saperstein shows, Morteira set the content bar of his sermons relatively high, not just relying on the obvious Jewish commentators on particular texts, but also drawing heavily on the uppermost reaches of the Jewish exegetical tradition. Homiletical, legal, and historic commentators, in contrast, receive much less attention.

The last five chapters of the work study the sermons as they might have been used in the community: to deal with such life events as funerals, for example, or to address disputes within the congregation. Saperstein also traces the sensitive aspect of any preacher's task: to admonish his congregants to better behavior when they transgressed, or to urge orthodox belief, a particular problem in a setting where so many congregants had been exposed to Christian teachings and rationalist philosophies. Morteira did not hesitate to embrace the need to rebuke his congregants. For the purposes of orienting the "New Jew" within an authentically Jewish tradition, however, themes such as the memory of the Jewish past, the trajectory of history, and the heavily apocalyptic mood of the period in relationship to messianic movements were more important than threats of fire and brimstone. Saperstein turns to these areas in his final three chapters, showing Morteira's subordination of biblical history to his homiletical aims, his polemical attacks against the Christianity that his congregants explicitly abjured but to which they often felt a more subtle affinity, and a skeptical attitude toward messianism. The last part of the book is comprised of eight excerpts from Morteira's sermons in a first-ever English translation, covering about 130 pages and presenting a panoply of different sorts of exegetical and occasional sermons. As Saperstein notes, Jewish preaching is a largely neglected field; it is thus difficult to say whether Morteira's sermons were typical or atypical of the preaching of the period. The unusual nature of this community suggests that their relative neglect of legal issues was atypical, but more contextualizing studies will be needed before such a conclusion can be drawn definitively.

Specialists on Jewish history are likely to be familiar with much of the material included in this book, since four chapters and parts of two others were previously printed elsewhere. The collection is tied together well with new material, however. Moreover, the assembly of the material in a volume will open up Morteira's sermons for comparison to other early modern homiletical projects. Even a cursory reading of the book makes clear to historians of Christian preaching and moral instruction how similar in form and approach Morteira's activities were to the confessionalization of the Christian populations of Europe in preaching occurring slightly earlier or at the same time. With the collection of previous essays in this book and the additional chapters, one of the most active and important authorities on the history of Jewish preaching has thus produced a work that is more than the sum of its parts. Probably some readers will be drawn to it for what it suggests about Spinoza's early education, but to my mind this is a point of at best subsidiary importance. This volume will be of lasting value for scholars who study the Amsterdam congregations, the intellectual milieu of early modern conversos, Jewish preaching, and the history of Jewish moral instruction. Moreover, the work is a model study for analysis of the intellectual and communication history of early modern preaching in Western Europe.

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Citation: Susan R. Boettcher. Review of Saperstein, Marc, Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira's Sermons to a Congregation of "New Jews". H-Low-Countries, H-Net Reviews. August, 2008. URL:

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