Crescas, Ḥasdai ben Abraham
CRESCAS, ḤASDAI BEN ABRAHAM
Religious philosopher and statesman; b. Barcelona, Spain, 1340; d. Saragossa, Spain, 1410. He was the first Jewish thinker to challenge the fundamentals of Aristotelianism, the system that had influenced Jewish thought since the days of Gaon sa’adia ben joseph (882–942) and had reached its culmination in the writings of Abraham ibn Daud (RABaD, c. 1110–c. 1180), maimonides (RaMBaM, 1135–1204), and levi ben gerson (RaLBaG, 1288–1344). He belonged to an illustrious, scholarly, and wealthy family and was held in high esteem by Jew and non-Jew alike. As a man of sterling character and wisdom he rose above the prevailing mediocrity of his time and soon came to the attention of Pedro IV, King of Aragon (1336–87), who frequently employed him on diplomatic missions and consulted him on important matters of state. Crescas, who had been a disciple of the distinguished Talmudist Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi (RaN, d. c. 1380), was the teacher of Joseph albo (c. 1380–c. 1435), the author of Ikkarim (Principles), a well-known work on the fundamentals of Judaism.
Despite his close relations with the court, Crescas was not spared the sufferings of his coreligionists. In 1367, as a result of a conspiracy, the nature of which was never made known, he and his close colleague the celebrated respondent (see responsa, jewish) Isaac ben Sheshet (RIBaSH, 1326–1408) and the aged Nissim Gerondi, among others, were denounced before Pedro IV and cast into prison. Although ben Sheshet gave assurances that they were innocent of any crime, they were released after several months in prison only after the payment of a considerable amount of bail. After this indignity Crescas settled in Saragossa. He never occupied any official rabbinical position. Nevertheless his counsel on legal and ritual matters was frequently invoked, and his decisions were accepted as law by many Jewish communities. He was referred to at the time even as the "Rab of Saragossa." But additional personal tragedy was in store for him. The infamous persecution and massacre of the Jews in 1391 robbed him not only of his entire fortune but also of his only son, who was martyred on the eve of his marriage in Barcelona.
Of his literary contributions, Crescas's magnum opus was his Or Adonai (The Light of the Lord ), which he completed in 1410, the year of his death. It was first printed at Ferrara in 1555. In this work he endeavored, by logical analysis and argumentation, to disprove the Stagirite's position that had been basically accepted by Maimonides in his Môrēh N ebûkîm and by RaLBaG in his Milḥamot Adonai, and he sharply criticized these two for "reducing the doctrinal contents of Judaism to a surrogate of Aristotelian concepts." According to M. Joel the Or Adonai had a stimulating influence on the philosophy of Baruch spinoza; from Crescas Spinoza derived his views on the love of God, on free will and creation, and on the distinction between attributes and properties.
Crescas's work is divided into four parts, which deal respectively with (1) the existence and nature of God; (2) the fundamental doctrines of the faith without which Judaism would fall, i.e., God's omniscience, providence, and omnipotence, and belief in prophecy, freedom of the will, and the purpose of creation; (3) other doctrines that, without being fundamental and essential to Judaism, it would be heresy to deny, i.e., creatio ex nihilo, immortality, divine retribution, the resurrection of the body, the irrevocability of and eternal obligation to the Torah, the supremacy of Moses as a prophet, the value of the urim and thummim, and messianic redemption; and (4) traditional doctrines that are not binding and are open to philosophical interpretation (13 opinions, among them questions that are concerned with amulets, the dissolution of the world, and metempsychosis).
Crescas attacked the Aristotelian propositions that Maimonides had generally accepted as axiomatic, and he thereby demolished the arguments that Maimonides had used as the basis for his concept of God. Furthermore, he rejected the theory that man can comprehend God through intellectual speculation and human cognition. According to Crescas it is not reason but love for God, reverence, and goodness of character that bring men closer to and in communion with God. Whereas Maimonides could not explain the ultimate purpose of the world and the reason for existence and considered futile every inquiry concerning these questions, Crescas posited that the world had come into being in order to fulfill God's law and thereby assure the happiness of the soul. Man's fulfillment of the Commandments strengthens the mutual love between God and the soul and causes (as in natural things) an inevitable fusion between the two. This unity, Crescas maintained, surely leads to happiness and immortality.
In addition to Or Adonai two other writings of Crescas are extant. One is a mournful letter to the Jewish communities of Avignon, written on Oct. 19, 1391, in which he recapitulated the story of the persecutions of that year and mentioned the many who were martyred (including his son), as well as those who were spared by accepting Christianity. The other work is a Refutation of the Main Doctrines of Christianity, written in 1398. The Spanish original is no longer available, but a partial Hebrew translation by Joseph ibn Shem-Tov (1451) has been preserved. It has been surmised that Crescas prepared this paper in an effort to stem the tide of the many conversions to Christianity that were taking place at that time.
Bibliography: e. g. hirsch, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 1901–06) 4:350–353. a. kaminka, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 v. (New York 1939–44) 3:408–409. f. baer and j. gordin, Encyclopedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 10 v. (Berlin 1928–34) incomplete, 5:696–708. i. husik, A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2d ed. New York 1930; pa. 1958) 388–405. m. joel, Zur Genesis der Lehre Spinozas (Breslau 1871). h. a. wolfson, Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (Cambridge, Mass. 1929). h. h. graetz, History of the Jews, ed. and tr. b. lÖwy, 6 v. (Philadelphia 1945) 4:145–155. m. waxman, Philosophy of Don H : asdai Crescas (New York 1920).
[n. j. cohen]