30th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI

May 13, 2022  | 10am ET

Award of the 2022 Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize at the GHI | Prize Winner: Tamar Menashe (University of Pennsylvania)

The Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize is kindly sponsored by the Friends of the German Historical Institute.

Prize Winner: Tamar Menashe: The Imperial Supreme Court and Jews in Cross-Confessional Legal Cultures in Germany, 1495-1690 (Columbia University, 2022)

COVID-19 Policy: You will have to show proof of vaccination at the door. The GHI enforces a mask mandate throughout the building regardless of CDC guidelines.

Tamar Menashe's dissertation reconstructs Ashkenazi and Sephardi German Jews' intensive pursuit of civil and religious rights before Germany's Imperial Supreme Court (Reichskammergericht, the Imperial Chamber Court) in the context of the wide-ranging religious and legal reforms in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The dissertation reveals that the study of Jews' surprising strategies of interconnecting law and religion in defense of themselves and their religious laws promited Jews' civil rights in radical ways, and attained a de facto status of imperial citizenship for Ashkenazi and Sephardi-Portugese Jews.

Selection committee for the 2022 Fritz Stern Prize: Prof. Daniel Riches (Chair), Prof. Barnet Hartston, Prof. Philipp Nielsen.

Prize Citation

Selection committee: Barnet Hartston (Eckerd College), Philipp Nielsen (Sarah Lawrence College), Daniel Riches, Chair (University of Alabama)

Dr. Tamar Menashe, "The Imperial Supreme Court and Jews in Cross-Confessional Legal Cultures, 1495-1690" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of History, Columbia University, Director: Professor Elisheva Carlebach)

Tamar Menashe’s dissertation, The Imperial Supreme Court and Jews in Cross-Confessional Legal Cultures, 1495-1690, is a work of breathtaking erudition and scope.  Grounded in meticulous research spanning over thirty archives in six countries and six languages, Dr. Menashe has produced a work of scholarship that is both innovative and profound, with findings that are as significant and surprising as they are historiographically iconoclastic.  She has brought to our field not only things we did not know, but rather things we did not believe possible.

The key here is Dr. Menashe’s creative recovery of a strong Jewish voice and effective Jewish agency in the early modern Holy Roman Empire.  The paucity of surviving source material produced by early modern Jewish Germans – and parallel paucity of scholars with the historiographical and linguistic range to combine high-level understanding of the Empire’s Byzantine structures and practices with the ability to use Hebrew and Yiddish sources – have led to the widespread assumption that a deep study of the early modern Jewish experience in the Empire from a Jewish perspective was simply not possible, and that any Jewish voice that could be found would surely be one of defensive retreat from uniformly intolerant surroundings.  Dr. Menashe’s dissertation explodes these assumptions by turning to the records of the Empire’s notoriously decentralized legal system, examining thousands of court documents spread across dozens of collections to reveal a remarkable world of active and successful Jewish legal activity in the Empire’s courts, whose files are shown to contain a surprising number of documents written by early modern Jewish Germans themselves that previous scholars have overlooked.

This discovery in itself would have been an accomplishment of major proportions.  What takes Dr. Menashe’s dissertation to another level, however, is her penetrating analysis of the ends to which early modern Jews used their activity in the Empire’s courts.  Dr. Menashe deftly teases out the ways in which Jewish residents of the Empire made conscious use of their special legal status as directly subject to the immediate jurisdiction of the emperor regardless of their territory of residence or activity to initiate lawsuits directly at the level of the Reichskammergericht (one of the Empire’s two supreme courts that usually functioned as an appellate court) while at the same time manipulating the rhetorics of universality embedded in the Roman Law tradition that German jurists were at that moment in the process of implementing in the Empire to persuade imperial judges to incorporate Jewish law into court proceedings regarding Jewish litigants.  We see here a kind of utterly unexpected intersectionality between a minority group’s special legal status and a legal system’s universalizing rhetorical space that was seized upon actively, assertively, and perhaps most remarkably, successfully, by the Empire’s Jews in what Dr. Menashe refers to as an “imperial endorsement of Jewish jurisdictional power” (102.)  Dr. Menashe’s dissertation shows us, then, that contrary to the prevailing literature the Empire’s early modern Jews were not a passively fading group that was acted upon by structures of power without themselves being active, but rather that Jews increasingly used litigation as a path to legitimate their place in German society, or better said were successful at writing themselves into German political community through litigation.

Only a scholar with Dr. Menashe’s impressive linguistic and paleographic range to engage German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin sources in their handwritten, early modern variants, could have produced such powerful, and unexpected, conclusions.

In recognition of her outstanding contribution to our field, the prize committee is pleased to award – enthusiastically and unanimously – this year’s Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize to Dr. Tamar Menashe.