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Who's Blessing whom?: Transcendence, agency, and gender in Jewish prayer.

I am grateful to Warren Zev Harvey, Susannah Heschel, Judith Kates, and Catherine Madsen for stimulating conversations on these issues over the years. Needless to say, they bear no responsibility for my views or errors.

Introduction

In the words of a leading contemporary scholar of Jewish liturgy, "Our inherited prayer-book language for God is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for modern men and women." (1) In particular, the traditional blessing formula "Barukh attah Adonai, elohenu melekh ha-olam, asher..." "Blessed are [or: be] You, O Lord our God, sovereign [literally: king] of the universe, who..." has not fared well under the critical gaze of Jewish feminist theologians. Objecting to the maleness and hierarchy supposedly inherent in this formula, they have advocated that it be amended so that Jews not pray to a God who is seemingly addressed as a dominating, disempowering, and male Other. For many, this formula itself is emblematic not only of an androcentric discourse about God, but of an androcentric, male-dominated human community. (2)

In this essay, my purpose is to propose an alternative reading of the traditional blessing formula: one that sustains the feminist critique of too much male language but that separates gender from the issue of transcendence. I aim to focus on the complex interplay of human agency and divine transcendence that the intricate Hebrew grammar of the traditional formula bespeaks, and to argue for the value of the dialectics of agency and of relationship that I believe it contains. With the example of the blessing formula, I wish to show why I don't agree with the view that often "[Jewish] prayers... express only the hopes of men...confess only the sins of men," and that "women temporarily abandon the selves they really are in order to pray in the words of the community." (3) I contend that the traditional blessing formula suggests valuable perspectives--for all Jews, women and feminists among them.

A few words by way of introduction to explain the linkage of gender, disempowerment, and immanence in the feminist critique. The salient fact is that Hebrew inflects all nouns and verbs according to masculine or feminine grammatical gender, and in this formula, the Hebrew words for "blessed," "you," "Lord," "God," and "king" and all attendant verbs are words whose grammatical gender is masculine. The major thrust of the feminist critique of Jewish liturgy is against this repeated maleness, since the grammatical gender is often understood. to denote maleness conceptually. Further, this critique links the cardinal sin of gender to the fatal twin of hierarchy: God conceived as sovereign is understood as a dominating Other whom humans allow to rob them of their independence and dignity. Again, grammar and conceptual thought are seen as allies, with the passive voice of barukh "blessed" coming to signify human. passivity and disempowerment. As feminist poet and liturgist Marcia Falk put it, "I realized that I had been uncomfortable with the passive 'blessed are you' of the traditional blessing not only because it is gender-restrictive but also because it is disempowering." (4) In the view of Falk and many others, her substitution of "the gender-inclusive first person plural verb n'varekh, 'let us bless'" simultaneously solves the problems of masculine gender and of human disempowerment, since first person plural verbs are among the few in Hebrew that are not gender-specific, and its usage emphasizes "the 'we' who are blessing...the community of living human speakers." (5) Finally, for many who subscribe to the feminist critique, it is within the community of empowered humans that God should be sought; immanentist concepts of the divine are to be preferred over transcendent ones since divine immanence is understood as empowering for humans and divine transcendence as disempowering for humans.

In contrast, I find the blessing formula through which Jews traditionally speak to and of God to be profoundly complex. I consider it useful for maintaining a meaningful and necessary notion of transcendence. In my view, gender and transcendence are entirely different issues, and Jewish feminists would be wise to decouple them. The language of maleness is dispensable; transcendence is not.

Is Barukh (Blessed) Really Passive?, or the Dialectics of Agency

In the traditional blessing formula, Barukh ("blessed") is a masculine singular passive participle, and it modifies attah "You" (grammatically, also masculine singular) and Adonai "0 Lord our God." In the next phrase, elohenu melekh ha-olam states that "You" who is "Lord our God" is in fact the "sovereign of the universe." As stated above, Falk considers the passive participle barukh to be disempowering, that is, disempowering of human beings; she avers that it ignores human agency because it does not explicitly name the human speaker of the blessing. So she substitutes N'varekh et eyn ha-hayyim, "let us bless the source (or well, wellspring, fountain) of life" for the traditional wording. In her view, the non-gendered first-person plural N'varekh states forthrightly that it is "we" who speak, as "we reclaim our voices, take back the power of naming." (6)

However, in my view, the real question is: of whom might the passive of barukh be disempowering? In fact, a more literal and more radical reading of the formula does not render passive the speaker at all. It can only be the addressee of the formula "You O Lord our God" who is addressed as the passive recipient of blessing. If the passive implies disempowerment, then, unexpectedly, it would seem to make God--and not the implied human speaker--passive!

This passive is very ambiguous and perplexing. What can it possibly mean that the passive blessed is used to invoke the blessing of/for God or the conferring of blessing upon God? How is God blessed, and by whom? The blessing formula states that the sovereign of the universe is being addressed and blessed. But do we not assume that the sovereign or master is the source of blessing in the universe? How then can anyone else bless that source? How then can the speakers--and that must be "us"--be the ones to bestow blessing upon God? How can anyone besides the source of blessing in fact bless that source? Is it not an arrogant act of hutzpah, nerve, or hubris to attempt such blessing?

Indeed, some take this point so seriously that they do not translate barukh as "blessed" but rather as "praised." Their assumption is that humans can acknowledge and praise the reality of God, but not cause God to be blessed; theologically, praising God is acceptable, but daring to bless God is deemed arrogant. Thus the blessing formula becomes "Praised be You" or "Praised are You" "0 Lord our God." (7)

However, I don't think that strategy is necessary; moreover, it is evasive and misses the point of the mysterious and paradoxical passive. Yes, the ultimate source of blessing is God, and yet, we as humans can bless God. I think the passive of barukh helps alert us to the paradoxical bi-directionality of the formula. God is the source of blessing, but God can be blessed and is blessed through us. God is not the only agent, for the blessing of God requires another agent, the human speaker of the formula. Thus the passive barukh is hardly disempowering of humans. Falk is right that it is humans after all who utter the blessing formula, but her "let us bless" tells us so explicitly that we are doing the blessing that it doesn't challenge us to think further about it. To my mind, the traditional passive barukh "blessed" is more effective than the explicit n'varekh "let us bless" in leading us to reflect seriously upon the meaning of the utterance and act of blessing. It is precisely the passive participle that h ighlights the question of agency: Why does God have to be blessed, and who is the implied subject of that blessing action here reflected in the passive participle? Who does that blessing of God?

How to understand the necessary moment of human agency embedded in the traditional blessing formula? One might draw on mystical notions of "divine need" and "call[ing] forth the Divine flow of blessing" (8)--a kabbalistic notion that rests on the assumption that the upper divine realm and the lower natural world mirror and affect each other, and that as the mystical classic the Zohar puts it, "The impulse from below calls forth that from above." (9) However, with or without kabbalistic underpinnings, one can infer from the blessing formula that we are somehow urging or helping God to bring to reality the "latent, unrealized, unfulfilled" (10) possibilities of blessing in the universe in a way that enhances both God and us. God the source of blessing has created the possibilities of goodness, well-being, and action in the universe, and somehow it is through our human efforts and agency that these are activated and come into being. The traditional blessing formula tells us that we humans are agents who contrib ute something vitally necessary for God to do God's work in the world--and not only for us to do our work in the world. Our acknowledgement of God through blessing activates or releases something important in God, in the world, and in ourselves, and in the relationships between all three--and perhaps most importantly, in the relationship between God and humans. Thus, we humans are hardly disempowered when we say barukh attah Adonai since it is we who pronounce the blessing of/upon God!

Yet, while evoking human agency, the traditional blessing formula obviously points in the direction of another kind of agency. Its passive participle barukh tells us that we humans are agents, but not the sole agents. We are audacious enough to bless God, but the passive tells us that blessing exists independently, outside of us. It is not fully within our agency, as it would be if we were to say straightforwardly "we bless God" with an active verb. The passive of barukh signals the limits within which human agency and empowerment work. It reminds us that the source of blessing--or goodness or creation--exists beyond us. There are forces beyond human agency, but it is within human agency to invoke those forces and to try to enter into relation with them, to meet and face them. The traditional formula tells us that we can bless; that we can even bless God; that we can invoke blessing upon God so as to help God bless us; but, that we cannot create the source of blessing in the universe. To my mind, the passive of this formula points ultimately not to disempowerment of either humans or God, but rather to a relation of mutuality--to a relation that involves both mutual limitation and mutual empowerment as it were.

In another respect, "let us bless" does less than full justice to the limited but still powerful human agency implied by the traditional formula. I think "let us bless" lacks performative "oomph." If we say "let us bless the source of life," what are we actually stating? We are merely declaring our intention or desire to bless, that is, to say certain words." We do not state that we are causing something to happen; we do not state that we are actually causing the source of life to be blessed. We are signaling our intention to talk, but not actually enacting or performing the act of blessing. Further, in my view, the translation "blessed be You" works better to convey the complex notions of interrelated human and divine agency. The subjunctive be ("blessed be You") works better than the indicative are ("blessed are You"), for it does not merely state a fact, but it causes something to happen by its utterance.

The Crowded Praying Field: Why Second and Third Persons Are Needed, or the Dialectics of Relationship

Let us return to the traditional blessing formula: "Barukh attah Adonai, elohenu melekh ha-olam, asher..." "Blessed be You, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who...." Those praying address God in the second person as "You O Lord." This Lord is then referred to in the third person as the sovereign of the universe who does such-and-such, for example "who commanded us to do something" or "who creates the fruit of the vine." Critics have focused on two problems in this formula--grammatical mixture and gender--and tried to amend it with two radically different solutions.

Hoffman has noted, "One of the primary issues of scholarly debate has been the odd fact that benedictions tend to begin in the second person...but continue in the third person.... The berakhah's two paradigmatic forms, one entirely in the third person and the other entirely in the second, were eventually combined to produce the hybrid that plagues us now"--that is, "Thou who creates." To avoid the grammatical mixture of persons, Hoffman proposes that the third person be dropped and the entire blessing formula transposed into the second person: "You are holy, God; You rule the universe." The verb that follows is then added as a participle: "who creates the fruit of the vine" becomes "creating the fruit of the vine." Thus, God is addressed only in the second person, "You are holy, God; You rule the universe, creating the fruit of the vine." (12)

In contrast, Falk focuses less on grammatical mixture and more on gender. As stated above, all the second and third person pronouns and verbs in the traditional blessing formula are grammatically masculine. Falk drops the second person altogether so that God does not need to be addressed in any gender-specific language. By using the gender-neutral first person plural N'varekh "let us bless," she eliminates the masculine You. She retains the third person descriptions of God but substitutes the impersonal image eyn ha-hayyim "fountain/well/source of life" for "sovereign [literally, king] of the universe." Thus, for example, the resulting blessing over wine becomes: "Let us bless the fountain/well/source of life who/that ripens/causes to grow the fruit of the vine." For Falk, one of the most important advantages of this image is that eyn in Hebrew is a feminine noun; accordingly, it and its attendant verbs are then all in feminine forms. With the masculine You removed and the impersonal but grammatically feminin e eyn replacing melekh (king), the gender problems appear solved. In the process, her new blessing formula "let us bless the source of life who does such-and-such" emphasizes the humans speaking to one another in the first person about the impersonal totality of life.

To summarize Hoffman's and Falk's approaches to the persons issues in the traditional blessing formula: for the sake of consistency, Hoffman drops the third person reference to God and retains only the second person; for the sake of eliminating the masculine-gendered references to God, Falk completely eliminates the second person, and indeed, personhood altogether for God. I consider both solutions unsatisfactory. Both sacrifice something vital in the complex blessing formula: the interplay between first, second, and third persons. In my view, more is at stake in this hybrid than grammatical consistency or gender. What is at stake is the expression of our understanding of our relations to God, the world, and ourselves, in other words, our understanding of who we are and where and how we stand.

The traditional blessing formula makes a complex theological and anthropological statement by presenting a very crowded praying field. First, second, and third persons are all present, jostled and jostling together, cheek by jowl as it were. The implied first-person speakers address God in the second person (You) and invoke blessing upon God. The speakers then go on to describe God's qualities or deeds in the third person: God is the "sovereign of the universe"..."who creates the fruit of the vine or who brings forth bread from the earth" or something else. So, that God about whom amazing things can be said descriptively in the third person is the same God that/whom we humans dare to address directly in the second person, as You. The sovereign of the universe is our God whom we can address. To make that fundamental statement, the first, second, and third persons must all be present. With only second person present (as in Hoffman's version) or with second person wholly absent (as in Falk's version), the jostli ng interplay simply doesn't exist.

What does that jostling interplay mean and why is it so essential? First, without the second person address of the divine You, there is no divine Other. There is no divine or transcendent Other with whom to develop a relationship. While concurring with Falk on the problem of the excessive maleness or androcentricity of traditional Jewish Godlanguage, feminist theologian and halakhist Rachel Adler has argued that we need the notion of God as personal and transcendent Other in order to maintain the possibilities of relation, difference, reciprocity, and mutuality. Instead of Falk's "unitive spirituality," she proposes rather "a spirituality of otherness," seeing God the Other as a partner for humans, an experienced helper, as a being to whom we matter and for whom we have "moral weight." (14) In effect, Adler argues that divine transcendence creates difference and relationship and serves to ground human morality and dignity. I agree with Adler's insistence on divine Otherness and transcendence. Divine transcend ence is too valuable a concept to discard. And considerations of gender need not compel us to do so. It is a mistake to equate divine transcendence solely with maleness--even if the transcendent God has often been depicted as male in the Jewish (and Christian) traditions. Why should anyone--and certainly feminists--assume that maleness be necessary to discuss transcendence?

The interplay of persons within the traditional blessing formula evokes the transcendent God and affirms our relation to that God. Without the interplay, the force of simultaneously recognizing the sovereign of the universe and addressing/blessing that sovereign in intimate, familiar terms is lost. And that is a basic claim of traditional rabbinic Judaism: that we humans have a relationship with the sovereign of the universe, that we and that sovereign speak to each other, and that this relationship imposes obligations upon the partners. The combination of second and third persons evokes the dual human responses of intimacy and awe in the face of the forces larger than ourselves, the forces that we may call God. In uttering blessings, we marvel at the grandeur of the universe and its sovereign, and we marvel at the intimacy of our relationship with that sovereign who is ours. (15) And when the blessing formula goes on, as it does in so many cases, to state that the sovereign of the universe whom we address as You "sanctified us by commanding us to do such-and-such," then we are asserting not only our recognition and address of the transcendent God, but also restating that transcendent God's address to us that makes us responsible and holds us accountable.

Why Too Much First Person Is Not a Good Thing, or the Need for Transcendence

Where do these ruminations about the grammatical intricacies of passive voice and interplay of persons lead us?

Adler urges that we as women speak to God "honestly" and "with personal integrity," that we not abandon our female selves while using the words of the male-forged community. (16) So, I wish to speak honestly. First, as I said above, I don't agree that traditional Jewish prayers express only men's hopes and that women must abandon themselves to use the language of collective Jewish prayer. Secondly, why am I made uneasy by the foregrounding of the first person plural in Falk's phrase "Let us bless the source or flow of life"? It isn't that I wholly reject the sentiment expressed. On occasion, I'd be perfectly willing to say it. But I'm not eager to have it replace the traditional blessing formula. The problem is that I hear only one person in it rather than an interplay of three, and the person I hear--the first person plural--is problematic. At a minimum, I think it's solipsistic and too self-referential; at an extreme, I think it may verge on idolatry. In any case, I don't think that collective prayer expres sed only in the first person plural is adequate in times of tragedy, nor do I think it does justice to our condition as limited and not fully empowered beings.

Speaking honestly, I do not want to pray to myself or to ourselves as humans. I do not want to pray only to a human community or to the forces immanent in nature. When I pray, I want to maintain a sense of transcendence, of Otherness beyond. Without the dimension of transcendence, I and we run the risk of narcissism, self-congratulation, and self-glorification. I consider undue emphasis on the self and subjectivity a form of idolatry. I want to imagine something Other, something beyond us; something that conveys a sense of the forces beyond ourselves and our control, a sense of the mystery and tragedy we often face, and the truth of our finite limits. I want to address that dimension of Otherness, for without it, I cannot express honestly my deepest longings and fears. I want to celebrate our human selves, our abilities, our adequacy, our creativity, our autonomy. At the same time, I do not want to assert falsely that these are the only measure or a full measure of ourselves as humans. Especially at moments o f distress, suffering, illness or tragedy, though sometimes in good moments too, we know that we face limits, we know that we are neither the creators nor masters of our fates. To claim or to imply that we are is also a form of dishonesty, certainly as great as mouthing words that imply that only men matter in this world, or that God is really and exclusively male. Honest and authentic prayer requires the assertion that we are worthy and capable beings, but also the acknowledgment that we are sometimes frail, needy, and frightened--in other words, that we are limited and finite beings. We need not cower, we need not be submissive, but we can only express ourselves honestly and conduct ourselves with dignity when we acknowledge frailty as well as strength, human limitation as well as human adequacy. There is a time for self-assertion and there is a time for humility. And prayer is a time for both: we are proud enough to speak to God and to dare to bless God, but we do so as God's creatures. (17) Taking a balan ced and true measure of ourselves, expressing that individually and communally, and acting upon that--that to me is stirring, ennobling, and yes indeed, empowering. I do not find it empowering to ignore basic fundamental truths of the human condition. In my view, the notion of divine transcendence helps us face those truths honestly. And it is fully compatible with human autonomy and dignity.

Thus, when I pray, I do not want to see only myself or the human community, that is, me or us projected front and center. Praying with a human community is wonderful; praying to one is not. There are moments when what truly counts are the solitary individual and the dimensions of existence that we call God, moments when human community--as valuable as it is--becomes irrelevant. At the conclusion of the well-known prayer Adon olam, Jews say: "To God I entrust my soul, when I sleep and when I awaken. And with my soul, also my body, God is with me, I will not fear."

Tragedy is one of those moments and moods for which transcendence is more fitting than immanence. Immanence may be more attuned to celebration of life's goodness than to coping with hardship. In times of tragedy, or illness or infertility, transcendence may be more satisfying: imagining a force beyond the failing natural world may be precisely what can provide us humans with strength and resources beyond ourselves. Transcendence can keep us both from becoming obsessed with ourselves in self-congratulation, and from becoming mired in ourselves in despair.

In conclusion, I think that Jewish feminist theology needs a strong statement of transcendence. Ultimately, a balanced view of the divine allows for both transcendence and immanence and for approaching both with awe and intimacy. Yet, I stress transcendence now because feminist theology, as our culture generally, so favors immanence that I think we hardly understand the meaning of transcendence anymore. The human yearning for transcendence can be expressed without self-submission and without the demeaning or exclusion of women. Informed by feminist sensibilities, Jewish prayer can reflect a community comprised of women and men, and can speak a spiritual language that expresses both male and female perspectives. I urge that we develop a feminist spiritual language that expresses our own selves, that simultaneously celebrates human autonomy and humbly recognizes human Limitations, and that retains a complex relation to a transcendent God. God can still be blessed through us. We can still be agents--empowered a gents, limited though we be. And we can still jostle and be jostled on the crowded praying field, in relation with other humans, striving to understand that which is beyond us and seeking relation with the Other-than-human.

Toward that end, I favor keeping the structure of the traditional blessing formula. I can imagine fruitful experimentation with female pronouns and names for God--such as Brukha at shekhinah--Blessed be You, O Shekhinah (the divine presence, understood by Jewish mystics as a female aspect of God) or some such variation--as additions to traditional formulations. (18) But I would not countenance eliminating the passive voice or the interplay of persons in the traditional blessing formula. Both are elements essential to collective Jewish prayer. Both are needed to evoke complexity, ambiguity, and the sheer audacity of relation and speaking beyond the self--the very stuff of life that makes us want to reach out to pray in the first place.

Notes

(1.) Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Way into Jewish Prayer (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), 110.

(2.) On the blessing formula itself, see Ruth Langer, To Worship God Properly: Tensions between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1998), 24-31. For Jewish feminist critiques, see, for example, Rita M. Gross, "Female God Language in a Jewish Context," in Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds., Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 167-73; Marcia Falk, "Notes on Composing New Blessings: Toward a Feminist-Jewish Reconstruction of Prayer," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3, no. 1 (1987), 39-53, and The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996); Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), chapter 4, "God: Reimagining the Unimaginable," 121-69; and Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewi sh Publication Society, 1998), chapter 3, "And Not Be Silent: Toward Inclusive Worship," 61-103.

(3.) Adler, Engendering Judaism, 64-65.

(4.) Falk, "Notes," 46.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) For examples, see Lawrence A. Hoffman, "Blessings and Their Translation in Current Jewish Liturgies," Worship 60 (1986): 134-61, especially 138, 144-50, 152. Hoffman notes "theological unanimity" in current translations: "...all the liturgies avoid describing God as blessed by women and men, since blessing flows the other way around."

(8.) On "divine need," see Morris M. Faierstein, "'God's Need for the Commandments' in Medieval Kabbalah," Conservative Judaism 36, no. 1 (1982): 45-59, and Daniel Matt, "The Mystic and the Mizwot," in Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible through the Middle Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 367-404, especially 386-87. On "Divine flow of blessing," see Hayyim of Volozhin, cited and discussed by Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen in Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, vol. 1: The Sh'ma and Its Blessings (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), 33-34. See also Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine (New York: Bell Tower, 1998) for a recent work that adapts and develops kabbalistic teachings.

(9.) Zoharl, 64a, cited in Lawrence Fine, "Kabbalistic Texts," in Barry W. Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York: Summit Books, 1984), 328.

(10.) Kushner and Polen, in Hoffman, ed., My People's Prayer Book 34.

(11.) In relation to desire, my student Elena Slavkovsky considers "let us bless" as too voluntary a statement, for it makes it sound as if it were entirely up to us whether or not we utter a blessing.

(12.) Hoffman, "Blessings," 138-39, 141, 158.

(13.) Falk, "Notes," 45-47, 50-51. See Lier The Book of Blessings for her consistent application of these principles.

(14.) Adler, Engendering Judaism, 88-95, especially 92 and 95.

(15.) See Alan Mintz, "Prayer and the Prayerbook," in Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources, 407.

(16.) Adler, Engendering Judaism, 61-62, 63-65.

(17.) See David Hartman, A Living Covenant The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (New York: Free Press, 1985), especially chapters 1-2, 21-59. Cf. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995), "Bereshit: The Pivoting Point," 3-36.

(18.) For other examples that combine various traditional phrases with feminine pronouns and images for God, see Naomi Janowitz and Maggie Wenig, "Sabbath Prayers for Women," in Christ and Plaskow, eds., Womanspirit Rising, 174-78; Barbara Ellison Rosenblit, "Psalm 121 and 121F: Reimaging the Guardian of Israel," in Kerem 5 (5757, 1997), 80-1; Lori Lefkovitz, "Hidden Voices: Women's Haftarot," in Kerem 5 (5757, 1997), 101-5. See also Tikva Frymer-Kensky's essay, "On Feminine God-Talk," in The Reconstructionist 59, no. 1 (1994) [issue entitled "New Thinking on Naming and Imaging God"], 48-55.

Lois C. Dubin is Associate Professor of Religion and Biblical Literature and Director of the Jewish Studies program at Smith College. She is the author of the award-winning book The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture.
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