Transformations of Jewish Thought and Culture
and Early Modern Times
Early Modern Sources
Remember: Essays due this Thurs. And the test, for which the format is posted, is a week this Thursday.
Elijah del Medigo's Examination of Religion
I said we might get to this source as well (note his first name: Elijah -- not Isaac as on the syllabus). Elijah straddles medieval and early modern times, so he is a good figure to study either as a conclusion to our study of the Middle Ages or as a precocious early modern thinker.
I will, if there is time, introduce the early modern period generally.
In terms of its "feel," how does J. Caro's code compare to that of Maimonides? (You may recall that on the Jewish holiday of Purim I read you Maimonides formulation about Purim laws, which are in the MR. Comparing those to Caro's formulation sheds light on the broader question posed here.)
Note the "notes" by a rabbi named Moses Isserles. I will explain their significance in class.
How does Azariah de Rossi's tone in his discussion of the age of the world since creation strike you?
Re Ruderman's article, I would note that you can use it as a model for your essays. What does he do well? Anything not so well?
Spinoza is not easy reading and given that essays are due, I suspect people won't get to it much, but I will try to walk you through some high points. Note that there are three passages that are not continuous? Re the second of these (p. 56 of the printed pages), how do Spinoza's remarks reveal his complete alienation from the Jewish community?
We almost finished our readings from Bk. 1 of Maimonides code. As announced, we will do a bit of triage on our other readings in the code, as follows:
Our one piece of unfinished business from book 1 is the following regarding the Laws of Repentence (83-85)
What do think of the person described in chapter 10:3 of the same section of the code ("Laws Concerning Repentance")? Admirable? Or in need of help?
We cannot pass over one of the most celebrated sections of the code regarding "charity" (135-139). Are there laws here that could help us to think about our own modern "welfare state"?
Maimonides concludes his code with various laws relating to "King Messiah." (Why are these laws here? Cf. p. 215)
How would describe M's vision of the messianic era?
Note the passage the was censored out of M's code by Church censors. Why was it censored? What role do Christianity and Islam play in M's vision of the unfolding of messianic times?
For want of time, we will skip M's "Letter on Astrology" (a good essay topic for those still looking) but let us look at his letter to Obadiah (475-76) and the "Letter to an Inquirer." What is the issue M addresses in each case? How does he resolve it?
Guide of the Perplexed
We will spend most of our time this week and some time next week on this difficult but rewarding work, again only reading some selections from the assigned readings due to want of time. Twersky's introduction (231-233) provides orientation.
Introduction (236-246). For whom is the GP written? What problems does it attempt to solve?
Part I, Chapter 1 (246-248) Why does M start his discussion of problematic biblical terms with "image"?
Part I, Chapter 2 What problem does the story of the first sin of humankind present to one who prizes intellectual perfection above all? What is Maimonides' solution?
Part 1, Chapter 54 265-270)
This chapter is part of M's account of the nature of God. The larger account shows how “other” God is from human beings and how slight human beings are relative to the divine. M here addresses an enigmatic account in Exodus according to which Moses asked to be granted a vision of God’s glory and knowledge of God’s ways. What did he want to learn? What was he able to learn? How did Moses apply his knowledge?
Part 1, Chapter 71
What claims does M make in this history of science? (We will also consider what claims M. does NOT make regarding how science spread.)
We will discuss some readings from Parts 2 and 3 of the Guide next week.
Se’adyah Gaon and the rise of rationalism (TJP25-35, 93-114, 155-159, 167-179)
(Note that pagination starts gain from the beginning in each section so make sure you are not reading Philo or Judah Halevi.)
Based on this section, what seems to be the general religious and intellectual "mood" in Bagdad in general and among Jews in particular?
What are the sources of error and doubt according to S?
How does S. define "belief"? Does his definition match yours?
How does S. distinguish "rational" from "traditional" commandments?
What is the cognitive status of the rational commandments?
If traditional commandments are not rationally necessary, does that mean they lack a purpose?
Lurking behind such questions is a classic philosophic conundrum: are laws good because God commands them or does God command them because they are good? To put it more pointedly, could God have commanded: "Thou shalt murder"?
How does S understand resurrection? (Do you come back as a York undergrad, Ph. D, grandparent?)
Note that S's discussion here leads him to take up the crucial and controversial topic of non-literal interpretation of scripture? How does ressurection connect to this topic? What are his "rules" for non-literal interpretation?
How do messianic times appear in S's depiction of them? Is it correct to call S's view "apocalyptic"? (If you don't know what that means, be sure to find out!)
To remind us all, we will devote the opening part of our session to the books of the Kuzari we did not get to last week, then turn to readings b), c), and d), comprising four poems and the article by Sarna on Hebrew and Bible Studies. NOTE THE NEED FOR THE CK FROM HERE ON OUT!
To recall, the readings from the Kuzari are as follows, with study questions posted. I've added study questions for the poems as well. Sarna should be a bit more "user-friendly" (though there will be some technical things you may not understand; not to worry), so I will skip the study questions for the article. Recall you have Berger to assist as well.
2) Book II, paragraph 29 ("ISRAEL AMONG THE NATIONS") until the end of the book
3) Book III, paragraph 64 ("RABBINIC JUDAISM AND ITS BRANCH SECTS") until the end of the book.
4) All of the excerpts from Book V
Feel free to avail yourself of the translator’s commentary at
the end of each book.
Note that this is a fictional work (with a basis in a historical event) in which a gentile king speaks (mostly) to a rabbi and eventually converts to Judaism. We have the work's beginning sections where the king is set off on a spiritual quest (why?) and speaks to a philosopher, Christian, and Muslim before turning to the rabbi. Try to chart the ups and downs in the king's relationship to the rabbi.
Read the introduction and then, without reading the philosopher's whole speech (then as now, philosophers could be very hard to understand!), see if you figure out what the philosopher says in his opening lines and why the king eventually rejects what the philosopher puts forward.
What points seem most important in the responses to the king of the Christian and Muslim spokespersons?
How does the rabbi's opening gambit compare to the speeches of the Christian and Muslim?
How does Halevi's rabbi compare to Saadya in his stance towards the relationship between reason and religion?
What validates Jewish faith (against other ones) according to the rabbi?
95 -- is Jewishness a matter of "hardware" or "software" according to the rabbi?
In this section, what metaphor does the rabbi use to explain the Jewish people's relationship to other nations?
Using Saadya's terminology, does the rabbi view "rational" or "revelational" commandments as higher?
Paragraphs 64 -74
Against which Jewish group does the rabbi speak in this section? How does he defend rabbinic Judaism (that is, the Judaism of the "oral Torah" that we discussed at our first meeting as embodied in the Mishnah and Talmud)?
What does the rabbi think about Kalam, that form of Islamic theological speculation that exercised so great an impact on Saadya?
Judah Halevi is often depicted as a proto-Zionist. Why? (A separate discussion we can raise is how much, if at all, that is an accurate depiction.)
War Poetry of Samuel the Prince
What religious images and themes appear amidst the gore of this poem?
Note that poetry is the MAIN type of source we have for Andalusi-Jewish life, culture, and thought.
Weeks 3-4 Andalusian Jewry’s “Golden Age”
Poems of Judah Halevi
Lord, Where Shall I Find Thee
What is this poem's message? What is its mood? Does the poem contain elements of paradox?
Thy Words are Compounded
How does this poem's main theme connect with our Kuzari readings?
Another point of contact between the Kuzari and the poem lies in what H. says here about the status of Greek philosophy in a metaphor that became famous. How do you understand that metaphor?
Hispano-Jewish writers wrote secular poetry -- a novelty. Note the poem's Arabic conclusion, which marks a change of speaker On what note does the relationship end?
Biblical Interpretation in Muslim Spain (conclusion of unit on "Golden Age" -- Sarna article), France, and Christian Spain
A general question: why does the Bible need interpretation? Are the reasons the same as for other texts? What other things require interpretation?
What was the overall orientation of biblical intepretation in Muslim Spain?
Does Sarna like some kinds of biblical interpretation more than others?
Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi)
Note: for background on the cultural sphere in which Rashi and Rashbam worked, see the Berger reading.
Begin with the handout distributed last week. We will talk about the comment you have on Genesis 3:8, WHERE A KEY TERM, "MIDRASHIM, RECEIVED SOME VERY BRIEF COVERAGE ON OUR FIRST DAY, but focus on Rashi's comment on the opening verse of the Bible in Genesis (and, if you are not familiar with that verse, look it up). Is the message of that verse according to Rashi what you would take it to be on your own?
Next look at Rashi on Genesis 4:1. Does it matter when Adam and Eve first engaged in the conjugal (when Adam "knew" Eve in biblical parlance) relations that yielded their children?
Now turn to the readings from Rashi in the CK (pp. 27-28). In each case, we will try to see why Rashi interprets the verse(s) in question and how he does so. (Looking them in context will often help us.)
Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam)
We are now back on the handout (on the reverse side). What concession did Rashbam wrest from his grandfather "Rabbi Solomon" regarding the aims of the Bible commentator?
Nahmanides (Ramban) (CK29-31)
Does Nahmanides' interpretation of Genesis 16:6 surprise you? (Again, you will need to look up the larger story to understand the issue.) What larger question does this interpretation raise about the Jewish people's founding patriarches and matriarches?
Re Leviticus 19 (CK30-31): how do you define "holiness"? How does Ramban?
Isaac Abarbanel (CK32-35)
The story of the "Tower of Babel" in Genesis 11 (given to you in the CK) is intriguing but elusive. How does this later medieval Iberian commentator understand it? Does it take on a more universal significance in his understanding of it?
Notice I have had us skip the next intepretation of Abarbanel but marked off the last one beginning at the bottom of page 268 of the printed pages ("And the speech . . ."). According to Abarbanel, how are we to understand King Solomon's great wisdom? What did that wisdom not include?
We will start our new unit on Maimonides by asking: what is philosophy?
We then turn to Maimonides legal writings (I won't take time to review M's biography and works, which are discussed in Twersky's introduction)
Is this the way you would expect a Jewish code of law to begin?
Why does the Bible suggest God has a body if, at least according to M., God does not?
47 (that is beginning with Chapter 4) -65
What is the subject of Chapter 5 of "Basic Principles of the Torah"? (You might also ask yourself: Is there anything YOU would die for? )
What basic ethical principle does M. set down in chapter 1? Are deviations from this principle allowed? Encouraged?
What do think creates moral character? Can it be created by argument? Education? An act of will? What does M. say is the key (in 1:7)?
In chapter 2, we see M. as legal psychotherapist. When does he say the "mean" should be abandoned?
What approach to morality does M. criticize in 3:1?
What image of Abraham does M. supply in chapter 1 of "Laws concerning Idolatry"?
What conception of human autonomy is set forth in chapter 5 of "Laws Concerning Repentance"?
From Moses to Moses
As promised, we will complete our study of the Guide by looking at selections from Parts 2 and 3, then move on to (what I'm casting as, in some cases somewhat provisionally) responses to Maimonides.
Recall that we have a short session today due to the Jewish holiday of Purim. We will at least try to finish the readings from the Guide. We may even begin rationalism controversies.
Re II, 25 (285-287)
What does M. say is the correct procedure when it comes to taking the biblical account of creation literally in light of the status of claims that the world is eternal?
RE II, 40 (294-96)
The chapter begins with the observation that man is political (here is where the term for “ political” first appears in Hebrew literature). What does it mean that man is political?
According to M., is "law" (not "the Law" as you have it in your translation on p. 294) natural?
Selections from the long assigned reading on "reasons for the commandments"
From these chapters, we will concentrate on:
III, 31, 32
oday we begin our unit on responses to M. We can start with the outstanding chapter from the Guide we did not get to last week -- which raises the issue of responses in an acute form.
Read the palace metaphor (and not the whole chapter; pp. 341-344). One commentator notes that some people thought this chapter should be thrown to the flames on its basis. Why?
Note the long reading in Berger, which is presupposed in our discussion.
Faith and Reason Letters
What did Solomon ibn Adret condemn? How does Jacob ben Machir respond? Whose side would you have been on and why?
Re Kabbalah, I will provide an introduction, but try your hand at the reading from the Zohar (CK45-46) in hopes we will get that far. If not, we can resume our study of mystical secrets next week.
Hasdai Crescas (CK47-50)
How would characterize Crescas' spiritual vision? In what way does it comprise a response to Maimonides.