Jay Berkovitz

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2018/2019
discipline History and Law
Professor & Chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Research project

Law’s Dominion: Jewish Family, Community, and Religion in Early Modern Europe


Law’s Dominion: Jewish Family, Community, and Religion in Early Modern Europe aims to advance our understanding of the legal traditions that shaped Jewish life in the century and half preceding the French Revolution. In order to trace the development of Jewish law within an historical framework, much emphasis will be placed on the responsiveness of Jewish jurists to the social, economic, cultural, and political changes that transformed family, community, and religious sensibilities in the early modern period. Legal sources will be enlisted to identify hitherto unexamined subjects, to furnish unknown information, and to provide valuable new perspectives on what it meant for Jews to live as a minority within a majority culture. An underlying objective of this book is to show how Jewish law regularly adapted to pressures imposed on the Jews as a minority. It is this adaptive capacity that challenges the very idea of an insular legal system.


While disproving the charge of insularity commonly hurled against Judaism and Jewish law is a worthy goal, it is not the issue with which the present study is engaged. Three objectives are at the heart of Law’s Dominion. First is the effort to grasp how early modern judicial rulings were constructed and the modes of interpretation that were crafted by jurists (poseqim). Close attention to language and rhetoric will be vital to our analysis, as will be the role of precedent and judicial freedom in advanced by medieval and early modern rabbinic authorities. The second objective is to examine the response of poseqim to the challenges of everyday life, and how legal ideas came to be expressed concretely in communal institutions and policies, in the dynamics of family relationships, and in commercial transactions of various types. Attention will also be given to the strategies used by judicial authorities to navigate competing jurisdictions. The third objective is to consider the development of Jewish legal thought in an era of major intellectual challenges that included natural law theory, the idea of the separation of church and state, popular sovereignty, historicism, and the heightened role of textuality.


Law’s Dominion examines the full range of legal sources produced in the early modern period: codes, customs books, communal legislation, responsa, and rabbinic court records. Together, these sources paint a comprehensive picture of Jewish life in the following areas: (i) the family and household as a unit of residence, production, and consumption; (ii) the role of women in matters of economy, family, and ritual; (iii) financial practices and commercial transactions; (iv) communal life; (v) the role of religion in establishing norms of behavior for individuals and society. In light of the wide dispersion of early modern Jewish communities across the continent, the above-mentioned sources hold great promise for launching a comparative history of legal culture as reflected in the realms of civil and religious life.




Jay Berkovitz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He received his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Jay Berkovitz has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Starr Fellowship at Harvard University, the Lady Davis Professorship at the Hebrew University, the Marion and Jasper Whiting Fellowship, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the 2011-12 Inaugural National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Scholar Fellowship, sponsored by the Center for Jewish History in New York. He has held visiting appointments at Bar Ilan University, University of Connecticut at Storrs, and Yeshiva University. He is a Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research.

Berkovitz research and teaching focus on the early modern history of European Jews, with special emphasis on Jewish law, family, ritual, and communal governance.


Selected publications


‘Rabbinic Culture and the Historical Development of Halakhah’, Cambridge History of Judaism, vol.7, 2017, pp. 349-377.


‘Competing Perspectives on Legal Decision-Making in Early Modern Ashkenaz’, Jewish History, vol. 31, no. 1-2, 2017, pp.  149-171.


Protocols of Justice: The Pinkas of the Metz Rabbinic Court, 1771-1789, Brill, Leiden, 2014.


Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2004; paperback edition, 2007.


‘Ritual and Emancipation: Reassessing Cultural Modernization in France’, Historical Reflections / Réflexions historiques, vol. 32, no. 1, 2006, pp. 9-38.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Religious Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Southeast Asian Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History