Modes of Canonization: The Case of the Cairo Genizah



 Research in the humanities depends on sources, primarily the surviving writings of different periods. These writings represent various civilizations and genres and their achievements, and include works which achieved canonical status and others which were popular only in their own time.

A brief glance at contemporary literature is enough to show that the longevity of literary  works varies tremendously: some enjoy a brief moment of popularity, while others are destined to attain long-lasting recognition. Researchers in many fields share an interest in the question: What causes some works to achieve canonical status while others are forgotten? This question arises in all areas of the humanities, in historical investigations of social and legal phenomena, among sociologists of culture and historical anthropologists, and in studies of the formation of memory and the organization of knowledge.

This question is particularly significant for scholars of Jewish literature, because it touches on the creation of "the library of Judaism" - the primary vehicle for the maintenance of cultural continuity of a people which was separated from its homeland throughout most of its existence. The definition of "the library of Judaism" is at the center of much contemporary discussion of Jewish identity and continuity.

The Cairo Genizah  is a precious and unique resource for the exploration of this question. This collection comprises a hoard of written sources, both literary and documentary, many of which did not survive elsewhere. Comparison of those works preserved within and outside the Genizah can teach us a great deal about the process of canonization, and may suggest a new model, potentially applicable to many additional areas, to explain the dynamics of marginalization and forgetting on the one hand, and of acceptance and canonization on the other. Unlike most manuscripts preserved in libraries, the Genizah fragments were discarded after use. Many of these ceased to be studied and used, and may thus provide us with examples of what was found unworthy of preservation. Other works continued to be copied and remained in constant use, up to the present day.

The Genizah collections include hundreds of thousands of manuscript leaves covering most of the fields of creativity of the Jews of the Muslim world, many of them datable. These represent the output of the bulk of world Jewry from the 8th to the 11th centuries. The Genizah enables us to compare what has survived elsewhere with the fragments it has preserved. This affords us a rare opportunity to study what has been lost using a variety of criteria and to propose a model based on a very substantial data base, covering a wide range of cultural expressions over an extended period. This model will attempt to elaborate "laws of survival" which can explain the selection of some works and the rejection of others.

The study of societies and of literary works is generally pursued along disciplinary lines. The proposed project will require the collaboration of scholars representing three distinct areas: experts in the various fields of Jewish studies; students of cultural history and of cultures in which somewhat similar finds have been made; and social scientists who investigate the sociology of culture, collective memory, literacy and historical anthropology. Our group intends to pose broad and deep questions and to investigate them on the basis of an extraordinarily rich case study, in order to illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary discourse for all those who participate in it.



Group Menbers:

Prof. Menachem Ben Sasson -

Prof. Robert Brody -

Prop. Amia Lieblich -

Donna Shalev -

Zeev Elkin -

Dr. Maya Banish Weisman -

Gabriela Cerra -

Dr. Zvi stampfer -

Dr. Yoel Regev -