We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The Greco‐Roman period in Jewish history ended with the redaction of the Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud (ca. 400 CE) and the Babylonian Talmud (after 500 CE). Soon afterwards, with the rise and expansion of Islam, the life of Jews in the Middle East radically changed. The new religion recognized the Bible as revealed Scripture and granted Jews the status of protected subjects (dhimmi). As a monotheistic religion, Islam did not pose a theoretical challenge to Jews. But when Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and science were translated into Arabic during the 8th and 9th centuries, Islamic civilization gave rise to a new systematic philosophy (falsafah) and speculative theology (kalam). The latter two did pose an intellectual challenge to which Jewish thinkers, who were conversant in Arabic language and culture, had to respond. In the new rationalist climate, which sets up reason as a judge of religion, Judaism had to be proven to be a rational religion.

Most problematic were the anthropomorphic depictions of God in the Bible and in rabbinic texts. In the ecstatic and visionary strand of rabbinic thought, known as the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature (see “The Bible in the Jewish Mystical Tradition,” pp. 1976–90), God was not only imaged as a king seated on the Throne of Glory as in the Bible, but the limbs of God's body were given precise (albeit fantastic) measurements. In the new intellectual climate of the 9th century, the corporeal depiction of God in rabbinic Judaism became an intellectual embarrassment and a target of severe criticism from rationalist skeptics such as Hiwi al‐Balkhi (whose “Two Hundred Questions concerning Scripture” are known only through Saadia's response to them). The most scathing critique of rabbinic Judaism came from the Karaites, who denied the validity of the oral tradition and regarded only Written law as sacred. But how is Scripture to be interpreted without the rabbinic tradition? Following the Kalam theologians of the Mutazilite school, the Karaite thinkers posited human reason and the sciences of grammar and philology as the way to fathom the meaning of divinely revealed Scripture. The Karaites’ exposition of the biblical text would give rise to their articulation of the dogmas of Judaism and to the formal distinction between ceremonial and rational commandment. The Karaites were thus the first Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages. Their critique of rabbinic Judaism put them outside normative Judaism, but their influence on the way normative Judaism formulated its philosophical beliefs was profound.

It was the great foe of Karaism, Saadia Gaon (882–942), who articulated the philosophic defense of rabbinic Judaism. Like the Karaite philosophers, Saadia Gaon's theology was shaped by the Mutazilite Kalam, but he applied its claim that human reason is compatible with a divinely revealed religion not only to Scripture but to the entire rabbinic tradition. There is nothing in rabbinic Judaism that is contradictory to reason, provided the written law and the oral law are properly interpreted. To prove the first claim, Saadia translated almost the entire Bible into Arabic. This literal translation (Tafsir) was accompanied by an extended paraphrastic commentary on the biblical text (Sharḥ) intended for the more learned reader. To prove the latter claim, Saadia composed thematic monographs on rabbinic law. In his main theological treatise, Kitab al Amanat waʾl itiqadat (Book of Doctrines and Beliefs), Saadia delineated the circumstances that legitimized a nonliteralist understanding of the biblical text.

Saadia's Book of Doctrines and Beliefs had a clear polemical intent: to reject all forms of Jewish skepticism and disbelief rife in his time and to place rabbinic Judaism on a firm rationalist foundation. Saadia's method of reasoning was not significantly different from that of the Karaites, but his conclusions were. Like the Karaites, he regarded the rationalist inquiry into the meaning of the received tradition by the tools that God implanted in humans (namely, human reason) to be a religious obligation. Saadia believed that his method of exposition could help turn religious belief, affirmed on the basis of tradition, into firmly held convictions that are corroborated by rational proofs. For Saadia, the revealed tradition is a source of valid knowledge that complements what can be known through the other three sources: sense perception, self‐evident truths, and logical inference. A revelation from God is necessary because human beings are not intellectually equal; some are more gifted than others. Furthermore, the pursuit of truth by natural human reason is very arduous, time‐consuming, and prone to errors. Divine revelation is necessary to compensate for human limitations, making truth available to all, including women and children.

A superb close reader of the Bible, Saadia found scriptural support for almost every detail of rational argument. Saadia's rationalist exposition of Scripture demanded that whenever Scripture appears to be in conflict with what is known to be true from the other three sources of knowledge, it is necessary to submitthe text to careful examination and interpret the scriptural text in question allegorically. This is especially necessary in regard to the corporeal depiction of God in the Bible. Since reason independently demonstrates that God is the creator of the universe and that, therefore, God is not corporeal, it follows that the literal meaning of the biblical text cannot be true. Saadia proposes how to decode the corporeal language of the Bible. For example, when the term head is applied to God it must mean “excellence and elevation”; eye means “supervision”; ear “denotes acceptance”; mouth and lip mean “teaching and command”; heart “signifies wisdom”; bowels “denote amiability;” foot denotes “coercion.” Since these words are used in the Bible also in nonanthropomorphic senses, it is most appropriate that the nonanthropomorphic sense will be used in scriptural utterances about God. Thus the rationalist conception of God recommended the allegorical interpretation. After Saadia, the allegorical interpretation of the text was applied not only to divine attri‐butes but also to human agents in biblical narratives.

The intellectualization of rabbinic Judaism reached its zenith in Muslim Spain during the 11th and 12th centuries. The unique cultural symbiosis between Judaism and Islam flourished under the Ummayad Caliphate in Cordoba and its successor petty kingdoms, where outstanding Jews rose to power in the administration of the Muslim state, creating a Jewish culture suffused with the sensibilities and ideals of adab, namely, the broad scientific and rhetorical learning that made one courteous and urbane. The adib (the man schooled in adab) was a highly refined person who was expected to know a little about many topics in order to add brilliance to the court. The key for success in the court was possession of rhetorical skills, poetic eloquence, and calligraphic excellence, all of which were cultivated through the study and production of prose and poetry. The adib culled his knowledge from prose books that encompassed tales, fables, anecdotes, practical advice, and popularization of scientific information, all gleaned from the philosophical‐scientific heritage of the Hellenistic world, interspersed with some material from India.

Jewish culture in Muslim Spain changed profoundly as Jewish courtiers absorbed the adab program, but without compromising their Jewish identity or their conviction about the spiritual superiority of Judaism. Indeed, the Bible anchored the Jewish response to the attraction of the dazzling Islamic civilization in Andalusia. Fully aware of Islamic claims about the Quran's divinity and perfection, including the superiority of Quranic Arabic to all other languages, Jewish scholars asserted the uniqueness of the Tanakh and its pure language and applied the sciences of grammar and philology to prove the perfection of the Bible. This perfection was not merely linguistic or rhetorical; it was scientific and philosophic as well. The linguistic analysis of the Bible by grammarians such as Judah ben David Η̣ayyuj (ca. 950–ca. 1000), Isaac ben Levi Ibn Mar Shaul, Samuel Ibn Naghrella (933–1056), Judah ben Samuel Ibn Balʾam (d. ca. 1090), Moses ben Samuel Ibn Gikatilla (or Chiquitilla) (d. ca. 1080), Jonah Ibn Janaḥ (ca. 985–c. 1040) and Shmuel Alkanzi (1050–1130), enabled a deeper philosophical understanding of the Bible to emerge. It was through the literal meaning of the text (later called peshat) that the deeper philosophical meaning could be accessed.

The most outstanding exponent of the link between the linguistic analysis of Hebrew and the philosophical exposition of the Bible was Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167). A poet, liturgist, grammarian, translator, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and philosopher, Abraham Ibn Ezra's interpretation of Judaism was naturalist and rationalist. Regarding the Jews as unique mediators between cultures, Ibn Ezra was committed to imparting knowledge of Greek and Arabic cultures to his Jewish audience and even wrote scientific works in Latin to make the work of Jews known to Christians. He began to comment on the biblical canon rather late in life after migratingfrom Muslim Spain to Italy with the intention of teaching the correct reading of the Bible to Jews who were not yet familiar with the Jewish rationalist tradition and Judeo‐Hispanic biblical exegesis. Though Ibn Ezra composed commentaries to the entire Bible, the extant texts include commentaries (some preserved in two versions) on the Torah, Isaiah, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Psalms, Job, the Five Scrolls, and Daniel. The style of the commentary is terse and cryptic, full of allusions to philosophical and scientific (especially astrological) theories, purportedly contained in the Bible, but which should not be expounded in full in the context of the biblical commentary.

Ibn Ezra claimed that the Bible itself attests to the fact that ancient Israelites were versed in the sciences, so that the study of the sciences is an inherently Jewish activity. Therefore, only a scholar who is deeply proficient in the sciences, especially astronomy and astrology, can properly understand the meaning of the biblical text. For Ibn Ezra the exposition of the text by means of astrological references does not mean imposing science on the Bible, but rather showing how the biblical text itself actually enlarges the scope of the scientific discourse known to him from extrabiblical, Muslim and Hermetic sources. At times the biblical text is used by Ibn Ezra to address questions that are raised by other sciences or resolve tensions between various scientific theories, for example between the assumption of astrology that ascribes to celestial bodies the physical properties such as hot and cold, and the Aristotelian views according to which the celestial bodies are made of a refined substance that does not carry physical properties. The Bible can also remove a contradiction between the assumptions of astrology and the physical view that Ibn Ezra accepted as correct. For example, Ps. 148 teaches not only about the cosmological differentiation between the lower and supernal worlds, but also about the physical composition of objects in the supra‐lunar world and the fixed cyclical motion.

For Ibn Ezra, the science of astrology captures the fixity of natural laws, even though he maintained that the predictive power of astrology is not perfect. Although Ibn Ezra did not consider astrology to be practically useful, he made many allusions to astrological theories when he explained animal sacrifices, the festivals, the scapegoat ritual, and the uniqueness of the Holy Land, among other aspects of Israelite religion. The prevalence of astrology in the exposition of the biblical text, however, should not obscure the main claim of Ibn Ezra about the relationship between astrology and the Torah. Precisely because Israel is in possession of the revealed Torah, Israel alone can be free from the influences of astral forces, provided Israel studies the Torah and observes its commandments. As Ibn Ezra teaches in the commentary on Exod. 3.21, the very commitment to Torah study and the life that flows from it ensures that Israel is not subject to astrological influence.

Ibn Ezra's naturalism went hand in hand with his esoteric style of biblical commentaries and, in turn, with his intellectual elitism. He made a clear distinction between the masses, who lack the capacity to engage in philosophy and science, and the few who possess the “heart,” which is the seat of reason in Ibn Ezra's psychology. Only the very few who are scientifically educated can attain the ultimate end of human life and enjoy the bliss of immortality reserved to the individual soul. For the educated reader, laconic allusions are sufficient to direct him to the deep philosophic and scientific matters taught by the Torah. These are the “secrets” (sodot) of the Torah that remain obscure to the masses. In the 14th century, as we shall see below, several Jewish philosophers composed super‐commentaries on Ibn Ezra's commentaries, spelling out (not always correctly) the precise meaning of these secrets.

Until the second half of the 14th century it was Moses Maimonides, Rambam (Rabbi Moses son of Maimon; 1138–1204), rather than Abraham Ibn Ezra who dominated the Jewish philosophical approach to the Bible. Although Maimonides perpetuated many ideas of IbnEzra, Maimonides also vigorously rejected the science of astrology, highlighted the limitation of human knowledge in metaphysics, and recognized naturalist causality only as far as the sublunar world is concerned. At the heart of Maimonides’ approach to the Bible stood his theory of prophecy, which is remarkably similar to that of Philo, even though the immediate source of inspiration for Maimonides was not Philo but the Muslim philosopher Abu Nasr Alfarabi (d. 950). Adopting Plato's political theory to the case of Islam, Alfarabi portrayed the founder of the true religion as a philosopher‐prophet‐legislator‐imam whose perfect law contains the translation of philosophic truths into figurative speech.

Following Alfarabi, Maimonides understood prophecy as a cognitive activity by an intellectually perfect person. All prophets must be philosophers, though not all philosophers are endowed with the imaginative faculty that can translate philosophic knowledge into figurative speech characteristic of prophecy. Maimonides, however, took pains to differentiate between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy of all other prophets: Moses received his prophecy in broad daylight, and he prophesied whenever he wished, without fear or trembling, and without any input from his senses or the imagination. Moses’ prophecy was qualitatively different because he transcended human corporeality and “attained the angelic.” Suppressing his senses, appetites, and desires to the utmost minimum, Moses transcended human embodiment, and his body no longer functioned as a “veil” between him and God. Mosaic prophecy was, therefore, purely intellectual, the result of the conjunction between Moses’ perfected intellect and the Active Intellect. In knowing what the Active Intellect knows, Moses apprehended the pattern of the law of nature. Therefore, the Torah of Moses “enters into what is natural” (Guide II:40), that is to say, it fits the structure of reality. The perfection of the Torah is thus completed in the perfection of the agent that received the Torah—the prophet Moses.

Moses was not only cognitively perfect; his imaginative faculty was also the most per‐ fect. While Moses’ prophecy was itself strictly conceptual or cognitive, the transmission of its content to the Israelites required the use of the imagination, since this faculty is the difference between philosopher and prophet. Because of Moses’ perfect imagination, the Torah of Moses is the most perfect poetic text, one in which there is a perfect fit between the cognitive, esoteric core of the philosophic truths and figurative language of Torah narratives, a fit that justifies allegoresis. In Aristotelian language this is to say that the narratives, poetic imagery, and laws of the Torah function as Matter for the cognitive truths that are their Form. In its figurative language, the Torah teaches the sciences of physics and metaphysics. The task of the philosophic reader of the Bible is to remove the figurative veils of the Torah in order to fathom its philosophic content.

For the philosophically inclined reader, Maimonides composed The Guide for the Perplexed, whose first part contains a philosophical dictionary of the most problematic terms in the Bible. For example, Scripture uses the terms image and likeness to refer to God. These terms, Maimonides explains, are equivocal terms: When applied to natural things they refer to shapes of natural bodies, but when applied to God they mean something altogether different, because God is noncorporeal. Maimonides proceeds to explain the meaning of other terms such as figure, shape, place, throne, to descend, to ascend, sitting, standing, rising, to stand, to approach, to rise, and others, all in order to teach the reader how to read the Bible correctly in a manner that does not violate the radical otherness of God.

Maimonides held that there is an unbridgeable ontological gap between God, the Necessary Existent, and all other things. It is therefore impossible for humans to know the essence of God. Human beings can only know who God is not, although from the observation of the natural world and the science of physics, human beings can know a lot aboutthe actions of God. The radical negative theology of Maimonides entails that all terms applied to God in the Torah are either equivocations or absolute equivocation, which would suggest that the term “prophecy” as applied to Moses and any other prophet is also absolutely equivocal. Maimonides, however, does not go that far, because he could not make Moses into a deity; Moses can only be a unique human being. Because Maimonides insisted that Moses remain a human being and the Torah rationally intelligible, he had to explain in what sense the Torah of Moses is from God. This is the purpose of talking about “divine ruse” (Heb: “ʿormah” Arabic: “talattuf”) in the Guide III:30 and 32.

The “divine ruse” was to give Israel the Torah through the intermediacy of Moses who communicated with Israel at a level that Israel could accept. Since God is an absolute unity, in God will and wisdom are the same: What God wills and what God knows are the same, and both are manifested in the way God governs the world. And since God governs through natural causes, divine management of human affairs takes into consideration the particular conditions of humanity. Given the prevalence of idolatrous practices and beliefs, the “divine ruse” was evident both in forcing Israel to live in the desert in order to improve its character, and in using Moses as the intermediary to address Israel at a level at which it could comprehend God's word. Concomitantly, in order to make sure that we will not conclude erroneously that the Torah of Moses is merely contingent, the Eighth Principle of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith specifies dogmatically that the Torah cannot change.

The cognitive perfection of Moses yielded a perfect text, but the divinity of the Torah can also be determined by an examination of its function. The Torah is divine because it can be shown that the Torah brings about the perfection of the body (tikun ha‐guf) and perfection of the soul (tikun ha‐nefesh). The Torah is a prescription for human well‐being, because the inner meaning of the Torah corresponds to the structure of reality. By living according to the regimen articulated in the Torah, human beings can attain well‐being of body and soul, when the former is understood as a means to the attainment of the latter. By observing the commandments of the Written Torah as interpreted by the Oral Torah, one ensures physical health, the acquisition of the requisite virtues, culminating in the perfection of the intellect. It is the perfection of the intellect through cognition of intelligibles that constitutes the immortal life that the Jewish tradition denotes as “world‐to‐come.” Whether this cognitive state constitutes personal immortality and whether this is the correct interpretation of rabbinic Judaism would become a major theme in the debate about Maimonides's legacy during the 13th century.

Maimonides did not compose a linear commentary on the Bible, but only articulated general hermeneutical principles. The application of Maimonides’ hermeneutical principles to the Bible was carried out by his followers, beginning with Samuel Ibn Tibbon (d. 1232), who translated the Guide from Arabic into Hebrew, composed a glossary of philosophical terms in the Guide, explained the esoteric meaning of Ecclesiastes, and composed a systematic exposition of the biblical creation narrative in light of Aristotle's physics. To master the latter and make it accessible to Jewish seekers of wisdom, Ibn Tibbon also translated Aristotle's Meteroa into Hebrew in 1210. Samuel Ibn Tibbon inaugurated the tradition of philosophical biblical commentaries that read the Bible as an encoded Aristotelian, philosophical text.

Jewish philosophers in 13th century Spain vacillated between two conflicting goals: On the one hand, the philosophers wished to teach philosophy to the many in order to raise the intellectual level of Jews and enable them to perfect their soul so as to attain immortality. On the other hand, the philosophers believed that ordinary Jews lacked the intellectual preconditions to engage in philosophy; they may misunderstand philosophic teachings and harbor erroneous views. The followersof Maimonides attempted to bridge the gap between the philosophers and the public by composing summaries of philosophical texts, popularizing philosophy in prose studded with rhymed poetry, and by writing philosophical commentaries on the Bible in which they made clear what Maimonides only hinted at in the Guide. With the treatment of the Bible as a philosophic‐scientific text, opposition to rationalist philosophy was unavoidable. Throughout the 13th century, Jewish communities in Spain, Provence, France, Italy, the land of Israel, Egypt, and Iraq were engaged in a bitter controversy about the status of philosophy within Jewish traditional society.

R. David Kimḥi (Radak; 1160–1235), a biblical exegete, grammarian, and translator, whose family migrated from Muslim Spain to Provence, played a major role in what we now call the Maimonidean Controversy of the 1230s. He is an example of a militant rationalist commentator on the Bible for whom the Torah was intentionally written by Moses with a “double meaning, one obscuring the other…the exoteric for the masses and the esoteric for the Sages” (Frank Talmage, David Kimhi: The Man and the Commentaries [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975], p. 120 ). Although Radak retains the peshat level of the biblical text and contributed greatly to its understanding, his commentaries also provided an elaborate allegorical reading. For example, “the Garden of Eden represents the Active Intellect and the Tree of Life the human Intellect, while the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil symbolized the material intellect” (Talmage, p. 121 ). Radak goes on to interpret biblical personae allegorically. Cain, for example, was a farmer and devoid of intellectual accomplishments, whereas Abel was occupied with the vanities of life, even though he was endowed with material intellect. In Radak's reading, it was the third son, Seth, who ate from the Tree of Life and was created in the image of Adam. It was he who shared with Adam the human intellect. Seth was the good seed and the true founder of mankind. In this allegorical fashion Radak explicates the two main bodies of esoteric teachings in the Torah, the Account of Creation (maʿaseh bereshit), based on the creation narrative of Genesis, and the Account of the Chariot (maʿaseh merkavah), based on the first chapter of Ezekiel. Based on Maimonides's reading of the latter, Radak was even more elaborate and specific than was Maimonides in reading this chapter as expression of Aristotelian cosmology whose principles are explained in “chapter headings” in the Guide.

The rationalist philosophers insisted that to worship God correctly Jews must know philosophy. Therefore, the controversy during the 13th century concerned the cultural boundaries of Judaism and the degree to which the Bible contains truths articulated in other sources. Yet, if the Torah is indeed divine Wisdom, as the philosophers argued, then one could argue that there is no need to consult philosophy and science at all since Scripture already contains all the knowledge necessary for its correct interpretation. Kabbalists (see “The Bible in the Mystical Tradition,” pp. 1976–90) such as Jacob Ibn Sheshet (13th century) advanced that claim and rejected the Maimonidean interpretation of the creation narrative. Yet the kabbalists too developed their ideas and exegetical strategies through familiarity with Jewish philosophy, and like the philosophers the kabbalists endorsed the distinction between the exoteric (nigleh) and esoteric (nistar) levels of the biblical text. Likewise, the kabbalists accepted Maimonides’ claim that the Torah is the prescription for human well‐being, or happiness, culminating in personal immortality. For this and other reasons, the impression often given of an absolute difference between the medieval philosophical and kabbalistic tradition is incorrect.

The primary difference between the rationalist philosophers and the kabbalists concerned the nature of the Hebrew language. Whereas to the Maimonidean philosophers Hebrew was a conventional, human language, the kabbalists maintained that Hebrewis literally the language of God whose elements—the Hebrew letters—are the “building blocks,” so to speak, of the created universe. The revelation of the Torah and the creation of the universe are two sides of the same coin. For the kabbalists, then, maʿaseh bereshit and maʿaseh merkavah refer not to the physical universe of the sublunar and supra‐lunar worlds, respectively, but to processes within the Godhead. In other words, Scripture, according to the kabbalists, is a symbolic manifestation of God's essence, the very thing that Maimonides claimed lies beyond the ken of human knowledge. Although both rationalist philosophers and kabbalists asserted that the Hebrew Scriptures contain salvific truths about God, for the philosophers these truths concern the created world and its relationship with God, whereas for the kabbalists these truths are of God's very essence.

The final phase of the Maimonidean Controversy took place in 1303–1305 and ended on July 31, 1306, when R. Solomon Ibn Adret imposed a ban on the study of philosophy for men under twenty‐five years of age. The ban signaled the complex status of philosophy within traditional Jewish society, but it by no means ended the philosophical interpretation of the Bible. In the first half of the 14th century, especially in Provence, additional philosophical commentaries on the Bible were composed in which rationalist philosophers, such as Joseph Ibn Kaspi (1279–ca. 1331) and Nissim ben Moses of Marseilles (active 1320s), expounded the philosophic import of the biblical text and attempted to solve various exegetical problems that arise by reading the Bible in light of Aristotelian philosophy. The most extensive and philosophically sophisticated of these commentaries are those composed by Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, known as Ralbag or Gersonides (1288–1344).

Gersonides was a first‐rate scientist, specializing in astronomy, who mastered the Aristotelian corpus by writing super‐commentaries on commentaries of Averroes (1126–1198). Intimately versed with the legacy of Maimonides, Gersonides took issue with his Jewish predecessor on many points, radicalizing the intellectualist tenor of Jewish rationalist naturalism. Most importantly, Gersonides rejected Maimonides’ esoteric method of teaching philosophy. Philosophy need not and must not be kept secret from the masses but must be taught openly, systematically, and without allusions and hints. Accepting Aristotelian philosophy wholeheartedly, Gersonides was determined to teach the Jewish public at large the correct meaning of the doctrines of creation, prophecy, providence, miracles, and the chosenness of Israel in his systematic philosophical work Milḥamot ha‐Shem (The Wars of the Lord) as well as in his biblical commentaries. Like Ibn Ezra, Gersonides launched his philosophical exegesis only after composing scientific‐philosophic works; proficiency in philosophy was a necessary condition to the proper understanding of the revealed text.

In agreement with Maimonides, Gersonides held that “the Torah is the written record of Moses’ prophetic revelation, and, therefore, its value for guiding the Israelites to per‐ fection is determined by the nature and quality of Moses’ prophetic capabilities” (Robert Eisen, Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People: A Study in Medieval Jewish Philosophy and Biblical Commentary [Albany: State University of New York, 1995], p. 73 ). But unlike Maimonides, Gersonides considered the prophet's ability to predict the future as the major difference between philosophers and prophets. The predictive capacity of the prophets follows from their perfect knowledge of causal relations in the natural world governed by astral forces. Contrary to Maimonides, who vehemently rejected the science of astrology, Gersonides, like Ibn Ezra, was an expert astrologer who attempted to shed light on the remote past on the basis of his astrological and astronomical knowledge. This knowledge is especially relevant to the interpretation of the commandments, whose allegorical meaning Gersonides spells out. Contrary to Maimonides, for whom the masses at the time of Moses were incapable ofphilosophical sophistication, Gersonides held that Moses taught the entire nation of uneducated Israelites the full range of philosophical doctrines, natural science, and metaphysics after their exodus from Egypt.

The pedagogic function of the Torah and the need to teach philosophy openly do not mean that Gersonides renounced the elitism characteristic of the Jewish philosophical tradition. He too believed that different audiences understand the Torah on different levels in accord with their level of intellectual perfection. Because of their lack of philosophical training the masses cannot appreciate the deep philosophical meaning of the Torah. Yet Gersonides was much more optimistic than Maimonides and Ibn Ezra about the ability of the philosopher to bring the masses to a higher level of knowledge. His philosophical commentaries accomplished that task for the general Jewish reader, but they did not simply rehash his philosophical‐scientific views. Sometimes the exposition of the biblical text provided Gersonides an opportunity to offer new insights and revisions of what he said in his earlier philosophical text The Wars of the Lord.

Gersonides’ commentaries on the Torah were written to be accessible, and followed a rigid structure: He first explained the meaning of the words, then provided a statement of the import of the section under consideration, and concluded the discussion with a summary of the “lessons” (toʿaliot) to be derived from the Torah portion. In his Commentary on the Song of Songs Gersonides departed from that style. Writing for a generally educated reader who has just embarked on the study of philosophy, Gersonides presented the Song of Songs as a philosophical allegory about the path toward ultimate felicity. From Abraham Ibn Ezra, through Joseph Ibn Aqnin (ca. 1150–1220), Moses Ibn Tibbon (active 1240– 1270), and Immanuel of Rome (ca. 1261–ca. 1328), Jewish philosophers read the Song of Songs as a philosophical allegory about the human path of spiritual improvement. But unlike his predecessors, who interpreted the Song of Songs as an intellectual process culminating in the conjunction between the human rational soul and the Active Intellect, Gersonides interpreted the text to refer to internal processes, namely, the relationship between the human rational soul and the imagination. Reviewing the fundamentals of philosophy for his reader, Gersonides instructs the reader of the Song to understand the obstacles to the attainment of felicity and the ways to overcome them. Though relatively few could reach the lofty goal of spiritual perfection by which humans attain personal immortality, the goal is in principle attainable by the students of science and philosophy.

Gersonides’ commitment to the dissemination of scientific knowledge was shared by Jewish philosophers in Spain and Provence during the second half of the 14th century. By then, however, what were considered sound scientific theories included not only the teachings of Aristotle, but also Neoplatonic and Hermetic theories about the natural world. This syncretistic mixture was used as a new interpretative grid for the Bible, deriving its inspiration from Abraham Ibn Ezra. In Spain during the second half of the 14th century, Samuel Ibn Motot, Joseph Tov Elem, Ezra Gatingo, Shlomo Franco, and Shem Tov Ibn Shaprut composed super‐commentaries on Ibn Ezra's biblical commentaries, openly using astrology and astral magic to decode the hints of Ibn Ezra so as to explain ancient Israelite practices such as the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the priestly vestments.

The main claims of their astral theology include the following: The Torah was given at Sinai on the basis of astrological calculation. Biblical events reflect the influences of the stars, and biblical personalities and rabbinic sages were expert astrologers. Prophecy is predicated on knowledge of astrology. Miracles are understood to be the results of the prophet's intellectual perfection. Moses was able to overcome Egyptian magicians because he was a superior astrologer. His intellectualist perfection included the knowledge of astrology,culminating in the conjunction of his intellect with the Active Intellect. He was a practicing magician who correctly understood the link between earthly and celestial powers. The knowledge of astrology enables the intellectually perfect to extricate themselves from astral causality. Moreover, the uniqueness of the people of Israel is explained in its ability to transcend the impact of astral influences through Israel's mastery of the astrological sciences. Most importantly, the commandments themselves function as tools in the manipulation of astral forces. The commandments either manifest the influence of a given celestial body, or were given as techniques to draw spiritual energy from the celestial spheres into the corporeal world. In this regard, the commandments are effective tools in the attempt to prosper in this world. The performance of the commandments mitigates the destructive forces of the corporeal world that are regulated by the celestial bodies. Observance of the commandments thus has an instrumental value, for the more consistently one performs them the more one can extricate oneself from the impact of astral forces.

In short, by the turn of the 15th century the scientists‐philosophers proposed a strictly naturalistic interpretation of Torah on the basis of astral determinism. As Judah Halevi in the 12th century rejected such a naturalist approach to the Bible, so in the early 15th century did Hasdai Crescas (d. ca. 1412), who set out to extricate Judaism from the clutches of philosophy. Crescas himself was a well‐trained philosopher, but he was convinced that the intellectualization of Judaism by the rationalists was responsible for the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity during and after the anti‐Jewish riots and massacres of 1391. To rejuvenate Iberian Jewish life, Crescas subjected Aristotle's physics to minute critique, manifesting familiarity with contemporary scholastic critique of Aristotle's conception of motion. If Aristotle's philosophy can be proven to be either nondemonstrative or patently mistaken, Aristotle's philosophy could not constitute the true meaning of the Torah. Crescas, however, advanced his critique of Aristotle by using Aristotelian logic so that the novelty and full implications of it were either not fully understood by Jewish philosophers, or dismissed outright as evidence of his philosophical limitations.

Crescas was not alone in his displeasure with the naturalist exposition of the Bible, in which the Torah was viewed as a means to an end. Similar claims were voiced by other Jewish thinkers in Spain and Portugal in an attempt to rethink the relationship between Torah and philosophy. Continuing to uphold the Aristotelian worldview, Jewish philosophers in the 15th century increasingly acknowledged that the Torah is not identical with philosophy, but is rather superior to it. Whereas philosophy is grounded merely in knowledge of created things, Torah is revealed knowledge that can be explained by reason but not exhausted by it. Thus Simon ben Tzemach Duran (1361–1444), who was well versed in Aristotelian philosophy, maintained that it only serves to shed light on the meaning of Torah and that philosophy alone could not possibly lead to the attainment of ultimate felicity. A similar position was espoused by Joseph Ibn Shem Tov (ca. 1400–ca. 1460), who composed commentaries to Aristotle and who interpreted the ultimate end of human life in terms of Averroes's theory of cognition.

The philosophers’ own admission that knowledge of philosophy alone fails to secure personal immortality and that it must be complemented by revealed knowledge gave 15th century Jewish philosophy its conservative posture as much as this viewpoint served an important polemical purpose against Christianity. As Spanish Jewry was fighting for its physical and spiritual survival, Jewish intellectuals were increasingly engaged in philosophical polemics against Christianity either through systematic exposition of Jewish dogmas, or through philosophical examination of Christian readings of the biblical text. The gist of this defense was that Judaism is superior to Christianity because Judaism is a rational religion.The God of Judaism does not do what is logically impossible; only what is naturally impossible. Whether rational arguments sustained Jewish believers is hard to determine; what is clear is that by the 15th century in Spain allegiance to Judaism became harder and harder.

In the 15th century, the philosophical defense of Judaism became more difficult because the opponents were often Jewish apostates with illustrious rabbinic backgrounds. Thus the Jewish delegation to the forced disputation in Tortosa (1413–1414) performed rather poorly against the apostates Jeronimo de Santa Fe and Pablo de Santa Maria who presented the Christian understanding of the messianic meaning of biblical and rabbinic texts. The rivalry between the two religions in Spain ended with the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain and the possessions of the Spanish Crown (1492), whose main goal was to end any contacts between professing Jews and conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity), to make Spain a unified, Catholic kingdom.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice