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Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century Parts I and II by David B Ruderman Lectur 1- 2

Halkin Jerusalem, , p. Whatever the provenance of the poem Musar Haskel attributed to R. Hai, it is worth noting the advice to teach ones son a craft and to study wisdom, mathematics, and medicine. See Asaf, Meqorot 2, p. He goes on to say that there arose individuals in Baghdad [apparently somewhat later] who would have been better o as Gentiles; indeed, they went so far that they aroused the anger of non-Jews who were presumably concerned about the spread of philosophical heresy that might contaminate Muslims as well.

Because of the damage that this caused, R. Hai intervened to stop these miscreants in particular and Jewish intellectuals in general from engaging in such pursuits. The letter goes on to assert that even the Gaon R.

Samuel b. Hofni, who had read such material, saw the damage that resulted and refrained from doing so any longer. Since the days of Graetz, the authenticity of this document has been the subject of scholarly debate. In the most recent discussion, two new, conicting considerations have been raised. On the one hand, the name of the ruler in Baghdad is reported with a level of accuracy that might not have been available to a late forger; on the other, the section preserved in Meirat Einayim often uses the rst person singular, while it was the practice of the Geonim, without exception, to write in the rst person plural.

If this letter in its entirety was written by R. Hai, it provides fascinating information about extreme rationalism among Jews in late tenth-century Baghdad and about a very strong Jewish counterreaction. My own inclination, however, is to treat the document with considerable skepticism.


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The unique appearance of the rst person singular is surely a weighty consideration, and an expert in the history of medieval Islam assures me that Adud al-Dawlas name was not so obscure as to be unavailable to a thirteenth-century Iberian forger not to speak of an earlier one even in its precise form. The unconditional denunciation in the letter is considerably stronger than what we would expect from R. Hais other writings: there were a number of other appropriate opportunities in the Gaons voluminous correspondence for him to have expressed such views, and yet this passage remains unique; the assertion that R.

Samuel ben Hofni, for whom speculative pursuits were clearly of central importance, would have abandoned them because of this incident is both implausible in the extreme and reminiscent of other rereadings of history of the Whatever the authenticity of the original document, there is an illuminating aspect to the later textual history of this letter.


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  • One of the versions contains a brief addition clearly introduced by a reader who wanted to soften the antiphilosophical message of the Gaon. Where R. Hai criticized those who pursue those other studies, our philosophically oriented copyist wrote those other studies alone, and where R. Hai spoke about the purity and holiness of those who study Mishnah and Talmud, our copyist wrote that these qualities will be found only in those who study Mishnah, Talmud, and wisdom together, not wisdom alone.

    These revisions, which were introduced by the interpolater into a letter of Nahmanides that quotes R. Hai, have been embraced to our own day by scholars who welcome an attenuation of the original message. In the event that the letter itself is inauthentic, there is a certain poetic justice in the undermining of its central point by yet another creative artist. Hais letter is most conveniently available in Ozar ha-Geonim to Hagigah, pp.

    The most recent discussion of the problem of authenticity, which cites earlier studies, is in Amos Goldreichs dissertation, Sefer Meirat Einayim le-Rav Yizhaq de-min Akko Jerusalem, ; Pirsumei ha-Makhon le-Limmudim Mitqaddemim, , pp. Goldreich notes Shraga Abramsons observation about the Geonim and the rst person plural, which was made in a dierent context; see Abramson, Rav Nissim Gaon Jerusalem, , p.

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    When I raised the issue in a conversation with Prof. Abramson, he conrmed that there are no exceptions to this usage; since R. Hai became Gaon when Samuel ibn Nagrela was a small child, the possibility that the letter was written before the author assumed his position must, of course, be ruled out. In a personal communication, Menahem Ben Sasson has suggested the possibility that a shift from plural to singular might have taken place in the course of translation from Arabic into Hebrew.

    See too Zvi Groner in Alei Sefer 13 : 75, no. I am grateful to Ulrich Haarmann, my colleague at the Annenberg Research Institute when this essay was written, for his assessment of the degree of familiarity with Adud alDawla in the thirteenth century.

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    For an example of the fortunes of the pro-philosophy version of the letter, see the various printings of C. For the initial challenge to the letters authenticity, see H. There is no concrete basis for Graetzs suspicions that the citation from R. Hai was inserted into Nahmanides letter by a later copyist; consequently, if the letter is a forgery, we probably need to assume that it was produced Whatever we make of the highly dubious report that R.

    Samuel ben Hofni stopped perusing philosophical books as a result of a particular incident, his study of such works is clearcut and their inuence upon him was profound. He rejected a literal understanding of the raising of Samuels spirit by the witch of Endor, and according to R. Hai he denied various miracles that the Talmud attributes to the ancient rabbis, arguing that such miracles are associated only with prophets and that the Talmudic reports are not halakhah. The point here, if I understand the expression correctly, is not that the content of these passages classies them as aggadic but rather that they are not normative in much the same way that a rejected legal position is not normative.

    Here, however, normative seems synonymous with true, and the utilization of this category to reject the truth of a rabbinic narrative is striking, especially in the absence of any apparent eort at allegorization. Indeed, the most recent study of R. Samuels thought argues that his position denying these talmudic miracles stemmed from a specically Mutazilite position on the relationship between miracles and prophecy.

    I am unpersuaded by Goiteins suggestion that the reason for this was the feeling that only those whose. Sklares dissertation, which appeared well after the completion of this study, presents a broad characterization of Jewish high culture in Geonic times from extreme rationalism to traditionalism; see chapter four, pp. For attitudes toward aggadah, see pp.

    On the witch of Endor, see Radaqs discussion on I Samuel For R. Hais responsum, see Ozar ha-Geonim to Hagigah, p. Hais own reservations about the authority of aggadah, see R. Abraham b. Auerbach Halberstadt, , 2, p. There is some confusion about R. Whatever R. Samuels position may have been, there were Geonic views that endorsed a nonliteral understanding of these accounts.

    For the expectation that R. Samuel would facilitate a students pursuit of the sciences in addition to Mishnah and Talmud, see I. The private nature of philosophical instruction in the society at large made it perfectly natural for Jews to follow the same course; more important, the curriculum of these venerable institutions went back to pre-Islamic days, and any eort to introduce a curricular revolution into their hallowed halls would surely have elicited vigorous opposition. In any case, the absence of a philosophical curriculum in the academies has led to the recent suggestion that openness to Arabic culture by the later Geonim resulted precisely from the weakening of the yeshivot which freed someone like R.

    Samuel ben Hofni from the restraints of the traditional framework. Natronai Gaon informs us that because of economic pressures which required students to work, the talmudic directive Kiddushin 30a that one-third of ones time be devoted to biblical study could no longer be observed, and the students relied upon another talmudic statement Sanhedrin 24a implying that Bible, Mishnah, and Midrash are all subsumed under Talmud.

    One wonders whether this was only a result of insucient time.

    Cultures in Collision and Conversation Essays in the Intellectual History of the Jews

    The all-consuming nature of talmudic study led to a very similar conclusion among Ashkenazic Jews; moreover, the fact that Judaism shared the Bible with Christianity and, to a degree, with Islam may have helped to generate an instinct that this was not a quintessentially Jewish pursuit.

    Only the Talmud was the special mystery of the Jewish people. At the same time, we have evidence of some broader pursuits. Dunash ben Tamim of tenthcentury Qairuwan wrote several astronomical works, one of which he composed to honor the local Muslim ruler, as well as a mathematical treatise and a commentary to The Book of Creation Sefer Yezirah.


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    Moreover, the famous question from Qairuwan about the composition As Sklare notes, R. Saadya himself was educated outside the orbit of the Gaonic yeshivot. For Goiteins remark, see A Mediterranean Society 2, p. Natronais observation, see Asaf, Meqorot, p. Rabbenu Tams remark in Tosafot Qiddushin 30a, s. On the oral law as the mystery of Israel, see Pesiqta Rabbati 5. On later reservations about biblical study, see below, n. Sherira Gaon may have been inspired as much by an interest in history, which is also attested in other ways, as by Karaite pressures.

    We have already seen that linguistic acculturation is a precondition for such a symbiosis, and familiarity with Arabic literature was one of the most important stimuli to the development of a distinctive Jewish literary voice. Moses ibn Ezras treatise on Jewish poetry contains a striking passage which reveals a frank recognition of this process by medieval Jews themselves: When the Arabs conquered the Andalusian peninsula our exiles living in that peninsula learned the various branches of wisdom in the course of time.

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    After toil and eort they learned the Arabic language, became familiar with Arabic books, and plumbed the depths of their contents; thus, the Jews became thoroughly conversant with the branches of their wisdom and enjoyed the sweetness of their poetry. After that, God revealed the secrets of the Hebrew language and its grammar.

    The relationship between the study of Hebrew grammar, with all that it implies for the development of biblical exegesis, and the knowledge of a dierent Semitic language is self-evident. Medieval Jews had always known Hebrew and Aramaic, but the addition of Arabic, with its rich vocabulary and literature, enabled grammarians to understand the meaning of a host Sheriras epistle is now available in N.

    Shirat Yisrael, ed.