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Notes from Limmud 2012

Diversity in Judaism: the year 1200CE as a test case

Marc Sapirstein

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Many believe that "mainstream Judaism" as a metaphor characterises the Jewish experience following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, until the emergence of the Reform movement in the nineteenth century. This was not the case. This talk examines the diversity in the year 1200 (somewhat arbitrarily), and how the various groups differed strongly on important issues. This talk discusses the Karaites, Religious Philosophers, Tosafists, German Pieteists and Kabbalists, which are groups which have written about themselves. There are also other groups which were written about by others.


The Karaites represented the most important challenge to the unity of Judaism with diversity [?pushed] to the margins.

Begininng in Babylonia in the eighth century, it challenged the core beliefs, namely that in addition to the Written Torah there was an Oral Torah accurately transmitted by word of mouth for over a thousand years until written down in the early first millennium, and transmitted now (i.e. the eighth century) by the Geonim, the heads of the Babylonian academies.

The Karaites rejected the Talmud, and the authority of the Geonim to interpret it. They promoted a return to the Bible and insisted Jews used their independent rational judgement to determine how to apply Biblical Law. (There is a whole question of possible continuity between the Saduccees and Karaites; there is no proof either way, but no real evidence of it.) In many cases, to claim that we have a new movement was not an asset in the world of the Middle Ages. Anything new was under suspicion. This is why, for example, the founders of Christianity claimed their tradition was founded in what they called the Old Testament.

The Karaites determined the beginning of the lunar new month by direct observation of the new moon. This meant sometimes they observed the Biblical holidays on different days [from the Rabbanites]. They did not allow fire to be burned in their homes on the Sabbath, regardless of whether it had been kindled before Shabbos—a distinction with major implications, as it meant their homes would be without light and heat and warm food. This made it difficult for the movement to be established in northern Europe.

Their liturgy was Bible-centred. They would not drink wine produced by Rabbanite Jews or attend Rabbanite weddings; but they were still considered Jews by the Rabbanite community.

In Babylonia [by 1200] the [Karaite] communities had declined; in Egypt it was still strong, where Maimonides counselled respect and friendship with them. In Spain they suffered persecution.

Abraham ibn Daoud wrote Sefer haKabbalah (nothing to do with the Cabbalah; the word means received tradition) to outline the unbroken chain of tradition from Moses down to the present, on the assumption that if only it could be established that there were respected authorities in every generation it would prove the rabbinic claim about the Oral Law.

Petachya of Regensburg reported a community in Kadar (probably the Crimea) who had never heard of the Talmud, and [etc]. In 1170 when Benjamin of Tudela travelled through southern Europe and into the Middle East, he gave figures of communities of fifty families as being significant communities. They become more numerous in the Middle East, and Bahdad really was [lacuna]. In Egypt they might have constituted a third of the population at the time.

Jewish Law

Maimonides had at this time recently completed his codification of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah; but the flourishing Talmudic school in northern Europe at the time was the Tosafists: Literally, those who added to the work of Rashi, who a century earlier had written the classical commentary on the Talmud. Unlike his commentary on the Torah, no one tried to write a new commentary on the Talmud to replace his until Steinsaltz in the twentieth century.

The Tosafos address the problems of the elliptical language of the Talmud, which Rashi clarified. Their work involved several kinds of challenges: examining MSS of Talmudic tractates, to determine the best textual record of the Talmud; passages Rashi had felt intelligible enough not to need his comment, but which those who came afterwards disagreed with, etc. They compared passages with passages elsewhere, uncovering apparent contradictions and resolving them.

Occasionally they sought to make a decision about a legal disute that was argued but not explicitly decided in the Talmud. They were not especially driven by contemporary legal problems, and spent much time on passages from the Talmud with no relevance to contemporary Judaism, such as the sacrificial laws, or criminal laws for which modern courts had no jurisdiction.

They were not especially interested in the non-legal passages of the Talmud, the Aggada, even in such blatantly anthropomorphic descriptions of God which would be a major problem for the philosophers; and they thought Jewish education should be limited to intensive study of the Bible (especially the legal material) and Talmud.

They may have been influenced by the contemporary Christian work on the codification of Canon Law and Roman Law. There's no evidence they read such texts, though, or Muslim texts. Some supported evidence to ban the philosophical work of Maimonides, without having even read it. It would have been considered a diversion and בִּטוּל הַתּוֹרָה at best, and at worst dangerous works leading to heretical conclusions.

Jewish religious philosophers

These began to flourish in the tenth century in the Muslim world, which had learned the classical Greek texts via their Arabic translations. They felt it was criticial to wrestle with the [conflicts between the writings of these texts], especially Aristotle, and their own sacred texts, especially the Qur'an.

Since all the Jewish scholars could read classical literary Arabic, they felt to engage with the issue. Their responses ranged from that the Hebrew Scriptures are the ultimate source of knowledge, and we don't even need to know about anything that is not in our Bible, to, at the other extreme, a far more radical attitude: that reason, as exemplified in the work of Plato and Aristotle, [could not be argued with], and anything in subsequent literature that conflicted with reason had to be dismissed out of hand.

Most Jewish thinkers went for a middle path between the two. Maimonides is the most important representative of this middle ground. The process of translation of his work into Hebrew made it available for the population of Europe, who could not read Arabic. (Around 1340 one could be at the cutting edge of philosophy and science without being able to read anything other than Hebrew (as was the case for Ralbag)—the only time that this was the case.)

The first axiom for philosophers like Maimonides is that there is one truth emanating from the one God. (Ibn Rushd proposed a double truth paradigm—that there are [separate] religious and philosophical truths—but this was judged heretical in both religions.) This meant that all contradictions must be reconciled somehow. But Scripture was intended for an entire religous community, who might not be well educated. Philosophy was intended for an intellectual elite.

But there are obvious inconsistencies. Firstly, the problem of descriptions of God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob appears to be fundamentally different from the God of the philosophers. The Bible uses anthropomorphic language: God has a strong hand and outstretched arm, sits on a throne, etc. Philosophy teaches that God is absoliutely incoroporeal without any body whatsoever. The Biblical language therefore must be understood in a non-literal manner. The Bible was to convey abstract ideas that people might not be able to understand in a simple manner.

A second example: The Biblical account of the Creation taking place in six days. In Greek philosophy, Aristotle argued that the world as we knew it had always existed. Plato maintained that the material components of the world had always existed, but then a divine demiurge had brought order to the chaos of these components.

Maimonides goes through these arguments in Book II of The Guide for the Perplexed, and finally concludes that Aristotle had failed to [lacuna] and therefore we are free to [ignore his writings which contradict the Biblical account of Creation.] But he ends by stating that if he had been convinced that Aristotle's methods had been correct, he would have reinterpreted all of the Biblical references to fit in with Aristotle, like he did with the anthropomorphic references.

Scholars have long debated here whether he really believed in the Platonic position but felt constrained to agree with the [Torah because of his religious principles].

For Maimonides, the ultimate goal of the human being should be to obtain knowledge of God to the greatest extent possible: through Aristotelian metaphysics. But you have to begin with the foundational disciplines: logic, study of the physical world, both the sublunar realm and the heavenly bodies.

Since this world is the expression of the will of the Creator, it is a religious obligation upon Jews to study the physical world like this, as it leads ultimately to love of God, fear of God and knowledge of God. Hence study like the Tosafists propounded would not suffice for Maimonides. Such a scholar was outside the walls of the castle, he wrote, within which [lacuna].

Maimonides insisted all commandments wee given for a urpose, to help human beings achieve their ultimate goal, intellectual pursuit of God. Hence they are not ends themselves, but means to an end. They create the conditions for health, a peaceful society, awareness of God.

Some philosophical Jews in the generations following Maimonides were accused of ignoring the commandments themselves, since they said [lacuna]. In 1232 an attempt was made to place a חֶרֶם on the Guide and on the Mishneh Torah. Copies of these works were even burned. "Would that this book had never come into being, never been translated, never read," its opponents said.

Chasidei Ashkenaz/German Pietists

These are known from a number of figures, principally R. Yehudah heḤasid, the author of סֵפֶר חֲסִידִים—the most important mediaeval Jewish text that has never been translated fully into English. They are contemporary with the German Tosafists and Maimonides. They flourished during the late twelfth century and early thirteenth following the traumas of the pogroms of the First and Second Crusades.

Like the philosophers, they were critical of those whose entire [life] was devoted to intense study of Jewish law. On virtually every component of Jewish theology their outlook was diferent.

The commandments which we don't understand the purpose of, for the philosophers, had to be explained or left. For the Pietists they were given solely as tests of obenience. As such, it would have been just as effective to prohibit beef and lamb and permit pork and crabmeat.

For them, the greater the temptation to violate the commandment, the greater the reward for overcoming the temptation. They discussed whether one should place oneself into temptation in order to overcome it. (Answer: you shouldn't.)

The most difficult commandment for them was קִדוּשׁ הַשֵּׁם [sanctification of God's name, through martyrdom]. They had a deep veneration for the martyrs of the Crusades, and a sense of envy of those who had the opportunity. They wrote discussing the question of whether, if you lived in a safe place and time, it permissible to travel to dangerous places to have the [opportunity to practice קִדוּשׁ הַשֵּׁם.

On repentance, Maimonides wrote: "The sinner forsakes his sin, removes it from his thoughts, and determines in his heart not to do it again, as it is stated, 'Let the wicked one forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts' (Isaiah 55:7). The sinner should] likewise regret that which he transgressed, as it is stated 'For after my repenting I regretted, and after it was made known to me I slapped the thigh' (Jeremiah 31:18)." This is a totally internal process, between the sinner and God.

The Pietists, however, wrote: "According to the apparent pleasure the sinner felt whilst engaging in fornication; so he must cause himself pain and afflict himself [during his period of repentance.] He must forego meat and wine, ideally for a full year (except for Shabbos), scourge himself and live a life of sorrow.

"For the most grievous sin, which required death, he should suffer pain as grievous as death: He must sit in ice or snow for an hour, or in summer, sit in flies or bees."


There is no basis for any of this in Jewish law; it's heavily influenced by Christian practice, despite many expressions of contempt towards Christianity and its sancta. The [internal resolutions] of Maimonides could not be sufficient when the Christians were so more rigorous.

Such punishments were often imposed by a rabbinical authority following an oral confession to that authority.

The Kabbalists

Kabbala was just begininng in southern France in 1200. Some would condemn those who committed the esoteric doctrine in writing. This was not intended for everyone. Once a text was written down, you lose control: you don't know whose hands it would end up in.

Within a generation the centre of gravity of the Kabbala shifted to Catalonia or Aragon. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Nachmanides included references to it in his commentary of the Torah. He said, though, don't try and figure it out by youtself; you should go to a teacher. Then a generation later, came the Zohar.

Kabbala presented itself as tradition, but was actually a new thing.

Rather than the unchanging unity of the philosophers' God, the Caballists invented the concept of the sephirot. We all recognise that aspects of our personality is not unchanging. At times we feel deeply emotional, at times we are not; etc, etc. They identified the [Divine] manifestations, insisting they were part of an absolute unity. Moreover, this godhead was not unchanging. A constant flow of energy into the world comes from the totally unknowable Infinite. However, the nature of this flow depends on the stimuli from the outside, the most important of which was the behaviour of the Jews.

The commandments were [lacuna], but were also not arbitrary tests of obedience. They were keys to the flow of energy from the Divine realm into this world.

For the philosopher, some of the purpose could be achieved even if the commandment was not performed in its entirety. For the Cabbalists, each commandment had to be performed completely in accordance with Jewish law; it was all or nothing. So in Cabbala, we have a movement historically linked with the firm performance of every commandment.

Needless to say the philosophically-oriented found much in this new doctrine deeply troubling to them. The idea of diversity within the Godhead was to them deeply anathema; some said as troubling as, or even more than, the concept of the Trinity.

The Cabbalists in turn accused the philosophers of [lacuna], and invented a tradition, without any basis whatsoever, that Maimonides towards the end of his life [had repented of his rationalism and become a Cabbalist].

Yet there were some important ways in which they did agree in opposition to the Tosafists:

  • A life devoted to the legal content of the Talmud failed to contain what God wanted.
  • That the Torah contained deep layers of truth buried beneath [its surface]
  • That their doctrine was not accessible to the majority of the Jewish people but only to a small elite.
  • That spirituality was ultimately more important than living by rules.

These groups also diverged on other issues not mentioned here, including the significance of the Land of Israel and the uniqueness of the Jewish people.

Yet, unlike amongst the Christians, representatives of these groups agreed on a lot of fundamentals, and could all stand in the same synagogue and say the same words without knowing they differed at such a deep level.

[And that, I [[personal profile] lethargic_man] think, is where the thesis of the talk falls down; this is what makes the year 1200 a much more unified time among Jews than the nineteenth century and onwards, in which that is definitely not the case. Maybe it's shallow to concentrate on surface visible differences, but that is what people do; it's what they notice.]

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