Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza

Course No. 4652
Professor David B. Ruderman, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 4652
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Course Overview

What is it like to practice your faith in an environment dominated by another? To evolve as a people when all of the world around you moves to religious and cultural rhythms very different from your own? To maintain your unity as a living community—and always to be aware of that sense of community—even when your numbers have been scattered across many lands, without a common government, a common country, or even a common language?

Moreover, how might these circumstances affect not only your own history, but also the history of those other cultures through which you move? What might you take from them? What might you give them?

For 10 formative centuries, the answers to questions like these helped define a developing Judaism, whose history was forever affected by its encounters with the surrounding social, economic, political, and intellectual environments of both medieval Islam and Christendom. As a result of those encounters, new pathways of philosophical inquiry and religious spirituality would be formed. The Hebrew language would find new ways of artistic expression. And the role of Jews in the life of the surrounding community would be changed forever, sometimes even increased, as was the paradoxical case in Italy, by the very ghettoization meant to keep them isolated.

Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza presents an overview of Jewish culture and society from its rabbinic foundations in late antiquity until the dawn of modernity in the 17th century.

In so doing, it places a special focus on Judaism's creative encounter with Christianity and Islam, giving us a unique perspective from which to examine the three major Western religions as they interact over time, and noting especially their ability or inability to tolerate and even appreciate the "other," as viewed from the vantage point of the Jewish minority.

The course is taught by Professor David Ruderman, a widely honored scholar and teacher whose extraordinary array of achievements in illuminating Jewish history includes coauthorship of the two-volume Heritage: Civilization and the Jews Study Guide and Source Reader, created to accompany the landmark Public Broadcasting System series, and whose last appearance for The Teaching Company was leading an exploration of Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century.

An In-Depth Look at the Roots of Judaic Life and Thought

This time around, Professor Ruderman lets you experience the evolution of all of Jewish life during a critical period that also featured the emergence of two distinct intellectual threads: the rise of medieval Jewish philosophy and the appearance of Jewish mysticism and piety as the faith's primary expressions of religiosity.

His lectures presuppose no previous familiarity with Jewish, Islamic, or Christian history, and reflect a commitment to establishing always the historical context within which the events he is describing can be understood. Even when he material can threaten to be philosophically complex—as in his examination of the two approaches to interpreting the mystical and esoteric traditions of the Kabbalah, or of the intellectual provocation and enduring controversy posed by the towering writings of Moses Maimonides, 12th-century rabbi and philosopher—Professor Ruderman is always clear.

The result is an introduction that is both broad and detailed as it examines the leading Jewish communities of the period, their political and economic structures, the social relations between Jews and non-Jews, and Jewish cultural and intellectual achievements in a premodern world dominated by two other faiths.

"By embedding Jewish history within the larger social and cultural spheres of the Islamic and Christian worlds," notes Professor Ruderman, "the course ultimately raises the perplexing question of whether each of the three religious civilizations can learn to tolerate each other in our own chaotic and dangerous world, allowing each to live creative and dignified lives in the light of the mixed record of their past encounters and interactions."

To explore that question, Professor Ruderman first introduces the rabbinic civilization that defined Judaism prior to the rise of Islam and then moves his focus to the Jewish community of Islamic Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries.

This is a period for which a multitude of source materials have enabled historians to compile a rich profile of the political, social, and intellectual life of the Jewish community in and out of the city, especially as regards the community's relationships with the surrounding Islamic world. Professor Ruderman introduces you to the structures of both Jewish leadership and the forces of dissent before moving on to the Jewish experience in Spain and the political and cultural developments of what many have called that country's Golden Age, when a second center of Jewish life arose to parallel the establishment of a rival center of Islamic life in Cordova.

The height of that age, the 9th to the 11th centuries (the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492), saw an intellectual and cultural explosion unparalleled in Jewish history, including great works of philosophy and law and the emergence of secular as well as religious poetry written in Hebrew—a dramatic change from the exclusively liturgical poems that had been composed for centuries.

A Fresh Look at the End of Augustinian Tolerance and the Roots of Medieval Anti-Semitism

Professor Ruderman then moves on to consider the long relationship between Judaism and Christianity from the 1st century until the Middle Ages, exploring the paths of Jewish movement into Europe and the birth of what came to be known as Ashkenazic Jewry; the economic and social conditions under which they fashioned their lives; and the gradual rise of Christian hostility that eventually overwhelmed the established Church position of Augustinian tolerance.

That tolerance had been based on Augustine's position that the Jews had been decreed a life of misery for their rejection of Christ, and that their suffering as pariahs, unharmed and unconverted, would be testimony to that choice. But as the Crusades added the massacres of thousands of Jews—including many examples of deliberate martyrdom—to the Pope's call for a crusade against the Islamic "infidels," it was clear that a new aggressiveness against Jews and Judaism was coming to the fore, though the reasons were far more complex than mere religious hatred, as Professor Ruderman brings out.

These lectures span an enormous disciplinary range, moving back and forth among history, philosophy, religion, and art.

You'll learn the origins of the Talmudùthe body of rabbinic literature that is the primary text of Jewish study—and the enduring importance of Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, known to us as Rashi, to its discussion and understanding. You'll see how the Catholic Church, in elaborately contrived public "disputations" in which Jews were forced to participate, sought to lay an argumentative foundation for the increasing vilification of Judaism, even as violence against Jews was intensifying. And you'll see, as well, the resilience of the worldwide Jewish community as it adapts to ever-changing conditions in its efforts not only to survive, but to endure and prosper.

"The complex historical record we have tried to reconstruct in this course can hardly offer us a blueprint on how we might live together in our own time," notes Professor Ruderman. "But it at least offers the promise that coexistence is possible, that learning from each other is possible, and even appreciating each other is possible, as well.

"What it leaves us with ... is a sense of hope."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    On Studying Jewish History
    This opening lecture presents some preliminary observations about Jewish history—especially the landlessness that has applied for most of it—and the approach taken with material often laden with ideological presuppositions. x
  • 2
    The Rabbinic Legacy prior to Islam
    After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Babylonians—and the transfer of large numbers of Jews to Babylonia—the increasing complexity of life in the remaining community gives rise to new sectarian groups seeking to interpret Jewish life and promote their own claims to political and spiritual leadership. With the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, Jewish life is eventually consolidated by the rabbinic leadership both in Palestine and especially in Babylonia. x
  • 3
    The Beginnings of Jewish Life under Islam
    With the rise of Mohammed's new religion in the 7th century, the cultural environment under which Jews lived in the Middle East, in North Africa, and in the Iberian Peninsula was transformed. But it is clear that early Islam was in dialogue with the Jewish tradition from its very inception. x
  • 4
    Baghdad and the Gaonic Age
    This lecture examines the institutions that governed Jewish life in Baghdad, including the structure of—and threats to—rabbinic power and the complex system of Jewish communal autonomy existing outside of Baghdad and stretching throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. x
  • 5
    Saadia Gaon and His World
    This lecture begins our examination of the life and career of an intellectual giant whose meteoric rise to power—along with the internal struggles in which he became entangled—offers a rich portrait of the community as a whole. x
  • 6
    The Philosophy of Saadia Gaon
    In writing a Jewish philosophy, Saadia Gaon sought to defend the integrity of the Jewish faith not only against his Muslim colleagues but against those rationalists who questioned its veracity and against the Karaites who undermined the rabbinic underpinnings of the Jewish tradition. x
  • 7
    The Rise of the Spanish Jewish Community
    The Spanish Jewish community begins to assert its independence of the hegemony of Baghdadian Jewry. Writing in Hebrew verse to distinguish themselves from their Arab counterparts writing in Arabic, they initiate a remarkable efflorescence of literary creativity for several centuries. x
  • 8
    Judah ha-Levi’s Cultural Critique
    We look at the work and impact of Judah ha-Levi, one of the most talented of Spain's Hebrew poets, whose writings denounce both the excessive integration of Spanish cultural values into the heart of Judaism and the fusion of philosophy and Judaism—a religious experience beyond the reach of rational discourse. x
  • 9
    Moses Maimonides’s Philosophy of Judaism
    The lecture examines the work of Moses Maimonides, the dominant cultural figure within the Jewish world of his day and for centuries following his death, and whose masterpiece, The Guide to the Perplexed, originally composed in Arabic, achieved a revered status within the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian intellectual worlds. x
  • 10
    Jewish Beginnings in Christian Europe
    This lecture examines the emergence of Jews in Christian Europe, from their first appearances along trade routes to the beginnings of a system of communal authority and interconnectedness that transcended the local level, reflecting the emergence of what came to be called Ashkenazic Jewry. x
  • 11
    The Church and the Jews prior to 1096
    Beginning with the foundations of Church policy towards Jews in the Gospels themselves, this lecture looks at how Augustine's arguments shape the standard policy of the Church of antiquity and of the early Middle Ages. x
  • 12
    The Crusades and the Jews
    The fears of European Jews as to what the Crusades against Muslim "infidels" might mean to them prove accurate. Five thousand Jews die during the first crusade, some massacred by Christians; many take their own lives as martyrs. x
  • 13
    Patterns of Jewish Culture—Rabbinic Learning
    As Talmudic scholarship shifts geographically to northern France, the commentaries of a rabbi known to us as Rashi are an instant success and become indispensable guides to the study of biblical and rabbinic literature. x
  • 14
    Patterns of Jewish Culture—Kabbalah
    This lecture introduces us to Kabbalah, the collective traditions of Jewish mystical contemplation of the divine, and explores how its proliferation in the 13th century was, to a great extent, a negative reaction to the influence of rationalism and philosophy on the Jewish community. x
  • 15
    Patterns of Jewish Culture—German Pietism
    In Germany, a small community of Jews introduces a unique social philosophy and set of religious practices that come to be known as German pietism, whose colorful folklore and moral literature leave a lasting imprint on Jewish culture in later ages. x
  • 16
    The Medieval Jewish-Christian Debate
    The 12th and 13th centuries mark a re-evaluation of and departure from previous official Church policy regarding the Jews, with the prevalent Augustinian tolerance displaced by a more aggressive policy of vilifying Judaism and missionizing among Jews. x
  • 17
    Understanding Medieval Anti-Semitism
    Historians have offered a variety of explanations for the decline in medieval Jewish life from the 12th century on. We see that the reasons go well beyond Church doctrines alone, encompassing wider and deeper social, economic, and political issues. x
  • 18
    Notes on the Medieval Jewish Family
    This lecture places a sharper focus on a once-neglected area of medieval Jewish history: the study of Jewish women and their families, in relation to both male Jews and non-Jewish women. x
  • 19
    The Decline and Expulsion of Spanish Jewry
    Until the end of the 14th century, the Jewish community remained secure despite Christian hostility toward Jews elsewhere in Europe. All this changed in 1391, with a never-seen-before reaction by Jewish victims. x
  • 20
    Italian Jewry in the Early Modern Period
    By the end of the 15th century, new Jewish communities have emerged in Italy. Created in the context of significant social, political, and intellectual changes, they have a profound cultural impact—including the paradoxical results of ghettoization. x
  • 21
    Kabbalah and Society in 16th-Century Safed
    The Spanish emigration of 1492 infused new vitality into Jewish cultural and religious life in Ottoman lands, including an enormously influential interpretation of Kabbalah. x
  • 22
    Shabbetai Zevi—The Mystical Messiah
    This lecture examines the explosion of millenarian fervor within the Jewish community that is focused on the frenzied behavior of a self-proclaimed messiah named Shabbetai Zevi, whose nihilistic ideology proves to have wide appeal. x
  • 23
    The Rise of Eastern European Jewry
    Jews begin migrating to Poland in the 14th and 15th centuries. With few economic restrictions, they assume diversified economic roles for the Polish nobility and king, and Ashkenazic rabbinical scholarship reaches unsurpassed heights in the receptive political and social climate of Eastern Europe. x
  • 24
    The Sephardim of Amsterdam
    As Amsterdam invites former Jewish victims of Spanish persecution—forced by circumstance to convert—to settle within its borders, a vibrant new Jewish community is formed and becomes a significant incubator of modern Jewish consciousness. x

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Your professor

David B. Ruderman

About Your Professor

David B. Ruderman, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. David B. Ruderman is Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the Ella Darivoff Director of the university's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. He was educated at the City College of New York, the Teacher's Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Columbia University. He earned his rabbinical degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish...
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Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of Jewish experience The material was fascinating to me as it lifted up a history of Jewish experience and development through the "middle ages". I wish I had this information and understanding 40 years ago as I worked in pastoral care ministry with diverse religious cultures. In the COVID-19 pandemic I exercise on my bike daily to keep active while at home and watch lectures such as this. Mixing Great Courses with exercise is a perfect blend of practicing wholistic health: body-mind-spirit.
Date published: 2020-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative I found the course to be very informative. The course helps the viewer to understand the background of events occurring in today's climate of unrest.
Date published: 2019-09-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Intelligent Prof Needs Sensitivity Training? While there is an enormous amount of information in this course, I am not sure what to make of it. Already my Jewish friends have confirmed Ruderman’s POV that the Talmud now takes precedent over the Torah. "Although,” one said, "This is something they will only say in private". Indeed, Presidential Medal of Freedom holder Norman Podhoretz’s book “Why Are the Jews Liberals?” confirms this. However, my friends much less backed up Ruderman’s infatuation with the Kabbalah as mainstream Jewish religious thought. Circular Arguments: when Ruderman latches on to a subject, he talks it to death stating and re-stating positions to the point of near confusion. Spent a lot more time on this one than was necessary, wading through multiplicative restatements to get to the nuggets underneath. CONS: 1.) Ruderman's sudden increases in volume, insistency, and pitch remind me of listening to Israel/Muslim heated “conversations” I witnessed in Jerusalem. While this might add a bit to authenticity to his NY origins, it becomes rapidly grating and comes off as “Believe me because I'm loud". 2.) His use of the emotionally charged phrase “anti-Semitism” is academically grievously improper in this presentation. In L10 he uses it multiple times while admitting it doesn’t apply to those situations. This was the same lecture in which he was quite comfortable with the Jewish slavers while mentioning anti-Semitism that didn’t exist at that time! In L11 he does it again, seemingly trying to make a joke of it: “I won't say anti-Semitism - forget I said it." Not funny or appropriate. By the time he uses the term in its proper context, he has already indirectly implicated with many innocent groups as anti-Semitic just by pounding on the theme when it doesn’t apply. 3.) At one point early in the course, Ruderman implies that he is not much of a practicing Jew. This course directly addresses Jewish religious culture. Having agnostics or uninvolved academics teach about Faith is precarious. When personal opinion (if not outright hostility) towards a religion is taught as fact, credibility is strained. For example, to what extent was 17th century Spinoza’s small group in secularizing Amsterdam (L24) able to undermine traditional Judaism? If Judaism has changed to secularism as much as Ruderman implies, does Judaism exist? After 24 lectures, I am not sure. 4.) He accuses Christian apostles of conspiring to lie about the resurrection while he neglects coping with the historicity of the tomb guard. He doesn’t explain how a group of frightened, uneducated lower class men could, from his POV, suddenly morph into academic weasels concocting one of the most elaborate, pivotal lies in all of history. Again, his high-pitched "I all know it all" delivery appears to be his only ground for his position but by itself is insufficient proof of such a high-minded accusation. CONCLUSION: Buy the course? Yes as its history of Jewish philosophers is worth further study. But discuss it with your Jewish friends.
Date published: 2018-11-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but not Great There is much to like in Professor Ruderman’s course on Jewish Civilization during the Middle Ages through the early modern era. The first two lectures set the stage, being introductory and discussing the Jews from the time of the destruction of the first temple pretty much through 70 C.E. when the Romans destroyed the second temple. Quite a lot to overview in 30 minutes. Then we get to the meat of the course, with the introduction of Islam and how it affected Jewish life. Here I was most surprised to learn of the extensive Jewish community in Baghdad and how much it thrived. All good so far. Excursions are taken to discuss philosophy and how it impacted Judaism. A bit disconcerting at first, but I did find out about philosophers whom I did not know. A quick switch to Spain to discuss the early rise (and relativity good life) of Jews in Spain. Here the best part was learning how the Spanish community managed to separate themselves from the Rabbis of Baghdad. And then more philosophy. Here at I was on firmer ground as I did know a bit about Levi and a bit more about Maimonides. On can pretty much repeat this approach throughout the course. Why did the Jews leave one area and where did they go? How was their life in the new place? Who were the new leaders and philosophers and what did they contribute? Most of this is reasonably good and sometimes insightful. I knew a fair amount about the Jews, Muslims and Christians but not so much as to the extent the cultures had influenced each other. For instance that much of the writings of the Jewish scho9lors and poets was in Arabic. It would have even been more interesting had Dr. Ruderman given a bit more as to how much the Jews had influenced the other religions (to be sure there was some, I just wanted more). This approach is used over and over again and works well. All the way up to the 15th century and a bit beyond. And all the way from the middle east to Spain and the rest of Europe and then to Eastern Europe. Throw in a few crusades and some mysticism and stir. So what is not to like? For me, Professor Ruderman’s delivery was a bit boring (other reviewers disagree). Pretty much the same delivery regardless of topic: the Christian-Judaism debates of Paris and Barcelona had the same amount of passion as did the discussion of the Crusades or the Inquisition. The transition from the life of the Jews to some philosopher or Rabbi was not always seamless. And (this may be because of where I live), there was really very little about Jews in the New World. Perhaps fair enough in North America, but some Conversos came along with Cortez. Well within the time period of the course. Recommended, but you need to be interested in the topic.
Date published: 2018-10-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I was very disappointed in this course. I had anticipated it would be like the dozen or so other Great Courses I have purchased and would bring the novice in the subject area, like myself, up to speed before getting into the meat of the course. I had also hoped it would compliment other Great Courses I have taken that cover this period of history in Europe and the Middle East. While it did this to some extent, the numerous uses of the Hebrew language and the assumption of the instructor that his audience was knowledgeable of Jewish history and culture only served to confuse me and make his train of thought very difficult and in most cases impossible for me to follow. I'm sure that this is a good course for someone well versed in the subject. Unfortunately I am not, so I cannot rate this course any higher and I'm being generous as it is. I strongly advise anyone purchasing this course insure they have a strong knowledge of the subject matter to be able to follow the instructor. I will be much more wary in purchasing future Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-01-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from No comment This professor expresses himself well, but does not communicate well. There's a difference. He is more distracting than illuminating. The course seems to be well planned, but lacks something in the delivery. His excessive use of hands is distracting. I give him 3 1/2 out of 5.
Date published: 2017-06-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course wasn't quite what I was expecting - my fault, I didn't pay enough attention when I was picking it out. I was thinking it was more of a history course, so it had a lot more about religion than I wanted to hear. I mostly enjoyed it though; the history parts were very interesting. It was well-organized and Professor Ruderman was very knowledgeable and engaging.
Date published: 2017-06-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Shed light on a piece of history not often taught If you are an expert in Jewish history this course may not be for you. I am not an expert in Jewish history and found this course very useful and interesting. The professor's presentation could be better; but, he certainly delivers the lectures with great enthusiasm. I would be happy to take another course from him. I agree with some of the complaints in the previous reviews which is why my ratings are not all 5. However; for someone with very little knowledge of Jewish history the course value is definitely a 5. The Teaching Company needs a similar course that explores the interactions of Christianity with Islam.
Date published: 2016-12-30
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