Religion, money and hate by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Are houses of worship built to celebrate the glory of God or the glory of humans? That question would not have been asked of synagogues in medieval Europe because of the many restrictions limiting the size and height of those buildings. Other laws restricted where Jews could live and which occupations they could hold. It might therefore seem strange to read a review of a novel called “Cathedral” (Europa Editions) in a Jewish newspaper, but Ben Hopkins’ brilliant and panoramic look at 12th-13th century Hagenburg (in an area of the Rhineland that was part of the Holy Roman Empire) not only speaks to Christian readers, but to Jewish ones. 

The 600-page novel contains a wide cast of characters and their lives overlap in unexpected ways. Always in the background is the cathedral that is being built – one so awe-inspiring that it will rival the glory of those being constructed in Paris. Reaction to the building varies: it brings tears to the eyes of shepherd Rettich Schaffer because, even though only partially finished, it is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Eugenius von Zabern, a priest who is also the bishop’s treasurer, has no doubt the building will be impressive if ever completed, but mostly thinks about the expense since he is in charge of raising funds to continue its construction. Yudl Ben Yitzhak Rosheimer, the nephew of the city’s best known Jewish moneylender, sees the cathedral as an abomination, a monstrosity that is like a “demon squatting on the idolatrous earth.” These are only a few of the 15 characters who live in the shadow of the cathedral. 

A great deal of the plot centers on the competition between the merchant class and the church as to who will control the city’s resources. The artisans and merchants gather into guilds to consolidate their power – although Jewish artisans were not allowed to join and were then no longer able to ply their trades. The church does not want to cede to any power to what it sees as an upstart class, even when its power is threatened by the demands of the city’s increasingly larger population, as those from the countryside flock to the city for work. Both clergy and merchants try to tie the aristocracy to their cause. That landed class looks to its own desires, sometimes siding with the clergy and other times with the guilds. The changing fortunes of each side shows the move from clerical power to secular power – a struggle for not only the money, but the souls and beliefs of all who live in the city. 

Of interest to Jewish readers will be the ways the Jewish population of the city survives in this hostile atmosphere. At best, the Jews were tolerated within the city’s border. Judaism was seen as a lesser religion, as shown by the statues that will decorate the cathedral. The statue portraying Judaism shows a dejected woman: “Her eyes are blindfolded, her mouth is drawn down in sadness. Her right hand carries a broken spear, from her left hand, a stone tablet is falling. She is the Old Covenant, she is the Synagogue. Blinded, broken, in darkness, unaccepting of the Truth and the Light.” The statue symbolizing Christianity, on the other hand, shows a woman whose “eyes are open, her richly curled hair carries a Crown. Her seeing eyes stare into a bright future.” 

Jewish and Christian lives did overlap, especially when a Christian was low on funds. Since there are no banks and Christians were forbidden by the church to lend money with interest, many Jews served as moneylenders. That was one of the few occupations open to them, especially after the formation of the guilds, which made it impossible for Jewish artisans to sell to anyone other than fellow Jews. Yet, dealings with the Church often went through middlemen, Christians working for Jews who pretended to handle the transactions so they would be sanctioned by the Church. This time period was also the beginning of Christian attacks against the Talmud, which led to its burning in some areas of Europe, along with the additional persecution of the Jewish community.

Although “Cathedral” contains a large number of characters and a variety of interweaving plots, it was surprisingly easy to read. All of the characters are complex and fascinating people whose interactions will intrigue readers. What was surprising is how readers will come to care about them, even those they disliked at first. Other characters, who at first seemed pure of heart, will disappoint as they become corrupted by power and money. The ending ties the different strands of the novel together in a satisfying and meaningful way, showing the power of simple faith, no matter in which religious tradition it is celebrated.