Setting the Record Straight about Jews and Usury in the Middle Ages

In her study The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender (2017–18), Julie Mell argues that usury was not nearly so prevalent as an occupation among the Jews of medieval Western Europe as historians have generally assumed—and certainly nowhere as prevalent as popular stereotype would have it. Mell argues, inter alia, that many scholars have made the mistake of taking the habits of a small number of wealthy Jews—who often did make their fortunes from moneylending—as representative of Jewish communities as a whole.

Pinchas Roth takes Mell to task for not paying more attention to the information found in rabbinic literature, even if this literature too skews attention toward the same Jewish elite. Roth takes 12th- and 13th-century England as a prime example, since it is among the areas on which Mell focuses:

[S]everal of the rabbinic leaders whose writings have been preserved were themselves members of the ultra-rich class of Jews identified by Mell. The most prominent examples are Benjamin of Cambridge, whose name appears numerous times in the Tosafot [talmudic commentary] literature of medieval France and also at the top of the list of Jewish taxpayers for the Northampton Donum of 1194, and Elijah Menaḥem of London, the most prolific Jewish writer of medieval England and one of its wealthiest men. Thus, rabbinic literature from medieval England was written by a small elite, perhaps even more exclusive than the rabbinic elites of other European communities during the Middle Ages.

At the same time, if magnates such as these were involved in teaching boys in the yeshivah, adjudicating cases of civil and family law among Jews, and offering solutions to the problems of ritual law brought to them by Jewish laypeople, they cannot have been as isolated from the majority of the Jewish community as their disproportionate wealth might lead us to believe.

For example, Elijah Menaḥem of London (d. 1287) and his father Moses took up the question of what legal responsibility Jewish peddlers held for the goods they were selling. . . . In the course of his intricate response, Elijah Menahem suggested that during the time of the Talmud, all artisans were also peddlers who intended to sell their own wares. Perhaps this implies that in 13th-century England Jewish occupations were more distinct, and that Jewish artisans often sold their products wholesale to distributers.

These responsa help confirm Mell’s claim that Jews in medieval England engaged in a variety of economic pursuits beyond moneylending. . . . Commercial arrangements like those discussed in these responsa often generated no official documentation, [and thus do not show up in the Latin records on which Mell and other historians rely], since they were small-scale ventures that involved neither real estate nor Christians.

Read more at Marginalia

More about: British Jewry, Halakhah, Jewish history, Middle Ages, Moneylending

While Israel Is Distracted on Two Fronts, Iran Is on the Verge of Building Nuclear Weapons

Iran recently announced its plans to install over 1,000 new advanced centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility. Once they are up and running, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses, Fordow will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for three nuclear bombs in a mere ten days. The U.S. has remained indifferent. Jacob Nagel writes:

For more than two decades, Iran has continued its efforts to enhance its nuclear-weapons capability—mainly by enriching uranium—causing Israel and the world to concentrate on the fissile material. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has a huge stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, as well as more enriched to 20 percent, and the IAEA board of governors adopted the E3 (France, Germany, UK) proposed resolution to censure Iran for the violations and lack of cooperation with the agency. The Biden administration tried to block it, but joined the resolution when it understood its efforts to block it had failed.

To clarify, enrichment of uranium above 20 percent is unnecessary for most civilian purposes, and transforming 20-percent-enriched uranium to the 90-percent-enriched product necessary for producing weapons is a relatively small step. Washington’s reluctance even to express concern about this development appears to stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of President Obama’s nuclear policy. Worse, writes Nagel, it is turning a blind eye to efforts at weaponization. But Israel has no such luxury:

Israel must adopt a totally new approach, concentrating mainly on two main efforts: [halting] Iran’s weaponization actions and weakening the regime hoping it will lead to its replacement. Israel should continue the fight against Iran’s enrichment facilities (especially against the new deep underground facility being built near Natanz) and uranium stockpiles, but it should not be the only goal, and for sure not the priority.

The biggest danger threatening Israel’s existence remains the nuclear program. It would be better to confront this threat with Washington, but Israel also must be fully prepared to do it alone.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy