Ask the Rabbi

Matthew Hoffman
From Rebel to Rabbi
Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture
Stanford UP, 2007
Studies in Jewish History and Culture

"From Rebel to Rabbi establishes how the changes that occurred in Jewish culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stimulated a widespread fascination with the figure of Jesus and with Christian motifs among numerous Jewish theologians, historians, intellectuals, writers, and artists. It illustrates how and why the process of modernization for these Jews involved a radical reevaluation of Jesus of Nazareth. This book analyzes works of Jewish history, theology, Yiddish literature, Jewish visual art, and intellectual debates, in an attempt to situate this phenomenon within the broader context of a cultural history of how Jews have related to and depicted the figure of Jesus in the modern period. It suggests that for writers and artists, such as Sholem Asch and Marc Chagall, refiguring Jesus as intrinsically Jewish and using Christian themes to express aspects of the modern Jewish experience were an integral part of creating a new and distinctive modern Jewish culture" (Inside flap).

Chagall: The Yellow Crucifixion, 1942-43
"From the end of the eighteenth century, Jewish proponents of modernization, enlightenment (Haskalah), and reform began to reject the traditionally negative Jewish views of Jesus in favor of increasingly sympathetic appraisals of him. This complex and intriguin trend has come to be known by scholars as the Jewish reclamation of Jesus. Typically, definitions of this reclamation are limited to Jewish scholarship on Jesus and Christian origins, ignoring the ubiquity of this trend within modern Jewish culture as a whole. However, since its origins in the Berlin Haskalah circle of Moses Mendelssohn in the 1780s, countless rabbis and theologians, philosophers and historians, intellectuals and activists, poets and artists, have attempted to reclaim Jesus as a Jew in a profusion of different ways. Throughout the modern era Jews have appropriated Jesus as a malleable cultural symbol—a figure who can serve as the paradigm for a variety of religious, political, and cultural ideologies and positions. In fact, Jesus became a central symbol in virtually all forms Jews created in striving for a modern Jewish culture.
[...] Jesus became a mirror through which Jewish thinkers could reflect their own particular ideological or spiritual vision; they could relate to Jesus on some level as a kindred spirit, proud or persecuted, nationalist or universalist, reformer or redeemer. As Jewish notions of self-understanding and self-definition changed and evolved, so too did Jewish perceptions of Jesus evolved to correspond to these new identities. In its essence, Jewish writing on Jesus tells us more about Jews than about Jesus. Thus, closing scrutinizing these multiple Jewish reclamations provides us with a window onto how Jews have represented themselves in the modern world. [...].
Reclaiming the figure of Jesus functioned as an important part of modern Jews' attempts to secure a prominent place in Western civilization, to gain normalcy and even centrality in that civilization. Representing Jesus in a positive light served as a bridge between things Jewish and things Christian-Western and as a means of breaking down boundaries between the two. Embracing Jesus as a legitimate subject of Jewish discourse and cultural expression was a way of embracing the culture and civilization that had worshiped him as their Lord and Savior and at the same time persecuted Jews in his name. In this sense, Jewish intellectuals who were forging a new Jewish culture used the image of Jesus to simultaneously claim Western culture as their own and to show that Jesus was "just like they were." Differing images of Jesus often clashed with one another as these intellectuals seemed to be doing contradictory things—asserting their Jewishness while bringing themselves into Western culture. From the outset this process was beset with seemingly conflicting motives as the reclamation of Jesus has always involved Jews asserting his Jewishness thus implicitly rejecting the Christian Jesus of Western culture. The Jesus that these Jews wrote about and portrayed was not the Cristian Lord and Savior, but their ancient Jewish brother. Jewish writers have always disassociated the Jewish man, Jesus, from the Christian god, Christ, as they consistently tried to demonstrate the Jewish qualities of his life and teachings. [...] Furthermore, this re-Judaization of Jesus also equipped these modern Jews with a potent weapon for critiquing a still predominantly intolerant Christian world [...].
Thus, traditionalist Jews who rejected the changes wrought by modernity and chose to remain apart from non-Jewish culture typically maintained deeply entrenched negative views of Jesus and all symbols of Christian culture. [But] those Jews who accepted the basic premise of participating in non-Jewish society and culture while forging new forms of Judaism and Jewishness often reenvisioned Jesus in more sympathetic terms [...].
[While considering the Jewish cultural renaissance, the author suggests that rather than using the term assimilation, one should better describe this complex model of integration into non-Jewish culture as transformative integration. For, significantly,] modern Jews also revamped premodern Jewish perceptions of Jesus [...]. Traditionally Jews had depicted Jesus in disparaging and unfavorable terms. From the early years of Christianity, when the religio-cultural conflict between Jews and Christians commenced and quickly expanded, Jews saw Jesus as a Jewish heretic and rebel who had incited the antagonism that now raged between the two communities. [...].
In the Middle Ages, as relations between Jews worsened, and Jews increasingly became victims of anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution at the hands of Christians, the figure of Jesus became etched in the Jewish collective consciousness as the primary emblem of Christian antipathy. [...].
As polemics and disputations between Christians and Jews continued to escalate throughout the Middle Ages, derisive images of Jesus proliferated in Jewish cultural discorse, by far outnumbering the few relatively tolerant portrayals that existed. [...]. By the close of the Middle Ages, Jesus and the religious symbols assiciated with him—the cross, the crucifixion, the Madonna, etc.—had become emblems of fear and repulsion in the minds and hearts of most traditional Jews; he represented all that was other, alien, and dangerous.
In light of this premodern tradition, we can see that with the onset of modernity in the Jewish world, such tremendous changes took place in Jewish cultural discourse that, by the end of the nineteenth century, numerous Jews view Jesus proudly as a devout rabbi and paragon of moral piety. There developed a widespread fascination with the figure of Jesus among European Jewish intellectuals, as the Jewish process of modernization involved a revaluation—indeed a reclamation—of Jesus of Nazareth. In an ironic sense, this sort of possitive appropriation of Jesus was more challenging to Christians' cultural claims on him than all of the premodern Jewish polemics disparaging Jesus. Thus, the Jewish reclamation of Jesus reflects a more aggressive approach by Jews to participating in Western thought and culture than is generally acknowledged, and a far more complex engagement with non-Jewish cultural forms. [...].
Throughout this book, I present examples of Jewish thinkers, historians, writers, and artists who share in the civilization of the West, not by mocking or mimicking it, but by appropriating, and thereby transforming, some of its key intellectual motifs and cultural forms. What this amounted to was, on the one hand, an attempt to insert Jews into the heart of modern Western civilization by claiming the West as Jewish, rather than merely assimilating into the West by erasing all signs of Jewishness. On the other hand, this process also played a central role in the creation of a uniquely modern and predominantly secular Jewish culture by generating revised images of Jesus that came to symbolize contemporary movements and ideologies. It is a subtle distinction between "insertion" and assimilation, and the line between the two is often blurred beyond recognition. However, I believe it is crucial for a richer and more nuanced understanding of Jewish cultural history in the modern period that we attempt to uncover the tension between these two paths toward modernization.
Some of Homi [K.] Bhabha's ideas about minority cultural construction can be helpful in theorizing about the role of the Jewish reclamation of Jesus as part of the Jewish process of modernization and integration withing (secularized) Christian culture in Europe and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His notions of cultural hybridity and the importance of the "in-between spaces" in carrying the burden of the "meaning of culture" are relevant and applicable to this trend [i.e., the Jewish cultural renaissance]. For Bhabha "in-between spaces" refer to a sort of no-man's-land of cultural space, which cannot be exclusively claimed by either the majority or the minority culture. He argues that "these in-between spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself".*
[...] Crossing borders and breaking down boundaries was an integral part of the Jewish intellectual's quest for a modern Jewish identity and culture, especially in literature and the arts, and embracing the figure of Jesus was part of this radical transformation of Jewish culture" (Introduction, pp. 2-6, 10-11).

"Before the Holocaust, most Jewish writers and artists had wielded the Jewish Jesus as their ultimate weapon against Christian anti-Semitism. However with the war and the genocide of European Jews, Jesus again became associated [...] with the persecutors [...].
To be sure, as Ziva Amishai-Maisels has shown,** the crucifixion and other Christian motifs still appealed to many Jewish visual artists, who attempted to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in their work, yet except from Chagall, none boldly depicted Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish figure. The crucifixion might have been an appropriate visual symbol of Jewish suffering, but for many Jews—artists and audience alike—Jesus was now beyond the pale; his old status as emblem of Christian anti-Semitism had resurfaced, and he was once again seen as treyf [Yiddish for non-kosher, impure, forbidden]" (Epilogue, p. 255).

* Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London, 1994, 1-2.
** Amishai-Maisels, "The Jewish Jesus," Jewish Art 9 (1982); Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, Oxford, 1993.


Hoffman's research ranges over Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian literature, as well as modern painting. He uses the insights of contemporary critical theory as he develops his analysis. The history of the relationship between modern Judaism and the figure of Jesus—especially the Passion and the Crucifixion—is long and complex. Hoffman provides a detailed examination of the topic and its development in early 20th-century Russian literature and art.

To hold that the so-called Jewish Jesus motif was a means for Jews to insert themselves at the very centre of Western civilization is to go too far. Chagall painted Jesus as a universal symbol, that's all. A Jew including the image of Jesus in his paintings was not just an avant-garde artist, but an open-minded person.

The notion that Jewish art including Jesus is some sort of convenient shortcut to full integration is simply a mirage. History shows precisely the opposite. One only has to consider what happened to the European Jewry since the late nineteenth century onwards. In addition, Chagall painted not only Jesus, he also represented the rabbis, the shabbat, and other Jewish traditions. Integration: in 1937, one of Chagall's well-known rabbis was shown in Europe as a masterpiece of "degenerate art" (Entartete Kunst). The painter had to leave the Old Continent to save his life and artwork.

One supposes that Judaism was not so alien in Europe as some writers argue today. On the other hand, the Jews were certainly not the only historical victims in Europe. Yet, their condition was always different from that of any other European minority. Significantly, the "Old Testament" has always been of crucial importance concerning the Gospel; Christianity understands the "New Testament" as the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies.

Why some of the Jews, say, the Essens of Qumran (who called themselves "Sons of the Light") kept being Jewish even after Jesus's death remains always a mystery. Anyhow, the point is that avant-garde Jewish artists were creating a link to strenghten their ties with modern European culture. In this sense, appropriate is Hoffman's use of the expression transformative integration (rather than assimilation). Nevertheless, European Jews weren't conveniently "reclaiming" Jesus. They were just trying to find a common ground between Judaism and Christianity. And they did so through the figure of Jesus, who not accidentally had something to do with both. In their work they indeed acknowledged Jesus as an exemplar rabbi, teacher and model.

Hoffman writes of a "weapon," but the truth is that avant-garde Jews simply identified their condition with that of Jesus, who they indeed saw as an archetypal figure of suffering and victim of injustice, precisely as they were.

The re-emergence of a potent weapon?

A not-at-all modern yet very 21st-century Jewish Jesus: More kosher than ever?
Ask the Rabbi.



Notre Dame de Paris: Synagoga (détail), aussi connue comme "la Synagogue aveugle"

"Dès le XIIe siècle, la Synagogue est représentée les yeux bandés, signe de son refus d’admettre la divinité du Christ. On la montre le plus souvent perdant sa couronne, tenant une lance ou une bannière brisée, dressée au-dessus de la gueule de l’enfer où s’engouffre un groupe de juifs. Lui faisant pendant se dresse l’Eglise triomphante. Ecclesia et Synagoga figuraient côte à côte aux proches des cathédrales, gigantesques livres d’images sculptés pour l’édification des fidèles."

Béatrice Philippe, Être juif dans la société française du Moyen Âge à nos jours, [Paris]: Éditions Montalba, 1979, p. 39

Le diable aveuglant des Juifs
Breviari d’Amor de Matfré Ermengaud de Bézies, c. 1488

La Synagogue aux yeux bandés
Portail de l'Horloge, Cathédrale de Strasbourg

En construisant la ruine: Fabrication de Synagoga ou la Synagogue aux yeux voilés, aveugle et vaincue
Moritz von Schwind, Sabina von Steinbach (Die Bildhauere​i: Sabina von Steinbach an der Figur der "Synagoge" für das Straßburge​r Münster arbeitend), 1844.

Philippe Joutard, L'Église triomphante et la Synagogue voilée, L'Histoire n°269, Dossier "L'antisémitisme", 25.09.2002, p. 38: "L'art occidental a souvent représenté l'aveuglement des Juifs face au christianisme."

Pour la polémique: la Synagogue aux yeux voilés et l'Église triomphante, Rationale divinorum officiorum (Doctrinal traduit en français par Jean Golem sur l'ordre de Charles V), Paris, vers 1380-1390. BNF, Manuscrits, français 176, f. 1

"Soucieux de dégager la nouveauté de son message, le christianisme a souvent été tenté de considérer, à travers l'interprétation des Pères de l'Église, que le "Nouveau Testament" rendait caduc l'"Ancien" ou que, à tout le moins, celui-ci ne pouvait se lire qu'à la lumière du nouvel éclairage apporté par Jésus venu révéler au grand jour ce qui était resté jusque-là dissimulé sous le discours de l'énigme.
La miniature de ce doctrinal utilisant un vocabulaire familier aux artistes des cathédrales médiévales en est une illustration frappante : à gauche, la Synagogue, baissant la tête, les yeux voilés par un bandeau, tenant de la main gauche les tables d'une Loi mosaïque prête à tomber au sol, semble bien, dans l'hésitation de sa posture et l'extrême simplicité de sa robe d'un mauve éteint, sur le point de céder la place à l'Église couronnée et nimbée qui lève son visage avec assurance, portant très haut dans sa main gauche la croix du Christ comme un étendard, et dans sa main droite le ciboire contenant le sang du Christ. L'éclat de ses vêtements, la fierté de sa posture solidement adossée au bord de l'image trahissent l'avantage qui lui est ici ostensiblement accordé" (Expo-BnF : Livres de Parole).

"La Synagogue aveugle, c'est avant tout la Synagogue qu'on a aveuglée, qu'on montre aveugle."

André Benheïm, "La Synagogue perdue," dans Albert Cohen dans son siècle: actes du colloque international de Cerisy-la-Salle, [Septembre 2003], ed. Alain Schaffner et Philippe Zard, Paris: Éditions Le Manuscrit, 2005, p. 29).


The Fallen Woman

by Monika Winiarczyk, Art Historian

The Fallen Woman: Shifting Perceptions of Synagoga

Synagoga and Ecclesia first appeared in the ninth century in Northern France and Southern Germany, where they were intended as representations of the Old and New Testament and personifications of Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Through their depiction in carved ivory panels, to stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations, the figures developed a distinct iconographical tradition, which featured prominently in the pictorial arts as well as contemporary drama.[1] They were also key figures in Christian theology in commentary, exegesis, and sermons. For example, Ecclesia and Synagoga were the main actors in Pseudo-Augustine’s sixth century Sermo Contra Paganos, Judaeos et Arianos, (Sermon Against Pagans, Jews and Heretics) as well as central figures in the twelfth- century exegetical sermons of the French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux.[2] The ubiquitous presence of the figures in medieval art and literature makes it almost impossible to engage in medieval studies without coming across Synagoga and Ecclesia.[3]

Any discussion of the figures must begin with a description of Synagoga and Ecclesia’s traditional iconography. In order to do so, it is perhaps best to turn to, what is acknowledged as one of the most celebrated examples of the motif; the south facade of Strasbourg Cathedral.[4]

On the right of the facade is the regal Ecclesia. Adopting a powerful stance, her legs are set wide apart as she throws her shoulders back in an upright posture. The heavy drapery of her robe gathers in orderly folds at her feet. She is the image of might and stability. Every movement of her body appears decisive and controlled as she tightly grips a cross in her hand. A crown sits firmly on top of her head and identifies Ecclesia as a ruling Queen. No aspect of Ecclesia’s appearance communicates inertia, uncertainty or any other weakness. Her power and strength are absolute.

Synagoga, c. 1230. Strasbourg cathedral, France

Standing across from Ecclesia, to the left of Solomon, is the figure of Synagoga. Although her beauty matches that of Ecclesia, unlike her counterpart Synagoga is the image of weakness and frailty. Her stance is weak and she is hunched over. Her movements are hectic and volatile as she appears to be slipping out of the design, with her elbows protruding beyond the facade. The drapery of her robe falls in a muddled pile at her feet giving the impression that she may trip over it. Her frailty is further emphasised by the blindfold tightly wrapped around her eyes which represents the Jews inability to see Christ as their true Messiah. In her hand she holds the tablets of the law which are slipping from her grasp and tangled up within the holds of her robe. These symbolise the Jewish attachment to the now obsolete Old Law. Like the broken staff in her hand, Synagoga looks damaged and defeated. She is isolated and turns away from the rest of the facade. Her only symbol of power is a crown located at her feet which suggests Synagoga is the overthrown Queen who was once powerful but whose time has now passed.[5] Her delicate but defeated form led Hans Reinhardt to describe her as a ‘slender reed being shaken by the wind;’ beautiful, fragile and destined for destruction.[6] From the eleventh through to the fifteenth century the theme of victory and subordination is one of the most common attributes of the motif of Ecclesia and Synagoga.[7] This opposition of two female figures, embodying such different concepts creates a powerfully dramatic and enigmatic image which suggests a deeper meaning and demands to be noticed and examined.

Synagoga’s mystique is further emphasised when studied alongside other medieval Christian representations of the Jew. In medieval politics of representation the Christian was virtuous and beautiful; the non-Christian was not. In traditional iconography the Jew is depicted as an unattractive and malicious male. An example of this can be seen in the Cistercian Psalter Crucifixion. In this illumination the Jews are represented as torturing Christ and participating in the crucifixion. The Jews are shown literally tying Christ to the cross. This reflects the medieval theological belief which identified the Jews as directly responsible for Christ’s death.[8] More importantly the three Jews are depicted as men, wearing stereotypical Jewish hats, bearded with crooked noses. Unlike the submissive, beautiful and female Synagoga the stereotypical medieval Jew is an aggressive male.

In light of her omnipresence and unique appearance it is not surprising that since the late nineteenth century Synagoga’s strikingly frail but beautiful appearance has inspired a wealth of literature and numerous interpretations.[9] The following discussion aims to examine the historiography of Synagoga, and based on the evolution of current research; determine the possible direction of future studies.

One of the earliest studies of Synagoga was carried out in 1894 by Paul Weber. His fundamental text Geistliches Schauspiel und kirchliche Kunst (Religious Drama and Church Art) studied the relationship between pictorial representations of Synagoga and her depiction in medieval drama.[10] Weber’s study viewed the figure as the embodiment of medieval anti-Semitism. He concluded that despite the figure’s beautiful appearance, like the deformed male Jew of Christian art, Synagoga condemned medieval Jews. Therefore initially the figure was seen as a further manifestation of Christian anti-Semitism as reflected in the writings of the Church fathers such as John Chrysostom who condemned the Jews and accused them of immorality and madness.[11]

This negative interpretation of Synagoga was questioned by Wolfgang Seiferth. His text, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, reached a more ambiguous conclusion.[12] Studying the development of the iconography of Synagoga from the ninth through to the fifteenth century he concluded that due to the allegorical nature of the figure it denies any concrete definition. Seiferth traced the use of the female allegories or personification to Classical Antiquity when female allegories would often be used within a historical context to represent ideas which they did not literally represent.[13] Using the example of the two female personifications of conquered lands depicted on the amour of the statue of Augustus at Prima Porta, Seiferth shows how multifaceted an allegory could be. Removed from this context the two female figures could represent anything. The meaning of the personification is volatile and strictly dependant on the context in which they appear.

This interpretation draws from the classical understanding of the function of the personification as presented by Morton Bloomfield. He stated that the connotations of a personification are not determined by what it represents but the predicates that are attached to it.[14] As such Seiferth presents Synagoga as a far more complex figure which reflected the dual nature of Judaism in medieval Christian theology.[15] While the Jews were accused of deicide and condemned they were also acknowledged as God’s first chosen people. This can be seen in the writings of the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux who adopting the fourth century ideology of St Augustine stated, ‘slay them not least my people forget.’[16] He believed that Jews should be protected as they are living relics of the Old Testament, and their conversion is a condition of the second coming of Christ. Thus he presented the Jews as playing a vital role in the past and future of Christian salvation history. This sentiment can also be seen in the writing of Pope Innocent III. In 1199 he wrote:

"Although in many ways the disbelief of the Jews must be reproved, since nevertheless through them our own faith is truly proved, they must not be oppressed grievously by the faithful as the prophet says: ‘Do not slay them, lest these be forgetful of Thy Law, as if he were saying more openly: ‘Do not wipe out the Jews completely, lest perhaps Christians might be able to forget Thy Law, which the former, although not understanding it, present in their books to those who do understand it."[17]

For Seiferth, Synagoga’s allegorical nature could represent the various incarnation of the Jew in Christian theology. Therefore rather than granting the figure any fixed meaning he believed that the connotations of the figure were directly related on the specific circumstances of her representation. A similar conclusion was reached by Bernhard Blumenkranz who believed that Synagoga could both condemn the Jews and communicate their position within Christianity. However Blumenkranz believed that the downtrodden appearance of Synagoga against the victorious Ecclesia always communicated a sense of subordination and represented Judaism as inferior to Christianity.

Ruth Mellinkoff’s study of medieval iconography supported this conclusion stating that the figures had a firmly established iconographical tradition which was intended on communicating the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Synagoga’s traditional attributes of a blindfold, slipping tablets of the law and a broken banner all communicate weakness which was emphasised by the contrast with Ecclesia who’s attributes of a crown and upturned chalice are indicative of power. [18]

These studies which have focused on tracing the iconography of Ecclesia and Synagoga throughout their iconographical history have all come to conclude that the figure is a representation of the Christian theological conception of the Jew; a conception which at times appears to be almost schizophrenic. However regardless of whether the figure is a positive or negative representation of Judaism all these studies agree that the only constant attribute of Synagoga is her defeat and dissolution.

Since the middle of the twentieth century several scholars have focused on specific depictions of Synagoga in order to examine the impact a specific context could have on the figure’s reception. Most of these studies have centred on the previously described Strasbourg south facade. The earliest of these studies were carried out by Adolf Weiss, Adalbert Erler and Otto von Simson.[19] All three of their studies identified the square in front of the facade as the seat of local justice and the site of the local municipal courts. Taking into account this legal context they come to the conclusion that the eschatological theme and heavenly judgement depicted on the south facade, would be seen by medieval audiences as a reflection of the earthly judgement of medieval legal practices.[20] Ecclesia and Synagoga mirror the innocent and the guilty parties of the medieval courts while their presence in the divine sphere of the facade can be interpreted as a depiction of the saved and the damned; the innocent and the guilty parties in God’s final judgement.[21] This conclusion was confirmed by Bernard Nicolai in his 2002 article, "Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach: The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal."[22] In view of the function of the facade these studies concluded that within the right context Synagoga and Ecclesia could surpass their traditional roles as the personifications of Judaism and Christianity and depict the two spectrums of Christian morality; the sinful and the righteous; the damned and the saved; the guilty and the innocent.

Reviewing the landscape of Synagoga’s historiography one can see that all these studies have interpreted the figure in relation to medieval theology. Even those studies which have suggested that Synagoga can embody more than the Christian theological conception of the Jew still relate Synagoga to the theological concepts of Christian salvation history and the consequences of moral and immoral behaviour. However theological interpretations of the subject would only be accessible to educated audiences who had enough of an understanding of contemporary theology to be able to apply them to the beautiful downtrodden figure of Synagoga. Taking in to consideration the allegorical nature of the figure and the notion that not all medieval spectators would look upon Synagoga as an abstraction of complex theological ideas, two recent studies have examined the figure from a more secular perspective.

The first of these studies was carried out by Sara Lipton.[23] In her article, The Temple is My Body: Gender, Carnality, and Synagoga in the Bible Moralisée, Sara Lipton presented a new reading of the figure of Synagoga. As the personification of the worldly and flesh oriented Old (Jewish) Law, Lipton presents Synagoga as a representation of the material world and examines the connotations communicated by her figure in the thirteenth century, Bible Moralisée which were illustrated Bibles, accompanied by an illustrated commentary.[24] These Bibles took the form of a novel in order to present sacred texts and were aimed at a courtly audience.[25] Instead of examining Synagoga in terms of her opposition with Ecclesia, Lipton examines the figure in relation to the medieval rhetoric of gender and through Synagoga’s relationship with male figures in the manuscript. In the commentary to several biblical passages Synagoga takes on various female stereotypes such as the Disobedient Wife; the Seductress; the mourning Mother and the naive Daughter and the resentful sister. Depending on which of these roles Synagoga embodied, the figure altered from virtuous to sinful; from feminine to masculine to androgynous; from threatening to submissive and was transformed back again.

From this analysis the article comes to the conclusion that Synagoga as a representation of the material does not condemn the body or earthly world but rather reinforces its importance and value. This study re-evaluates the previously held belief that the Middle Ages viewed the material and spiritual world as binary opposites with the former being seen as bad and the later as good.

Nowhere in the text is Synagoga condemned or permanently ostracised. Throughout the commentary and the accompanying imagery Synagoga is punished, buried, purged but ultimately redeemed. Synagoga and her corporeal nature are presented not as an antithesis to Christianity but as an integral part of the Christian identity; like women are an essential component of society. Sara Lipton believes that this conclusion is partially dictated by the nature of the Bible Moralisée and its intended audience. As luxurious material goods which were intended to be enjoyed for their material qualities, the Bible Moralisée in which Synagoga appears praises the physical wealth which formed an integral and growing part of courtly life. Focusing on Synagoga’s femininity Lipton presents the argument that Synagoga’s female body, can in specific circumstances, be a representation of the complex relationship between medieval Christianity and material wealth.

Synagoga’s female body was also the focus of Nina Rowe’s recent studies. Began in a 2008 paper, Idealization and Subjection at the south Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral, and expanded upon in her book The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century Rowe focuses on the appearance on Synagoga on cathedral facades, across central Europe, in the thirteenth century.[26] Examining the opposition of the weak and beautiful Synagoga against the victorious and mighty Ecclesia, Rowe related the figure to contemporary politics and the social status of medieval Jews. She believes that the figures appearance communicated the imperial position towards the Jews. Under royal decree Jews were protected as their economic activity was vital to the wealth of the kingdom. However Jews were considered to be the king’s property. Attacking a Jew was viewed as a similar offence to attacking the King’s horse. Through interpretations of the Strasbourg, Bamberg and Reims Cathedral facades, Rowe concludes that Synagoga communicated the ideal identity and social position of the Jew in thirteenth century Christian Europe;

"she is a servile yet integral member of the Christian milieu. Her beauty marks her as an insider within the ideal Christian system. Her decrepitude ensures her submission… she conveys the virtue of a Judaism that maintains a docile presence within the Christian domain."[27]

This study does not present Synagoga as a representation of the theological Jew but rather the medieval Jew; the Jew who would cross the town square, under Ecclesia’s watchful gaze and nod a greeting to his Christian neighbour. Like Lipton related Synagoga to medieval attitudes towards the material world, Rowe interprets the figure in relation to the social position of the Jews in the thirteenth century.

These two studies can be viewed as an indication of the future historiography surrounding Synagoga. Having considered Synagoga’s relationship to Christian theology over the past century, it is now time to examine the figure in relation to the culture which created her. As Rowe stated, “Synagoga is an abstraction.”[28] She is a creation of the medieval culture. As such Synagoga needs to be understood with respect to medieval social, religious and political ideas and comprehension of the world.



[1] Wolfgang S. Seiferth, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, trans. by Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970), p.108; for example of drama see: John Wright, trans., Play of Antichrist (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1967).

[2] St Augustine, Sermo contra judaeos, paganos, et Arianos de Symbolo, Migne, P.L. XLII, 1117-30 and Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum’ 14.2.4 in Opera, ed. by Jean Leclercq et al. (Rome, 1957-77); Migne, Patrologia Latina 42, 1115-1139.

[3] Nina Rowe, "Rethinking Ecclesia and Synagoga in the Thirteenth Century," Hourihane, Colum, (ed.), Gothic Art & Thought in the Later Medieval Period: Essays in Honour of Willibald Sauerlander, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) p.265

[4] Nina Rowe, "Idealization and Subjection at the south Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral" in Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. by Mitchell B. Merback (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p.179 and footnote 13 for list of example of Synagoga’s appearances on Cathedrals.

[5] This crown is no longer visible but the image shows a sixteenth century engraving which shows that originally there was a crown located at Synagoga’s feet. [Cf. Isaac Brunn, Le portail sud de la cathédrale, gravure sur cuivre, 1617; Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, Strasbourg. Joconde. Sculptures médiévales de la cathédrale de Strasbourg: Le transept sud - "Entre 1225 et 1235, un atelier extraordinairement novateur venu de régions plus occidentales conçoit les parties supérieures du croisillon sud et le Pilier des Anges, puis les tympans des deux portails sud et le couple de l'Eglise et de la Synagogue placé de part et d'autre de ces portails. Ces deux figures de femmes, allégories des religions chrétienne et judaïque, comptent parmi les plus célèbres chefs-d'œuvre de l'art occidental du Moyen Age.
La Synagogue vaincue et l'Eglise triomphante appartiennent à une symbolique traditionnelle dont les représentations se multiplient à partir du milieu du 13e siècle.
A gauche, l'Eglise victorieuse et couronnée, tenant dans ses mains le calice et la bannière que surmonte la croix, considère avec assurance la Synagogue. Celle-ci, qui tient une lance brisée, détourne sa tête aux yeux bandés, expression de son refus de reconnaître dans le Christ le Messie attendu. Elle paraît laisser tomber les tables de la Loi, symbole de l'Ancien Testament dépassé. Ces sculptures encadraient à l'origine une figure du roi Salomon placé entre les deux portails, assis sur un trône et tenant une épée, figure aujourd'hui disparue. Selon certaines hypothèses, la clef du rapprochement de ces trois personnages se trouverait dans les interprétations faites au 12e siècle du fameux livre saint le "Cantique des Cantiques", qui les présentent comme les trois personnages principaux des événements de la fin des temps."
See also Emmanuel Noussis, L'Histoire des Arts: Sculptures de la cathédrale de Strasbourg, 26.9.2012].

[6] Hans Reinhardt, La Cathedrale De Strasbourg (Arthaud: Paris, 1972), p.108: Reinhardt’s description of Strasbourg Synagoga which conveys the weakness and beauty of the figure.

[7] Nina Rowe 2008 p.179 and footnote 13 for list of example of Synagoga’s appearances on Cathedrals.

[8] Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) p.107

[9] See: Rowe 2008; Seiferth 1970; Nina Rowe, The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Bernd Nicolai, ‘Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,’ Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2002), p. 111-128; Otto Von Simson, ‘Le Programme Sculptural du Transept Meridonal de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg,’ Bulletin de la Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Vol. 10, 1972, p.33-50 and Adolf Weis, ‘Die “Synagoge” am Südquerhaus zu Straßburg,’ Das Münster, Nr. 1 (1947), p.65-80; Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages (Oxford : University of California Press, 1993); Annette Weber, ‘Glaube und Wissen-Ecclesia et Synagoga,’ in Wissenspopularisierung: Konzepte der Wissensverbreitung im Wandel, ed. by Carsten Kretschmann (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2003); Herbert Jochum, Ecclesia und Synagoga: Das Judentum in der Christlichen Kunst: Austellungskatalog (Saarbrücken: Museum, 1993); Cohen, E., ‘The Controversy Between Church and Synagoga in some of Bosch’s Paintings,’ Studia Rosenthaliana, Vol.18 (1984), p.1-11; Bernhard Blumenkranz, ‘Geographie historique d’un theme de l’iconographic religieuse: Les Representations de Synagoga en France,’ in Melanges offerts a Rene Crozet, ed. by P. Gallais and Y.J. Rious, 2 vols. (Poiteres: Societe d’Etudes Medievales, 1966), II, p. 1142-57; for discussion of Jews in medieval theology see Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (London: University of California Press, 1999), for example p.134.

[10] Paul Weber, Geistliches Schauspiel und kirchliche Kunst in ihrem Verhaltnis erlautert an einer Ikonographie der Kirche und Synagogue: Eine kunsthistorische Studie (Stuttgart; Ebner & Seubert, 1894)

[11] John Chrysostom, Logoi kata Ioudaion I.6, Patrologia Graeca 48:852

[12] See: Seiferth 1970

[13] James J. Paxson, ‘Personification’s Gender,’ Rhetorica, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), p.153.

[14] Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘A Grammatical Approach to Personification Allegory,’ Modern Philology, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Feb., 1963), p.165.

[15] For discussion of Jews in medieval theology see Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (London: University of California Press, 1999)

[16] Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.37

[17] Innocent III, “Licet perfidia Iudeorum sit multipliciter improbanda, quia tamen per eos fides nostra veraciter comprobatur, non sunt a fidelibus graviter opprimendi, dicente propheta: ne occideris eos ne quando obliviscantur legis tue, ac si diceretur appertius, ne deleveris omnino Iudeos, ne forte Christiani legis tue valeant oblivisci, quam ipsi non intelligentes, in libris suis intelligentibus representant:” Constitutio pro Judaeis, Rome, 15 September 1199, Apostolic See, ed. Simsonsohn, 1:74-75, #71

[18] Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, vol. 1 (Oxford : University of California Press, 1993), p.49.

[19] see: Otto Von Simson, ‘Le Programme Sculptural du Transept Meridonal de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg,’ Bulletin de la Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Vol. 10 (1972), pp.33-50; Adolf Weis, ‘Die ‘Synagoge’ am Südquerhaus zu Straßburg,’ Das Münster, Nr. 1 (1947), pp. 65-80; Erler, Adalbert, Das Strassburger Münster im Rechtsleben des Mittelalters (Frankfurt: V. Klostermann, 1954)

[20] Bernd Nicolai, ‘Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,’ Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2002), pp. 111-128, footnote:70.

[21] Simson 1972 p.37

[22] Nicolai 2002 p.111-128

[23] Sara Lipton, "The Temple is my Body: Gender, Carnality, and Synagoga in the Bible Moralisee" in Frojmovic, Eva, ed., Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other Visual Representation and Jewish-Christian Dynamics in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

[24] Sara Lipton, Images of Intolerance: The Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible Moralisée (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p.1; see also John Lowden, The Making of the Bibles Moralisées: The Manuscripts, Vol.1 (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2000).

[25] Gerald B. Guest, "Picturing Women in the First Bible Moralisée," in Insights and Interpretations: Studies in Celebration of the Eighty-Fifth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art, ed. by Colum Hourihane, (Princeton: Princton University Press, 2002), p.106.

[26] Rowe 2008; 2011

[27] Rowe 2008 p.197

[28] ibid p.197

Monika Winiarczyk, "The Fallen Woman: Shifting Perceptions of Synagoga," abstract from a paper delivered at the 2nd International Students' Workshop, Central European Jewish Studies: The Students' Voice, October 2011.


Ecclesia et Synagoga
vitrales semicirculares
Vitrail de la rédemption, siglo XII
Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Châlons, Marne, France