Martin Przybilski (Trier/Bonn): Law and Polemics. Religious Demarcation and Cultural Contact Between Jews and Christians


In stark contrast to Christianity, but quite parallel to Islam, normative Judaism defines itself since Antiquity as an intrinsically legal ritual community that is subservient to a specific, divinely revealed and legitimized nomos. The process of discussing and codifying religious legal traditions, of what is called in Hebrew halachah, is perceived to be a continual advancement of the so-called ‘oral law’ (torah she-be’al peh). The oral law finally received its textualization during the Late Antiquity in the form of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, yet the process of discussing halachah did not end with it being put in written form. The last-mentioned text collection, the Talmud Bavli, quite soon achieved binding validity within the confines of Jewish tradition because, in contrast to the older Talmud Yerushalmi, it reflected the diasporic existence as a formative experience of the majority of the Jewish people at least since the second century of the Common Era.

Since being Jewish as a diasporic experience always included one’s own existence as an interdependent category in relation to non-Jewish groups, large parts of the Talmudic and post-Talmudic legal discussion are dedicated to mark the demarcation between one’s own and the others. Quite essentially the means of rhetorical polemics are used to draw these demarcation lines as clearly as possible. The numerous different groups that Judaism encountered during its historical movements within the diasporic space and within the centuries of its purely diasporic existence were constantly brought into line, as it were, with the Talmudic ‘archetype’ of ‘the Other’ through the reception by normative sources. This applies particularly to the centuries of the Middle Ages and Early Modern times which had a lasting influence on the so-called Ashkenazi Judaism of Central Europe: the historical reality of legal-social marginalization and oppression by a non-Jewish majority culture was both recognized on the Jewish side and absorbed by recourse to their own legal tradition. In order to be able to explain their own historical present the rabbinic authorities of Ashkenazi Judaism again resorted to the patterns of interpretation of the Babylonian Talmud developed in Late Antiquity. And since the Talmudic discussion about the cultic-legal implications of the existence of ‘the Other’ beyond the Jewish people had already preferred the means of polemical escalation, religious polemics also became a preferred form of discourse in dealing with Christianity and its adherents.

In my book project I take a closer look at some particularly effective examples of Jewish polemics against Gentiles from Late Antiquity to the Modern Period that may further our understanding of the interdependence of law and polemics and other related questions.

Prof. Dr. Martin Przybilski

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Dr. Martin Przybilski is a literary historian and cultural scientist. Following his studies in both Paderborn and Würzburg, he received his doctorate in 1999 with a piece on The Clan and the Sulee. Kinship as a Pattern for Interpretation in Wolframs von Eschenbach’s ‘Willehalm.’ He subsequently worked as a freelance researcher at the Jewish Culture Museum Veitshöchheim’s Genisa Project and as a research associate at the University of Leipzig. Martin Przybilski also lectured on Older German Philology and Yiddish Studies at the University of Würzburg. From 2001 to 2003, he received a stipend for his habilitation from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). He then acted as a junior professor for Older German Philology at the University of Trier, where he was offered a permanent professorship for Medieval Literature in 2009. From 2009 to 2015, he additionally served as Managing Director of Trier’s History and Cultural Sciences Research Center (HKFZ). Furthermore, from 2015 to 2019, he was the University of Trier’s Vice President for Studies, Teaching, and Further Education.

Since October 2019, Prof. Dr. Martin Przybilski is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture” in Bonn.