This introductory chapter provides an overview of the degree of cultural embeddedness that was manifest among the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz with regard to their beliefs and practices surrounding the dead and their world. Medieval Ashkenaz as a cultural milieu included the Jewish communities of Germany (the empire north of the Alps), France north of the Loire, and England. Historians of western Europe have documented major transformations in attitudes and practices related to death and the hereafter which took place in that period. One such transformation consisted of a movement away from the perception of death as a generalized, objective experience and towards a more subjective, individualized notion of it. Belief in personal judgement after the death of the individual similarly became widespread at the time. Historians of medieval Jewry have also pointed to the primacy of the high medieval period in the shaping of Jewish practices and attitudes regarding the dead. Bearing in mind the simultaneous shifts in consciousness and praxis within both the dominant culture of Christian Europe and the subculture of medieval Ashkenaz, the book seeks to discover whether these changes were related or merely coincidental. It assesses how far death-related beliefs and practices that circulated in the Germano-Christian environment of the time penetrated Sefer ḥasidim, the great religious-ethical work of the Pietists.
Keywords: medieval Ashkenazi Jews, Jewish communities, medieval Ashkenaz, death-related beliefs, personal judgement, medieval Jewry, Germano-Christian beliefs, Sefer ḥasidim, Jewish practices, Jewish attitudes
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