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Jewish Averroism


The thought of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was popular in Jewish circles in the Middle Ages, as can be seen by the number of translations made into Hebrew. Some of his books survive only in Hebrew. Not all of these readers could be called Averroists, but some certainly did adhere to what they took to be the central ideas of Averroes himself. Jewish Averroism often included some degree of allegiance to Maimonides, who also developed a complex theory of how to link religion and philosophy. The major Averroists were Isaac Albalag, Joseph ibn Caspi, Moshe Narboni, Elijah Delmedigo, and many other more minor figures extending throughout the South of France and Italy.

One of the main features of Jewish Averroism was its way of distinguishing between rational and religious truths. Proving that religion is true by using reason is a mistake because religion and reason involve entirely different forms of argument. The Jewish Averroists nonetheless argued for the rational superiority of Judaism over against Christianity because the former, unlike the latter, does not call for the acceptance of logically self-contradictory beliefs such as those of transubstantiation, the Trinity, and the Virgin Birth.

The Major Jewish Averroists

Isaac Albalag came from the Pyrenees region during the second half of the thirteenth century. Albalag, like Averroes, regarded demonstrative argument to be the paradigmatic method of philosophy. Only philosophers can really use this sort of thought, Albalag claimed, and so only philosophers can really be allowed to say that they know what is true. He argues that when the literal sense of a religious text cannot be reconciled with its philosophical sense, both the literal sense and the philosophical understanding have to be accepted, but in different ways. The literal sense is accepted as something that one would understand completely if one were in the same position of the prophets who had originally transmitted the text. This takes him close to the so-called doctrine of double truth often ascribed to the Christian Averroists in their more radical moments.

Joseph ibn Caspi, born in 1279 in Provence, defended the literal sense of many passages in Scripture as accurate accounts of past events. He gives a naturalistic account of miracles and prophecy; the former are ill-understoood natural events, while prophets, according to Ibn Caspi, are people who understand the links between the present and the future.

Moses Narboni was born in Perpignan around 1300 and was critical of Maimonides' use of arguments drawn from Averroes. Narboni recognized that Averroes sought to challenge the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), which formed an important part of Maimonides's thinking. Narboni also used Averroes's theory of the active intellect to provide an interest account of philosophical psychology. As human thinking becomes gradually perfected it moves from being largely imaginative to becoming more abstract and intellectual, and the material side comes under the control of thought. This is how religion and prophecy work: In themselves they are abstract but come to affect the material by inspiring and moving people to action. The prophets, according to Narboni, are provided for the majority who do not have the ability to use abstract thought because prophecy represents philosophical truths in imaginative language. There is one truth that is expressed in at least two different ways, one intellectually rigorous and the other practical and effective.

See also Averroes; Jewish Philosophy.


Hayoun, Moise-Ruben. Moshe Narboni. Tubingen, Germany: Mohr, 1986.

Leaman, Oliver. "Jewish Averroism." In History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed Nasr and Oliver Leaman, 760780. London: Routledge, 1996.

Sirat, Colette. A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Vajda, Georges. Isaac AlbalagAverroiste juif, traducteur et commentateur d'Al-Ghazali. Paris: Vrin, 1960.

Oliver Leaman (2005)

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