Faculty Bookshelf: Jeffrey Shoulson

Books by Jeffrey Shoulson

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Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Editor, with Allison P. Coudert.

The fraught history of England’s Long Reformation is a convoluted if familiar story: in the space of twenty-five years, England changed religious identity three times. In 1534 England broke from the papacy with the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII head of the church; nineteen years later the act was overturned by his daughter Mary, only to be reinstated at the ascension of her half-sister Elizabeth. Buffeted by political and confessional cross-currents, the English discovered that conversion was by no means a finite, discrete process. In Fictions of Conversion, Jeffrey S. Shoulson argues that the vagaries of religious conversion were more readily negotiated when they were projected onto an alien identity—one of which the potential for transformation offered both promise and peril but which could be kept distinct from the emerging identity of Englishness: the Jew.

Early modern Englishmen and -women would have recognized an uncannily familiar religious chameleon in the figure of the Jewish converso, whose economic, social, and political circumstances required religious conversion, conformity, or counterfeiting. Shoulson explores this distinctly English interest in the Jews who had been exiled from their midst nearly three hundred years earlier, contending that while Jews held out the tantalizing possibility of redemption through conversion, the trajectory of falling in and out of divine favor could be seen to anticipate the more recent trajectory of England’s uncertain path of reformation. In translations such as the King James Bible and Chapman’s Homer, dramas by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson, and poetry by Donne, Vaughan, and Milton, conversion appears as a cypher for and catalyst of other transformations—translation, alchemy, and the suspect religious enthusiasm of the convert—that preoccupy early modern English cultures of change.

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Hebraic Veritas? Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)

In the early modern period, the religious fervor of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, social unrest, and millenarianism all seemed to foster greater anti-Judaism in Christian Europe, yet the increased intolerance was also accompanied by more intimate and complex forms of interaction between Christians and Jews. Printing, trade, and travel combined to bring those from both sides of the religious divide into closer contact than ever before, while growing interest in magic and the Kabbalah encouraged Christians to study Hebrew in addition to Latin and Greek. In Hebraica Veritas? Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe, noted scholars trace how these early modern encounters played key roles in defining attitudes toward personal, national, and religious identity in Western culture.

As Christians increasingly patronized Jewish scholars, in person and in print, Christian Hebraism flourished. The twelve essays assembled here address the important but often neglected subject of the early modern encounter between Christians and Jews. They illustrate how this envolvement shaped each group’s self-perception and sense of otherness and contributed to the emergence of the modern study of cultural anthropology, comparative religion, and Jewish studies. But the chapters also reveal how the encounter challenged traditional religious beliefs, fostering the skepticism, toleration, and irreligion conventionally associated with the Enlightenment.

Many of the Christian Hebraists described in these essays were linguists and textual critics, and their work highlights the ambiguous role played by language and texts in transmitting natural and divine truth. It was during the early modern period that numerous concepts underpinning modern Western secular society came into existence, and as Hebraica Veritas? shows, the subject of Christian Hebraism has direct relevance to understanding the intellectual changes and challenges characterizing the transition from the ancient to the modern world.

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Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2001)

Taking as its starting point the long-standing characterization of Milton as a “Hebraic” writer, Milton and the Rabbis probes the limits of the relationship between the seventeenth-century English poet and polemicist and his Jewish antecedents. Shoulson’s analysis moves back and forth between Milton’s writings and Jewish writings of the first five centuries of the Common Era, collectively known as midrash. In exploring the historical and literary implications of these connections, Shoulson shows how Milton’s text can inform a more nuanced reading of midrash just as midrash can offer new insights into Paradise Lost.

Shoulson is unconvinced of a direct link between a specific collection of rabbinic writings and Milton’s works. He argues that many of Milton’s poetic ideas that parallel midrash are likely to have entered Christian discourse not only through early modern Christian Hebraicists but also through Protestant writers and preachers without special knowledge of Hebrew. At the heart of Shoulson’s inquiry lies a fundamental question: When is an idea, a theme, or an emphasis distinctively Judaic or Hebraic and when is it Christian? The difficulty in answering such questions reveals and highlights the fluid interaction between ostensibly Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian modes of thought not only during the early modern period but also early in time when rabbinic Judaism and Christianity began.