Jewish Thought: Medieval Thought
With the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Second Temple Judaism was in disarray, but Jewish traditions were preserved by the shrewd maneuvers of Johanan ben Zakai, who saved the Sanhedrin and moved it to Yavne. Philosophical speculation was not a central part of Rabbinic Judaism, although some have seen the Mishnah as a philosophical work. After the Bar Kokhba revolt, rabbinic scholars gathered in Tiberias and Safed to reassemble and reassess Judaism, its laws, theology, liturgy, beliefs and leadership structure. In 219 CE, the Sura Academy (from which Jewish Kalam emerged many centuries later) was founded by Abba Arika. For the next five centuries, Talmudic academies focused upon reconstituting Judaism and little, if any, philosophical investigation was pursued. Judaism had limited philosophical activity until it was challenged by Islam and Christianity; with Tanakh, Mishnah, and Talmud, there was no need for a philosophic framework. From an economic viewpoint, Radhanite trade dominance was being usurped by coordinated Christian and Islamic forced-conversions, and torture, compelling Jewish scholars to understand nascent economic threats. These investigations triggered new ideas and intellectual exchange among Jewish and Islamic scholars in the areas of jurisprudence, mathematics, astronomy, logic and philosophy. Jewish scholars influenced Islamic scholars and Islamic scholars influenced Jewish scholars. Contemporary scholars continue to debate who was Muslim and who was Jew; some "Islamic scholars" were "Jewish scholars" prior to forced conversion to Islam, some Jewish scholars willingly converted to Islam, such as Abdullah ibn Salam, while others later reverted to Judaism, and still others, born and raised as Jews, were ambiguous in their religious beliefs such as ibn al-Rawandi, although they lived according to the customs of their neighbors. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Saadia Gaon (892-942 CE) was a prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete who was active in the Abbasid Caliphate. Saadia is the first important rabbinic figure to write extensively in Judeo-Arabic. Known for his works on Hebrew linguistics, Halakha, and Jewish philosophy, he was a practitioner of the philosophical school known as the "Jewish Kalam". In this capacity, his philosophical work the Book of Beliefs and Opinions represents the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with components of ancient Greek philosophy. Saadia was also very active in opposition to Karaite Judaism in defense of rabbinic Judaism. Saadia is the first important rabbinic figure to write extensively in Judeo-Arabic. Known for his works on Hebrew linguistics, Halakha, and Jewish philosophy, he was a practitioner of the philosophical school known as the "Jewish Kalam". In this capacity, his philosophical work The Book of Beliefs and Opinions represents the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with components of ancient Greek philosophy. Saadia was also very active in opposition to Karaite Judaism in defense of rabbinic Judaism. Saadia's influence upon the Jews of Yemen has been exceptionally great, as many of Saadia's extant works were preserved by the community and used extensively by them. The basis for the Yemenite Siddur (Tiklāl) is founded upon the prayer format edited originally by Saadia. The Yemenite Jewish community also adopted a thirteen penitential verse written by Saadia for Yom Kippur, as well as the Hosh'anah liturgical poems composed by him for the seventh day of Sukkot. Saadia's Judeo-Arabic translation of the Pentateuch (Tafsir) was copied by Yemenite Jews in nearly all their handwritten codices, and they originally studied Saadia's major work of philosophy, Beliefs and Opinions, in its original Judeo-Arabic; although by the early 20th-century, only fragments had survived. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Mosaic on 6 Rabi Se'adya ga'on street, Jerusalem. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: zeevveez. License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Judah ben Shmuel Halevi was born in Toledo, Spain in 1075; he often described himself as coming from Christian territory. Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI from the Muslims in Halevi's childhood (1086). As a youth, he seems to have gone to Granada, the main center of Jewish literary and intellectual life at the time, where he found a mentor in Moses Ibn Ezra. He was educated in traditional Jewish scholarship, Arabic literature, and the Greek sciences and philosophy that were available in Arabic; his aptitude as a poet was recognized early. As an adult, he was a physician, apparently renowned, and an active participant in Jewish communal affairs. For at least part of his life, he lived in Toledo and may have been connected with the court there as a physician. In Toledo he complains of being too busy with medicine to devote himself to scholarship. Like most Jewish intellectuals of Muslim Spain, Halevi wrote Arabic prose and Hebrew poetry. During the "Hebrew Golden Age" of the 10th to 12th century, he was the most prolific of the Hebrew poets and was regarded by some of his contemporaries, as well as by modern critics, as the greatest of all the medieval Hebrew poets. Like all the Hebrew poets of the Hebrew Golden Age, he employed the formal patterns of Arabic poetry, both the classical monorhyme patterns and the recently invented strophic patterns. His themes embrace all those that were current among Hebrew poets: panegyric odes, funeral odes, poems on the pleasures of life, gnomic epigrams, and riddles. He was also a prolific author of religious verse: as with all the Hebrew poets of his age, he strives for a strictly biblical diction, though he unavoidably falls into occasional calques from Arabic. His verse is distinguished by special attention to acoustic effect and wit. Nothing is known of Halevi's personal life except the report in his poems that he had a daughter and that she had a son, also named Judah. He could well have had other children. The tradition that this daughter was married to Abraham Ibn Ezra does not rest on any evidence, though Halevi and Abraham Ibn Ezra were well acquainted, as we know from the writings of the latter. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Right: Sculpture of Judah Halevi in Caesarea, Israel. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Raananms. License: public domain.
Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204 CE), commonly known as Maimonides and also referred to by the acronym Rambam, was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages; he was born in Córdoba, Almoravid Empire (present-day Spain), on Passover eve, 1138 (or 1135). In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician, serving as the personal physician of Saladin; he worked as a rabbi, physician and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. He died in Egypt on 12 December 1204, whence his body was taken to the lower Galilee and buried in Tiberias. During his lifetime, most Jews greeted Maimonides' writings on Jewish law and ethics with acclaim and gratitude, even as far away as Iraq and Yemen. Yet, while Maimonides rose to become the revered head of the Jewish community in Egypt, his writings also had vociferous critics, particularly in Spain. Nonetheless, he was posthumously acknowledged as one of the foremost philosophers in Jewish history, and his copious work comprises a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries significant canonical authority as a codification of Halacha. Aside from being revered by Jewish historians, Maimonides also figures very prominently in the history of Islamic and Arabic sciences and he is mentioned extensively in studies. Influenced by Aristotle, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and his contemporary Ibn Rushd, he became a prominent philosopher and polymath in both the Jewish and Islamic worlds. On his tomb is inscribed "From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses". Through the Guide for the Perplexed and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna, Maimonides exerted an important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Maimonides was a Jewish scholastic, educated by reading the works of Arab Muslim philosophers rather than by personal contact with Arabian teachers, he acquired an intimate acquaintance not only with Islamic philosophy, but with the doctrines of Aristotle translated into Arabic as well. Maimonides strove to reconcile Aristotelianism and science with the teachings of the Torah. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he often explains the function and purpose of the statutory provisions contained in the Torah against the backdrop of historical conditions. Maimonides is said to have been influenced by Asaph the Jew, who was the first Hebrew medical writer, and by Al-Ghazali, a prominent Persian philosopher. Maimonides equated the God of Abraham to what philosophers refer to as the Necessary Being. God is unique in the universe, and the Torah commands that one love and fear God (Deut 10:12) on account of that uniqueness. To Maimonides, this meant that one ought to contemplate God's works and to marvel at the order and wisdom that went into their creation. When one does this, one inevitably comes to love God and to sense how insignificant one is in comparison to God. Maimonides agreed with "the Philosopher" (Aristotle) that the use of logic is the "right" way of thinking. He claimed that in order to understand how to know God, every human being must, by study, and meditation attain the degree of perfection required to reach the prophetic state. Despite his rationalistic approach, he does not explicitly reject the previous ideas (as portrayed, for example, by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari) that in order to become a prophet, God must intervene. Maimonides teaches that prophecy is the highest purpose of the most learned and refined individuals. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Right: A monument of Moses Maimonides from Cordoba, Spain. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Makinal. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
Joseph ben Abba Meir ben Joseph ben Jacob Ibn Kaspi, also known as Yosef Caspi, was a Provençal exegete, grammarian, and philosopher, apparently influenced by Averroës. His family hailed from Largentière, from whence his Hebrew surname "Caspi" (made of silver) was derived. His Provençal name was Don Bonafous de Largentera, or in French En Bonafoux de L'Argentière. He traveled much, visiting Arles, Tarascon, Aragon, Catalonia, Majorca (where he must have foregathered with Judah Leon ben Moses Mosconi), and Egypt, where, as he says in his Tzava'ah (ethical will), he hoped to be instructed by the members of Maimonides' family. This hope was not realized, as the descendants of Maimonides were more pious than learned. At one time Caspi intended to go to Fez, where many renowned schools existed; but he seems to have abandoned this project and to have settled at Tarascon. He underwent much suffering at the time of the Pastoureaux persecution and was threatened with punishment if he did not renounce his faith. He held the position that knowledge of the future, even by the prophets and by God, was probabilistic knowledge only. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A scribe, wearing a traditional Middle Eastern costume of robe and turban, sews together pieces of parchment of a Torah scroll. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Ephraim Moses Lilien. License: public domain
Levi ben Gershon (1288 - 1344), better known by his Graecized name as Gersonides, or by his Latinized name Magister Leo Hebraeus, or in Hebrew by the abbreviation of first letters as RaLBaG, was a medieval Jewish philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, physician and astronomer. He was born at Bagnols in Languedoc, France. According to Abraham Zacuto and others, he was the son of Gerson ben Solomon Catalan. As in the case of the other medieval Jewish philosophers little is known of his life. His family had been distinguished for piety and exegetical skill in Talmud, but though he was known in the Jewish community by commentaries on certain books of the Bible, he never seems to have accepted any rabbinical post. Some suggest that the uniqueness of his opinions may have put obstacles in the way of his advancement to a higher position or office. He is known to have been at Avignon and Orange during his life and is believed to have died in 1344, though Zacuto asserts that he died at Perpignan in 1370. Gersonides is known for his unorthodox views and rigid Aristotelianism, which eventually led him to rationalize many of the miracles in the Bible. His commentary on the Bible was sharply criticized by the most prominent scholars, such as Abarbanel, Chisdai Crescas, and Rivash, the latter accusing him of heresy and almost banning his works. Part of his writings consists of commentaries on the portions of Aristotle then known, or rather of commentaries on the commentaries of Averroes. Some of these are printed in the early Latin editions of Aristotle's works. His most important treatise, by which he has a place in the history of philosophy, is entitled Sefer Milhamot Ha-Shem (The Wars of the Lord); a portion of it, containing an elaborate survey of astronomy as known to the Arabs, was translated into Latin in 1342 at the request of Pope Clement VI. The Wars of the Lord is modeled after the plan of the great work of Jewish philosophy, the Guide for the Perplexed of Maimonides. It may be regarded as a criticism of some elements of Maimonides' syncretism of Aristotelianism and rabbinic Jewish thought. Gersonides was the first to make a number of major mathematical and scientific advances, though since he wrote only in Hebrew and few of his writings were translated to other languages, his influence on non-Jewish thought was limited. Additionally, Gersonides observed a solar eclipse on March 3, 1337; after he had observed this event he proposed a new theory of the sun which he proceeded to test by further observations. He described a geometrical model for the motion of the Moon and made other astronomical observations of the Moon, Sun and planets using a camera obscura. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A Rabbi at prayer by Hubert Herkomer. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Pigsonthewing License: public domain.