Page 151 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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From Zion Shall Go Forth the Law:
on the 500th Anniversary of the Birth
ofJoseph Caro
a n y
d i s c i p l in e s
n o w
c o n t r i b u t e
to an understanding of Jew­
ish history besides the traditional
the litanies of great rabbis and great tragedies. Yet reli­
gious and legal texts must still occupy a significant position
among the sources with which it is possible to reconstruct a pic­
ture of Jewish life in the past, whether political, economic, social,
or intellectual. The lives of great men and women and their books
are still essential for an understanding of the Jewish experience.
One such person is Joseph Caro (1488-1575).
The reconstruction of Caro’s life is particularly fraught with
obstacles for the modern researcher. Not only might his two chief
preoccupations, Halakhah and Kabbalah, be considered inher­
ently contradictory or at least fields of study requiring skills
which most contemporary scholars have not mastered with equal
competence, but Caro’s image through the past five hundred
years has been distorted by writers with deeply rooted biases
against either or both of his areas of interest and accomplish­
ment. On the one hand, as creator of the
Shulhan Arukh,
the most
influential code ofJewish law, Caro was accused of an intellectual
narrowness that straightjacketed Jewish life. On the other hand,
as a person associated with a maggid — a heavenly mentor who
communicated with him—he was considered beyond the bound­
aries of normal rational Jewish life.
These polarities in approaches to Caro were created by Jewish
writers who had objections either to the legal foundations of tra­
ditional Jewish life or to the mystical components ofJudaism or to
both. One such writer who saw Caro’s mind as divided between,
on the one hand, “a sea of casuistical details and mere externals”