When Alice fell through her Oxford rabbit hole in 1865, she landed in a world in which the hidden elements of her imagination took on an oppressive materiality. The unknown land revealed to Alice might have changed her readers’ perception of childhood, if only they could have decoded what Alice encountered.
Thirty-one years later, in late December 1896, a learned rabbi and scholar from Cambridge fell through a rabbit hole in Egypt and discovered a vast, encrypted world whose laborious decoding would fun-da-men-tally change (among many other things) our understanding of post-biblical Jewish intellectual culture, and our view of the Mediterranean world between the birth of the Babylonian Jewish leader Saadia Gaon in 882 and the death of Moses Maimonides in 1204.
The story of how the middle-aged but nimble-minded Solomon Schechter came to climb up a ladder in the crumbling Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo’s slummy Fustat district to enter an airless, stinking chamber filled to the rafters with 10 centuries’ worth of Hebrew literary junk, and how that junk had come to be accumulated in the first place, and how it came to be resurrected and restored to intellectual glory in the century following Schechter’s discovery—all that is told in this radiant jewel of a book.
The story begins with a chance meeting in a Cambridge street. On a May afternoon in 1896 Agnes Lewis—the arthritic half of a set of superbly self-taught female Scottish twins who were scholars of Arabic and Syriac, liberated into learned adventures by the early deaths of their husbands and a paternal legacy consisting of both money and a thirst for education—spied her friend, the blustery Schechter, the reader in rabbinics and son of Russian Hasidic Jews living in Romania who had arrived at Cambridge in 1890 by way of education in Vienna and Berlin.
She asked him to come look at a bundle of manuscripts she had bought in Cairo. To his utter amazement, Schechter discovered among the smelly scraps a fragment of the Hebrew original of Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal book of the Bible also known as Ben Sira, or Sirach.
The reason for Schechter’s excitement was not that the Hebrew original had gone missing for a thousand years, but that the Hebrew original was urgently needed in his seemingly quixotic tilting against the windmills of Protestant arrogance, which argued that Jewish history was a steady “falling off from the heights of early revelation and prophetic vision to a preoccupation with ceremony and legal sophistry.”
“Second Temple Judaism was [seen as] a mechanical priestly cult,” write Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, “and post-Temple or rabbinic Judaism . . . was dismissed outright as a spiritually sterile legalism.” Or, as Julius Wellhausen, a German star of higher Bible criticism, said about Jewish law as given in the five books of Moses: “[I]t blocks up access to heaven . . . and spoils morality.” A Hebrew text of Ben Sira, however, “would confirm the existence of a moral and spiritually vital Second Temple Judaism . . . hardly desiccated by excessive legalism or the mechanical maintenance of priestly rites.”
Thus, the stakes were sky-high for Schechter, who held rabbinic Judaism in high esteem. And although hardly a man cut out for grimy adventures en orient, he went, and five days after arriving in Cairo, entered the geniza of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat.
A geniza is a repository that may contain the written name of God (shem). Because God’s name is absolutely sacred, such documents cannot be burnt but must be ritually buried. While awaiting burial, they may be stored. A geniza, then, is a kind of morgue for Hebrew texts. Over time, as learning declined in Fustat, all Hebrew texts came to be regarded as shemot, and, for about 10 centuries, were simply thrown into a small, airless chamber at the end of the women’s gallery.
Schechter was not the first scholar with the right learnedness in ancient Jewish texts to enter the geniza, or to lay eyes on several torn, filthy, malodorous bundles of “sacred trash” taken from the geniza. In fact, his friend Elkan Adler had entered the geniza in January of 1896, bringing multitudinous scraps back to England for Schechter and Adolf Neubauer—Schechter’s greatest rival, a multilingual Hungarian Jew who was Oxford’s reader in rabbinics and cataloguer of the university’s extensive Hebrew holdings—to see. But, confronted with the prospect of traveling to Egypt himself to take a look at the geniza, Neubauer, looking over the “trash” Adler had hauled back, declared it “a lot of worthless rubbish” and stayed in England.
It took a tremendous amount of imagination and optimism to recognize in the hundreds of thousands of crumbled pieces of writing one of the greatest treasures in Jewish literary history, comparable to the find of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Working for four weeks in the insect-infested chamber, and nearly suffocating in the dust of 10 centuries and brought to the brink of rage by the constant demands for bakshish by all associated with the synagogue, Schechter packed almost 200,000 manuscript fragments into nine large tea chests and sent them back to Cambridge. For the next five years, Schechter labored almost daily over the “stinking heaps of shemot,” sorting them and identifying gems, including letters written by Maimonides, legal decisions by Saadia Gaon, and, most thrilling of all, more of the Hebrew text of Ben Sira.
When the new century arrived, he was exhausted by this effort and accepted an offer to become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He promptly hired European scholars to the faculty and emphasized the scientific study of Jewish texts, only to hear from com-muni-ty leaders that this was “far too highbrow” for the mass of American Jews.
With Schechter’s move to New York, Hoffman and Cole transition into the brilliant second half of their book, in which they unpack the treasure chest of the geniza. They do it by wisely limiting themselves to five large areas of scholarship that were either boosted or brought into being by geniza material.
The brilliance of the second half consists not only in the exquisitely clear and gracious presentation of complex intellectual matters, or in the practical exercise of the usually neglected insight that less is more, but in the craftiness with which the authors force readers to think on two time levels at once: that of the scholar working on the material in 1930s Germany and late-1940s Israel, and then in 2007, globally hooked up. Because of the unpacking of the geniza boxes, the recognition of the literary or scholarly value of so much “worthless rubbish” is also the story of the emergence of academic Jewish studies.
Having begun with Schechter’s unearthing of the Hebrew Ben Sira, Hoffman and Cole then discuss the sleuthing necessary to recover the work of the legendary sixth-century liturgical poet Yannai, a task undertaken by Israel Davidson (born in 1870 in Lithuania) and, later, by Galician Jew Menahem Zulay, plucked out of Palestinian poverty by the German department store magnate Salman Schocken in 1927 as a Hebrew tutor for his children.
The first to recognize the historic worth of the geniza’s nonliterary debris was the humorless Jacob Mann, a descendant of Belzer Hasidim in Poland, who arrived in England in 1908. His wide-ranging book about the Jews in Egypt and Palestine under the Fatimid caliphs, based entirely on geniza docu-ments, was the first to chart Jewish life across a Muslim empire, pre-paring the ground for the historian S. D. Goitein, who arrived in Palestine from Frankfurt on the same boat as Gershom Scholem and, by sheer chance, turned into “the century’s greatest explorer of the documentary Ben Ezra material.” It was the indefatigable Goitein who declared that “in Geniza research, quantity is quality.”
Our authors know, however, that in modern America, brevity is trump. So they add only two more chapters: one on the astounding heretical writings found in the geniza, resurrecting for us not only the radical skeptic Hiwi al-Balkhi but also the rigorous world of the Karaites; and a chapter on the beautiful, nonliturgical Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain, from Dunash ben Labrat to Yehuda HaLevi, and delivered from the Fustat purgatory by the eccentric Jefim Hayyim Schirmann and his dedicated student Ezra Fleischer.
Sacred Trash is the rabbit hole through which readers can fall into 2,500 years of Jewish history encoded in a thousand smelly heaps of tattered leaves. Unlike Alice, though, we are not alone, but encounter a gallery of uprooted, displaced scholars who fell through that rabbit hole before we did, slogged through the junk, and then laid out for us in the clearest print the mesmerizing world of ancient and medieval Mediterranean Jewry.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.