The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed an explosion of Christian interest in the meaning and workings of the natural world—a "discovery of nature" that profoundly reshaped the intellectual currents and spiritual contours of European society—yet to all appearances, the Jews of medieval northern Europe (Ashkenaz) were oblivious to the shifts reshaping their surrounding culture. Scholars have long assumed that rather than exploring or contemplating the natural world, the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz were preoccupied solely with the supernatural and otherworldly: magic and mysticism, demonology and divination, as well as the zombies, werewolves, dragons, flying camels, and other monstrous and wondrous creatures that destabilized any pretense of a consistent and encompassing natural order.
In A Remembrance of His Wonders, David I. Shyovitz disputes this long-standing and far-reaching consensus. Analyzing a wide array of neglected Ashkenazic writings on the natural world in general, and the human body in particular, Shyovitz shows how Jews in Ashkenaz integrated regnant scientific, magical, and mystical currents into a sophisticated exploration of the boundaries between nature and the supernatural. Ashkenazic beliefs and practices that have often been seen as signs of credulity and superstition in fact mirrored—and drew upon—contemporaneous Christian debates over the relationship between God and the natural world. In charting these parallels between Jewish and Christian thought, Shyovitz focuses especially upon the mediating role of polemical texts and encounters that served as mechanisms for the transmission of religious doctrines, scientific facts, and cultural mores. Medieval Jews' preoccupation with the apparently "supernatural" reflected neither ignorance nor intellectual isolation but rather a determined effort to understand nature's inner workings and outer limits and to integrate and interrogate the theologies and ideologies of the broader European Christian society.
"A Remembrance of His Wonders is an excellent achievement that deals with central research questions regarding the understanding of the wondrous in nature by the Jews of Ashkenaz. David I. Shyovitz presents fascinating parallels between the writings of the German Pietists and contemporary Christian texts, showing that their understandings of nature are quite similar."—Israel Yuval, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
"This book advances a bold and original interpretation of Jewish engagement with the natural world in the Middle Ages . . . Ultimately Shyovitz does more than simply show that Jews in French- and German- speaking Europe studied the natural world; he suggests that their works had an afterlife. He shows that Jewish thinkers from throughout the early modern world read, internalized, and applied the insights of the medieval Ashkenazic forebears. Thanks to Shyovitz's hard work, clear writing, and keen historical sense, the texts he unearthed and presented to a broad academic readership have earned multiple afterlives, not only in later Jewish writings but in modern scholarship as well."—Isis