Constructing Borders and Crossing Boundaries: Social, Cultural, and Religious Change in Early Modern Jewish History

Constructing Borders and Crossing Boundaries: Social, Cultural and Religious Change in Early Modern Jewish History


Scholars working in a wide variety of disciplines have long identified the late fifteenth through the late eighteenth century as a discrete historical period called “Early Modern.” Among scholars interested in the place of Jews and Jewish culture within this period, however, there has been little attempt to think broadly about early modernity as a whole or to connect the insights of discrete studies in any coherent and meaningful way. This research group will create a conversation that connects these smaller units and so examines those changes in the Jewish world which characterized the Early Modern period. We will focus on the issue of borders and boundaries, understood as not only geographical, but also social, cultural, legal, political, and economic. Some divided and connected the Jewish and the non-Jewish, while others functioned within Jewish society, creating internal divisions and conjunctures. Considering, among other things, the breakdown of old social and cultural boundaries and the construction of new ones, the boundary as both a dividing line and a place of meeting and mixing between different groups (Jewish and non-Jewish), and the ambiguities inherent in situations where elites envisioned strong boundaries while others ignored them (and vice versa), will encourage a wide ranging discussion on the very nature of both Jewish Early Modernity and the early modern period in general.

Proposals might address the following questions:

  • How did the establishment of new Jewish centers in new places with new legal frameworks affect the development of Jewish society and culture?
  • What were the nature and characteristics of Jewish transregional networks in the Early Modern age?
  • How did the religious and cultural borders between Ashkenazim and Sephardim change?
  • How did the spread of printing affect cultural and intellectual boundaries both inside Jewish society and between Jews and non-Jews?
  • To what extent did early modern Jewish society witness shifts in its cultural borders, such as those between men and women, the educated and the uneducated, and the rabbinic and lay elites?
  • How did early modern European religious and intellectual life affect the social, cultural and political boundaries between Jew and non-Jew?
  • What are the implications of changes in the social, cultural, religious, and political borders of the early modern Jewish world for our understanding of the early modern period in general? and of the modern Jewish experience as well?

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