MAIMONIDEAN CONTROVERSY, a vast complex of disputed cultural, religious, and social problems, focusing around several central themes. Some of the elements of this controversy considerably antedate *Maimonides (1135–1204); and of the questions brought into sharp relief by his ideas and writings, some have remained topical in many Jewish circles. Vast fields of human experience and thought are encompassed by it: reason and philosophy in their relation to faith and tradition; what components are permitted and what prohibited in the education of a man following the Torah; the proper understanding of *anthropomorphism as expressed in the Bible
Although it is convenient to frame the four climaxes of the controversy as distinct historical stages, recent research has led to a reappraisal, in light of which these climaxes cannot be characterized as separate stages in a homogeneous process. It is certainly true that there were some essential differences among the stages. For example: in the fourth and final stage Maimonides himself no longer was the subject of the controversy, and even the conservative party accepted his positions, whereas in the early stages his Guide of the Perplexed and Book of Knowledge (the first section of the Mishneh Torah, containing philosophical material) were the main target; in the early stages the opposition was to philosophy per se, whereas in the latter stages the opposition was to unrestricted access to and teaching of philosophy, not a total rejection of it. Historians of the controversy over Maimonides and philosophy have tended to focus on extreme positions in each period, which lend themselves to simple characterization. On the other hand, the evidence increasingly supports the view that many Jewish intellectuals did not fall into either extreme camp – that of excessive rationalist allegorization or that of opposition in principle to all "foreign wisdom." Many of the rationalist camp were strictly observant in their personal life and maintained the supremacy of the authority of the Torah, such as Judah b. Samuel ibn Abbas and Kalonymos, who were confirmed rationalists but rejected extreme philosophical positions. At the same time, among the conservative halakhic authorities were those who did not object in principle to the study of philosophy (to the contrary, they themselves had philosophical educations) but only to premature exposure of the youth to philosophy and to extreme rationalist allegorization, especially in public sermons in the synagogue. Abba Mari *Astruc ha-Yarḥi, for example, who played a major role in promoting the limited Barcelona ban on philosophy in the fourth and final climax of the controversy (1305), wrote a philosophical work, Sefer ha-Yare'aḥ, which in many respects is rationalist in outlook.
The crisis of Spanish Jewry in the 15th century accentuated the main educational and social themes of the old controversy. In Renaissance Italy and in the diversified and flourishing Jewish center of Poland-Lithuania the old quarrel again became topical, though in a milder form. With the enlightenment (*Haskalah) of the 18th century the "Maimonidean side" of the controversy was given a new, greatly secularized, and radical expression by Moses *Mendelssohn and his followers – an expression that could scarely have been imagined by the former protagonists. In German *neo-Orthodoxy, the "Maimonidean side" – particularly in its striving for a synthesis of Jewish faith and "general culture," as well as in certain of its social tendencies – found a new, conservative expression. In Yemen in the 19th century and well into the 20th, there was a distinct "Maimonidean camp" and a struggle against it (see Kafaḥ).
In the last two decades of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century, Maimonides again became the focus of a controversy in ultra-Orthodoxy, as a result of the emphasis placed by Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel *Schneersohn of Chabad-Lubavitch Ḥasidism on the study of the Mishneh Torah. The non-ḥasidic leadership, in particular of the Lithuanian type of yeshivah, vehemently rejected placing Maimonides at the center of the curriculum in place of such classic codes as Joseph Caro's Shulḥan Arukh.
The First Clash: During Maimonides' Lifetime
Through the charisma of his personality and the trend of his thought and leadership Maimonides himself initiated this. An exile from Muslim Spain, he met in the Near East the hierarchical traditions of the exilarchate and the *geonim. Maimonides was willing and ready to respect the *exilarch as scion of the royal house of David and as the proper authority, from the halakhic point of view, to appoint and ordain judges.
His mind and heart vehemently opposed the claims of the geonim. He criticized sharply the way they:
This attempt to undermine the economic and social foundations of the leadership of the Babylonian geonim went hand in hand with Maimonides' opposition to their program of studies and his contempt for their very office. The Gaon at Baghdad at this time was *Samuel b. Ali, a strong and authoritarian personality. In an ironic "apology" for Samuel b. Ali's attacks on the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides explains to one of his pupils:
The gaonate is represented as corrupt, and typical academy study as being of questionable value. Concerning Zechariah, the son-in-law of the Gaon, Maimonides writes:
This vehement revolt against the authority of the geonim came at a time when Samuel b. Ali was attempting to minimize the authority of the exilarch on the grounds that what the people needed then was no more than the leadership of the geonim and the guidance of their study in the academy. Small wonder that such a revolt aroused reciprocal anger, coming, as it did, in defense of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah which claimed expressly (in the introduction) to supersede the Talmud in popular usage, replacing its deliberations – the very core and substance of the life of academies and geonim – by his systematic code. The claim of the intellectual to replace an aristocratic hierarchy seemed to be combined with an attempt to impose Greek systematic modes of codification in place of the traditional many-voiced flow of talmudic discussion. It is hardly suprising that Samuel b. Ali, Zechariah, and *Daniel b. Saadiah ha-Bavli all sought and found halakhic flaws in this code. Some of their arguments have philosophical and theological overtones, but these were to come to the forefront only in the second stage of the controversy. In the main, in this phase, it was Maimonides' creativity which was found provocative, as well as his attitude to Talmud study and to the leadership of established institutions, all of which were being defended against him.
The First Stage in Europe
In this first flare-up, the controversy was thus not over philosophy as such, or over Maimonides' philosophy in particular, since his Guide of the Perplexed was translated into Hebrew only at the very end of his life. The criticism was leveled primarily against his Mishneh Torah and his attitude toward resurrection. The criticism of the Mishneh Torah focused on Maimonides' methodology, the fact that he did not cite sources for his decisions, and his claim that the study of his Code would replace the study of Talmud: "A person should study the written Torah first, and then read this [book], and thereby know the entire oral Torah, so that he will not need to read any other book in between them." The criticism also reflected divergent local traditions and custom (minhag). Maimonides' great Ashkenazi critic, R. *Abraham b. David of Posquières (Ravad), in his critical gloss (hasagah) to the Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, asserted that Maimonides "has abandoned the method of all the authors who preceded him, because they brought proofs for their words, and cited their sources … But this way, I do not know why I should disregard my tradition and my proof for the sake of this author's book." Ravad also attacked Maimonides on theoretical issues. Maimonides had categorized as a heretic (min) anyone who affirms that there is one God but that God has a body (Yad, Teshuvah 3:7). In his hasagah to this passage, Ravad protested: "Why did he call such a person a heretic, when some who were greater and better than he followed this opinion, according to what they found in the Bible and even more, according to what they found in aggadot which corrupt opinions?" What is significant here is not that Ravad defended corporealist beliefs – he also rejected the corporealism of "aggadot which corrupt opinions" – but that he attacked the legitimacy of Maimonides' categorization of such corrupt opinions as heresy.
As for the criticism of Maimonides' regarding the traditional belief in bodily resurrection, because of his consistent emphasis on an intellectualist understanding of the world to come (olam ha-ba) in terms of the survival only of the actual intellect in proportion to its attainment of knowledge, Ravad wrote (on Yad, Teshuvah 8:2): "The words of this man seem close to one who says that there is no bodily resurrection of the dead, but only of the soul." Others were equally critical of Maimonides' apparent denial of resurrection.
Ramah (R. Meir b. Todros ha-Levi *Abulafia), who was active in the first two climaxes of the controversy, was in many respects a sincere admirer of Maimonides. In the first period he was shocked at the implication that Maimonides did not affirm the resurrection of the body as a halakhic principle. In an angry letter sent to the scholars of *Lunel he not only sought to prove by copious quotations the dogmatic truth of bodily resurrection, but also added passionately that if there is no such resurrection, "to what end did the bodies stand watch for their God, did they go in darkness for the sake of their God? If the bodies are not resurrected, where is their hope and where are they to look for it?" (Kitāb al-Rasīlʾ (1871), 14). Abulafia also attacked Maimonides on other halakhic points. It was only after he saw Maimonides' Treatise on Resurrection that he became satisfied that Maimonides, in fact, affirmed the traditional belief. While some of his correspondents agreed with his earlier criticism, others tried to convince him that he had misunderstood the purport of Maimonides' teaching on
Sheshet records opposition to the Mishneh Torah by reporting the opinion of one of the judges who quarreled with him and refused to judge according to Maimonides: "As he does not adduce proofs from the sayings of the talmudic sages for his decisions, who is going to follow his opinion? It is far better to study Talmud. We will have nothing to do with his books and his writings." In Sheshet's view this opposition stems from the fact that until the Mishneh Torah the whole matter of legal decision was so confused that the vast majority of Jews, being ignorant of the Talmud, had to obey their judges, whereas now people had before them a clear and open code and were not dependent on judges alone (ibid., 427).
Maimonides was aware of the criticism leveled against him, and responded to it by his Treatise on Resurrection (Maqalah fi Teḥiyat ha-Metim, 1190–91). Maimonides' defense of resurrection in that work was accepted at face value by such early critics as Ramah (Rabbi Meir b. Todros ha-Levi Abulafia), who then retracted his criticism. Ravad's critical glosses were incorporated into standard editions of the Mishneh Torah. So the first climax in the Maimonidean controversy subsided with Maimonides death in 1204, but the criticism of the Mishneh Torah was preserved for later generations together with the Code itself.
The Second Climax: 1230–1235 in Europe
What led to periodic controversies over Maimonides and philosophy? In the first period, as we have seen, it was Maimonides' enormous status which led towards the end of his life to the rapid availability in Hebrew of his works in Europe, including his Guide of the Perplexed, outside his own immediate sphere of influence. It was this almost immediate availability of his philosophical views in areas previously unexposed to philosophical culture which in turn aroused resistance. In the second period, external circumstances contributed to the flare-up of the controversy. Furthermore, whereas Maimonides himself was the subject of controversy in the first period, he was merely the catalyst for a much broader and fundamental controversy in the second period, when philosophy itself came under sharp attack. In addition, whereas Maimonides, however much his views were criticized in the earlier period, was personally highly regarded, in the later period the philosophers themselves were attacked and subject to suspicion.
Maimonides' works reached Christian Europe, chiefly in the southwest – Spain and Provence – entering a cultural and social climate very different from the one in which they had been created in the Arabic-Islamic culture of Egypt. As we have seen, Maimonides' authority in the Mishneh Torah had been criticized halakhically by Ravad and *Moses ha-Kohen, among others. The Christian Reconquest was proceeding apace in the Iberian peninsula. Mystical tendencies and visionary approaches began to find explicit and strong expression in the developing *Kabbalah of Provence and Spain. Jews everywhere were suffering from the impact of the *Crusades, with martyrdom (*Kiddush ha-Shem) in their wake. Maimonides' grand attempt at a synthesis between the Jewish faith and Greek-Arabic Aristotelian philosophy was received with enthusiasm in some circles, mainly of the upper strata of Jewish society, and with horror and dismay in others, imbued with mysticism and dreading the effects of Greek thought on Jewish beliefs. The old and continuously smoldering issue of "Athens versus Jerusalem" conceived in the Talmud as the problem of "Greek wisdom" – ḥokhmah yevanit (BK 82b–83a; Meg. 9a–b), now burst into flames. Essentially the problem is one of the possible synthesis or the absolute antithesis between monotheistic revealed faith and intellectually formulated philosophy. Both faith, based on revelation, and philosophy, based on human reason, were understood to fundamentally contradict each other's methodology and undermine each other's authority. The rational method of inquiry, which in classical and medieval times was equated with science (the distinction
This problem is common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the view of H.A. Wolfson, all of Western religious philosophy, whether in Hebrew, Latin, or Arabic "garb," is essentially the same regarding the problematical relationship between revelation and reason. In Wolfson's scheme, *Philo was the first "synthetic" philosopher, and the greatest figure in the history of Western philosophy after Plato and Aristotle, because he attempted to synthesize biblical revelation (which did not know philosophy) and philosophy (which was pagan and did not know revelation), and all subsequent philosophy in the Middle Ages was "Philonic" in structure, until Spinoza destroyed that structure and made possible modern philosophy by freeing philosophy from revelation (Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1947)).
In all three traditions, therefore, tensions exist between rationalistic religious belief, inclining in the main toward synthesis, and mystic belief, which is largely opposed to it.
The problem was not new in Judaism. In Islamic countries in the tenth century it was in the main decided in favor of rationalism and synthesis. Maimonides was not the only one in the 12th century who expressly sought a synthesis between Greek philosophy and Judaism; a philosophic approach was attempted by Abraham *Ibn Daud (see, e.g., his Sefer ha-Emunah ha-Ramah (1852), 2, 58), and he was preceded by a rationalist tradition of synthesis going back to *Saadiah Gaon and *Samuel b. Hophni who denied the historical veracity of the incident of Samuel and the Witch of Endor.
Yet in Maimonides' time radical changes were taking place in Jewish communities in Europe. The influence of the Christian environment became more pervasive. Increasingly, Christianity was involved in similar problems, as the conflict between Peter *Abelard and *Bernard of Clairvaux clearly shows. After the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204 (the year of Maimonides' death), the Greek works of Aristotle became directly accessible to Western Christians, who no longer had to rely on Latin translations of the Greek texts made (often by Jews) from Arabic or from Hebrew versions based on Arabic translations from the Greek. The growing universities increasingly challenged the monasteries as centers of learning. While the traditional doctrines of the Church were being confronted by secular learning, Christian Orthodoxy was also challenged in the 12th and 13th centuries by "heresies," especially that of Cathari and the related heresy of the rationalist Albigensians, who had begun in the 11th century to interpret Scripture allegorically and who denied the literal interpretation of the miraculous events of Jesus' life and death that was central to Catholic dogma. Such "heresy" spread especially among the upper classes. The Church moved against both threats in the first decades of the 13th century. Against the threat of secular philosophy, the Church issued repeated bans on the study of Aristotle and commentaries on his works. Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade, to eliminate the heresy (which he regarded as instigated by educated Jews). In 1231 the bans on Aristotle were renewed by Pope Gregory IX, who established the permanent Inquisition under the Dominicans, with the aim of completely eradicating Albigensianism. There were, in fact, certain parallels between the Christian Albigensian "heresy" and the Jewish philosophers of the day, at least in the eyes of their respective opponents, who accused them of indiscriminate allegorization of Scripture and of antinomian laxity in moral or ritual behavior. The stormy winds of anti-rationalism in the Christian environment were a contributing factor in the exacerbation of long existing, if usually dormant, tensions within the Jewish community.
Social upheavals in Jewish society during the 12th and 13th centuries also added communal tension to the spiritual strife. When Maimonides was still young, and most of his work as yet unwritten, *Judah Halevi warned: "Turn aside from mines and pitfalls. Let not Greek wisdom tempt you, for it bears flowers only and no fruit.… Listen to the confused words of her sages built on the void.… Why should I search for bypaths, and complicated ones at that, and leave the main road?" (from his poem beginning "Devarekha be-Mor Over Rekuḥim").
Maimonides' prestige and the external pressures thus combined in a volatile mixture for Jews in Europe. Despite common admiration for Maimonides and his all-embracing devotion to Torah and the Jewish faith, there was in reality no common language between the two radical positions. Gradually the opponents of Maimonides began to attack his very conception of a synthesis between Greek philosophy and Jewish faith.
Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier, together with David b. Saul and *Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi (a relative of *Nahmanides) agitated against philosophy, and in 1232 succeeded in persuading the rabbis of northern France to issue a total ban on the study of philosophy, including Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and Book of Knowledge (the first section, containing philosophical material, of the Mishneh Torah). The traditionalists' arguments against philosophy were based on three oft-repeated claims (recurring in the later stages of the controversy as well), which were consistently denied by the philosophers: (1) Theological – The philosophers were depicted
The controversy of the 1230s also involved exchanges of letters, many between the philosopher and biblical exegete Radak (David *Kimḥi) and the physician and courtier, Judah *Ibn Alfakhar. Remarkably, the letters from both sides of the controversy were preserved in a collection Iggerot Kena'ot, "Letters of Zealotry" (published in Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Rambam, Leipzig, 1859). When Kimḥi traveled about the communities of Provence to rally the supporters of Maimonides, he was greatly surprised to be answered by Judah ibn Alfakhar with a bitter attack on Maimonides' very attempt to rationalize and explain away miracles and wondrous tales. Ibn Alfakhar was against half acceptance; logical proofs were not so important, "for each true proof needs great checking, since sometimes it may include misleading elements of that false wisdom called sophistry in Greek, and when a proof is joined to this it misleads even sages." Maimonides' "erroneous" intention was to explain matters according to the laws of philosophy and nature "so as to put the Torah and Greek wisdom together, to make out of them one whole." He imagined that the one would live with the other like two loving twin deers. In reality this has resulted in sorrow and dissension, for they cannot live together on the earth and be like two sisters, for the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian ones. To this our Torah says: 'No, my son is the living one, and yours is the dead' (I Kings 3:22) and her rival angers her. I want peace; if I start to talk to them, they go to war" (letter to Kimḥi, Iggerot Qena'ot, 2a). Thus, through radical rationalistic argumentation, this physician and courtier in Spain rejects the synthesis of the physician and courtier in Egypt and the logical compromise it involves. As suggested by S. Harvey (1987), the dispute of the 1230s between Kimḥi and Alfakhar may well have served as the model for the book "The Epistle of the Debate" by Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera, who was a participant in the next, third climax of the controversy.
The demand for logical consistency was also answered from the Maimonidean camp. Increasingly they inclined toward extreme allegoristic explanations of talmudic and even biblical expressions and tales. Their opponents accused them of even inclining to explain away as no more than symbols certain practical commandments, which need be fulfilled only by simple men, but not by educated people. The rationalists denied this. Social overtones became stronger. The anti-Maimonideans berated their upper-class opponents for their hedonistic, luxurious, and sinful way of life. The Maimonideans countered by accusing their adversaries with anarchy, harshness, ignorance, simplicity of mind, and of being under Christian influence.
The anti-Maimonidean camp turned to the great sages of northern France. Never having been acquainted with Aristotelian philosophy, they never felt the need for synthesis with it; therefore, they unhesitatingly pronounced a ḥerem on Maimonides' philosophical works. Some report that they excommunicated even parts of his halakhic code. In Provence and Spain the anti-Maimonidean camp was led by Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier, *Jonah b. Abraham Gerondi, the poet Meshullam *da Piera, and above all Naḥmanides. The position of Naḥmanides is remarkable for its simultaneous flexibility in expression and rigidity of mental attitude. Seeing that the extreme anti-Maimonidean stance taken by the rabbis of northern France and by Solomon of Montpellier had no chance of finding support among the leading circles of Jewish society in Provence and Spain, he therefore advised the anti-Maimonidean camp to adopt a moderate stand in order to achieve at least what was possible. Writing to the north French rabbis (printed in: MGWJ, 9 (1860), 184–95) he expresses his devotion and admiration, but he humbly submits that they "are nourished in the bosom of [true] faith, planted in the courts of tradition," and therefore had to understand Maimonides in his peculiar cultural and social circumstances. The situation he describes is actually that of Spanish and Provençal Jewish upper society in the early 13th century:
It is not only a matter of false spiritual pride and alien culture; it is also a case born of social necessity:
This intrinsically hostile description of the life of the upper classes of Jewish society in Provence and Spain is given in order to put Maimonides in the light of a great talmudic sage who – argues Naḥmanides – would certainly and gladly have written and lived as the northern French rabbis did. Alas, it was not granted him: "Did he trouble himself for your sake, you geniuses of the Talmud? He saw himself compelled and constrained to structure a work which would offer refuge from the Greek philosophers.… Have you ever listened to their words, have you ever been misled by their proofs?" He goes on to explain that extremism would bring about an irreparable split. It is far better to educate gradually this misled society and bring it back to the right way of northern France, by partial
Naḥmanides was merely temporizing in his writings to the northern French rabbis. His true temper and the temper of the entire anti-Maimonidean camp is revealed in his commentary on the Torah, which is basically a mystical work against Maimonides and Abraham *Ibn Ezra. The very concept of a system of laws of nature ordained by God in His wisdom to be admired by man through his reason, as expressed by Maimonides (see, e.g., Mishneh Torah, Sefer ha-Madda), he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy. The workings of nature are to be conceived of only and always as "hidden miracles." God performs extraordinary *miracles in order that we should understand the miraculous nature of all existence and life:
Though their tactics might thus vary, dogmatics were radical and clearly defined on both sides. Ḥerem was hurled against counter-ḥerem, as the authority of northern France was met by the authority of local scholars and communal leaders in Provence and Spain. Emissaries of both camps traveled about, rallying their supporters. A profusion of letters and counter-letters, sermons and counter-sermons, commentaries and counter-commentaries poured out. The weapons in the campaign were polemics, original and translations, and the Ibn *Tibbon and *Anatoli families made their name in both. In the work of men like Jonah Gerondi the struggle against Maimonides was merged with a general reforming spirit in morals and community leadership. This battle was ended by a terrible shock when Maimonides' books were burned by the *Dominicans in 1232. Proponents and opponents of Maimonides and philosophy alike interpreted this calamity as a punishment for the opposition. Accordingly, Jonah Gerondi relented in his views and many adherents of the anti-Maimonidean camp followed suit.
The controversy returned to the Muslim countries in the East. Maimonides' son, *Abraham b. Moses b. Maimon, was outraged at what had happened in the West. He attacked "many overseas [scholars who are] mistaken. They cling to the literalistic sense of biblical verses, Midrashim, and aggadot. This pains our heart; at the sight of this our eyes have darkened, and our fathers are dumbfounded: How could such an impurity, so like the impurity of idol worship, come to be in Israel? They worship idols, deny God's teaching, and worship other gods beside Him." Flinging these accusations against Maimonides' opponents in Europe, Abraham holds that through their exegetical explanations they are guilty of pagan-like anthropomorphism (Milḥamot ha-Shem, ed by R. Margalioth (1953), 52). He compares their faith to that of the Christians (ibid., 55). Continuing his father's line of thought, he attacks the European antirationalistic scholars for their exclusive devotion to talmudic studies only, while neglecting the philosophical and philological foundations of the faith (ibid., 49). They are among "those that walk in the darkness of their understanding and in the paucity of their wisdom" (ibid., 50). He expressly prefers Islamic surroundings and influence – conducive to a rationalistic-monotheistic faith – to a Christian environment, which influences men in the direction of antirationalism and anthropomorphism (ibid., 51). Abraham restates the basic rationalistic principle of faith and exegesis:
While this blast was going forth from the East, extremists from the West caused the desecration of Maimonides' tomb at Tiberias, which shocked not only the Maimonidean camp but also the majority of the anti-Maimonideans. When in the early 1240s the Disputation of Paris and the burning of the Talmud added shock to shock, public quarrels among Jews were set aside for several decades, and the second climax of the controversy came to an end.
It remains a much disputed point whether the Dominicans set fire to Maimonides' writings on their own initiative, scenting heresy wherever they could find it, or whether their action resulted from a denunciation by Jews, as contemporary Maimonideans believed. Neither the social nor the cultural motivating forces of the controversy disappeared with the cessation of polemics. The rise of kabbalistic circles and literature (see *Zohar) on the one hand, and the continuing philosophical activity and way of life of the upper and "professional" circles of Jewish society on the other implied a continuation and an intensification of the struggle between rationalists and anti-rationalists.
The Third Climax: A Renewed Outbreak of the Controversy in 1288–1290
Whereas the controversy of the 1230s took place largely in southern France, within a Christian environment, most of the controversy towards the end of the 13th century took place in the Near East. Solomon Petit, a mystic and anti-rationalist,
Petit was also opposed in the west. The last known work of Shem Tov ibn Falaquera, Mikhtav al Devar ha-Moreh ("Letter Concerning the Guide") defended Maimonides against the attacks of Petit and others. In his "Letter," Falaquera mocks Maimonides' opponents in a poem: "I wonder about those who differ with Moses [i.e., Maimonides] / How they don't remember the punishment of Korah. / He is a true teacher, and his word / Is like fire; their word is like ice." Playing on Petit's name, Falaquera calls him a peti (fool). Falaquera argued that Maimonides was compelled to write the Guide because of widespread corporealist beliefs among the Jews, even among the great rabbis. But such people, wrong as they are, were not the perplexed for whom Maimonides had written his Guide. No wonder that Maimonides had been misunderstood – after all, even the Torah had been misunderstood. The masses of Jews in the Torah had rebelled against God and Moses; no wonder that they rebel against the Moses of today. The opponents of philosophy, Falaquera suggested, glorified in their ignorance of science and philosophy, and had to rely on faulty and misleading Hebrew translations of the Guide because they were ignorant of Arabic.
The Fourth and Final Climax: 1300–1306
When the controversy flared up again for the fourth and final time at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, the immediate catalyst was the extreme allegorical exegesis of certain rationalists. In the century since Maimonides' death, philosophy and science had become deeply entrenched in Jewish culture. Therefore, whereas in the 1230s the traditionalists sought a total ban on the study of philosophy, in the fourth and final climax of the controversy the traditionalists also accepted the validity of philosophy and science. They did not seek to ban totally the study of philosophy, but only to limit it, especially among the youth who lacked the intellectual and spiritual maturity to deal with its challenges to tradition. What they rejected was the philosopher's extreme allegorization of Scripture and alleged denial of creation and miracles, which they saw as basic to the affirmation of the Torah. The traditionalists also objected to the rationalists' use of astral magic for medical purposes; they saw such magic not as scientific but as forbidden avodah zarah (idolatry). In particular, the controversy focused on the content of Jewish education and the question of the possibility or impossibility of synthesis between "Greek wisdom" and the Torah of Moses. Abba Mari Astruc ha-Yarḥi of Lunel turned to Rashba (Rabbi Solomon b. Abraham *Adret) in Barcelona for guidance on the rationalists' allegorical interpretations, which he saw as heretical. Despite Astruc's strong partisan views, he preserved a collection of the exchange of letters from both sides in his Minḥat Kena'ot, "The Offering of Jealousy" (cf. Num. 5:15) (ed. M. Bisliches, Pressburg, 1838; reprinted Jerusalem, 1968; new and superior ed., H. Dimitrovsky, Teshuvot ha-Rashba, Jerusalem, 1990, 2 vols.). Astruc charged the philosophers with treating historical figures and events in the Bible purely symbolically, at the expense of their historicity; with regarding Plato and Aristotle, rather than the Torah, as the criteria of truth; with rejecting miracles and divine revelation; and with being personally lax in observance of Jewish law.
Although these charges, especially those of interpreting biblical figures purely symbolically and laxity in observance, were consistently denied by the rationalists, such as Menahem b. Solomon Meiri and Jedaiah b. Abraham Bedershi ha-Penini, they were on some level accurate. For example, Jacob b. Abba Mari Anatoli (1194–1296), the son-in-law of Samuel ibn Tibbon, in his book Malmad ha-Talmidim, had interpreted the patriarchs and matriarchs allegorically, rather than historically. Abraham and Sarah symbolized form and matter; Lot and his wife symbolized the intellect and the body; Isaac symbolized the active soul, and his wife Rebecca the intelligent soul; Leah symbolized the perceptive soul, and her sons the five senses; Leah's daughter Dinah represented sensations induced by imagination; Joseph symbolized practical reason, while Benjamin symbolized theoretical reason. He also interpreted the seven-branched menorah (candelabrum) as representing the seven planets, the twelve tribes as symbolizing the constellations, and the Urim and Thummim of the high priest as representing the astrolabe.
The traditionalists feared that such views could only lead to laxity in observance. If the Torah is true only on a symbolic level, the commandments might also be interpreted purely symbolically, at the expense of their actual observance, which is based on the literal text. Nevertheless, their attacks on individual rationalists like Levi b. Abraham b. Ḥayyim of Vilefranche (who seems to have been the immediate catalyst of the outburst), were unwarranted, since these rationalists, as they themselves insisted in their own defense, did not in fact go beyond Maimonides' views or give up strict observance of the law, despite their radical allegorization.
Toward the end of the 13th century, a fierce dispute broke out in Provence between traditionalists and rationalists. While the main bone of contention was ostensibly radical rationalist allegorical exegesis of the Bible, the dispute actually flared up over the rationalist practice of healing with astral magic. Astral magic was included in the curriculum of medical studies in the universities. Paradoxically, it was thus the rationalist
Abba Mari tried to drag R. Solomon b. Adret (Rashba) into the argument, but failed. Rashba noted that he himself, before the anti-philosophical controversy had arisen, had unhesitatingly permitted the fashioning of effigies for medical purposes, and even while the controversy was still raging refused to issue an absolute prohibition of the medical use of astral magic. As against Maimonides' approach, denying the reality of sorcery, Rashba pointed out that both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds contain an abundance of magical material which violates no religious precept. Moreover, Rashba accused the opponents of sorcery of denying the possibility of miracles. To support his acceptance of the possibility that spirituality might descend upon amulets, he wrote:
The possibility that stellar forces could be used to heal the sick was provided for in advance by God. Whether such practices were permissible or not depended, according to Rashba, on the magician's innermost intention: it was his awareness that God was the primary cause of recovery that legitimized the astral-magical practice. Thus, Abba Mari was unable to persuade Rashba to join him in condemnation of astral magic.
Through the 14th century, the dispute became increasingly acrimonious; at least four positions can be distinguished with regard to the status of astral magic:
(a) False and forbidden: The moderate rationalists rejected astral magic of any kind and therefore also considered it halakhically prohibited. They thus accepted Maimonides' firm negation of any reality of astral magic and his prohibition of its practices. These thinkers, then, took up Maimonides' approach in content, style, and language (Menaḥem ha-Meiri, David ha-Kokhavi). Some rationalists chose almost to ignore the issue, probably because they attached no reality whatever to astral magic (Joseph ibn Kaspi).
(b) Dubious and forbidden: This was the view of the traditionalists, who consistently battled the radical rationalists and in fact defined the latter group, inter alia, in terms of their employment of astral magic for medical purposes (Abba Mari, Jacob b. Solomon ha-Zarfati). They, too, prohibited the practice absolutely, as did the moderate rationalists, although they did not entirely deny the possible reality of astral magic.
Their most characteristic trait was the connection they perceived between the practice of astral magic and the magician's affinity for philosophy: in their view, a rationalist philosophy was bound to lead to the practice of astral magic.
(c) False in respect of its reality but psychologically effective, and forbidden: Some circles denied that astral magic could actually bring down stellar forces, but believed that there was some psychological benefit in the practice. Nevertheless, they, too, prohibited its use from the standpoint of Halakhah (Gersonides, Jedaiah ha-Penini of Béziers). In a sense, this might be considered an intermediate position, though it is closer to that of the moderate rationalists and its proponents were essentially a subgroup of the latter.
(d) Real and permitted: Certain thinkers believed in the absolute reality of astral magic (Nissim of Marseilles, Frat Maimon) and even considered it halakhically legitimate (Levi b. Abraham). For such thinkers, astral magic was a theological principle that could be used in interpreting various biblical passages.
All these issues provided the background for Rashba's ultimate decision to support a limited ban.
After much hesitation, and spurred on by the influence of Asher b. Jehiel, Rashba and the Barcelona community issued a ḥerem on July 26, 1305, against "any member of the community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks on natural science or metaphysics, whether in the original language or in translation."
Works by Jewish philosophers were excepted, as was the study of medicine. The ban was intended to prevent young men from being influenced by Greek philosophy to turn away "from the Torah of Israel which is above these sciences. How can any man dare to judge between human wisdom based on analogy, proof, and thought, and the wisdom of God, between whom and us there is no relation nor similarity? Will man, who is embodied in a vessel of clay, judge … God his creator to say, God forbid, what is possible and what he cannot do? Truly this, sometimes leads to utter heresy" (Resp. Rashba pt. 1, no. 415). A ban was also pronounced against all who "say about Abraham and Sarah that in reality they symbolize matter and form; that the 12 tribes of Israel are [an allegory] for the 12 planets … [and] that the Urim and Thummim are to be understood as the astrolabe instrument.… Some of them say that everything in the Torah, from Bereshit to the giving of the law, is entirely allegorical" (ibid., no. 416).
The condemnation of extreme allegory did not arouse opposition, but the prohibition on the study of "Greek wisdom" until the age of 25 was sharply opposed on grounds of principle, though to Rashba and his group this formula was certainly in many respects a compromise. Among the many communities and individual sages in Provence and Spain who opposed the ban, the great talmudic scholar Menahem b. Solomon Meiri was one of the most eloquent voices. In his counter-ḥerem (printed in excerpts in Jubelschrift… L. Zunz (1884), Heb. pt. 153–72) he reminded Adret of the failure of the early 13th-century attacks against Maimonides. Rejecting insinuations
Finally, Jedaiah b. Abraham Bedersi (ha-Penini) wrote Adret a "letter of apology" (Ketav Hitnaẓẓelut) – actually a sharp attack against the anti-rationalists – basing himself on the spiritual greatness of Provençal Jews and praising rationalism and philosophy. He daringly proclaims:
He goes on to list this rationalistic literature, from the days of Saadiah Gaon onward (Resp. Rashba pt. 1., no. 418). This long epistle concludes:
On this sharp though inconclusive note, the great controversy of the early 14th century petered out. In any event, the expulsion of the Jews from France by King Philip IV on July 22, 1306, almost exactly one year after the Barcelona ban was issued, overshadowed the internal Jewish controversy. The greater external threat totally eclipsed a potential internal threat from philosophy. Like its predecessors, the Barcelona ban, as limited as it was in comparison to earlier bans, also proved ineffective and unenforceable, and to that extent, the rationalists had the last word in the controversy.
Aftermath of the Controversy
The tension between rationalists and antirationalists never abated throughout the Middle Ages. Among the beleaguered Jews of 15th-century Christian Spain, Maimonidean rationalism was seen by many as the root cause of the misfortunes and the reason for *apostasy. On the other hand, a man like Abraham *Bibago, throughout his Derekh Emunah, defended rationalism, not only as being justified but as the very essence of Judaism. Proudly calling himself "a pupil of Maimonides," he believed that the Jewish people is the bearer of reason – weak in this world as reason is weak against the unreasonable passions. Generalizing the traditional rationalistic view, he stated:
That views like this were acceptable also among 16th-century Ashkenazi Jewry is proved by the fact that the Sefer ha-Miknah by *Joseph b. Gershom of Rosheim is in reality a kind of synopsis of Bibago's Derekh Emunah. In Renaissance Italy Jehiel b. Samuel of *Pisa wrote a detailed treatise (Minḥat Kena'ot) against rationalism, while the life and works of many of his contemporaries and countrymen constituted a clear espousal of it. In Poland-Lithuania in the 16th–17th centuries the tension between Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans likewise continued, as evidenced, for example, by the dispute between Moses *Isserles and Solomon b. Jehiel *Luria (see Moses Isserles, Resp., nos. 687; and see also his Torat ha-Olah).
The problems of the synthesis between Judaism and other cultures, of the proper content of Jewish education, and of the right way to God – through reason or through mystic union – has remained, though formulations and expressions have changed considerably. The old hierarchical basis of Jewish leadership, wholeheartedly hated by Maimonides, has disappeared, but the leadership of the individual scholar, even after Maimonides, retained many hierarchical and sacral elements (see *Semikhah). The Mishneh Torah did not supersede the Talmud, and Maimonides' aristocratic opposition to monetary support for Torah study failed completely. So strong was his personality, however, that most of his opponents made great efforts to say that they opposed not Maimonides himself but some element of his teaching or, better still, some misguided
D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy, 1180–1240 (1965), bibl., 199–210; S.Z. Halberstam, in: Jeschurun (Kobak), 8 pt. 1–2 (1871), Heb. pt. 17–56; pt. 3–4 (1895), Heb. pt. 89–100; J. Sarachek, Faith and Reason: the Conflict over the Rationalism of Maimonides (1935); H.H. Ben-Sasson, in: Ha-Ishiyyut ve-Dorah (1963), 93–106; idem, Toledot Am Yisrael, 2 (1969), 155–8, 216–23, 303–6; I. Twersky, Rabad of Posquières (1962); idem, in: Journal of World History, 11 (1968), 185–207; A.S. Halkin, in: Perakim, 1 (1968), 35–55; Baer, Spain, index; Schatzmueller, in: Zion, 34 (1969), 126–44; idem, in: Meḥkarim le-Zekher Ẓevi Avneri (1970), 129–40; Dinur, Golah. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Schwartz, "Changing Fronts toward Science in the Medieval Debates over Philosophy," in: Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 7 (1997), 61–82; G. Freudenthal, "Les Sciences dans les communautéa juives médiévales de Provence: leur appropriation, leur role," in: REJ, 152 (1993), 29–136; idem, "Science in the Medieval Jewish Culture of Southern France," in: History of Science, 33 (1995), 23–58; D. Schwartz, "Meharsim, Talmudiyyim and Anshei Ha-Hokhma – Judah Ben Samuel Ibn 'Abbas's Views and Preaching," in: Tarbiz, 52 (1993), 585–615; "The Debate over the Maimonidean Theory of Providence in Thirteenth-Century Jewish Philosophy," in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 2 (1995), 185–96; Faith and Reason: Debates in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Heb., 2001); J. Shatzmiller, "In Search of the Book of Figures: Medicine and Astrology in Montpellier at the Turn of the Fourteenth Century," in: AJS Review 7:8 (182/183), 383-407; I. Twersky, "Beginnings of Mishneh Torah Criticism," in: A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1967), 95–118; R. Jospe, "Faith and Reason: The Controversy Over Philosophy in Jewish History," in: I. Kajon (ed.), La Storia Della Filosofia Ebraica (Archivio di Filosofia, 61 (1993)), 99–135; B. Septimus, Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition: The Career and Controversies of Ramah (1982); S. Harvey, Falaquera's Epistle of the Debate: An Introduction to Jewish Philosophy (1987).
[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson /
Raphael Jospe and
Dov Schwartz (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.