Academic Year 2010-2011
Ephraim Shoham-Steiner graduated Hebrew University in Jerusalem (2002). He teaches Medieval Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Specializing in Medieval Jewish History his research focuses on the social and intellectual aspects of Jewish history with a special interest in social information that can be extracted from medieval rabbinic source material. His recent book, "Involuntary Marginal’s – Lepers Madman and the Physically Impaired in Medieval European Jewish Communities" (Zalman Shazar Center & Israeli Historical Society – Jerusalem 2008-Hebrew) explores the lives of individuals in medieval European Jewish communities that due to mental or physical impairments found themselves on the margins of society. The book discusses the social attitudes towards these men and woman as well as the social significance of attitudes and their meaning within these communities. Other areas of interest are the social significance of religious customs and Jewish Christian relations in medieval Europe.
webpage : www.bgu.ac.il/~shohamst
Jewish Underworld: Crime and Jewish Society in Medieval Europe
My research program will focus on the social legal and cultural history of medieval European Jewry. I wish to explore the relationship between the center and the margins of medieval European Jewish society and to continue to scrutinize it against the evident tension between minority and majority societies. Having already looked at the physically and mentally challenged, I wish to use the tools I have developed and implemented in my primary research and apply them to other groups in medieval European Jewish society that to date have received only minimal scholarly treatment. One such marginal group is Jewish criminals. Societies are always ridden to a certain extent by crime and medieval European Jewish society is no exception. Very little research has been conducted on this topic, mainly due to an apologetic agenda. Judging by a preliminary survey I have conducted on the rabbinic legal material, (especially response literature and halakhic rulings) that had served me well in my first project, it seems there is an ample body of material that can be analyzed and probed in order to create a lucid and multi-dimensional picture of the whereabouts of the Jewish underworld in medieval Europe and the way it was understood by its contemporaries (Jews and non-Jews alike).
One of the first methodological issues I will be exploring, alongside a systematic attempt to accumulate the primary source data, is the question of definition. There are behavioral modes that were considered criminal by legal authorities in historical societies as well as in our own. Among them are obvious criminal activities like murder, theft, violent extortion, armed robbery and the use of force and violence in an unauthorized manner. Yet one must become as intimate as possible with a past society’s mentality mindset and legal philosophy in order to understand what in their minds was considered criminal. This becomes even more complicated when this past society is a minority society constantly aware of its image as perceived by the majority. In light of recent developments in the fields of the humanities and the social sciences as well as in legal thought, issues of power structure, gender, group identity and collective memory will guide the inquiry. Furthermore, I believe that conducting such research and building a data base of cases to be analyzed, may lead us to very interesting and unexpected conclusions. By examining the margins of society, one arrives not only at a more nuanced understanding of the cohesive forces within a given society, but we may challenge existing myths and misconceptions concerning these forces and arrive at new conclusions.