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Abstract

Most discussions about notions of authority and dissent in early modem Europe usually imply those embedded in Christian traditions, whether Protestant or Catholic. To address these same issues from the perspective of Jewish culture in early modem Europe is to consider the subject from a relatively different vantage point. The small Jewish communities of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries were shaped in manifold ways by the norms and values of the Christian and Moslem host civilizations to which they belonged. Yet, they were also heirs to powerful rabbinic religious and political traditions that structured their social relationships and shaped their attitudes towards divine law, human responsibility, communal discipline, and authority. To examine their universe of discourse in its proper context is to view it both in its own cultural terms and in its dialogue and negotiation with the non-Jewish world.

No period in Jewish cultural history has undergone more radical reformulation and revision by recent scholarship than the early modem; though to what extent conventional schemes of periodization like "early modern," "Renaissance," or "baroque" can be meaningfully applied to the Jewish cultural experience is a question which still engenders much discussion and debate. Equally problematic is a proper evaluation of the kabbalah, the traditions of Jewish mystical and esoteric experience, which appear to dominate the cultural landscape of European Jewry during this period in a dramatic and unprecedented manner. It is my contention that the impact of the kabbalah on Jewish society and culture is not only a critical component in defining the distinct characteristics of this period in Jewish history, but it also has much to contribute to the question of how religious authority can be subverted by powerful voices within its own tradition. It also serves to elucidate how the restructuring of religious and social attitudes, generally associated with that transition from medievalism to modernity, paradoxically might be engendered by forces unleashed by the tradition itself.

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