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.


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  3. א] ראיתי לדבר כאן על יסודות רבים באמונות גדולי הערך מאד

    דע שבעלי התורה נחלקו דעותיהם בענין האושר שישיג האדם בקיום המצות הללו אשר צונו ה' בהם על ידי משה רבינו, ובנקמה אשר תבואינו בעברינו עליהם מחלוקות רבות מאד כפי שנויי שכליהם, ונשתבשו בכך המחשבות שבוש רב, עד שאפשר שלא תמצא כלל אדם שנתברר אצלו ענין זה, גם לא תמצא בו דברים סדורים לאף אחד אלא בערבוב רב.

    והנה כת סוברת כי האושר הוא גן עדן ושהוא מקום שבו אוכלים ושותים בלי יגיעה גופנית ובלי עמל, ויהיו בו בתים מאבנים קרות ומצעות של משי ונהרות זורמים יין ושמני בושם, והרבה מסוג זה. ושהנקמה גיהנם, ושהוא מקום לוהט אש שבו נשרפות הגופות ומתענים בו בני אדם במיני ענויים שיארך ספורם. ולומדים אנשי כת זו על דעה זו במאמרים רבים מדברי חכמים עליהם השלום שמתאימים לכאורה לטענתם [כולם] או רובם

  4. והם רוב אשר נפגשתי עמהם ואשר ראיתי חבוריהם ואשר שמעתי עליהם, מבינים אותם כפשטם ואינם מסבירים אותם כלל, ונעשו אצלם כל הנמנעות מחוייבי המציאות, ולא עשו כן אלא מחמת סכלותם בחכמות וריחוקם מן המדעים, ואין בהם מן השלמות עד כדי שיתעוררו על כך מעצמם, ולא מצאו מעורר שיעוררם, ולכן חושבים הם שאין כונת חכמים בכל מאמריהם המחוכמים אלא מה שהבינו הם מהם, ושהם כפשוטם, ואף על פי שיש בפשטי מקצת דבריהם מן הזרות עד כדי שאם תספרנו כפשטו להמון העם כל שכן ליחידיהם היו נדהמים בכך ואומרים היאך אפשר שיהא בעולם אדם שמדמה דברים אלו וחושב שהם דברים נכונים, וכל שכן שימצאו חן בעיניו. והכת הזו המסכנה רחמנות על סכלותם לפי שהם רוממו את החכמים לפי מחשבתם ואינם אלא משפילים אותם בתכלית השפלות ואינם מרגישים בכך, וחי ה' כי הכת הזו מאבדים הדר התורה ומחשיכים זהרה, ועושים תורת השם בהפך המכוון בה, לפי שה' אמר על חכמת תורתו אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה וכו', והכת הזו דורשין מפשטי דברי חכמים דברים אשר אם ישמעום העמים יאמרו רק עם סכל ונבל הגוי הקטן הזה. והרבה שעושין כן הדרשנין המבינים לעם מה שאינם מבינים הם עצמם, ומי יתן ושתקו כיון שאינם מבינים מי יתן החרש תחרישון ותהי לכם לחכמה

  5. Very nice post, I enjoyed this a lot. So, what would you say to Rabbi Slifkin, I think he does say the Adam and Eve story is allegorical ( I think) and he basis it on the Rambam ( I think). Not that the Rambam held this way, but that he allows for this approach.

  6. E-man, thank you. I have not read Rabbi Slifkin's books. Honestly, the issues that bother him never bothered me so I did not find it necessary to turn to him.

    BTW allegorical does not necessarily mean that the story is untrue, just that it was reported for more than historical reasons.

  7. I would recommend Prof Halbertal's Concealment and Revelation on the same subject that has recently been published in English.

  8. rabbi sacks,
    where is the above quote from?

  9. It is from the introduction to perek chelek in the perush mishnayot of rambam.

  10. Something I never see noted is that the earliest rational dissent from dogmatic peripateticism was fueled by passion for emunas Yisroel. Crescas is perhaps the best example. My sense is that if not for emunah of rational men, Aristotle would have effectively marked the end of human thought.
    Modern science, after all, is rooted not in medieval scholastics, but in the Renaissance fascination with neoplatonism, numerology, magic and Kabbalah.