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Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

 

Pinchas_GillerReviewed by Rabbi Pinchas Giller, Ph.D., Author, Chair of the Jewish Studies Department and Professor in Medieval Jewish Thought at AJU 

For all of us lonely acolytes, by which I mean Jewish scholars obsessed by the ancient text in all of its mystery, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole's Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza is an enthralling and vindicating academic detective story. Hoffman and Cole chronicle a world of 20th century scholars, with all the dramas and upheavals of their lives and times, and the thrilling discoveries that they made in the writings found in the Cairo Geniza.

A geniza is a place used for storing the detritus of Jewish religious life, the materials that were used as sacred objects, but are worn out. They can't be thrown away, so they have to be buried or otherwise stored indefinitely. In late antiquity and the Middle Ages, any Hebrew writing was viewed as ancient, and the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue of old Cairo held a thousand years worth of such scraps.  Upon the discovery of the geniza by Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University, modern knowledge widened and deepened explosively. The “geniza fragments” profoundly challenged orthodox ways of seeing the nature of Rabbinic Judaism, the relationship of Judaism to Christianity, and the inner lives of the giants of classical Judaism, from the apocryphal Ben Sira to Josephus, from Maimonides to Isaac Luria. The initial conclusions reached upon the discovery of the Cairo Geniza were touchstones for the development of liberal Jewish movements.

Hoffman and Cole juxtapose the succession of scholars who study of the geniza with the import and mysteries of the texts themselves. The scholars are lonely obsessive, brilliant analysts who quietly commit their lives to the decipherment of the geniza fragments.  The figure of Solomon Schechter looms largest and the authors give a strong portrayal to the big man, his fingers stained with coffee and tobacco. He was the most natural leader of the protagonists of the book, although the hardy, picaresque Israel Davidson, the gulag survivor Ezra Fleischer, and the Berlin-educated Shlomo Goitein were united in their questing scholarship, uncovering the deepest meanings of Jewish history at the same time that they were living, heroically, in its modern upheavals.