Sunday, March 19, 2006

Gedolim banned and forgotten - A possible ban and its consequences.

Professor Moshe Halbertal’s book “Bein torah lachochma” is a very interesting study of the Meiri and his coreligionists in the 13th and 14th century. At the end of the book he makes a very interesting observation which I am paraphrasing with some explanations.

The Rosh (Rabeinu Asher) when he moved from Germany to Toledo passed through Provence (that is the area of France where Meiri lived. It includes most of the French Mediterranean coast from Lombardy to the border with Spain, all the way to the Atlantic north of the Pyrenees). He recorded in a letter his impressions about the people saying that they were “fluid speakers, clear minds and intelligent. I thanked God for bringing me here. However when I dug deeper I found them white on the outside and black on the inside. Only very few, one here another there, had God inspire them to strengthen in His torah and separate from the general population who turn to idols and false ideas”. In other words he considered their Hashkafos suspect. (Rosh was very fundamentalist in his thinking. He was against all philosophy and theology. More at another occasion)

The Rashba ( Rabeinu Shlomo ben Aderet) was considered one of the great Posskim and leaders of his time who lived in Barcelona, (Catalonia – Spain). Although much better versed in philosophy and Kabbalah then Rosh, he was also suspicious of the Provencal way of thinking. We can see that from his Responsa where he got involved in the controversy about learning philosophy before 25 years of age. (R.Abba Mari of Montpellier, a friend and correspondent of Meiri instigated it).

Provence, after a bout with Kaballah was populated in the early 1200’s by refugees from Muslim Spain who brought with them Rambam’s way of life and thinking. For about 150 years, until their expulsion in the late 1300’s a Maimonidean society flourished very successfully with great thinkers, philosophers and halachik experts. The Tibon family, the great translators of Arabic works were there, R. Yakov Antuli, author of the seminal work “Malmad Hatalmidim”, Meiri, his Rebbe R, Reuven ben Chaim, R. Avraham min Hahar (Montpellier) R. Shmuel Shkeil about whom the Meiri writes with great awe, R. Shlomo of Lunel, R. Ytzchak de Lattes, R. Dovid Hakochavi (Estrelle), R. Levi ben Avrohom (Livyat Chen), R. Nissim of Marseilles (Ma’aseh Nissim) and many others. (How many of us have even heard these names?).

The puzzling thing is that not only are there very few Seforim from that period – the few that we have, like the Meiri which was discovered in the 19th century in one manuscript only, were not known for about 500 years. Most of the others were only reprinted in the last few decades from rare manuscripts and only very few have been found. This can be blamed on luck and circumstances such as persecution but what is even more puzzling is the total silence in the writings of the period that have been with us all along, about the works of these Provencal gedolim. There was correspondence that we know about but almost no mention of their works, chidushim or Divrei Torah. This too could be blamed on them being deemed not innovative enough, but is very unlikely. After all the Meiri works are quite extensive and useful and so are the other works that are resurfacing. What is even more intriguing is the very small amount of manuscripts of each sefer. It shows a lack of interest or will by scribes to copy these books.It is only a conjecture as there is no official record of a ban, but it is probable that they were ignored on purpose. In other words they were blacklisted. Both the authors and their works were ignored by the Rabbis of the time. It is a great loss and a great wrong if true. The seforim that have been rediscovered are extremely interesting and very helpful in understanding the thought process of the great Jewish medieval thinkers.

I personally find that their way of thinking talks to me and helps me work out the issues that seem irrational in our religion. The sad thing is that a similar movement is building in the Yeshivish community and I wonder how many good and thoughtful thinkers are being suppressed. It will only prolong the Golus which will only end when we are enlightened enough to gain the respect of the nations for our intellectual prowess.

(after some reflection overnight I renamed and republished this post)


  1. I imagine that the environment of fear is not just suppressing needed halachic thought, but also needed communal action. Very sad indeed.

  2. "It is only a conjecture as there is no official record of a ban, but it is probable that they were ignored on purpose. In other words they were blacklisted."

    this is your conclusion or Harbertal's?