The Medieval Jim Jones?

In May 1096 the Jews of the Rhineland were attacked by the excited mobs of the “People’s Crusade”. Hundreds were murdered, others accepted baptism to save their lives and others again killed their families and themselves rather than convert. This, the first major pogrom in the West, came to dominate the collective mindset of Ashkenazi Jewry down to the present day. The chronicles that glorify the martyrs also, however, celebrate the deeds of one Isaac ben David of Mainz, who shortly afterwards repented of his forced conversion, took his children to the synagogue and there cut their throats, sprinkling their blood on the pillars of the ark, with the words: “May this blood cleanse me of all my sins.” He then fired his own house, with his mother inside, violating a promise to her, and finally burned himself to death back in the synagogue.

Judaism had hitherto not greatly approved of suicide, and the notion of making one’s children a blood-sacrifice for one’s own sins is surely a blasphemy. It is worth noting that the rabbis of the community had died the previous year; the horror of the pogrom and the guilt over choosing conversion over martyrdom the first time round, all in the absence of rabbinical counselling, may have simply unhinged the poor man. In fact we cannot truly know what Isaac thought, felt and said, since no witnesses survived; the line about his being cleansed of his sin by the blood of his children had necessarily to have been an invention of the chronicler. Indeed, all the stories about the martyrdoms and suicides were – by definition! – written by the survivors, and according to Jeremy Cohen, such language reflects the thinking of the forced converts who later returned to Judaism, possibly having been influenced by Christianity in the meantime. In contrast to all his colleagues, Cohen is not so sure that the chronicler is, in fact, entirely approving of Isaac’s actions.

The account made me think of the mass suicides of our own time, most notoriously the Jonestown affair. There, too, we know of the last moments of the community only through the testimony of those who chickened out. As far as I know, the survivors do not praise the suicides. Comparison might seem outrageous, on the grounds that the Jews of Mainz had been attacked and massacred; and yet the Jones church considered itself persecuted, so much so that it fled to Guyana and there immolated itself. If the Jones version of religion had been a lot bigger, so that only a section of it perished in the compound, and other intact Jonesian communities had survived to write about it, what would their chronicles look like?

Another ground for outrage at the comparison might be that Judaism is a respectable religion, while Jones was just a nutcase; and yet if Isaac ben David is anything to go by, we may legitimately wonder what the Jews of Mainz, specifically, were actually into. The Sephardim, at that time the Jewish mainstream, never did the Masada mass-suicide thing, but instead converted and continued to practice their faith in secret. Might not the Mainz community, so distant from the centre of gravity of the Jewish world, and thereby feeling more beleaguered by the idolaters, have developed some odd ideas?

Posted on May 17, 2011 at 09:21 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Jews, Cathars, Gays And Witches

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