Charity and Piety in the Middle East in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Continuity and Transformation

[RG #107] Charity and Piety in the Middle East in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Continuity and Transformation

September 1, 2006 - February 28, 2007


Miriam Frenkel (Ben-Zvi Institute)
Yaacov Lev (Bar-Ilan University)

Charity needs to be understood as deeply embedded in, and shaped by, the existing society's religious, social and cultural context. Charity is also capable of molding social structures and their attendant mental attitudes. Therefore, the group's basic assumption is that research on charity as a concept and as an institution may offer a promising way to understand a given culture and the changes it undergoes. In addition, it is also assumed that charity offers a valuable perspective from which to view historical change and intercultural encounters.

Charity practices create and give shape to individual social institutions. They may have a crucial impact upon rulers' policies and public image, and affect patterns of social solidarity, stratification and social control. They are capable of impinging upon the social position of individuals, the place ascribed to family, religious institutions and civil society, as well as influencing economic and daily life and certain aspects of the life cycle.

At the discursive level charity may both reflect and shape worldviews and concepts. It is a field in which social values and norms are competing and being tested. This discourse is conveyed in theological, liturgical, literary and documentary texts which may express the image of the ideal society, the ways in which societies treat the "other", and how they interpret such basic aspects of life as wealth, poverty, work, destiny, individuality etc.

We will ask the basic questions that might assist us in analyzing charity from various perspectives: What were the motivations for giving charity? Who were the recipients of charity? Who were the agents of charity distribution? What was the place of charity in society, its relation to religious institutions, gender, family structures, etc.? These questions have been presented in the past but only sporadically, and they were never applied to a number of interrelated cultures over a vast span of time. In dealing with these questions we will attempt to bridge over eras and cultures that are normally perceived as distinct and separate.