Great Personalities in Jewish History
In this course with Rabbi David Sedley we will look at the lives and views of some of the less well known Rishonim. We will look at life for Jews in Spain, Provence, Germany, North Africa and Israel. We will learn some of the writings of the Rabbis on topics as diverse as kabbalah, theology, history and philosophy. We will examine how their writings and thought have impacted on their contemporaries and on later Judaism (in some cases until the present day).
A partial list of the Rabbis we will study:
Donash ben Laprut (10th century Spanish poet and grammarian), Avraham Ibn Daud (12th century Spanish historian, astronomer and philosopher), Rav Yitzchak the Blind (12th century Provencal kabbalist), Profiat Duran (14th century Catalonian grammarian and possibly a converso), Rav Moshe Taku (13th century Bohemian anti-philosopher) and Rav Chasdai Crescas (14th century Spanish philosopher and rationalist).
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Yitzchak Yisraeli
RABBI YITZCHAK YISRAELI: In this class we will look at the life and works of Rabbi Yitzchak Yisraeli, who was one of the best known Jewish philosophers in the medieval period (second only to Maimonides/Rambam). He was a doctor to the court of the Fatimide Caliphate, and was renowned for his medical books even more than for his philosophy. He lived to the age of 100, and died around the year 920 (though that is a matter of some discussion). We will look at extracts from some of his surviving philosophy books – “The Book of Substances”, “The Book of Definitions”, “The Book on the Elements” and “The Book on the Spirit and the Soul”. We will also see how influential he was on some of the later Rishonim, and discuss why Rambam wrote that Israeli’s philosophy is worthless.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbeinu Chananel and Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (RIF)
RABBEINU CHANANEL AND RABBI YITZCHAK ALFASI (RIF): The story of the Four Captives shows the transition of power and authority from Babylon with the Gaonim, to the Western World (North Africa and Mediterranean Europe). Rabbeinu Chananel was the earliest person to write a commentary on the Talmud (and which is printed in most editions of the Talmud). We will look at his life story, and that of his father Rabbeinu Chushiel. The Rif wrote the earliest halachic work, based on the order of the Talmud. A student of Rabbeinu Chananel, he lived in Fez (hence his name al-Fasi).
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud
RABBI AVRAHAM IBN DAUD: Rav Avraham ibn Daud was both a historian and a philosopher. He defended Judaism against the attacks of the Karaites, and advocated philosophy as a way of resolving unanswered theological questions. We will look at HaEmunah HaRamah and how it is a direct attack on the approach of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari. We will also briefly discuss the ‘Kuzari Principle’ and why it is exactly the opposite of the actual approach of the Kuzari itself. And in passing we will mention Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol who first brought neo-Platonic philosophy to Jewish (and Christian) Spain.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Falaquera
RABBI SHEM TOV IBN FALAQUERA: Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Falaquera was one of the most prolific Jewish writers of 13th century Spain. He translated and wrote books on ethics, philosophy and science for a Jewish audience. He was a poet as well as a philosopher, though he rejected poetry later in life. We will also look at the charges levelled against Rambam during the Maimonidean controversy and Falaquera’s defence of Rambam.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Moshe Taku
RABBI MOSHE TAKU: We will look at the most famous Maimonidean controversy, and the exchange of letters between Rav David Kimche (RaDaK) and Rav Yehuda AlFakher regarding Rambam’s view of the eternity of the universe. This leads in to the discussion of reliance on philosophy to understand Judaism, and whether there is a place for Aristotle in Judaism. One of the few Baalei Tosefot who wrote on theology and philosophy. Best known for his strong opposition to Rambam’s reliance on Aristotelian philosophy. He is famous for claiming that G-d can appear in physical form if He so desires. He attacks both Rambam and Rav Saadiah Gaon for abandoning the simple meaning of Torah in order to make it fit with philosophy. We will look at extracts from his book Ketav Tamim, and also (time permitting) see that his views were similar to those of Rashi and some of the other baalei Tosefot.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Yosef Caspi
RABBI YOSEF CASPI: Rabbi Yosef (ibn) Caspi was one of the most prolific Jewish writers of his time. He wrote many commentaries on Tanach and philosophy and a commentary on Moreh Nevuchim. He was praised and criticised in equal measure by the Rabbis of his time, and acknowledges that some of his ideas are revolutionary. (Kalonymous ben Kalonymous wrote an entire booklet to refute ibn Caspi). We will look at his ideas of what a commentary should be, the eternity of the universe, miracles and free choice.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag)
RABBI LEVI BEN GERSHON (RALBAG): In this class we will look at Ralbag, who was an astronomer, scientist, philosopher and Rabbi. He took Aristotelian philosophy to new heights (or extremes) – following on from Rambam yet disagreeing with him on several key issues. Ralbag is at the same time both very relevant for today (though perhaps slightly heretical for the modern Jewish mind), yet totally outdated, because his Judaism was strongly connected to his Ptolemaic understanding of the universe.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Chasdai Crescas
RABBI CHASDAI CRESCAS: Chasdai Crescas stands in stark contradiction to almost all those who came before him, in that he rejects philosophy (using philosophy) and tries to return to a more ‘Jewish’ basis for Judaism. He attacks Aristotle (and thereby attacks both Rambam and Ralbag) and rejects his views using logic counter-arguments. Crescas wrote a short booklet arguing against the principles of Christianity – we will look at an excerpt from that. We will also learn extracts from his book ‘Ohr Hashem’ in which he claims (amongst other things) that people have no free choice, and that the world runs deterministically.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Profiat Duran (Efodi)
RABBI PROFIAT DURAN (EFODI): One of the strongest defenders of Judaism against Christianity. In addition to his commentary on Rambam’s ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ and his book on Hebrew Grammar he wrote several pamphlets against Christianity. Ironically, there are those who claim that he himself was a forced convert to Christianity. We will look at several of his works, including my favourite – ‘Al Tehi Ke-Avotecha’ which is a sarcastic critique of Christianity and Christian theology. The sarcasm is so subtle that the Christian thought it was written in support of their theology, and it is referred to by them by the corruption of the Hebrew words as ‘Alteca Boteca’.
Great Personalities in Jewish History: Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo
RABBI ELIYAHU DEL MEDIGO: Cretan Rabbi who was well known throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world for his philosophical brilliance. He was asked to adjudicate in a heated debate between two factions at the University of Padua, and as a result became teacher and tutor to some of the leading thinkers of the time, including Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who was crucial to the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. His opposition to Kabbalah and reliance on philosophy led to a fight with the Rabbi of Padua, Rabbi Yehuda Mintz. Del Medigo returned to Crete, where he wrote ‘Bechinat Ha-Dat’ which outlines his philosophy of Judaism. He died very young from a complication after surgery.
Rabbi David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. He was born and raised in New Zealand before making Aliya in 1992. He left Israel temporarily (for eight years) to serve as a communal Rabbi in Scotland and England and returned to Israel in 2004. He has translated Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirkei Avos and is the co-author of Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer (both Judaica Press). Over the years Rabbi Sedley has worked as a journalist, a translator, a video director and in online reputation management. He also writes a weekly Torah blog on the Times of Israel.