Listen to a roundtable discussion on the materiality of Jewish culture with B Buncic, David Sclar, Nathan Mastnjack, and Jason Lustig, who in 2018-19 have been Harry Starr Fellows in Judaica at Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. The theme this year has been the history of the Jewish book, and we come together to discuss why books matter in Jewish culture and why we should look at the material objects, writing platforms, and physical form in addition to the contents that they contain.
Thanks to Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies for hosting us this year, and also for helping support the production of this episode.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Jason Lustig: Welcome to the podcast. I guess it would be a good idea for everyone to introduce themselves briefly.
Aleksandra Buncic: My name is Aleksandra Buncic, I’m an art historian involved in research of medieval manuscripts from Spain. My primary focus is thee iconography of illuminated manuscripts produced for Jews and by Jews, and this year I’m researching two medieval manuscript, including the Sarajevo Hagaddah and another manuscript that’s at the University of Pennsylvania library, known as the Astronomical Anthology.
David Sclar: I’m David Sclar, I work on early modern Jewish history, and the research I’ve been doing this year is on the Ets Haim Yeshiva in Amsterdam. This is regarding Portuguese Jews who came out of Iberia and formed a Jewish identity in the Dutch Republic. And what I’ve been looking at is the formation of the library, the collection of books, and the dissemination of knowledge among the community.
Nathan Mastnjack: My name is Nathan Mastnjack, and my specialty is the Hebrew Bible. I’m currently working on how we should think about the early material history of the prophetic literature. When people think about what they generally call the books of the Bible, they usually are using concepts, I would argue, of the book that turn out to be unhelpful, anachronistic for conceptualizing this literature in its earliest periods. So I want to argue that we should be thinking of the prophetic literature and its early period as collections rather than books.
Jason Lustig: I mean, I think listeners I guess know who I am, but they might not be familiar with what I’m doing. I’m Jason Lustig, and in addition to hosting Jewish History Matters, I also am working on a book on the history of Jewish archives in the twentieth century. That’s what I’ve been doing this year as a Starr Fellow, working on this book and a whole series of projects, thinking about the nature of archives and the nature of collecting in Jewish cultures in the twentieth century, looking primarily at Germany, the U.S., and the state of Israel.
One thing that’s interesting, especially hearing all of us talking about our research, is that every year, the Starr Fellowship—and it’s similar in a lot of ways to other kinds of fellowships that exist at other universities—they have a theme, that they bring together a cohort of scholars who are working on a similar topic. The theme this year has been the history of the Jewish book. And as I hear everybody talking about their research, I think that another way to conceptualize it is in terms of the materiality of knowledge and the materiality of the Jewish tradition. I’m not sure if you guys agree with that, as an alternative overarching theme, or not. But I was hoping that that was something that we could talk about today, because in each of these different projects, we’re all looking at different ways in which ideas and in which knowledge and traditions are passed down and are transmitted.
And I think that a lot of people, especially when you talk about intellectual history, it is often seen as very ephemeral, these are nonphysical things. What’s so interesting about all of these topics is that it’s all about physical objects and their relationship to Judaism and to Jewish history. What do we learn from thinking about the history of the book and from thinking about the materiality of knowledge and putting this all within the context of Jewish history?
David Sclar: I think it’s interesting the way you present it, with the materiality of knowledge and the idea that (with) intellectual history there’s this ephemeral point of view, but the book is what can tie it together. Your conception of a materiality of knowledge actually works as an umbrella for all of us, primarily because we are working with materiality, but we’re moving away from using the word “book,” and Nathan especially, because it has a definition—or it should have a definition—and we’re sort of trying to figure out what that means.
And in a way, what ties us together is ephemera, actually, yes, the materiality. For instance, I’m dealing with a library. Aleksandra is dealing with a particular manuscript, you’re dealing with archives. But you can’t really consider each of these things the history of the book. But this notion of a materiality of knowledge does sort of work, in an inverse way.
Aleksandra Buncic: It’s also interesting, how actually our knowledge and our research on particular objects or particular books or archives actually adds to this general knowledge, right? For me, researching an individual object as the Sarajevo Hagaddah adds to our general understanding of the circumstances under which this particular manuscript was produced. But it also adds and reflect how this particular manuscript changed its role from a very ceremonial object, for a use on particular holiday, and now as an artifact at the museum. So, how can we change and how our understanding can change with understanding of the changing of role of the Hagaddah, one object for individual use?
But this manuscript also belongs to a group of other manuscripts, right? Our knowledge and understanding of this particular object and manuscript can add to our general understanding of this type of object. What is interesting and important to know is that it changes over the time, over the gulf of centuries. So what it meant to a patron who commissioned it is quite different for what it means to us today, and how we research and how we change this.
Jason Lustig: I think that what we can see in terms of your two projects, Aleksandra and David, is that there is kind of a material basis to what you’re looking at. Aleksandra, you’re looking at a specific Hagaddah, right, which is actually physically in the museum in Sarajevo. And David, you’re talking about a library collection that actually was there, people used it, took the books out, read them. Probably, some didn’t return them. But, Nathan, in a certain way, and this came up in some of the work we’ve discussed on other occasions, your research is still about the book, and it’s still about the construction of the various frameworks of the Bible, right? But there’s not really a material basis to that, like you’ve said—that there’s not really any physical data that you have.
Nathan Mastnjack: Yeah. This is the real challenge in trying to write a book history of the Bible, because we don’t actually have manuscripts until hundreds of years after these texts were all written. What I’m trying to argue is that even without those manuscripts, we can’t avoid the fact that these texts were material objects. And to either ignore that, or to just import our own notions of what a book is back on these ancient textual cultures inevitably obscures how we understand what these compositions were, and how they were read.
One question that Biblical scholars have been preoccupied with for maybe two hundred years is getting to the bottom of the original form of the books of the Bible. But if they weren’t “books” at all, the concept even of the “original” becomes highly problematic. If they were collections, for example, there may be no original, say, book of Isaiah or of Jeremiah.
Jason Lustig: I think it raises an important question, which is: What even is a book? My work on archives is not exactly about books, either. I think if you look at early modern record-keeping practices among the Jews, the Pinkasim for instance, the communal record books were physical bound books. And even in modern archives, archivists sometimes take papers and they put them together in a kind of book-like form, and that’s one way to make it so that you can’t steal the papers. It raises questions about the nature of books. And of course, as we deal with the developments of digital technologies, it’s also really unclear what constitutes a book.
David Sclar: That’s why I think your idea of the materiality of texts, which really is the thing that’s going to encompass all of what we’re doing, works. Because, in a way, Nathan’s research can’t resonate as much unless we already know that there’s a concept of a book, and we’re going to try and define that book. Then Nathan can say, “Well, this doesn’t actually work. There is no original form. There is no book form at that time. We have to look at this in its own context,” and what you were describing about archives as well.
When I think of history of the book, I really think in terms of the medieval and the early modern periods. And you can ask lots of questions about that and about authorship within that. But then to try and transpose that onto another time period, and certainly with what you just brought up, Nathan, I see virtually no point in it really, except to say, “Well, this is what existed at that time, and we know that that can’t be the case previously,” even just fundamentally if our job is to take the sources that we have and to analyze those sources. And if you have no sources, and hundreds of years later is when you have a first evidence of some sort of written textual evidence, then it’s really not going to be helpful to use the term “book,” which is why materiality of text is a great way of looking at it I think.
Aleksandra Buncic: Yeah, but also books back in the Middle Ages were luxury objects, and very few individuals could own them, whereas today we are dealing with our own libraries and gathering our own knowledge based on our own interests. So maybe that’s also interesting, just to reflect in the terms that we are talking about right now.
Jason Lustig: In a certain way, I think there is no answer to the definitional question. I think a more interesting question is why books matter, however you define them. Especially when we think as scholars, or as people who read, it’s kind of a silly question, right—of coursebooks matter, right? But the truth is that, for most people, they don’t actually read books today. If you take, statistically speaking, I think the average person reads maybe one book a year. But depending on how you define a book, people are reading a book’s wroth of material a week, just on Facebook—another kind of book, right?
Aleksandra Buncic: Or audio books.
David Sclar: There’s a lot more reading that’s taking place now. I mean, there’s constant reading. There is constant sharing of knowledge. You could question the depth of such knowledge occasionally, but there is greater sharing of knowledge. But then, what does a book offer, where you sort of dive into something over a long period of time? Even academically, or in terms of scholarship, there’s a big difference between a 25-page article and a 200-page book in terms of what you come away with.
Aleksandra Buncic: And also, what is the role of the book?
Nathan Mastnjack: I think we can expand your question also to you said, “Why does a book matter?” Why do books matter?
Jason Lustig: Well, before we even say why the history of the book matters, we can ask, why do books matter in the first place? And what I was thinking about there in particular was what’s at stake when we talk about the objects—the object of a book, whatever form that takes, whether that’s in a scroll, as an ancient book, or as a codex or as an ebook or as a “Facebook.” That’s not really a book, but it uses the term, which I think is kind of interesting.
Nathan Mastnjack: So your question is also, why does the materiality of a text matter?
Jason Lustig: I guess there are two parts to it. The first is, why do books matter in the first place? And the second one is, books as something that we study as material objects and not just in terms of the texts that they contain.
Nathan Mastnjack: The simple and broad answer that, probably, I think we’d all agree on and unites our approaches in some way is that asking about the materiality of texts represents a simple recognition that texts aren’t experienced ever, really, as abstractions, and that engaging their materiality is a way of engaging with cultures. Texts are produced and read within textual cultures. And this is what each one of us, in very different ways, is getting at.
Aleksandra Buncic: I would add to that, that sometimes texts are also illustrated, as we actually have in the Hagaddah. So it’s not only the text alone, but also images that help us to understand what is written in the text.
David Sclar: I don’t know always that texts are never abstractions. I think, since I’m dealing with a school, a Yeshiva, there’s a lot of oral learning. When I look at the actual study, the engagement with the text—yes, there is the materiality element, but I also wonder about the experience for the students as they’re studying and learning, or not learning or ignoring or rejecting what the teachers are saying.
Jason Lustig: I think this is one of the reasons the idea of the book is really useful, but we can also look beyond it. The materiality is the important thing. Because David, in your case, looking at this Yeshiva, well, the materiality is the books, but it’s also the lackof the books, right? It’s the material basis for this study when there are only a handful of copies of the Talmud that students could reference. If you think about the way that someone would study in a Yeshiva today, they have a library, they have books on hand, and like every chevrusa might have their own set of the massechet they’re working on. It’s a very different way of studying, as a result of the material nature. So there’s the books; there’s also the lack of the books. There’s also the space, there’s the beit midrash. The materiality of the knowledge can be seen in a bunch of ways, and not just in the actual book itself.
David Sclar: I think it’s an interesting idea that if you consider the object value, so to speak, that there is something like Aleksandra brought up, that in the medieval period clearly, and through the early modern period, frankly, who could afford books? There’s a lot to consider. And then, most of history is written based on the sources that we have, but it’s also important to consider the vast majority of people who are not represented in the sources. And since we’re talking about books or archives, or certainly early modern archives, you’re going to have an enormous percentage of people in a particular community who are not represented in those Pinkasim. They won’t appear at all, or very, very infrequently because they don’t have the means to be there. And the same thing when we’re dealing with books.
So your point actually is great, in the sense of, I’m looking right now at this Yeshiva, and I’m looking at people in the construction of a library, and a lot of people look at individual libraries. Josh Teplitsky published his book Prince of the Press, which is on David Oppenheim’s collection, which became the basis for the Judaica collection at the Bodleian Library. But what about all the people who couldn’t have those things, who couldn’t buy a book?
Aleksandra Buncic: And also, who were the people who are involved in the book process, or who were the people who were involved in book production, and how this process changed over the years? Because in the Middle Ages, certainly you had a scribe, you had a religious advisor, you had a commissioner, you had an eliminator. And today, who are the people who are involved in the production of the books?
Jason Lustig: Is there anything we learn from looking at the Biblical period, thinking about these questions?
Nathan Mastnjack: I mean, we don’t know anyof this for the biblical period. You guys are studying specific libraries or archives, and presumably these existed. And in some cases, Biblical scholars have tried to reconstruct what are the social locations for where, say, prophetic books would have been kept and copied and transmitted. But at the end of the day, we just don’t know.
In fact, the best comparative evidence we have for them, we have good reason to think probably aren’t that good analogs. We know about Mesopotamian royal archives, for example, but the prophetic books don’t look like the kinds of things that would be transmitted and stored in royal archives, not least because they’re critical of the kings of ancient Israel and Judah. So we just don’t have good analogs for doing the kinds of things that you guys do.
Aleksandra Buncic: Also in the Middle Ages, we know that workshops for book production existed, but actually we lack the knowledge of where they were based. So only through some iconographical analysis, we may or may not determine the origin of the manuscript. And usually these manuscripts—when I say these manuscripts, I mean particularly the group of Hagaddot from Spain—usually they don’t have colophons, meaning we don’t have knowledge of who were the people who commissioned them or where they were produced or who produced them or who wrote the text or who illuminated the pages. So, we are only slightly better than the Biblical period.
David Sclar: In the Biblical period, is there a sense that the prophets had scribes who then disseminated immense number of copies, or Jeremiah has a scribe and then…?
Nathan Mastnjack: We have no idea. Anything we would say would be a real conjecture. Let me add, however, we’re not purely interested in the origins of texts, right? We’re talking about a book history or maybe at a history of material textuality. We do have the Dead Sea Scrolls, which give us a very significant moment in the history of the Jewish book, if we can call it that. We can talk about that and look at textual production, look at specific communities that were producing texts and actual manuscripts that have marginal corrections, marginal notes, paratexts of various sorts. We can talk about this later moment in the history of these texts. But if our question is for the period of their composition, we don’t really know anything other than what we can extrapolate from the text itself.
Jason Lustig: I guess the question about all this, though, is, why does it matter? Why does it matter that we care so much about these books—whether that happens to be the books of the Bible, or how people used books in various points in time, how they got to us today? I feel like this is, in a certain way, a question that is kind of obvious to us as scholars that, yeah, books matter. But what do we gain from thinking about it in these kinds of terms as opposed to saying, “Oh, yeah, I study this book, and I learn from what’s inside of it”?
Aleksandra Buncic: Which means, what is the value of these books, right?
David Sclar: I would never say that it’s obvious, though. Whenever something’s obvious, it’s hard to articulate it.
Jason Lustig: I think one of the ways in which it matters, especially when we think about it in the context of Jewish history, is that the Jews have been termed—in my opinion kind of erroneously—as the “people of the book.”
David Sclar: I’m totally opposed to using that.
Jason Lustig: I think it’s so ridiculous in a whole bunch of ways, but it’s also so interesting because it’s been taken up by a lot of people as a badge of honor, that the Jews are people of learning, that the Jews are a “people of the book.” The Bible’s the great example of this, right? It isthebook, literally. When we talk about the history of the book and why these books matter, well, one of the contexts in which it does matter—and this is where it just clearly intersects with Jewish history—is that the Jews, especially in modern times, but you can maybe speak more about it in other contexts as well, have adopted this idea of the book as central to their identity and their sense of self. That’s one way in which it matters, because we can see it as an idea, the idea of the book. Of course, there’s the material side of it, which is a whole separate question.
Aleksandra Buncic: To add to that, in the case of Hagaddah, that’s literally the meaning. The purpose of the Hagaddah is to retell and to transmit the knowledge of Exodus into the future generations.
David Sclar: I think your question is a contemporary question. In the early modern period and the construction of libraries then, for instance, there’s an intellectual interest, there might be an interest in the materiality possessing 2,000 volumes or something like that. But I don’t think that people viewed it quite the same way. Nobody was questioning, “What was a book, and how do you define it? And what’s authorship?” So I think that the idea of that why books matter is more relevant to studying the modern period.
Jason Lustig: You said before how you really don’t like the idea of the Jews as the “people of the book.”
David Sclar: It’s adopting what was, relatively speaking, a derogatory comment to as a badge of honor. And it’s also an anachronistic view. It’s almost like flag-waving, “Look how proud we are of being this intellectual people,” or something like that. And I don’t really think that it fits with a long-standing understanding of Jewish history and culture. Yes, books are central, but books are central to lots of cultures.
Nathan Mastnjack: Could you comment on how you see the book as central to Jewish history?
David Sclar: I think I would look at it in the pursuit of knowledge as one aspect of that, and books representing that knowledge. But it’s not necessarily an open-source or free-flowing knowledge. There’s self-censorship for various reasons. Books are a crucial component of intellectual and religious culture in the medieval and especially the early modern periods. And Jews adopt, especially, the technology of printing. For instance, the first printing presses in Portugal and North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, the first printed books are all Hebrew books, books printed by Jews. And this is a technology that can be used to propagate whatever, some intellectual or religious interest. Obviously, there’s an economic angle as well.
Jason Lustig: One thing just strikes me, as we talk about this, is almost a kind of ambivalenceabout books, which is interesting because we all are here (at Harvard) under the rubric of the history of the Jewish book, and so much of what we’re doing has to do with books. But, Nathan, you’re talking about how the books of the Bible were not really books, right?
David Sclar: And even though I deal with books and book history, I’m not driven by that pursuit. I find myself in regular conversation with people who do book history. And my primary interest is in relating intellectual and social history. How do people view things intellectually, and how did that matter socially? And books are a crucial component of early modern Jewish culture.
Jason Lustig: But you are kind of opposed to the idea of the centrality of books in Jewish culture. You’re kind of saying that it’s not the book; it’s the knowledge.
David Sclar: I mean, I think we limit ourselves when we make anything central, unless we are clearly defining our question and the parameters under which we’re going to conduct our research.
Jason Lustig: Aleksandra, also, thinking about your work, clearly you’re looking at manuscripts, right? But you’re looking at individual copies of these manuscripts, not the book as a whole.
Aleksandra Buncic: Maybe a book, like a particular type of the book?
Jason Lustig: Right. I mean you’re probably the closest to the “history of the book” out of all of us here. And I mean, I’m working on archives, which fits into some of these questions about the history of knowledge. But it’s not really booksin libraries in the same way. All I’m trying to say is that it’s interesting that there’s this kind of ambivalence.
David Sclar: I wonder, the history of the book really goes back, maybe fifty years. And I don’t know that it’s ever been clearly defined. I’m not sure. I think it’s a venue, or it’s a medium. There’s a way to study history, and you can use these, you can use the history of the book in that to study a particular period or in a particular way. My own ambivalence, if that’s what it is, may come from an inability or an unwillingness to define exactly what the history of the book is except under particular circumstances. All I know is that, what were earlier discussions of “How do you define a book?” has more recently become, “How do you define authorship?” which are great questions standing on their own without having to keep it within some history of the book rubric. And then, I think that it can be applied to exactly what Nathan was talking about it, to the biblical period. How do you describe that as authorship? I mean, what is that?
Nathan Mastnjack: Oh, yeah. The question of authorship is hugely important, I think, for looking at these Biblical texts. And it’s another place where contemporary notions of the book, potentially, aren’t serving us well in looking at these compositions. You mentioned the Psalms, right, many of them ascribed to David, right? Is this really an authorship ascription in the way that we think about it? It might not be actually. Eva Mroczek has written on this, as not forms of authorship ascription but more almost a genre designation. In some cases, you have Psalms ascribed to David that are obviously not written by David, that specifically address, say, the Babylonian captivity hundreds of years after David died.
Similarly in my own work on the prophetic texts, I think the same thing could be said of Isaiah. You have the Book of Isaiah, which has prophecies that span of hundreds of years. I don’t necessarily think that we’re right to just (too) quickly see that ascription as authorial, at least not in the way that we think of it.
But a lot of my current research is based on this ambivalence about what the book is, and the failure of that concept for asking good questions of Biblical compositions. Not to get back to the Psalms here, but the Psalms manuscripts in the Dead Sea Scrolls are a great example of this. There are numerous manuscripts of Psalms, and the question scholars kept asking was, “Well, how does this relate to the biblical Book of Psalms? Are these reorganizations of the biblical book? How do we even classify this manuscript? Is this an edition of the biblical Book of Psalms, or is this some sort of different non-biblical liturgical text?”
There’s an incredible amount of confusion, actually, even in how to designate manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls stemming from scholars’ assumption that these have to be related to a book somehow, rather than there being a cultural tradition of Psalms that can be instantiated textually, materially in any number of ways, without calling them books.
David Sclar: You’re describing something that happens in scholarship frequently, which is the discovery of something or recognition that something does not fit within some standard parameter or whatever box that’s already been set. And that’s something that’s important to recognize in any area of scholarship, I think.
Jason Lustig: It’s interesting. I’m just making this observation. It’s just funny, because we all came here under the umbrella of the history of the Jewish book. And yet, here we are, to some extent questioning the value of that as the framing device. I mean, I think one of the things that’s interesting about the idea of the book is that it is so often tied to a certain image of what a book is. And I think, perhaps, we’re not saying that books are not a useful framework for thinking about things, but that we should just expand the definition of a book. Clearly, for people who talk about the history of the book, one of the critical interventions there is thinking about how books change over time. I think that what we’re talking about is the conceptual meaning of a book beyond what we have seen.
I mentioned the digital component to thinking about books. Can we consider an ebook a book? Or if we do consider an ebook a book, is that because it is a digital version of a book that you can get as a physical copy if you go to a bookstore? If that’s the case, what about a book-length article that gets published in The New Yorker or something. If you think about (Hannah) Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem—so that’s a book, but it was initially published as a series of articles in, actually, The New Yorker.
David Sclar: And Dickens wrote in serials before they became what we know as books.
Aleksandra Buncic: So what makes a book a book, right?
David Sclar: I wonder if—I don’t know that it’s helpful to think in terms of expanding definitions of books as much as saying, “What are we really talking about?” Not that we have an expanded perception of something and people are placing the word “book” there. And I think we could potentially define a book, very specifically, in terms of a codex and that sort of thing. But clearly in the large expanse, which is sort of where we want to go, which involves knowledge and materiality of texts and development of intellectual culture and changes based on technology, we’re really talking about something else. And we need to find the word or words for that.
Aleksandra Buncic: In other words, does content actually defines a book and not a physicality?
David Sclar: No, I’m saying we could define a book as a book, but not necessarily have to use that definition and expand and keep using the word “book,” but rather use another word that does encompass what this conversation has been, which takes it from Nathan’s questions of biblical composition to the use of archives in the modern period, so to speak. And that’s where you brought up at the top of this a materiality of text. But maybe there’s another way to say it that’s not just about materiality. And I don’t know that I have an answer. I do think that what you’re saying about the expansion of the definition of something is necessary. I just don’t think that to continue using the word “book” is the right thing.
Aleksandra Buncic: So that’s my question. Is a book defined by its content, or just by observing it as a physical object?
Jason Lustig: This comes to the question of the materiality, right? What is the importance of materiality? I’ve just been thinking about it is the transmission and the transformation of knowledge over a space and time, so what we talk about expanding the meaning of a book, I think what’s important is to consider why that matters. Why does it matter to be looking at books and saying that we want to understand certain things that we may have understood as books before as not as books, and certain things that we might not think of as books, as books?
I think the real question is, what is the social impact of all of these texts and their physical contents? What does it mean for the Bible to be written down as a scroll, or as a collection of papers that eventually gets stitched together in different orders, which is, Nathan, what you’ve been working on and thinking about Jeremiah in that particular kind of a context? What’s the difference when a text’s form is transformed?
I think a lot of people have thought about the transformation from manuscript to print, and what does it mean to be able to produce books at a certain kind of scale. One of the arguments about the digital age, too, is that it’s kind of equivalent to the invention of the printing press. You see this kind of discussed in the popular discourse. And some scholars have interrogated this, as well, in terms of thinking about the nature of the new age of digital print.
All I’m saying is that there’s this vision that people have, I think, of the way in which the transformation from one form to another affects the cultural modes of usage and of activity that surrounds the knowledge. To me, that’s the reason why materiality of knowledge matters because as the form changes, the content may stay the same, or it may change, but the material form, as well as the layout and design, has an impact in and of itself.
Aleksandra Buncic: And what about quality? I’m interested in that aspect because now we are witnessing also a mass production. So what does it mean to have, or what is the urge to gain knowledge, and how can we select, let’s say, proper knowledge from fake knowledge? I don’t know.
David Sclar: That gets into something we talked about earlier, which is fewer books may be read, but there’s a lot more reading. You can question when it’s appropriate to judge whether something is “proper.” But certainly, the recognition that you can have a wider population that’s reading to a far greater degree, I mean that’s happened, that happens with each technological advancement. And there is the social impact, like you brought up. There’s also the personal impact, not just on society but on individuals. I think now, one person’s mind can suddenly expand. And with the democratization of knowledge, you’ve got great potential for each individual to grow to an extent where curricula set by some sort of political or social structure would not previously have permitted.
Aleksandra Buncic: And maybe now, it’s a good time just to jump in with a question of censorship. Because you mentioned democratization of knowledge. But what about the censorship where certain editing is happening even nowadays in the modern period? What are the topics that we can talk about and write about, and what are the topics that are forbidden in a way?
David Sclar: We could tie it to what you just said before about, let’s say, “fake news.” How do you respond? From an official point of view or otherwise, how do respond to fake news when sometimes it’s so preposterous, that you’d think that anyone with any actual knowledge or common sense would recognize something (as fake)? But then, by making such a claim, I’m judging what is “common sense,” and anybody who does not recognize that is not … But we probably don’t want to get into politics.
Jason Lustig: Oh, go for it if you want.
David Sclar: I mean, I grew up in the Midwest, and I was not shocked, for instance, at the election of the current president. Anybody who grows up in a middle-class or working-class neighborhood may not be shocked by such a thing, and actually may love this particular person who’s in the Oval Office. There can be a whole inverse response as to what’s “fake news,” and then all these things that are thrown out there. And then, the question just sort of standing back is, well, if we have knowledge, there is such a thing as fact. How do you propagate such a thing, and do you just sort of keep your head down and continue to write and try and produce something that’s worthwhile and meaningful?
Jason Lustig: The question of censorship is an interesting one, because when we’re talking about the materiality of knowledge, it has to be produced somewhere, right? And that creates kind of a bottleneck, so to speak, that allows various groups or people of power, whether it’s political power, religious power, whatever, to insert themselves and try to affect the texts that are being produced.
When you look at the various instances that you are engaging with in your research, do you think that there’s censorship that’s happening? Is that a factor in your own work and thinking about an early modern library or the Bible or medieval manuscripts? With archives, I wouldn’t say it’s censorship, but there is an active choice of what goes in and what goes out. Some people do destroy their own papers, or they try to get rid of things that make themselves look bad. I don’t know if I’d call it censorship, but there is a process of curation.
David Sclar: Yeah, self-fashioning. But archivists are also involved in determining what’s going to go in and what won’t be in there. Dealing with Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam, there is clearly selection of the volumes that they’re buying, but also that’s a community where there is censorship in the sense at the ma’amad, this communal board, governed every aspect of people’s socio-religious lives related to the community. Spinoza, for instance, comes out of this community. And before he ever published anything, he’s excommunicated in what ultimately was a brutal way. Nothing had been written. Nothing had been published, but it was a real concern in the community, then and before and after in those decades in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that there were basic parameters by which members of the community were expected to live.
Yosef Kaplan and Miriam Bodian have each referred to something called the freedom of conscience, which basically means people could think one way and live one way, but there were clear expectations as members of a community otherwise.
Aleksandra Buncic: In the case of a Hagaddah, we have an actual text that was censored. We have certain words that censors would search for in the text of the Hagaddah for liturgical points. And then they would erase them in order not to be offensive against the church. And sometimes they would even sign the particular manuscript or volume, just as a sign that they researched the manuscript for any offensive text, and then they approved it for further use. In this particular case, we are actually speaking about the actual text that was censored after it was written.
Nathan Mastnjack: The application of a principle of selection, which you were talking about in respect to archives, it’s very different from what Aleksandra was talking about with respect to her manuscript that she works on. In the case of Biblical texts, if we can construe selection and exclusion as censorship, then the complex and long redaction processes that led to the formation of the cannon, I guess would be similar to what you’re talking about. Some things are included, some things not included. Some of these processes also may be in the history of the translation of the Bible. Translation actually is a battleground, in some senses, between various communities, certain translations being excluded or altered or edited in order to exclude particular interpretations. There’s a long history of that in the biblical texts.
Jason Lustig: What’s interesting, actually, about the biblical text and censorship is that if there wasan attempt to censor the biblical texts, it clearly failed because the prophetic texts are clearly anti-monarchical. If the Israelite and Judean monarchy had the ability to censor them, well, they failed in doing that because those texts are what have survived. And the same thing, if you look at the construction of the various biblical texts that are an amalgamation of various preexisting texts, whether that’s of the “books” themselves or of the various authors, there seems to be among those who redacted the Bible and put it together the effort to keep things as opposed to cut things out.
Nathan Mastnjack: Yeah, although, I mean, we have the texts that we have, right? We don’t have the texts that were expunged. And there’s cases you can read between the lines where certain other groups or concerns are being written out of existence in biblical compositions, particularly with respect to the restoration from Babylonian exile. You have in the Book of Jeremiah and in Ezra and Nehemiah imagined other groups of Judeans who may have had a claim on the land of Judah that are systematically excluded. Like I said, we have the texts we have, not the ones that maybe those other communities potentially produced. And who knows what happened.
David Sclar: So that actually makes it even more interesting, in a way. It is clear that, okay, we don’t know what doesn’t exist anymore. But then how is it that what we do have, that led Jason to make the comment that he did, does survive? And what does it say about, I guess, the social context of the religion, if you call that religion, a social context that that’s really what matters more to people, talking about matters, matters more to people then the monarchy?
Nathan Mastnjack: Yeah, well, the texts, I just brought up the texts. I think we’re talking about most of them, their formative periods are probably post-monarchic, so the monarchy is a memory that can be used to support a particular group’s claim to be able to inhabit the land and to restore worship in particular ways.
Jason Lustig: One question I have for Aleksandra, thinking about your research—because I think that your work is so much more focused on a particular manuscript than any of ours, right? We’re thinking about the materiality of texts, when we’re thinking about the history of the book, what’s the difference between looking at a single object and thinking kind of the bigger scale, whether that’s about a particular library or a particular archive or a whole set of texts that get combined into one? What do we learn differently from looking at the history of the book and the history of the materiality of texts in these different ways?
Aleksandra Buncic: I would not say that we can observe it in a different way because, as I said, the Hagaddah itself belongs to a broader context of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages or to particular text that it’s read during the Passover. I would say that actually just by researching one individual object, we can add to broader understanding of book production or in other cases a dissemination of particular knowledge or so on or artistic styles. I would not say or define it as something very different in the process of the research.
But what is interesting is that the process of research or meaning of the manuscript changes. As I mentioned at the beginning, the Hagaddah, this particular object that’s now held at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, belonged to an individual. An the individual sold this manuscript. And by selling this manuscript or another way around by acquiring this manuscript for the national museum, its purpose changed. So it’s changed from a very particular object used for Passover, for a rite of Passover, to an object that it’s now artifact that can be researched, reproduced as a facsimile.
Nathan Mastnjack: You can essentially write a biography of this text over time, right? Just as when we read biographies, it’s an individual, right?
Aleksandra Buncic: Exactly. And all these little instances are actually adding to the history of this manuscript. And as a researcher, when I’m researching, I’m not observing only images and what they are mirrored to me as a researcher, but also they are reflecting many other very complex layers. It really depends how we observe it and from which angle we are observing this particular manuscript. I could tell a lot of urban legends connected to this manuscript, or I can talk only about art historical value or about its purpose over the gulf of the centuries or about the history of its preservation during three wars that unfortunately happened in former Yugoslavia. So it really depends on how we observe the subject and what we want to see when we are observing it.
David Sclar: The ability to relate something specific, potentially narrow, like a single volume, a single manuscript, to a larger context I think is what typifies academic scholarship.
Aleksandra Buncic: Exactly. This particular Hagaddah, the Sarajevo Hagaddah, belongs to a group of only 15 other known Spanish Hagaddah. So it’s very small in a very larger scale of book production in the Middle Ages.
David Sclar: Right. So relating the Sarajevo Hagaddah to other medieval Spanish Hagaddot, the illuminated Hagaddah and then knowing the larger context of medieval Hebrew manuscript production and then manuscript production in Europe, and being able to relate that I think is what is important. And one of the things that I’ve always found interesting is where micro-history, finding something really small and interesting, just like an interesting document.
In a couple of cases, I’ve published things where I found two documents that relate to each other completely separate context of having been written, but they relate to each other. And then the challenge is actually showing how they do relate. And maybe that’s my thought about the history of the book is that it’s good and fine as a way of looking at things, historically that is, as long as you’re telling a larger story. Ultimately, the history of the book is not bibliography. It lays a foundation. But once you have the foundation, you then want to construct a house.
Jason Lustig: I think that what’s so interesting about all these different projects is that by looking at a particular object, or at a particular text or collection, but we learn about a much wider range of issues, which I think is the way we should be thinking about Jewish history and about the study of history in general, that we need to have with the bigger takeaway. For instance, Aleksandra, some of what you’ve talked about, in terms of the way that this one manuscript can be studied and its physical content, you focused on the art historical aspects of it, right? But you’ve talked about sort of scientific studies of the actual pages and the food residue that is left there, right? It tells you about what people ate.
Aleksandra Buncic: And whether or not the wine was kosher.
Jason Lustig: That tells us really interesting things about how things develop over the course of a long period of time. David, you were talking about the library of a community. Well, you could look at that and say, “Well, it just tells you who took out the books,” right? But it also tells you about the development of the Jews in Amsterdam over the course of time and about the development of knowledge there. Especially being the home of Spinoza, among many other people, that’s a very important question to think about. The same thing also with thinking about the Bible and the books of the Bible, which if we don’t think about them as “books,” but we think about them as something else, that that tells us potentially a lot about the nature of life in ancient Israel. And it’s something I try to do with my work on archives too, the whole idea of being that we learn about the developments of Jewish life in modern times by thinking about how and why Jews created archives. I mean I think that that’s kind of what’s interesting about all of these topics about the history of knowledge is that they tell us so much more.
Nathan Mastnjack: We’re all in agreement on that.
Jason Lustig: I guess one thing to think about here is that when we talk about the history of the book, and the history of the Jewish book in particular, there’s always kind of the trap of kind of a triumphalist history of the successful transmission of knowledge. If you look at the Sarajevo Hagaddah and this idea that a single book has survived over the course of time through so many wars, and it’s just sitting on somebody’s shelf, and they could’ve easily destroyed it. And in the end, it makes its way to a museum. And now you produced this facsimile edition. You might tell that story in terms of a kind of a “triumphal” history: look what this one single book’s gone through and how it has survived. I think this is perhaps the attraction of this idea of the history of the Jewish book to a lot of people because it personifies the history of the Jews, at least the way that it’s understood especially popularly. But I think a lot of scholars understand it in the same way as well.
Aleksandra Buncic: And it has this mystical value to it, right?
Jason Lustig: Right. I guess one of the questions here is that especially as we think about the history of the materiality of knowledge and the history of the Jewish book, do we think this is a problem to be talking about the history of the Jewish book in a triumphalist way? What do we think is the appropriate way to look at these types of subjects from a scholarly perspective and how to engage with it in terms of the way in which the public thinks about the history of the Jews and the history of the book as people of the book, so to speak?
David Sclar: I think that to have a triumphal attitude is problematic. I mean when we’re talking about scholarship, it gets in the way, clouds your vision and your ability to be critical. But I also think that anybody who feels the necessity to look at something from a triumphant angle can actually just look at Jewish history itself and find all that they need to have that sense of pride, if necessary.
Jewish book history is more than just a microcosm for the much larger field of history of the book. There are fascinating nuances to Jewish printing, Hebrew printing, places, people, the way things are constructed, the multiplicity of texts on a single page and what happens to sort of the formation of knowledge units from that, things that are not fully recognized in the larger field of history of the book, possibly because of a language factor, and also almost definitely because there’s been a longstanding sort of demarcation where Jewish studies is not quite yet fully integrated into any other particular field, even though I think that’s changing and will probably, or at least hopefully, continue to change.
So the triumphant nature of that necessity or that inclination I think not only is it detrimental to scholarship, but is actually unnecessary for anybody who feels a need because it’s already inherent if you must think in terms of, “Look what Jews accomplished,” so to speak.
Jason Lustig: Well, I think that it can become problematic. I think the problem is when it becomes essentialized. It’s one thing to say, “look at the history of this particular book, or look at the history of this particular collection and how it has survived over the course of the centuries.” Or, as is the case with a whole bunch of books that had been published recently about looted books and the Holocaust, there’s a master narrative of the survival of the books as a parallel to the survival of those who survived the Holocaust. The books are also victims. So I think it’s one thing to say that, look how this story of this thing or that thing, this micro-history, reflects on the larger character of Jewish history. But it’s another thing to say that that is allof Jewish history, that all of Jewish history is a story of survival and perseverance.
David Sclar: Right, this persecution narrative. But we left that, or should have left it ninety years ago with Salo Baron’s article on the lachrymose theory of Jewish history. But maybe (we still have it) in the popular culture.
Jason Lustig: The question is, does the history of the Jewish book contribute to that narrative of persecution and perseverance and transmission over the course of time in the face of all of that?
David Sclar: I think the transmission over time is, you don’t have to have a judgment. There doesn’t have to be emotion connected to that. And that’s one thing you were referring to before, the transmission of texts. I mean, we focus in different areas in scholarship. So I hadn’t thought about what you just brought up, which was the books as surviving, although that’s perfect with Sarajevo, for instance, the survival and what that represents, because it does relate directly then to the persecution narrative.
Aleksandra Buncic: But also how you form that narrative, right? I mean, we know that the Sarajevo Hagaddah survived, and they were particular individuals who were taking care of the Sarajevo Hagaddah and who save it during the darkest times. But afterward, after all these wars, who were the people who created these stories, and what are they used for manipulation? Or are they used for creating certain feeling towards Hagaddah? Or is it Hagaddah used as a symbol of tolerance? Or can we demystify the story of its survival?
Jason Lustig: OK, well I think we are out of time—thank you all for joining us for this conversation.