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Princeton project opens lens on medieval Jewry
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Princeton project opens lens on medieval Jewry

The image of King David, shown on the Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database website, is adapted from a reproduction of a 12th-century manuscript. The Hebrew text is taken from the Ambrosiana Sefer Hasidim manuscript.
The image of King David, shown on the Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database website, is adapted from a reproduction of a 12th-century manuscript. The Hebrew text is taken from the Ambrosiana Sefer Hasidim manuscript.

Princeton University’s Program in Judaic Studies is offering an extraordinary tool for Jewish study — an on-line database of the literature of a pious Jewish circle in medieval Germany.

The database, which came on-line Aug. 31, contains all the versions of Sefer Hasidim, or Book of the Pious, the detailed account of the religious life of a devout movement that preached a selfless, even ascetic approach to living beyond the norms of Torah law.

The Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database, or PUSHD, includes transcriptions of 14 handwritten manuscripts and the first printed version, known as the Bologna edition, of Sefer Hasidim.

The Sefer Hasidim is said to bring together the teachings of Judah the Pious of Regensburg, the initiator of the Hasidei Ashkenaz movement of Jewish mysticism in 12th- and 13th-century Germany. It probably incorporates material written by Judah’s father, Samuel the Pious, and by Judah’s best-known student, Eleazar ben Judah of Worms.

(Medieval Hasidism is distinct from the 18th-century hasidic movement that gave rise to current practitioners, including Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar.)

Over the years, different versions emerged, some incomplete, and some expanded with references to other sources. Despite its popularity in medieval times and its importance to modern scholars, the various Hebrew manuscripts of Sefer Hasidim had never been brought together in a unified edition.

The Princeton project began in 2003, under the direction of professor of religion and author Peter Schafer, working with a team of editors and transcribers.

Schafer, who is German and Christian, had been studying those manuscripts for many years. Fascinated by Judaism from his youth, in 1964 he went to study at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Though he was later treated with great warmth, he said, at first he couldn’t find an Israeli student willing to share a dorm room with a German. There was also virtually no research being done on the connections between Jewish and Christian teachings. Much has changed since then, he said.

PUSHD is part of a comprehensive Sefer Hasidim project the Princeton scholars are conducting in collaboration with others in Israel and Germany. The next step, they say, will be an edition with translation and commentary of selected topics of Sefer Hasidim to be published in book form.

Schafer and his team decided to create the database, rather than work through a publisher, to reduce costs and make it as accessible as possible. “This is the most democratic way to make the material available,” Schafer said.

Since its launch, “we have been flooded with requests for access from all over the world, from people involved in Jewish and medieval studies.”

According to the project website, “Sefer Hasidim has had an enduring influence on Jewish culture, due to its articulation of a radically new approach to ethical theory and practice.”

Followers also wrote respectfully of aspects of Christian thought, unusual for Jews at the time.

“Christians and Jews were living very closely,” said Schafer. In Sefer Hasidim, he said, one finds evidence of shared attitudes to, for example, the importance of personal penitence, an idea generally more prevalent in Christian writings than Jewish ones. Love — as well as fear of the Creator — is also much discussed. “It wasn’t a matter of one community taking over ideas from the other,” Schafer said, “but rather the time frame — the zeitgeist — that people were living in.”

Grants for the project have come from the Princeton Provost’s Office and the Program in Judaic Studies, and from the Mellon Foundation.

PUSHD is accessible to anyone who registers — registration is free — at etc.princeton.edu/sefer_hasidim.

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