Friday, October 22, 2010

Contemporay Repercussions of a 13th Century Controversy in Provence.

Over the last few years, I got interested in the intellectual ferment that took place in 13th century Provence specifically surrounding Rambam and the learning of Greek philosophy and secular studies. I knew about it peripherally from traditional sources such as the Shut Rashba that has a series of responsa that address the controversy of studying “Greek” philosophy and the resulting allegorical interpretation of Torah and Mitzvot. (See Shut Rashba volume 1, 414 to 419 here ). Subsequently, I read the excellent and intriguing book by Professor Moshe Halbertal Bein Torah Lachochma which discusses in detail the attitude of Rabbi Menachem Hameiri and his contemporaries to the controversy. My interest in the subject grew as it seemed to be an issue that resonates in our society where people are scared by knowledge and feel the Torah cannot stand up to intellectual scrutiny. I discovered the intriguing and important Malmad Hatalmidim by Rabbi Yaakov Antuli here who is referred to by subsequent generations as the “Ba’al Hamalmad”. Meiri quotes him extensively in his Chibur Hateshuvah here as an authoritative source as do many others. Minchat Kenaot by Rabbi Abba Mari of Lunel is another intriguing book. It is a record of the controversy where the author recruited the Rashba, the great Halachik authority of the time, to prohibit the study of “Greek” philosophy before the age of 25. Recently, Professor Chaim Kreisel published two very fascinating books from that period, Ma’aseh Nissim by Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles and Livyat Chen by Rabbi Avraham ben Levi. Of course another famous and well known work that came out from that school is the great Ralbag on Chumash and Tanach   reprinted by Mossad Harav Kook and recently a new annotated edition by Yeshivat Ma’aleh Adumim is almost complete through Bamidbar. Ralbag also wrote the controversial Milchamot Hashem  here which is less well known but even more controversial where he lays down his ideas about Hashgacha and Yediah and other such matters.

Professor Halbertal thesis in his book is that the controversy over philosophy was an internal discussion amongst the Maimonideans in the Provence community. Provence at the time (1200-1350), was one of the most enlightened Jewish communities in Europe with famous and well known great Halachist and thinkers such as the Raavad , Baal Hamaor who emigrated there from Gerona, the  Tibon Family , Meiri  and countless others who take a very prominent position in our traditional Halachik and theological sources.  Rambam was revered, not only for his Halachik works but also for his theological understanding of Judaism. Moreh Hanevuchim was translated  from Judeo- Arabic to Hebrew by two separate translators as was the sefer Hamitzvot, his Pirush Hamishna and the short but important Milot Hahegayon. Even his medical works were translated.[1]

Rambam’s theological positions are quite sophisticated and require deep analysis and great intellectual effort to even get a glimpse of what his true position is. His great erudition in all subjects gave him the ability to address the immediate subject while at all times keeping in mind the macro view of both what we call Torah and science and all the ramifications this presented. As he so sharply points out in his introduction to MN, any author that contradicts himself unknowingly should not even come into any serious consideration. As is common, people who did not grasp Rambam started preaching, teaching and writing, ostensibly interpreting Rambam’s position while in reality proposing their own misguided theories. This led to misinterpretations and conclusions that were completely against Jewish theology while all the time hanging their hat on obscure statements of Rambam thus claiming legitimacy. The most flagrant problem was the allegorical explanation of the stories in the Torah and of the Mitzvot. Allegorical interpretation of the stories was bad enough as it gave rise to doubts whether the Patriarchs were historical figures, but even worse was the allegorizing of Mitzvot.  Was not that the position of the Catholic Church as regard Mitzvot which led to their abandoning their performance?

The leaders of the Provencal community tried to address the matter. They felt that a blanket ban on philosophic study was counterproductive, as it would stifle true learning and the acquisition of knowledge. They were exploring other approaches but could not arrive at a consensus. Rav Menachem Hameiri, the leading Talmudic and Halachik authority in Provence supported some kind of restraint and joined the camp of Rav Abba Mari of Lunel who was at the forefront of the effort. As time went by and no consensus was reached, Abba Mari approached Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (Rashba) the leading and eldest Halachik authority of the time, a non-Provencal rabbi who lived in Barcelona, for help. At that point, Meiri and many other early supporters parted ways with Abba Mari. In a letter which we do not have but has been partially reconstructed by Professor Halbertal based on quotations from it in a letter from a respondent, Meiri explains his change of mind. Although he respects and holds in high esteem the Rashba as a Halachik giant, he points out that he comes from a wholly different perspective and school; the Kabbalah of Spain taught by his Rebbis, Ramban and his Beit Midrash. He questions the rationale of the ban on learning “Greek” philosophy before reaching 25 years of age, the main practical plan proposed by Abba Mari and Rashba, from several points of view. First, he objects to limiting education and learning, a central tenet in his community. Censoring what people can read is anathema to him. Why should one not read a book that teaches true concepts even if it may contain some errors and ideas we do not agree with? One or two errors do not make a book off-limit. This would stifle intellectual growth and advancement. Secondly, he asks with irony, why did they ban Aristotle and Plato which can only be understood by the really intelligent and sophisticated, rather than banning the Moreh Hanevuchim, the Malmad and other such books which are accessible to many more? Is it because it would uncover the real intent behind the ban; discouraging any learning of “Greek” philosophy?  After all, without grounding in basic sciences from a young age, few will have the ability to learn when older. Could it also be that they were disingenuous and felt that such a blanket ban would be ignored? Did they really feel that the Provencal Jewish literature was heresy but were afraid to state that openly? 

Meiri in his objection unmasked the true intent of Rashba; the eradication of secular studies from the Jewish community. In fact, Rashba’s supporter, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel of Toledo (ROSH) writes in his supporting letter that he only reluctantly supports the 25-year limit. Were it up to him he would ban ALL secular knowledge[2].  As the controversy continued with letters and Charamim flying fast and furious between supporters of the ban led by Rashba and opponents, the chasm between Abba Mari and the Rashba’s underlying positions started to emerge. In the later letters one can sense Abba Mari’s disillusion and realization of the mistake he made involving Rashba who had a completely different perspective than he did. We can also discern in the Rashba’s letters an attempt to cover up his true feelings so that he could be heard in Provence.

The controversy was cut short by the tragic expulsion of Jews from various Provencal cities including Abba Mari’s town which led to the eventual exile of Provencal Jewry.

Although the controversy died down, its repercussions continue to this day. Many of the best books written by Provencal thinkers have been suppressed and lost to us because of what seems to have been an unofficial censorship. A great Talmudic magnum opus like the Beit Habechirah was lost until about 150 years ago when it was discovered in the Vatican archives. Malmad Hatalmidim, the most popular book of the time, became almost unknown[3]. Livyat Chen by Rabbi Avraham ben Levi, the primary personal target of Rashba based on unsubstantiated hearsay that he was the teacher of the allegorical approach, was completely lost for centuries and only published a few years ago by Professor Kreisel. I say unsubstantiated hearsay, because the sefer is full of Yra’at Shamayim and the accusation of heresy is false. However, this fear of facing reality and truth, of trying to shield the Torah from supposed scientific errors, has taken such deep roots in our community that it blinds us from seeing that we are indicting the Torah by following this path. When “Gedolim” tell us that Torah knows better that science, they are blaspheming and admitting that Torah contains untruths. How can one deny what he sees with his own eyes, as Ramban, yes Ramban!, so many times says? Understanding that Torah does not teach science but how to look at science from a theological perspective and that without knowing science it loses its utility, is key in appreciating the Torah’s divinity. Rashba, Rosh and their contemporaries can be understood considering that empirical scientific knowledge was not yet developed during their era. Science was murky enough to allow for arguing that the Torah knows best, and it and the rabbis in fact did know many times better than the “Greeks”. That can no longer be held in our times. Let us hope that

 ט  לֹא-יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא-יַשְׁחִיתוּ, בְּכָל-הַר
 קָדְשִׁי:  כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם
 מְכַסִּים.  {ס}

9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. {S}

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] It is interesting to note, that although Rambam held that astrology and magic was bunk and falsehood, just an illusion that neither worked nor made sense, the cultural environment would not allow the Provencal Jews to accept it. They considered these subjects as scientifically proven facts using it in their exegesis of Tanach and Chazal as well as took that into consideration in Halachik issues. The famous Rambam letter addressed to them on the subject made little impact.

[2] Ironically, in Hilchot Kilayim 6:2 Rambam ruling is based on a mathematical calculation which escaped Rosh. He turned to a remnant of the old Andalusian elite who was well versed in secular knowledge to help him understand the Halacha. See Kessef Mishna ad locum.
[3] Halbertal quotes an unsigned letter of Rashba furiously attacking the Malmad. This attitude probably had something to do with this suppression.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Kilayim - Separation of Mind and Matter: Livyat Chen.

Over Yom Tov I was reading Livyat Chen by Rabbi Levi ben Avraham published recently by Professor Howard Kreisel. Livyat Chen is an encyclopedic book which describes the process of development needed to arrive at the ultimate potential of a human being – knowledge of God. Rabbi Levi lived in Provence at the end of the 13th century and was persecuted by the Rashba for supposedly proposing that Mitzvot are allegorical. Rashba did not have first hand knowledge of his writings, basing his opposition to Rabbi Levi on hearsay as he himself admits in his letters on the issue. Those letters are published in Minhat Kenaot found at the end of the Dimitrovsky edition of Shut Harashba. On the other hand, Rabbi Yitzchak de Lattes (14th century) refers to Rabbi Levi as a great Chacham who wrote wondrous books, amongst them the sefer Livyat Chen, a precious and important book, whose value is known only to the knowledgeable. Rabbi Levi belonged to the school of thought of Rambam followers in Provence which counted the likes of Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibon, R. Yaakov Antuli (Malmad Hatalmidim), Ralbag and many others amongst its adherents.

I started reading the section on Ta’amei Hamitzvot and it is extremely interesting and illuminating. He clearly writes with Rambam in the background expanding on him and at the same time explaining Midrashim and halachot. I understood several chapters in MN which had eluded me until now because of two words he threw in on them in passing. I hope to write about that and other gems I come across, as I get inspired.

In discussing the particular law of Kilayim, prohibiting the harnessing of two types of animals together, he suggests an interesting reason. A short introduction is warranted first. Rabbi Levi sees all Mitzvot as geared towards improving and perfecting people. That is very much how Rambam sees them too. He also holds that the reason why many Mitzvot do not have explicit reasons is because there could be more than one and those who keep the Mitzvah may find individual reasons. After all, we all are different and have various personal characteristics, where the same Mitzvah may address each particular personality’s individual character. The Torah is also meant to be eternal and as societies and cultures change, the reason for doing certain Mitzvot may change thus remaining relevant. This flexibility and eternal utility is seen as a clear indication of the divinity of the Torah.

Regarding the prohibition to harness a ritually pure animal with an impure one, Rabbi Levi first discusses the traditional approaches of the Rishonim such as e.g. to teach us sensitivity to cruelty; a ruminating cow will cause suffering to its partner in harness, the donkey who thinks it is eating while it is not and other well known explanations. Rabbi Levi then suggests that the two animals, the bull/cow and the donkey represent allegorically the two realms of human endeavor - the physical and the mind. The Hebrew word for bull is “shor” which also means to see in Hebrew and is also similar to straight “yashar”.  The ox plows in a straight line; sight is in a straight line which also reminds us of straight thinking.  On the other hand, the word for donkey is “chamor”, which reminds us of “Chomer” – matter – or physicality. The Mitzvah teaches us that the two areas of human endeavor do not mix well. One cannot think about abstract and existential matters which lead us to trying to decipher the mind of God so to say, while we are steeped in matter and physicality. If our weltanschauung is focused on physical wellbeing and narcissistic pursuits, our judgment when it comes to questions about Truth is clouded and Truth will elude us. Similarly, the prohibition for a man to wear feminine clothing is a reminder along the same lines. Woman according to Rambam represents the physical while man represents the mind. The physical receives, or is impregnated by the mind. In Aristotelian physics, matter cannot exist without Form which gives it its characteristics. The Male therefore represents Form while the female stands for matter.  A mind that focuses on the physical cannot reach its ultimate potential. This interpretation was introduced into Jewish thought by a predecessor of Rabbi Levi, Rabbi Yaakov Antuli in his Malmad Hatalmidim. He quotes his non-Jewish friend (reportedly the monk Michael of York), who explains the verse in Yeshayahu 1:3

 ג  יָדַע שׁוֹר קֹנֵהוּ, וַחֲמוֹר אֵבוּס בְּעָלָיו; יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַע, עַמִּי לֹא הִתְבּוֹנָן.

3 The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel does not know, My people does not consider.

Yeshayahu was chastising the Jews by comparing them to the thinkers of the nations represented by the ox, who found God without the help of Torah and their followers represented by the ass, who believed in them because these thinkers promised them material goods if they follow them.  In comparison the Jews, although they received the Torah to help their development abandoned all rational thought and followed in the paths of superstition[1].   

This interpretation of the reason for the Mitzvah conforms with the individualized approach to Ta’amei Hamitzvot. After all, one has to be a philosopher to appreciate this reasoning. For the common person the other reasons would be relevant, such as teaching about cruelty or promiscuity.

Interestingly, it is this approach that was criticized by Rashba. I am sure that had he seen these interpretations first hand, he would not have been critical. It was reported to him that Rabbi Levi encouraged allegorical interpretations of Mitzvot which led people to abandon praxis. Reading Rabbi Levi clearly shows that this was far from his mind and is not the case. To the contrary, it makes the practice of Mitzvot relevant to all of us at the different stages of our internal growth.

Rabbi Menachem Recanati (c. 1250- c. 1310) explains that according to Ramban, the prohibition of Kilayim is to prevent mixing two things that have a different emanation source. All physical and spiritual existence is the result of emanations that can be traced all the way back to God. Medieval thinkers realized that all movement in our world is generated by cosmic forces. They did not understand gravity and our modern ideas about movement but observed that many things such as tides were related to the trajectory of the sun, moon and stars. The difference between the different thinkers was how far that influence went. Some believed that stars affected even the day-to-day and minute-by-minute life of everything that exists on our planet including the spiritual, while others limited that influence to physical movement, what we would refer to as physics. Rambam belonged to the latter school, keeping a clear demarcation between the mind and the physical while Ramban was closer to the former. Ramban however accepted that in practice, no matter the source of the two components, mind and body, mixing the two was counterproductive. A clear balance and demarcation had to be maintained for correct human behavior and thought. I wonder if Rabbi Levi’s thinking and his approach were nothing more than a variation on the Kabbalah thinking that was in its development stages during the period he lived in.  Clearly, both approaches were strongly influenced by the philosophy/physics of their time which was rooted on the different Greek schools of thought. It is always amazing to me when the Kabbalah School accused the Rationalist School of being held hostage by Greek philosophy, as if their own school was immune. I always think in that vein about the famous Gra comment on Rambam who held that magic is nonsense.  Rashba who chastised Rabbi Levi belonged to the Ramban School and it is clear that a first hand read of his positions would have been not only acceptable but also commendable and highly appreciated. Here we see how Lashon Hara works its nefarious ways, and was probably one of the causes of the suppression and censorship of the teachings of Rabbi Levi, which would have greatly benefited our contemporary Jewish society.    

[1] The reference to the Malmad is suggested by Howard Kreisel though the original text is convoluted and requires a little work to see the similarity.