Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Medieval Period

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Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Medieval Period

Interest in science among medieval Jews, which began in the ninth century, was a consequence of the unprecedented rise of a scientific culture within Islamic civilization a century earlier. Traditionally, Jewish intellectual life was self-contained. It revolved around a canonic corpus of texts, notably the Talmud and the midrash in Hebrew and Aramaic; cultural goods existing beyond this corpus were considered as threatening "foreign sciences." But having adopted Arabic (or rather Judeo-Arabic) as their cultural language, Jews became acquainted with the surrounding Arabic culture. This set in motion a process of reception, assimilation, and transmission of knowledge, leading to the constitution of the medieval Jewish rationalist culture, first in Arabic and then in Hebrew.

The first influential Jewish writers to discuss philosophy in Arabic were Saadia Gaon (882942) in Baghdad, and Isaac Israeli (855955) in Kairouan (present-day Tunisia). Both drew heavily on contemporary scientific theories and thereby introduced their Jewish readers to them, ipso facto also legitimizing them. In the next century, the center of gravity of the philosophic-scientific activity of Jews switched to Spain: Salomon Ibn Gavirol (c.10201057), the well-known poet, was followed by a number of scholars who wrote books on religious Jewish philosophy: Baya Ibn Paqudah (second half of the eleventh century), Juda ha-Levi (c.10751141), Joseph Ibn Zaddik (d.1149), Abraham Ibn Daud (c.11101180), and others. Beyond their great ideological differences, all these works naturally drew on contemporary scientific and philosophical theories, testifying that these theories were familiar to, and accepted by, the educated Jewish reader. These same works were translated into Hebrew a century or two later for the benefit of readers not knowing Arabic, thereby introducing Greek and Arabic science into the traditionalist communities of Southern France.


Moses Maimonides (11351204), the central medieval figure of both Jewish thought and Law, was born in Córdoba, Spain. Owing to persecutions by the Almohads, who forbade Jews or Christians to profess their religion openly, Maimonides left Córdoba and eventually arrived in Egypt, where he settled in the 1160s. Maimonides's two most important writings are the monumental Mishne Torah, a code of the Jewish law composed in Hebrew, and the Guide for the Perplexed, the major Jewish work of religious philosophy, written in Arabic. Maimonides possessed charisma, a natural, unquestioned authority accepted near and far. The opinions Maimonides expressed with respect to the value of the study of science and philosophy are therefore of crucial importance for an adequate understanding of the Jewish attitudes toward them from the thirteenth century onward.

The Aristotelian sciences and philosophy are an integral part of Maimonides's worldview. The Mishenh Torah, although a legal work, opens with a concise account of the Aristotelian cosmology, in which Maimonides indicates that the first commandment is to know not believethat there exists a First Being who endows with existence all beings. In the Guide for the Perplexed, scientific theories are woven into the very substance of most arguments. Maimonides also repeatedly states explicitly that the study of the sciences and of philosophy is strictly indispensable for a knowledge of God, which is the goal of human existence.

Maimonides regards a contradiction between the truths established by the philosophers (i.e., Arab Aristotelianism) and the Scriptures as an impossibility. He holds that the scientifically established tenets of Aristotelian philosophy being necessarily true, whatever statements in the Scriptures appear to be at variance with them must be interpreted so as to make the Scriptures conform. This means that naïvely whoever reads the Scriptures without the input of science and philosophy necessarily errs and ends up in heresy; only the student of Aristotle can correctly grasp the meaning of the Scriptures. For Maimonides, acquiring scientific knowledge is therefore a religious obligation: "listen to the truth from whoever says it," Maimonides repeatedly urged. Only reason, not tradition, was to determine which knowledge-claims were to be accepted within Judaism and which not. Maimonides thus deserves the credit for having opened the gates widely to the study of the "foreign sciences" within Judaism.

This statement must be qualified, however. For Maimonides, the study of the sciences is never an end in itself: It is always propaedeutic, preparing the student for something more noble, namely, the metaphysical knowledge of God. In this respect, Maimonides's stance differs fundamentally from that of the Muslim scientists and philosophers of his day, with whom he is often compared: Maimonides and his Muslim contemporaries construe the social role of the man of knowledge in very different terms.

The place that Maimonides assigns to science is limited also on the epistemological plane, for he sets severe limits on the possible bearing of the sciences. Maimonides thus argues that, contrary to what Aristotle himself believed, Aristotle did not succeed in demonstrating that the world was eternal. Maimonides also argues that upholders of creation ex nihilo have not been able to demonstrate their own claims either. For Maimonides, the question of the eternity of the world is thus undecidable (i.e., it cannot be scientifically decided). Maimonides then says that he himself opts for the thesis of creation, but for theological and social, not scientific, reasons. Thus, although Maimonides affirms that without science the Scriptures cannot be correctly understood, in the end he assigns to science a severely curtailed scope. Maimonides is thus fundamentally ambivalent about the role of science.

This ambiguity of Maimonides's message was exacerbated by the fact that Maimonides affirmed that his Guide was an "esoteric text," one comprising certain "secrets" that only the wise and learned reader would be able to uncover. Some readers took this statement as signaling that Maimonides's true beliefs were the opposite of those he ostensibly affirmed, and that in truth he held radical thesesnotably that of the eternity of the worldwhich he did not wish to state openly. Some Maimonideans therefore found in the Guide messages that were the precise opposite of the literal messages.

Maimonides's philosophy was a decisive turning point: It legitimized the study of the Greek-Arabic sciences as a permissible, indeed, an obligatory activity. Still, at the same time, the scope of the sciences and their authority relative to that of the traditional disciplines was not defined unequivocally. This remained a subject of controversy for the centuries to come.

Transmission of science and philosophy into and Northern Spain and Southern France

The reception of science and philosophy within the Jewish communities of Northern Spain and Southern France, whose only cultural tongue was Hebrew, can usefully be divided into three phases, The first phase of the transmission began early in the twelfth century when Spanish scholars composed in Hebrew (or translated from Arabic) scientific works for Jews living north of the Pyrénées. During the first half of the twelfth century, Abraham bar Hiyya (died c. 1145) of Barcelona, a political leader and scholar who was very well versed in the sciences of his day, wrote a number of works summarizing the sciences in Hebrew. He offered basic courses in such immediately useful disciplines as practical geometry and astronomy, and also composed an encyclopedia affording "general culture" with no immediate practical utility. Also influential was the poet Abraham Ibn Ezra (10891164), who left Spain and traveled throughout France, Italy, and England, spreading his ideas and writings. In addition to his astronomical and astrological works, Ibn Ezra composed numerous Biblical commentaries that often invoked scientific, philosophical, and astrological notions. Ibn Ezra thereby suggested that these scientific theories were indispensable to uncover the true meaning of the Scriptures. Owing to the great popularity of these commentaries throughout Europe, they contributed much to the spread and legitimization of "Greek learning."

The second phrase of the process gathered momentum when, in the second half of the twelfth century, Andalusian Jewish scholars immersed in Arabic culture fled to Provence to escape the Almohad persecutions in Spain, enhancing considerably the process of translation into Hebrew of philosophical works. A number of erudite Jewish families settled in Provence during the late 1140s, bringing with them a culture that was altogether different from that of their brethren. Whereas the latter were absorbed in traditional, Talmudic learning, the immigrants were comfortable with Arabic poetry, literature, grammar, philosophy, and science. This led to a massive translation movement that was to last for some two centuries, during which the newcomers and their descendants rendered a rich body of literature from Arabic into Hebrew. The first translated works were mostly Jewish religious philosophy, but gradually works of general philosophy and science by pagan and Muslim writers were translated as well.

The third phrase began after the transmission process got a new and decisive impetus when Maimonides's writings, notably the Hebrew translation of the Guide of the Perplexed (1204), became influential in southern France. Jewish scholars imbued in Arabic culture composed a number of encyclopedic works with the aim of affording Jews who could read only Hebrew an overview of the sciences of the day. In parallel, scientific and philosophical works were translated systematically and professionally. Many of the translators were scholars belonging to the Tibbonid family: Yehudah Ibn Tibbon (c. 11201190); his son Samuel (11501230), the translator of the Guide ; and Samuel's son Moses (c. 12401285). A number of other translators of scientific and philosophical texts were active too. Together, these scholars created the Jewish medieval philosophical-scientific bookshelf. This bookshelf includes the basic works of the exact sciences, beginning with Euclid (mathematics) and Ptolemy (astronomy), and numerous further mathematical and astronomical texts. It also comprises the basic works of the "qualitative" sciences (natural philosophy, biology, medicine, psychology, metaphysics, etc.). Most important in this respect are Averröes's systematized presentations of the Aristotelian doctrines, which became for the centuries to come the standard textbooks studied by Jewish scholars.

Assessment of scientific contributions of medieval Judaism

The introduction of these works of Greek and Arabic science into Judaism triggered a production of scientific works in Hebrew. This movement developed on the basis of texts available in Hebrew, for it was fairly (although not totally) isolated from the Latin scholastic university culture. Whereas, from a cultural point of view, this literature had great significance for Jewish intellectual life, it is not comparable in terms of originality and intrinsic importance qua science to the literature of medieval Arabic or Latin cultures. Astronomy is, however, a significant exception to this rule, and Jewish astronomers performed as well as (and occasionally better than) their contemporaries. The reason for this relative underdevelopment of medieval Hebrew science was arguably the social role that Maimonides had assigned to science as (merely) propaedeutic to the study of God. Two towering figures stand out as exceptions, however. Levi ben Gershom, or Gersonides (12881344), lived in Provence and wrote treatises on logic, mathematics, biblical exegesis, philosophy, and astronomy. In all these domains his contributions are eminently original, and the fact that he made numerous astronomical observations, using instruments he himself invented, must be particularly emphasized. Gersonides also had disciples who studied commentaries by Averröes with him and engaged in a written debate over purely scientific issues. The second figure is Hasdai Crescas (c. 13401412), who regarded Jewish adherence to the philosophical doctrines as a threat to the coherence and very existence of the community. This stance motivated Crescas toward a radical and highly insightful criticism of Aristotle's physics, which contributed to the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy during the Renaissance.

The introduction of the study of the sciences into the Jewish discourse did not go unchallenged. Even before Maimonides, Juda ha-Levi's Kuzari (1140) had criticized the philosophical project and contrasted the traditional "God of Abraham" with the philosophers' "God of Aristotle." Maimonides was vehemently attacked during his lifetime and the split, indeed the confrontation, between traditionalists and their adversaries over the study of the profane sciences was to continue during the centuries to come.

The thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries were the heyday of Hebrew science and of the rationalist Jewish culture in general. The rise of Kabbalah and the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s were followed by a long period in which few Jews engaged in science or philosophy. The influential astronomer Abraham Zacut (late fifteenth century) is an exception. Still, here and there during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some Ashkenazi rabbis in Germany and Poland continued to study the texts of the medieval Hebrew bookshelf. In the early eighteenth century, this dormant tradition was to bear new fruit and provide an important impetus to the Haskalah ( Jewish enlightenment movement).

The cultural dimension of the reception of the sciences

The reception of science and philosophy within medieval Judaism had implications far beyond the mere sphere of science: It was nothing less than a theological upheaval. On the one hand, Maimonides's consequential synthesis legitimized the profane books as a source of knowledge, in addition to the traditional, sacred ones. On the other, the espousal of philosophy and science implied the acceptance of formerly unheard-of religious teachings: The Maimonidean God had very little in common with that of the Talmudists or the kabbalists, and, in addition, the intellectual activity of those who sought felicity (immortality of the soul) through philosophical knowledge was incommensurable with that of the fideists, for whom the Jews' afterlife depended solely on respecting the commandments and on erudition in the Talmud. In Even Bohan (The Touchstone ), his satirical maqâmah, the early fourteenth-century scientist, translator and poet Qalonimos ben Qalonimos acutely noted: "Our Gods are as numerous as our towns." This upheaval thus implied a profound transformation of the definition of what it meant to be Jewish. The depth of the resulting fragmentation of Jewish society is perhaps comparable to that of the contemporary split of Judaism between Reformist, Conservative, and Orthodox.

See also Judaism; Judaism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Modern Period; Maimonides


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