Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Presentation to the International Medieval Congress (Part I)

Philosophers, Conversos, and the Jewish Campaign against Heresy in 15th-Century Spain – Benzion Chinn (The Ohio State University)

One has to admit that there is something just a little bit odd about studying orthodox attempts to suppress “heretical” ideas. As academics, our very lifeblood is free enquiry. It would only be natural for us to simply view these defenders of orthodoxy as the “ultimate evil,” attempting to destroy "reason" and establishing the tyranny of “dogma” and “superstition.” I believe this speaks to the best of the historical profession that we are committed to giving all those from the past a chance to speak, particularly those who seem to be the most distant from “modernity.”

This paper is primarily about a question and I will spend most of my time dealing with this question. I will suggest a solution. Not that I am convinced that I have the evidence to completely solve the question. I would be interested in getting feedback if anyone can offer anything to further my case or to refute it.

One of the major features of Spanish Jewish thought, during the fifteenth century, was its polemic against philosophy. Philosophy was supposed to lead to the abandonment of the commandments, to heresy and even to apostasy. This element received particular emphasis in the work of the late Yitzchak Baer and his History of the Jews in Christian Spain. (Probably the finest study of any one particularly Jewish community.) I first started exploring this topic with the intention of writing about the practical side of this move against philosophy, such as bans, book burnings and excommunications. It seemed only logical that such things went on; what is the point of denouncing philosophy if you are not going to actually do something about it? As I am sure many of you can relate to, this project took a dramatic shift when, after several weeks of work, I realized that I had absolutely no evidence of such things happening. Out of frustration, as strange as this sounds, I found myself almost yelling at my sources: “what is wrong with you people? Why do you not show some spine and ban something?” I could have pretended that I had the evidence and hoped no one would notice. Instead I chose what I think is the more interesting option and asked myself why I had no evidence. We are left with the conclusion that the reason we have no evidence of bans, book burnings and excommunications is that they did not happen.

So why would a rabbinic establishment devote so much energy to denouncing philosophy without taking any practical measures against it? To suggest some obvious possibilities: Maybe Jews were remarkably tolerant and did not go for banning books? Maybe Jews were just not that interested in dogma? Maybe the Jewish community during this period was remarkably orthodox and there were no dangerous philosophers? Maybe Jews just did not have the power to do something about it?

Attempts by the Jewish community to take action against perceived heterodox beliefs had clear precedent both within Spain and outside of it. Spanish Jewry possessed a particularly strong precedent for the active suppression of heterodox beliefs since it served as the host for most of the Maimonidean controversies. In 1232 Solomon of Montpellier and his students, Jonah of Gerondi and David b. Saul banned Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. Furthermore Solomon sent Jonah of Gerondi to Northern France in order to gain support for the ban. The Rabbis of Northern France themselves went and banned this book as well. The Maimonideans responded with a ban of their own against Solomon of Montpellier. Furthermore, they sent David Kimhi to Spain to rally support for their position. While Kimhi gained the support of a number of important community leaders, he met some fierce opposition from such Jewish leaders as Nachmonides, Judah Alfakar and Abulafia. This fighting only came to a close when the Inquisition got involved and burned copies of the Guide.[1] This event shocked both sides and caused them to temporally halt their campaigns.

A similar controversy occurred in the fourteenth century. In 1304 Abba Mari ben Moses (d.c. 1310) and Solomon ben Aderet (1235-1310), the chief rabbi of Barcelona and student of Jonah of Gerondi, issued a ban of excommunication on all those under twenty-five who studied philosophy. The focus of Abba Mari and Aderet’ zeal was Levi ben Abraham of Villefranche who supposedly claimed that Abraham and Sarah represented Form and Matter and were not real historical figures. As with the case of Solomon of Montpellier, this attempt also met with stiff opposition from a number of scholars, most notably Menahem Meiri. Abba Mari collected his correspondence in a book titled Minhat Kinot (Offering of Jealously). It serves to detail all of his efforts to stamp out Aristotelian thought within the Jewish community. His efforts to get different communities to sign on to his ban, the rabbis that he convinced to sign and those that turned against him. He also recounts his efforts to defend himself against his opponents, who went after him personally and tried to destroy his reputation.[2]

As strange as this sounds, one has to admire these people. They took a principled stand, based on what they believed, and where even willing to put themselves at some professional risk for those beliefs. Keep in mind that the pro-Maimonidean forces possessed considerable power and were perfectly capable of moving against those who dared oppose them.

To move on to the issue of dogma. The central figure in the history of Jewish dogma was Maimonides (1138-1205) with his thirteen Principles of Faith. As Menachem Kellner has argued, Maimonides attempted to reformulate Judaism as a theologically based religion as opposed to a law based one. Furthermore Maimonides redefined the meaning of being a Jew. For Maimonides a Jew was not simply someone born to a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism; a Jew was someone who believed in the dogmas of Judaism. While Maimonides’ thought played a major role in the theological controversies of the Middle-Ages, his Principles of Faith only came to play an important role in fifteenth century Spain. It was Hasdai Crescas (1350-1410) and his student Joseph Albo (1380-1445) who first made an issue out of it. They criticized Maimonides’ choices as to which doctrines should be viewed as the foundations and axioms upon which Judaism was to be based and put forth their own alternative lists of dogmas. Kellner suggests that the reason for this sudden interest in dogma was the church’s missionary assault at the end of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. Christianity set the terms of debate and that meant dogma. Any responses on the part of Jews needed to formulate a conception of Jewish dogma and how it was different from Christian dogma. This predicament lead Jews back to Maimonides and the acceptance of all or parts of his reformulation of Judaism.

While Kellner notes in passing that this interest in dogma did not lead to any fissures within the Jewish community, he does not bother to follow through and consider the implications of this lack of any real world crackdown on heresy. One would think that the point of formulating an official established dogma was so that one could define heresy. Once we have an official dogma all those who do not confirm to it are heretics and should be persecuted. Why would someone go through so much trouble formulated dogma unless they intended to use it as a platform with which they could hunt after heretics? Both Crescas and Albo, in the early part of the fifteenth century, and Isaac Arama (1420-97) and Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), in the later part, engaged in anti-philosophical polemics and in attempts to formulate official Jewish dogma. For some strange reason, though, none of these people ever banned a book or excommunicated someone for their philosophical leanings.

Where there radical Jewish philosophers in the fifteenth century? We do have some evidence to indicate that the Jewish community possessed some active philosophical radicals during this period. The mid fifteenth century preacher, Haim ibn Musa, in a letter to his son wrote:

Now there is a new type of preacher. They rise to the lectern to preach before the reading of the Torah, and most of their sermons consist of syllogistic arguments and quotations from the philosophers. They mention by name Aristotle, Alexander, Themistius, Plato, Averroes, and Ptolemy, while Abbaye and Raba are concealed in their mouths. The Torah waits upon the reading stand like a dejected woman who had prepared herself properly by ritual immersion and awaited her husband; then, returning from the house of his mistress, he glanced at her and left without paying her further heed.[3]

While Ibn Musa did not give any specific names, the preachers he attacked clearly lived in his time.

[1] Whether or not the anti-Maimonideans denounced the works of Maimonides to the Inquisition is an open question. Maimonideans, such as Hillel of Verona, blamed their opponents for what happened and sought to use this event as a means of discrediting them. Daniel Silver has argued that such actions would have been highly unlikely as it would have elicited the complete opposition of the Jewish community at large.
[2] For more on the Maimonidean controversies see Joseph Sarachek, Faith and Reason, Daniel Silver’s Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy and Bernard Septimus’ Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition: the Career and Controversies of Ramah.
[3] Saperstein, Jewish Preachers pg. 386.

(To be continued ...)

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