By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

The Fight for Philosophy in Medieval Provence

Often, medieval Jewry is conceived through the simple binary of Ashkenaz and Sefard. However, this binary view erases many distinct regional identities that existed at the time. One of these is the unique culture of medieval Provence, located in Southern France, which by and large combined commitment to Judaism with the belief that this was enhanced in conjunction with general wisdom. 

Much of this article is based on Moshe Halbertal’s “Bein Torah l’Chochmah” and Howard Kreisel’s “Judaism as Philosophy: Studies in Maimonides and the Medieval Jewish Philosophers of Provence.”

Halbertal, in his introduction, chronicles the development of Provence’s philosophical culture through the arrival of many Spanish Jewish families fleeing Almohad persecution, as well as the ties forged between Ri MiLunel and Rambam, culminating in the translation of the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed) into Hebrew.

A primary agent of this change was the ibn Tibbon family. Upon his arrival in Provence, Yehudah ibn Tibbon translated many works of Jewish philosophy from Arabic to Hebrew, including Chovot HaLevavot and the Kuzari. His son, Shmuel, best known for his translation of Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, was also an extremely influential philosopher, whose Ma’amar Yikavu Hamayim and commentary on Kohelet were widely read in Provence. In those works, he presents radical approaches to harmonize Aristotle and the Torah. For example, he develops a theory wherein the world is in a constant natural cycle between being submerged in water and drying up to reveal land, which he felt harmonized Aristotelian science with biblical creation. His writings founded an interpretive movement commonly called Maimonideanism which is notable for its broad use of allegory, esoteric reading, and radical Aristotelian beliefs. Shmuel’s son, Moshe, followed after his father, translating many works, including Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, Euclid’s Elements and several works of Averroes. He also wrote various works, including allegorical-philosophical commentaries on Shir HaShirim, and on many aggadot. He is cited extensively in Rabbi Levi ben Avraham’s Livyat Chen. Another important Tibbonide, Jacob Anatoli, wrote a collection of sermons on the weekly parsha titled Malmad Hatalmidim. This work frequently employs allegory and is devoted to Maimonidean thought. Although it was somewhat controversial in other locales, with Rashba strongly criticizing the work, it gained tremendous popularity, even being utilized in homilies written by Rashba’s own students.

As these philosophical trends developed, the halakha-focused rabbis of Provence responded in various ways. Halbertal chronicles how talmudists from Provence accepted Rambam’s philosophical writings, though they generally seem to have followed a less radical path than Shmuel ibn Tibbon. An extreme example of this sort of conservative approach is that of Rabbi Meir ben Shimon Hameili. In an unpublished commentary on Rambam’s Yesodei HaTorah, he often defends Rambam by defanging his philosophical implications. Relatedly, he expresses discomfort with allegorical interpretation of certain aggadot in his talmudic commentaries. As may be expected, he was sharply critical of Shmuel ibn Tibbon, even accusing him of corrupting the translation of the Moreh. On the other extreme, we find Rabbi Reuven ben Chaim. A noted Talmudist with many important students, he was educated in philosophy. The surviving fragments of his “Sefer haTamid,” a commentary on the siddur, demonstrate a commitment to radical Maimonidean methodology, exemplified in his interpretation of Psalm 91. It is worth noting that there were significant rifts between the philosophers and the halakhists on many issues, beyond the scope of this article.

In the next generation, a rabbi named Abba Mari enlisted the Rashba to help quash the spread of heretical ideas. Although he was himself a moderate Maimonidean, he spells out the reasons for his opposition in the beginning of his Minchat Kenaot, a collection of letters related to the campaign, as denial of God’s knowledge of particulars, creation and providence. One of the main figures who was targeted in this campaign was Rabbi Levi ben Avraham, nephew and likely student of Rabbi Reuven ben Chaim, whose encyclopedic work Livyat Chen, a collection of both Jewish and general knowledge, garnered controversy for reports that he took extreme allegorical approaches and denied miracles.

Many Provencal rabbis opposed this campaign, of whom two will be listed here. The first, Menachem Meiri, also a student of Rav Reuven ben Chaim, was a noted Talmudist. His main works — most notably, his Beit Habechirah, a massive halakhic work arranged on the Talmud — reflect some of the best of Provencal talmudic analysis. Nonetheless, in his comments on aggadot, as well as in his commentaries on Tehillim and Mishlei, Meiri often utilizes philosophical allegory. While his philosophical positions appear relatively moderate, Halbertal argues he also has some esoteric approaches close to the radical Maimonideans. Meiri is also noteworthy for his attitude toward gentiles and women that was unusually progressive for his time. The second figure, Yedaiah ben Avraham Bedersi, was a poet and ethicist. He also wrote commentaries in a philosophical-allegorical style on many midrashim, including the Midrash Rabbah, Midrash Tanchumah, Midrash Tehillim, and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. While not known for talmudic acumen, he studied under Rabbi Meshulam ben Moshe, an important halakhist who wrote the Sefer Hahashlamah, from a young age. In their letters responding to the ban, they stress the importance of philosophy to Judaism and Provencal culture, as well as the good halakhic standing of the community. 

In later times, many more authors emerged from Provence. Among these were Nissim of Marseille, whose radical commentary on the Torah sought to naturalize miracles as much as possible. To give one example, he suggests, based on a Midrash, that the divine origin of the laws means that Moshe utilized God-given wisdom to legislate effectively. Another was Rabbi David haKochavi, a moderate Maimonidean who wrote two works, which he later grouped into one. His first presents philosophical justifications for Judaism and gives reasons for the mitzvot. The second, which has only partially survived, is an ambitious halakhic code modeled after Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, but with sources and other opinions included. Other figures include Aristotelian philosopher Yosef Ibn Caspi, noteworthy for elitist sentiment and negative views of women that were extreme even for his time, who wrote over twenty works spanning various disciplines including grammar, biblical interpretation and philosophy. In a work titled Tam HaKessef he has the prescient suggestion that it is plausible the Jews may one day be able to take back the land of Israel without miraculous means. Another important figure was Ralbag, one of the great Jewish polymaths, who excelled in fields as broad as mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and biblical interpretation. 
Ultimately, works from Provence in its philosophical epoch were rarely quoted by outside writers, and many of these works have only been published recently. If you ever find yourself lost in the library, looking for some new sefer to read, perhaps give a writer from this oft-overlooked locale a shot.

Photo Caption: The rich history of medieval Provence is often overlooked. 

Photo Credit: Pixabay