מרכז מורשת ישראל

Here are a few articles about the Maimonidean Controversy as well as the Encyclopedia Judaica article on the subject.





From Encyclopedia Judaica

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 and Talmud; central theological concepts such as the resurrection of the body; and the very form of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and its attitude toward talmudic discussion. The question of hierarchical leadership versus intellectual, personal leadership was one of the early causes of this controversy. In the Middle Ages the controversy had three climaxes: around 1180 (in the lifetime of Maimonides); around 1230–32 (involving David Kimhi, Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier, Nahmanides and others, and centering in Provence); and around 1300–06 (in connection with Abba Mari b. Moses Astruc, Solomon b. Abraham Adret, Asher b. Jehiel, Jedaiah b. Abraham Bedersi (ha-Penini), and Menahem b. Solomon Meiri, and centering in Christian Spain and Provence). In between these moments when the conflict flared up anew, tensions and disputes continued. 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 Kafah).

The First Clash

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: fixed for themselves monetary demands from individuals and communities and caused people to think, in utter foolishness, that it is obligatory and proper that they should help sages and scholars and people studying Torah... all this is wrong. There is not a single word, either in the Torah or in the sayings of the [talmudic] sages, to lend credence to it... for as we look into the sayings of the talmudic sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished academies (commentary to Avot 4:5).

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:

Why, my son, should you take offense that a man whom people accustom from his youth to believe that there is none like him in his generation; when age, high office, aristocratic descent, the lack of people of discernment in this town, and his relationship with individuals, all have combined to produce this execrable consequence that each and every individual hangs expectantly on each word pronounced from the academy in anticipation of an honorific title from there...—why do you wonder that he has acquired such [evil] traits? How, my son, could you imagine that he should love truth enough to acknowledge his weakness?... This is a thing that a man like him will never do, as it was not done by better men who preceded him (letter to Joseph b. Judah in: D. H. Baneth (ed.), Iggerot ha-Rambam (1946), 54f.).

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:

He is a very foolish man. He studies very hard at this talmudic discussion and its commentaries, and thinks that he is the greatest of his generation, having already attained the peak of perfection. My esteemed son knows that my appreciation of the greatest of the sages of Israel is such that I evaluate their worth according to their own criteria. They themselves have defined ‘the argumentations [havayot] of Abbaye and Rava [as] a small matter.'  If this is a small matter, why should I pay attention to an old man who is really miserable, an ignoramus in every respect? To my eyes he is like a newborn baby; one has to defend him, according to the measure of his [Zechariah's] foolishness (ibid., 56ff.; the bulk of this passage has been erased in most manuscripts).

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

Maimonides' works reached 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 Egypt. His authority in Mishneh Torah was impugned halakhically by Abraham b. David of PosquiIres 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' grandiose 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 hokhmah 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. This problem is interwoven in the great monotheistic religions with the clash 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 Saadiah Gaon and Samuel b. Hophni who denied the historical veracity of the incident of Samuel and the Witch of Endor.

Yet in that same century changes were taking place. 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. Social upheavals in Jewish society during the 12th and 13th centuries added communal tension to the spiritual strife. When Maimonides was still young, 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 Rekuhim").

This opposition hardened and developed with the passage of time. Against it stood the rationalistic attitude of the upper circles. Meir b. Todros ha-Levi Abulafia, in many respects a sincere admirer of Maimonides, 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?" (Kitab al-Rasa$il (1871), 14). Abulafia also attacked Maimonides on other halakhic points. While some of his correspondents agreed with him, others tried to convince him that he had misunderstood the purport of Maimonides' teaching on resurrection, and this latter view was accepted wholeheartedly by the nasi Sheshet b. Isaac of Saragossa, who in a very radical sense gave expression to Maimonides' rationalism and philosophic synthesis. Writing about 1200, he attacked sharply and derisively what he regarded as the simplicism and materialism of Abulafia's view (A. Marx, in: JQR 25, (1934/35), 406–28). To speak about bodily resurrection is "to bring down our saintly fathers from the highest level—the status of the angels who enjoy divine glory and live forever—to the status of man, through their returning to the impure body which cannot exist except through food and drink, and must end in dust and worms... but the life of wisdom is greater than foolishness, as light is greater than darkness. These notions seem to me like the words of one confused" (ibid., 418). The only correct conception of resurrection, he thought, is the one also accepted by the pagan philosophers. Resurrection means the eternal life of the soul of the sage-philosopher. "If the soul—while still in the body—was yearning for its Creator, subordinating its passion to its reason, [then] when it leaves the body, [it] will attain the highest status, for which it yearned while still in the body; and over it God will emanate of His spirit. This, in the view of the sages, is the resurrection of the dead and the reward of the just at the end of days" (ibid., 421ff.). All pronouncements in the Bible and the Talmud about bodily resurrection are only for the simple men who constitute the majority of mankind and who understand only material rewards, and the same holds true for the Muslim paradise (ibid., 424).

I ask this fool who maintains that the souls will return to the dead corpses and that they are destined to return to the soil of Israel. Into which body will the soul return? If it is to the body from which it has departed, [then this will] already have returned to its elements thousands of years earlier; [it is now] earth, dust, and worms. Where it has been buried, a house has been built, a vineyard planted, or some other plants have taken root and you cannot find the earth or the dust or the worms into which the body has turned. If, however, this soul is to return to another body, which God will create, then it is another man who will be created in his own time, and has not been dead; how, then can you say that he is being resurrected and that God rewards him, as he has not as yet achieved anything? (ibid., 426).

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).

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. When David Kimhi traveled about the communities of Provence to rally the supporters of Maimonides, he was greatly surprised to be answered by the physician and courtier, 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 Kimhi, Iggerot Kena'ot, in: Kovez Teshuvot ha-Rambam (1859), 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.

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 herem 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 Nahmanides. The position of Nahmanides 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 Provenmal Jewish upper society in the early 13th century:

They have filled their belly with the foolishness of the Greeks... they... make fun... of the trusting souls... They did not enter profoundly into the ways of our Torah; the ways of alien children suffice for them. But for the words of [Maimonides], but for the fact that they live out of the mouth of his works... they would have slipped almost entirely.

It is not only a matter of false spiritual pride and alien culture; it is also a case born of social necessity:

God save and guard us, my teachers, from such a fate. Look about and see: is there a pain like our pain? For the sons have been exiled from their fathers' tables; they have defiled themselves with the food of gentiles and the wine of their feasts. They have mixed with them and become used to their deeds... courtiers have been permitted to study Greek wisdom, to become acquainted with medicine, to learn mathematics and geometry, other knowledge and tricks, so that they make a living in royal courts and palaces.

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 Nahmanides—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 prohibitions only. The region most afflicted is Provence; Spain he considers to be in far better order.

Nahmanides 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:

Through the great and famous miracles man recognizes the hidden foundation of the entire Torah. For no man has a share in the Torah of Moses until we believe that all our matters and accidents are miracles, the product neither of nature nor of the way of the world, whether for the multitude or for the individual; but if a man fulfills the commandments his reward will bring him success, if he transgresses them his punishment will strike him—all by divine decree (Comm. to Ex. 13:16).

Though their tactics might thus vary, dogmatics were radical and clearly defined on both sides. Herem was hurled against herem, 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. 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 (Milhamot 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: Know ye God's people and His heritage, that God differentiated men from animals and beasts through the reason, wisdom, and understanding which He granted them. He also differentiated Israel from the gentiles through the Torah He gave them and the precepts He commanded them. Hence reason preceded Torah, both in creation of the world, and in each and every one living in it. Reason has been given to a man since the six days of creation; Torah was given to man 4,448 years after creation. Should someone say to you, But the sages have explained that the Torah was created two thousand years before the world,' you should reply that this Midrash needs many commentaries to justify it. It is impossible to take it in its simple sense... Reason was implanted in each and every one of the seed of Israel before his knowledge of Torah. Know and understand that it is because the child's reason is not yet ripe, that God did not oblige him to fulfill commandments (ibid., 57–58).

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. 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 Renewed Outbreak

When the controversy flared up again at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, the immediate catalyst was the extreme allegorical exegesis of certain rationalists. However, it came to encompass the whole range of 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 of Lunel turned to Solomon b. Abraham Adret for guidance on these allegorical interpretations, to his mind heretical ones (see the exchange of letters initiated by him in his Minhat Kena'ot (1838); this collection has been altered to a large extent by tendentious editing). After much hesitation, and spurred on by the influence of Asher b. Jehiel, Solomon b. Abraham Adret and the Barcelona community issued a herem 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 Adret 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-herem (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 that the study of philosophy causes heresy, he pointed to many talmudic scholars who were students of philosophy. Meiri stressed that sciences such as mathematics were necessary for the understanding of many passages in the Talmud. He regarded the prohibition against certain types of study as self-defeating: "Each individual [nature] will search for what suits him according to his natural inclination." This trait of human intellect and nature, he maintains, will even cause the second generation of the excommunicating community to seek ways out of this prohibition. Meiri was well aware that there was a more radical wing among the rationalists, which he opposed (see his commentary to Psalms, ed. by J. Cohn (1936), e.g., ch. 36, p. 78f., and many passages in his commentary to Proverbs and to Mishnah Avot).

Finally, Jedaiah b. Abraham Bedersi (ha-Penini) wrote Adret a "letter of apology"—actually a sharp attack against the anti-rationalists—basing himself on the spiritual greatness of Provenmal Jews and praising rationalism and philosophy. He daringly proclaims:

My rabbis, please look into the mighty pattern of the benefits of philosophy to all of us, even to those who despise it. For it is extremely well-known that in ancient times anthropomorphism was widespread, one may say almost in the entire Diaspora of Israel... but in every generation there arose geonim and sages—in Spain, in Babylonia and in the cities of Andalusia—who, thanks to their familiarity with the Arabic language, had the great opportunity to smell the perfume of the sciences, some much, some a little, for they are translated into this language. It is thanks to this that they began to elaborate and clarify many of their opinions on the Torah, above all as to the unity of God and the abolition of anthropomorphism, especially by the philosophical proofs taken from scientific works.

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:

Relinquish your herem for the heart of this people will not turn away from philosophy and its books as long as there is breath in their frame and soul in their bodies, especially as together with it [i.e., with devotion to philosophy], they are true to Torah and commandments. Even if they had heard it from the mouth of Joshua bin Nun they would never have accepted it, for they intend to do battle for the honor of the great teacher [i.e., Maimonides] and his works; and for the holiness of his teaching they will sacrifice fortune, family, and soul as long as there is a breath in their bodies. And thus they will teach and command their children in generations to come (ibid.).

On this sharp though inconclusive note, the great controversy of the early 14th century petered out.

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:

The reasonable creature having reason has to study the sciences; and being a believer, he will study Torah and acquire faith and its roots and dogmas. The first study will be a kind of carrier and vessel to bear the second study. In the same way that life is an assumption and carrier by which humanity and speech are carried, so through the form of reason—by whose accomplishment one studies and acquires the sciences—Torah study will be assumed and carried. Thus faith will be complete and without doubt, and the one attitude [faith], will not conflict with the other [philosophy]. Therefore did the sage say, 'Reason and faith are two lights.' To solve all doubts we must explain that 'Greek wisdom' cannot be the above-mentioned wisdom of reason belonging to man insofar as he is a man. Hence it is a human wisdom and not a Greek one. The wisdom called [by talmudic sages] 'Greek wisdom,' must be something peculiar to the Greeks and not to another nation (see above, pt. 2, ch. 3, 46a).

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 (Minhat 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 interpretation or citation of his work. The Maimonidean controversy is both very specifically at the heart of Jewish culture and, at the same time, part or a set of problems central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity alike.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]




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Last Revised 10/23/2006.