Monday, July 20, 2009

My Presentation to the International Medieval Congress (Part II)

(Part I)

Did Jews have the power to act against those accused of heresy? When faced with other types of threats the heads of the Jewish community proved themselves quite capable of putting through legislation, which regulated the behavior of individuals. In 1397, in response to the events of 1391, the leader of the Jewish community, Hasdai Crescas passed through a series of takkanot, in Saragossa that increased the powers of the communal trustees, making it easier for them to act without consulting the community as a whole. He placed a ban of excommunication on anyone who would tamper with his regulations.[1] Crescas wrote a book, Or Adonai (Light of the Lord), attacking Aristotelian philosophy and Maimonides yet he did not bother to place any restrictions on the study of philosophy. If Crescas really believed that Aristotelian philosophy posed a mortal threat to Judaism then surely he should have done more than engage in a philosophical debate with Aristotle and Maimonides. He should have put the considerable power, that he wielded, and used it to rid the community of Aristotle’s books and Aristotelian philosophers.

We see a similar pattern with the Synod of Valladolid in 1432, under Don Abraham Benveniste that focused on the need to reestablish community authority. The ordinances focused on five things: instruction in Torah communal judges, denunciation and slander, taxes and services and restrictions upon extravagant dress and entertainment. The council was concerned with the lack of Torah study amongst the Jewish community in Castile. In order to rectify the situation and support those involved in the study of Torah and teaching it a tax was levied on cattle slaughtered, wine, weddings, circumcisions and death. Every community was to appoint it own judges and officials to serve terms of one year. In case of any indecisions the matter was to be brought to the Rab de la Corte, who would appoint someone himself. These judges wielded the power to levy fines and even use corporal punishment. They could force people to appear before the court and fine those who refused. They could order the arrest of any Jew provided they first signed a warrant in the presence of witnesses. The Synod forbade Jews to take other Jews to a Christian court or denounce other Jews to Christians, except if it was a matter of taxes due to the king, something pertaining to the king’s welfare or if the Jew in question did not recognize the authority of the Jewish court.[2] The Synod forbade Jews to attempt to seek special privileges from the Christian authorities in order to exempt themselves from community taxes.[3] Finally the Synod placed restrictions on what sort of clothing Jews could wear. [4] The idea being that Jews should not wear fancy garments so as to not incur the ire of their Christian neighbors. [5]

Benveniste was Rab de la Corte under John II of Castile. In accordance with these statutes, Benveniste, as Rab de la Courte, was the supreme legal authority amongst all Jews in Castile and had power over all courts. We know from Ibn Musa that Benveniste was critical of philosophical interpretations of the Bible. According to Ibn Musa, Benveniste once responded to two scholars, who preached about “matters alien to our tradition,” using “figurative interpretations,” saying:

My brothers, children of Abraham, believe that when the Bible says in the beginning God created (Gen. 1:1) or Jacob left Beersheba (Gen. 26:10), it is to be understood in its simple meaning. Believe also in all that is written in the Torah, and what the rabbis explained in accordance with their tradition. Do not believe those who provocatively speak of alien matters.[6]

One would have imagined that Benveniste, among all of his various community regulations, could have spared a few lines as to the regulation of rogue preachers engaged in undermining popular belief with their philosophical allegories. As Rab de la Courte he certainly would have had the power to successfully wage the sort of campaign that had been attempted with limited success by Solomon of Montpellier, in 1232, and Solomon ben Aderet and Abba Mari, in 1306.

Part of the solution to this historical problem lies, I believe, in rethinking the issue of what these anti-philosophical polemics were about. I would suggest that rabbis wrote these polemics not written in order to warn ordinary Jews as to the dangers and failings of philosophy, but to reach out to conversos and make the case to them that Christian theology was a denial of the God of the Bible, and that by remaining as Christians they were abandoning God’s covenant and were no different than the Israelites in the Bible who worshipped Baal. Since we are dealing with a population that the church and the civil authorities viewed as Christian, Jews could not directly write anything that tried to get conversos to remain Jewish in any fashion. Therefore any outreach to conversos needed to be esoterically written.

To give an example of this, Solomon Alami accused philosophers of exchanging the garments of the “pure” Torah for Greek garments.

According to their [the philosophers’] words they have raised Aristotle with his calculations above Moshe, Peace Be Upon Him, with his Torah. For, were it not for his work and his books on nature, we would be left in the darkness of our intellect and we would not go out into the light from the barriers. And this is a little like the Christian argument when they say that all the righteous descended [to Hell] and were lost until their Messiah came and atoned for them through his death.[7]

Alami clearly connects philosophy to Christianity. Other examples follow this course and we can see philosopher as a codeword for Christian.

Assuming that rabbis wrote anti-philosophical literature in order to reach conversos solves our problems. It would explain why no one made the jump from attacking philosophy to actually taking action against it. The “philosophers” in question, whom the rabbis saw as such great threats, lived outside of the formal control of the Jewish community so any attempt to take action against them was futile. No Jewish communal bureaucracy could touch a Christian. When faced with the fact that a large percentage of the Jewish community officially lived as Christians, one could quite comfortably choose to ignore the issue of Averroeist Jews reading large swaths of the Bible allegorically. The rabbis were addressing a contemporary issue and were not simply going through the troupes inherited from earlier generations. Previous generations had the luxury of not having to face mass apostasy so they had the ability to look inward and take action against those Jews deemed to be too philosophically minded.

This move to reach out to conversos would also explain the turn towards dogma and why it did not lead to any attempts to follow through and take action against those deemed to possess heterodox beliefs. If one viewed Judaism as a set of beliefs and not as practices then it is possible to say that a Jew who did not keep the practices of Judaism, but who still believed should not be counted as an apostate. If one followed Maimonides even if a Jew violated every commandment in the Bible he still counted as a member of Israel and must be treated as one in every respect as long as he accepted all thirteen Principles of Faith. Since this move to dogma came about in order to accommodate those who could not actually practice Judaism or even count themselves as part of the Jewish community, any attempt to rid the Jewish community of those who counted themselves as part of the community, even though they might not accept everything in Judaism, would have been counterproductive.

In dealing with rabbinic anti-philosophical polemics in the fifteenth century one cannot simply pass them off as a form of reactionary conservatism aimed at rooting out philosophy. If the rabbis of this period had wished to fight philosophy then they would have gone beyond simply denouncing philosophy to using their political power in order to excommunicate philosophers and ban their books. The fact that these people did not take such action forces us to rethink our understanding of this literature. The solution I have offered connects the issues of conversos and rabbinic polemics against philosophy. The real concern here was not philosophy but the mass apostasy of Jews. The anti-philosophical polemics from this period did not serve as vehicles to purify Judaism from the threat of heresy. Rather they served as a means to reach out to other Jews, even those who did not practice Judaism in any sort of traditional sense.


[1] Baer HJCS II pg. 126-29 and Die Juden im Christlichen Spanien Erster Teil I no. 463, pg. 727-32.
[2] One wonders what sort of Jew this is meant to refer to. One source of possible candidates would have been conversos.
[3] This statute is found in almost every community ordinance in the middle ages both amongst Sephardic communities and Ashkenazic.
[4] Ibn Verga in his book Sevet Yehuda, argues that Jews brought about the expulsion of 1492 upon themselves because they paraded themselves in fancy garments in front of Christians, which made Christians resentful of them.
[5] Baer, HJCS II pg. 261-70 and Die Juden im Christlichen Spanien Erster Teil II no. 287, pg. 281-97.
[6] Saperstein, Jewish Preaching pg. 385-86.
[7] Iggeret Musar pg. 41-42.

1 comment:

e-kvetcher said...

Hey, just wanted to say I am really enjoying this last set of posts...

BTW, I am no medieval scholar, but I did post a couple of times on some related topics...