163 - Burnt Offerings: The Maimonides Controversy

Maimonides’ works provoke a bitter dispute among Jews in France and Spain over the relation of philosophy to Judaism.

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Further Reading: 

• N. Caputo, Nahmanides in Medieval Catalonia (Notre Dame 2007).

• H.D. Chavel, Ramban: His Life and Teachings (New York: 1960).

• Y.T. Langermann, “Acceptance and Devaluation: Namanides’ Attitude towards Science,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 1 (1992), 223-45.

• I. Twersky (ed.), Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in his Religious and Literary Virtuosity (Cambridge: 1983).

• J. Sarachek, Faith and Reason: the Conflict over the Rationalism of Maimonides (Williamsport: 1935).

• D. Schwarz, “The Debate over the Maimonidean Theory of Providence in Thirteenth-Century Jewish Philosophy,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 2 (1995), 185-96.

• D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy 1180-1240 (Leiden: 1965).

Ted's picture

My Little Philosopher

Peter, I was blown away when I heard you mention my son and his solution to the Sorites paradox in the intro to this podcast episode. I played it for him this morning, and he was ecstatic! (of course, now he wants to know the meaning of a couple new words you used in describing the adult themes of past episodes). He loved your FC Barcelona comment, too; despite his dad being a Chelsea fan, he's a Gunner fan like you. No comments please; I already know he's smarter than me.

He's six now, and he and his nine year old sister amaze us just about every day. Thanks for being an ongoing part of our family's curiosity and wonder.

Peter Adamson's picture

Little Gunner

Wow, this is really my kind of kid! Tell him I hope he continues to pursue both his interest in philosophy and in Arsenal. (As I write this they are clinging to a 0-0 at halftime against Bayern... my other team actually.)

Bear's picture

Albigensian Crusade and Philip le Bel

Hi Peter,

a small correction to one of your throw away comments about the Albigensian Crusade and Philip le Bel: the crusade was completed in 1229, and Philip did not ascend to the throne of France until 1285 - so it is very unlikely that anyone in Philip's court was involved in that campaign.

However, to put some context around Philip le Bel and his approach to government would emphasis how dangerous the Jewish infighting was. Two events might illustrate this: Philip's dealings with Pope Boniface VIII and the arrests of the Knights Templar.

Philip wanted to tax the clergy in France and started to negotiate with Boniface in 1302. The pope was less than enthusiastic about and issued the bull "Unam Sanctam", which Philip took poorly. In June 1303 Philip's leading minister, Guillaume de Nogaret, framed charges against Boniface of murder, idolatry, sodomy, simony and heresy. Then Philip went to Avignon with 40,000 of his closest heavily armed friends to negotiate - always good to do from a position of strength. Philip taxed the clergy after that.

The second incident occurred in 1307 after the expulsion of the Jews from France 1305. Philip coveting the wealth of the Templars brought charges against them, surprisingly similar to those against Boniface. In the end Philip took their wealth and burnt their leaders (not just their books).

So it is more disturbing that members of the Jewish community would want to involve the secular authorities.

Bear's picture

Medieval Jurisprudence

One thing that struck me in this episode was the approach to law and linking that to communities - that different Jewish communities had their own laws, and that laws relating to polygamy were an example.

There are two reasons that I can think for this.

a. The Frankish approach to jurisprudence was to assume that everyone belonged to a community and that one had to live by the laws of the community and you were tried and judged by those laws (leading the plurality of courts in the Anglo-Saxon systems until the 20th century).

b. Like taxation, there are a range of laws which will impinge upon a community, such as marriage laws. However, these laws have conventional rather than moral force.

From the comments, it sounds as though (b) is much more the case, but if anyone could shed light upon it, I would appreciate it.

Peter Adamson's picture


You're officially hired as the podcast consultant on medieval history! Thanks for these very interesting comments. It seems to me a common thought in the literature on the Maimonides controversy that the Cathar suppression did provide a relevant context (hence that line "since you are destroying heretics among you, destroy ours as well"). The timing for that is about right: crusade finishing in 1229, the controversy erupting in the 1230's. I didn't intend to connect King Philip with that, since as you rightly say he is a few decades later. I think I only mentioned him because his exile of the Jews from his region ended any possibility of cross-border dispute.

Your question about legal practice is a very interesting one too. We need a scholar of rabbinic law to help us here, but my impression from what I read is that the issue is already very much present in ancient Jewish legal texts, i.e. the Mishnah and Talmud, which include provisions about legal localism. But as we can see from the controversy itself there was no settled consensus on that, or at least if there was one people were willing to depart from it when they were upset, and tried to impose their conception of appropiate behavior on other communities. Anyway my point is that the issue is more one within the Jewish legal tradition itself, even if there may be ideas creeping in from non-Jewish legal contexts too.