Report on the Centenary Celebrations of Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor Seminar November, 2008
Report from Prof Stefan Reif.

A day‑long seminar held at St John's College, Cambridge, on 2 November, 2008, offered about a hundred participants an experience that was, in a number of major respects, unique.

The papers on Charles Taylor, Master of St John's College from 1881 until his death in 1908, constituted the first serious attempt to assess that scholar's contribution to learning in the diverse fields of Genizah manuscript acquisition, Hebrew studies, mathematics and University progress. Professor Chris Dobson, Master of St John's College, who chaired the proceedings, was probably the first Cambridge head of house to function in this way on the subject of the Genizah texts and related fields.

An exciting collection of manuscripts, from both the University Library and from St John's College Library, was exhibited in the Rare Books section of the latter. What is more, one of the lecturers, Professor Raphael Loewe, was lecturing on the seventieth anniversary of his arrival at St John's College to study Classics in 1938.

One part of the proceedings, arranged to mark the centenary of the death of Taylor, was devoted to his academic achievements and their intellectual, social and historical background, while, in the remainder, the stress was placed on the scholarly significance of the Genizah materials, found in Cairo in the nineteenth century and dating from about a thousand years ago. Most of the lectures were illustrated with a variety of images that were often colourful and exotic.

Janet Soskice, Reader in Philosophical Theology in the University of Cambridge, spoke about the two Scottish sisters, Mrs Agnes Lewis and Mrs Margaret Gibson and how they had studied numerous European and Semitic languages in order to improve their understanding of European and Near Eastern culture. They had brought back remarkable Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic documents from Egypt and the Holy Land, including some items from the Cairo Genizah. Although they were on good terms with such hebraists as Charles Taylor, they also enjoyed close friendships with non‑establishment figures within and around the University. They were on especially good terms with Solomon and Mathilde Schechter, and it was Dr Schechter who was shown some of their finds and who then made his famous visit to Cairo and brought back almost 140,000 manuscript fragments to Cambridge University Library.

Professor Loewe, retired from the Goldsmid Chair at University College London, explained how rabbinical Hebrew had come to be studied in Cambridge, especially in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and how Solomon Marcus Schiller‑Szinessy, a Hungarian Rabbi with impressive Classical as well as Rabbinic learning, had been engaged to describe the Hebrew manuscripts in the University Library and to introduce the systematic teaching of post‑biblical Hebrew to the University's students. Charles Taylor had been one of his pupils and had been inspired to a life‑long study of rabbinical texts. Others had been among the country's leading Old Testament scholars in the late nineteenth century.

The mishnaic tractate 'Avot, replete with ethical maxims and apothegms, was the subject of the lecture given by Professor Shimon Sharvit, Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar‑Ilan University, Israel. He noted how the extensive halakhic and liturgical use of the tractate had led to corruptions in its transmission and traced the beginnings of serious manuscript study of this work in the nineteenth century. Taylor had recognized the importance of 'Avot for the literary and linguistic history of the Mishnah and had compiled a detailed commentary, assisted in his early editions by Schiller‑Szinessy and later by Solomon Schechter, but also himself very much at home in this form of literature. He pointed out examples of the quality of Taylor's insights into the meaning of unusual words and phrases.

The Emeritus Professor of Medieval Hebrew in the University of Cambridge, Professor Stefan Reif ‑ also a Fellow of St John's College ‑ dealt with the manner in which Taylor had related to other Hebrew scholars. He had demonstrated outstanding kindness and generosity, had funded part of the cost of the lectureship in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature, and had co‑operated in numerous academic projects. Above all, he had covered the expenditure of Schechter's historic visit to Cairo. It now even seemed likely that he had paid a large sum for the acquisition of the Genizah texts. The Taylor‑Schechter Genizah Collection not only testified to his munificence but also to his involvement in the early identification and careful publication of some of the most exciting finds.

It was Charles Taylor's career at St John's that occupied the attention of Dr Andrew Macintosh, Fellow of St John's, who had served as President of the College and taught Hebrew at the Faculty of Divinity for many years. He acknowledged the role played by Taylor ‑ an Anglican priest with a conservative love of tradition of learning but also with an open mind and 'cautious courtesy'‑ in changing the University's regulations to enable religious nonconformists, such as Roman Catholics and Jews, to become members of the University. Dr Macintosh described the young Taylor's rowing and mountaineering skills, his middle‑aged Hebrew expertise, and the marriage made in his mature years with the young Margaret Dillon who was to continue calling him 'My Master' throughout her 34 years of widowhood.

An assessment of Taylor's contribution to mathematics was made by another Johnian Fellow, Peter Johnstone, Professor of Foundation of Mathematics at Cambridge. Having examined his books and articles on the subject, he had been impressed by the fact that Taylor had continued to publish in the field virtually throughout his career. He had produced many editions of text‑books on conics, had apparently been the first to refer to the subject in that way rather than as 'conic sections', and had given mathematical papers to learned societies. Although most of what he had to say was in the realm of the further clarification of Euclidian geometry, he had in his later work also begun to demonstrate a more analytical approach.

Dr Efraim Lev, of the University of Haifa, dealt with the Genizah manuscripts' contribution to the history of medicine. He explained how he had added about another 200 items to the catalogue prepared by the late Dr Haskell Isaacs, reaching a total of over 1800 descriptions. He had drawn up details of the drugs used and those who traded in them, and had prepared lists of the physicians and pharmacists mentioned. He had encountered a range of text‑books employed by these specialists, some of them not previously known. He analysed examples of common prescriptions, some of them written in Hebrew script while others preferred Arabic. Dr Lev also distinguished between those texts relating to practical materia medica and those concerned with medical theory.

Dr Esther‑Miriam Wagner made it clear that the Genizah texts were a rich source of data for Arabic and Islamic studies and regretted that the attention given to these texts had come mainly from scholars on the Jewish rather than on both the Jewish and Muslim sides of learning. Working as she now did as a Research Associate in the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library, she had come across a wide variety of fragments that were not only parts of sacred literature, both Muslim and Jewish, but also filled many gaps in our knowledge of more mundane fields. The Karaite use of Arabic was an intriguing topic and the dialect of Arabic reflected in the Judaeo‑Arabic used by the Jewish communities of the Genizah period, especially around the twelfth century, was of major importance to our understanding of the development of vernacular, as against Qur'anic, Arabic.

The final paper on the significance of the Taylor‑Schechter Genizah Collection was given by Professor Gideon Bohak who heads the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Religious Studies at Tel Aviv University. Dealing with his specialist field of Jewish magic, he demonstrated how much easier it was for the researcher to deal with conserved Genizah materials, which were in specific locations and had clear classmarks, than to struggle with artefacts such as Babylonian incantation bowls which often had very dubious origins and questionable ownership. Professor Bohak explained the trade in amulets, the historical continuity of many magical traditions, and the degree to which this kind of material illuminated social history, cross‑cultural borrowings and the struggle between popular and authoritative religiosity.

In the final section of the Seminar, the current head of the Genizah Research Unit, Dr Ben Outhwaite, pointed out that the Unit, and indeed the University Library, was keen to find the necessary funding to continue all the projects which had been ongoing for a number of years, as well as undertaking new ones. He made specific reference to the most recent work on the newly loaned Mosseri Collection and to its special problems of conservation. He also updated the audience on a exciting project, for which funding of £1m had just been promised by the Friedberg Genizah Project in New York, and which would ensure that within about three years every Cambridge Genizah fragment would be digitally scanned and made available online by both Cambridge University Library and the Friedberg Genizah Project.

Professor Reif then summarized what he felt had been learned during the day, especially from the life and work of Charles Taylor. Scholars should promote a love of learning and an industrious enthusiasm for explaining its ramifications and publicising their findings. They should encourage co‑operative research, rise above their religious and national differences, and leave a legacy significant enough to ensure the future continuity of their scholarship. He thanked the Master and the College for their generous support, the lecturers for their contributions and the audience for its participation. He hoped that as a result of the Seminar it might be possible to raise the funds to endow another research post in the Unit, possibly, as a tribute to Taylor, with a Johnian connection.

SCR 4 November 2008