Transcript: 170 - Gad Freudenthal on Jewish Philosophy and Science

Leading scholar of medieval Jewish thought Gad Freudenthal joins Peter in a concluding episode on Andalusian thought.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

We're going to be talking here about the engagement between Jewish culture and the scientific culture that came into the Arabic language from the Greek tradition. So I thought I would start by asking you whether there's anything in particular you think we should bear in mind about Judaism which conditioned this engagement with the scientific literature?

Well, I should say there's one central feature of Judaism that should be borne in mind, and this is that at least since the second century, Judaism was, or rather has been, a culture devoted to the study of the sacred texts of Judaism, which means the Mishnah followed by the Talmud. The Talmud was concluded towards the end of the fifth century, and since then, being a Jewish intellectual, a Jewish scholar, meant studying the Talmud, commenting it with a lot of inventiveness and creativity. This means that what Judaism was, what can be termed a Talmud-centric culture, a culture at whose centre you have the Talmud. This means, ipso facto, that whatever was outside this sphere of Talmud commentary was an external or foreign culture or foreign knowledge. And the entry of such foreign knowledge into Judaism was quite problematical, and this has been the case from the first serious encounter of Judaism with foreign cultures, which is in the eighth, ninth century, up to today.

So is the problem: there something more like we're already doing Talmudic commentary so we don't need to do the science, it's superfluous, or is it more like we're just not interested in anything other than this because it's not what we're devoted to as intellectuals?

Both, and a third thing as well, namely that you are supposed, if you are a Jewish male and intellectual, you are supposed to devote yourself, your entire life to the study of the Talmud. That means not only anything else is not needed, but it's even forbidden to study anything that is not ultimately a word of God. Science and philosophy come from human reason. These are secular things. They are not even irrelevant, they are harmful to a Jewish scholar. A traditional Jewish scholar has to devote himself entirely to Talmud study.

I think that's really interesting actually because I suppose the basic assumption that a lot of people might have is that the problem would rather be that in philosophy there are some doctrines that are problematic from the point of view of Judaism, say the eternity of the world or something like that. And although that's true, you're saying that there's in a way a more fundamental problem, which is that if you're pursuing philosophy at all, you're not doing what you ought to be doing, which is engaging with the Talmud and the other religious texts.

This is entirely right. The fundamental problem is to engage with any thought that comes from outside the Bible and its derivatives, from outside the world of God, the sacred and canonical world of God. Then in addition, on top of it, you have even harmful doctrines like the eternity of the world or the absence of individual providence.

Right. So throughout the whole medieval period, you've got this what you've called a Talmud centric culture, which is living and working inside of what we might call a majority culture, the Islamic Empire and also under Christendom. So how did the presence of this majority culture influence or condition the way that Jewish authors then receive the scientific literature?

Well, we really have to completely separate the two chapters. Under Islam, Jews live more or less in harmony with the majority culture. This holds good for the Orient, Iraq of today, and for the Occident, the Maghreb and especially Andalusia. This gives rise to a number of centres of Jewish culture that are really flourishing. Again, especially in Andalusia, these are Jewish cultures that flourish for the greater part in Arabic with some Hebrew poetry that are very strongly influenced by the Arabic culture. Every Jewish intellectual was Arabophone -- they talked (Judeo-) Arabic and especially they read Arabic. This means they had direct access to the writings of the majority culture. In Christendom, especially in what is today Southern France, they lived under Christianity and usually they did not have access to the writings of the majority culture, except in Italy to some extent. But one can say that in the Middle Ages, on the whole, Jewish culture in Christendom did not have access to the majority culture, which means that they depend only on translations into Hebrew, mostly from Arabic. The Jewish intellectuals work in Hebrew, they think in Hebrew, they write in Hebrew and they depend entirely on Hebrew translations from the Arabic.

So you have Jews living in Muslim dominated lands who can read Arabic and write in Arabic and speak Arabic, but you don't have too many Jews in Christendom who read and write in Latin.

That's the point. But we have to distinguish between Southern France where you have almost no Jews who know Latin and Italy where you have a few philosophers who are abreast of scholastic philosophy. With one very important exception, and this is medicine. You have quite a number of Jewish physicians who learn Latin and who are able to read Latin or at least translate from Latin into Hebrew to make these works available to Jewish doctors who don't read Latin.

Maybe something that's worth emphasizing about the side of Islamic culture is that the Jews who are writing in Arabic were writing in Hebrew characters, which meant that although they were reading Arabic works written by Muslims and Christians, I suppose, occasionally, the Muslims wouldn't have been able to read what they were writing usually because it wasn't being transcribed into an Arabic alphabet, even though it was the Arabic language.

Yes, this is  an  aspect of Jewish seclusion. That means that they want to write for Jews about Jewish themes. So for one thing, most of their writings are not of interest to Muslims. And second, the fact that they write in Hebrew characters usually keeps non-Jews from reading them. But I should add that this is the use of Hebrew charactrs is not limited to Arabic, but almost all Jewish languages, and there are many of themwere written in Hebrew characters. This is true of Provençal, this is true of Judeo-Italian, this is true of Ladino, and many other languages. So the Jewish tendency is to write in Hebrew characters

Yeah, I think you mentioned to me yesterday that they wrote German in Hebrew characters up until what, the 18th century?

Yeah, the middle of the 18th century. That's the period of Mendelssohn that witnesses the switch in the Jewish community from writing in Hebrew characters to writing in Latin characters or German characters. Mendelssohn was really one of the first Jews to write perfect German.

All right, I'll have to bear that in mind when I get to Mendelssohn in the podcast in a few hundred episodes. Right, so let's go back to the Islamic culture. And I think here maybe we could divide our discussion into two parts, one part about what happens before Maimonides and then say something about Maimonides. So what do you think we should generally say about the attitude towards this Greek-Arabic learning in Jewish culture prior to Maimonides?

Well, the reception of Greek-Arabic learning begins in the East, that means around Baghdad, and the main person here is Saadia Gaon, who really introduces philosophy into Judaism. He was an exceptional, charismatic leader who wrote a number of works in religious philosophy and on the Hebrew language. So he's already beyond the age of resistance to philosophy, if I may say so. And on the contrary, he realizes how important it is that Jews be able to recognize that philosophy is not in contradiction to their traditional thought. This was really his life's goal and he succeeded in it very well. Then we have in the Maghreb, a small centre in the 10th century, and especially we have in Andalusia, a whole Jewish culture that flourishes in Arabic, uses Arabic to interpret the Bible, absorbs Arabic grammar, and gives rise to the best Hebrew poetry ever written. And in addition, there are a number of philosophers who write about religious philosophy in Arabic  and this is really the beginning of Jewish philosophy, albeit in Arabic.

Yeah, it's interesting that they write poetry in Hebrew and then they write prose works in Arabic, is there some reason for that? There must be a reason.

Although, well, there is one scholar who tried to give an explanation: according to the late Rina Drory, it's a question of registers. What you think is more important, what you think is more elevated, you reserve for Hebrew and for the more down-to-earth topics like metaphysics, for example, you write in Arabic. But this is a real issue that hasn't been investigated to the end, really.

I like the idea that metaphysics is a down-to-earth topic. That's really good.

It's not on the level of exalting God in poetry. That is the point for them. The exaltation of God, saying God's praise is something they do in Hebrew, although they wrote also a lot of love poems also in Hebrew, very moving love poems.

One thing that might be worth emphasizing here is that you do have philosophical works by Jews before Maimonides that don't, to put it crudely, look Jewish. A really good example would be even Salomon Gabirol with  his Fountain of Life: this is an exceptional case -- you can read that text, and people have read that text, without realizing that the author was Jewish. I suppose that would be quite an exception, right?

It is an exception. That Jews would write philosophy for non-Jews, that mean real general works like metaphysics, is really an exception. We now know since a few months that Ibn Daud also wrote such a kind of work. It's a commentary on Aristotle's Physics, which hasn't been found, but we know it existed. There are such cases, but they're relatively rare. The main issue that is of interest to Jewish philosophers, to Jews who studied philosophy, is to show that the Jewish tradition and philosophy say the same things in different words and to different audiences.

Right. Well, let's move on to Maimonides. Now you have the unenviable task of telling us what the most important thing to know is about Maimonides' attitude towards Greek Arabic learning. You have a couple of minutes to do that, so good luck.

Some people devote their entire life to doing just this. Let me begin by a sort of paraphrase of what Maimonides says in the introduction of the Guide of the Perplexed, which he finished writing about 1190. He says that a Jewish intellectualis torn between the obligation to be faithful to the tradition of his ancestors, that means the faithfulness to Judaism, and the intrinsic appeal of human reason. This individual, in Maimonides' time, is torn between the two because he thinks that they contradict one another. For example, the Bible says that man was created in the image of God. What is the image of God? Usually people think in physical terms, but Maimonides knows from philosophy that God has no physical shape. So this individual is aware of the fact that the text of the Bible, read on the first level of interpretation, can seem to contradict, or often seems to contradict, what philosophy proves. This  creates  a kind of existential angst. He thinks that he either would betray his reason or betray his faith. Maimonides comes in and says, take the truth from whoever says it. If Aristotle is right, let us take it and see how we can read the Bible in the light of philosophical truth. By this he gave a legitimation to  Jews to get interested in those external or foreign sciences. This was really the great achievement of Maimonides, that he gave this authorization, this religious legitimation to the study of philosophy. Even more so, he made this into an obligation. If you don't know philosophy, you perforce misunderstand the Bible. You read there things that are wrong. So a Jewish intellectual indeed any Jewish male, is obligated to learn philosophy in order to correctly perceive the truth of religion. This was really a break from tradition. Now, Maimonides had an incomparable impact on posterity. Because he was not a mere philosopher, he was also a man of the Jewish Law. He summarized the Jewish Law in an impressive work called Mishneh Torah (The Repetition of the Law), that summarizes the entire code of Jewish law in 14 volumes. This became the code of Law for many centuries, and it is studied and applied until this very day. So Maimonides had an incomparable legitimation to give also surpreme weight to his opinion on philosophy. This didn't deter later generations, people who were opposed to philosophy, from saying that Maimonides was wrong, or even say that the author of the Mishneh Torah can impossibly be also the author of the Guide of the Perplexed. So we have here a daring, very daring intellectual with an incomparable charisma who really changed the spiritual face of Judaism through his work.

To go back to something you said about the Guide of the Perplexed, you were saying just now that he sees the tension between philosophy and religion, not so much as a matter of, should I be devoting my life to studying Talmud, or should I be devoting it to studying Aristotle, but rather really in terms of doctrine. So there's a conflict between, for example, should I believe that I was created in God's image, which implies that God might have a body, or should I believe that God has no body? So is he moving away from worrying about it as a kind of, what do I do with my life question, and more towards a question of doctrines?

In a way, yes. Just because  he subscribed to the principle “take the truth from whoever says it” and recognized the truth of philosophy, while on the other hand he was committed to Judaism, he moved towards formulating principles of faith of Judaism, which until then were vaguely formulated. Until then, Judaism was more a set of rules, how you behave, how you cook, how you conduct your family life and so on, and was less a matter of ideas, of doctrines. He was the first one who formalized  and listed thirteen principles of Judaism that for him were the core of Jewish belief. He really put on the table the first set of clear principles of faith, or if you want, dogmas, saying a Jew has to believe this and this and that.

Let's maybe move along now to the Christian context. I guess the most striking thing here is something you've already mentioned, which is that Jews living in Christendom really are only going to be working on philosophical and scientific texts that they can read in Hebrew, which presupposes that you need a translation movement from Arabic into Hebrew in this case. We've had the Greek, in previous episodes we've talked about the Greek-Arabic translation movement and also we've had an interview actually with Dag Hasse and Charles Burnett about the Arabic-Latin translation movement and now we have the Arabic-Hebrew translation movement. I think it's really interesting that that happened where and when it did. Basically in southern France, it's sort of in the wake of Maimonides. Is there some way of explaining that? Why not earlier? Why not elsewhere?

It really begins slowly but surely already in the first half of the 12th century, but it accelerates in the second half of the century. There are two obvious reasons for this. One is that a forced immigration of many scholars took place from Andalus, that means from Muslim Spain, to southern France. There are a number of scholars who arrive and are available for translation. This doesn't mean that they begin to translate. A second factor was that they felt that their own culture, their own Judeo-Arabic culture, nurtured by philosophy, is superior in a way to the Talmudo-Centritic culture in southern France of that day. So they get into contact with the local scholars, explain to them what philosophy has to contribute, and slowly but surely these scholars get interested in philosophy. So we have a number of translations already in the second half of the 12th century of religious works of Judaism like Saadia Gaon and other works. As it happens, and this is really the best way it could happen, in 1204 Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed is translated into Hebrew. As I said before, Maimonides was an extremely charismatic personality, and this translation really gets a philosophical movement underway. So Maimonides died just the same year that his work is translated into Hebrew, and from now on the Guide of the Perplexed will have more influence in Hebrew for centuries than in Arabic. In Arabic it was still studied after Maimonides' death, but not to a great extent. The main study of Maimonides would not be of the original Judeo-Arabic text, but of the Hebrew translation done by Samuel in Tibbon in 1204 and revised in 1213. This was an extremely scholarly translation done according to the best standards, not only of his day, but even of ours. And this is a translation that has been used for centuries by many, many tens of thousands of individuals and has been replaced by a better Hebrew translation only a few years ago.

And is part of the explanation then for the desire to read, let's say, Aristotle in Hebrew or actually more often Averroes in Hebrew, is that they're thinking we can't understand Maimonides unless we understand Aristotelianism?

Exactly. I mean, once they get interested in Maimonides because he's a Jewish thinker who has something to teach them about Jewish faith, they realize that they can't understand Maimonides without knowing philosophy. So you have a number of individuals who are bilingual and who write Hebrew encyclopedias in order as an introduction to philosophy and things progress during the 13th century. And then more and more people get really interested in philosophy and they get more and more translations underway, mainly of Averroes, but also in mathematics, in astronomy, and in other fields of contemporary science and philosophy. And then it gets into rolling and you have other intellectuals who write works of their own drawing on this material. But it's very important to remember that all this movement is something self-contained in Hebrew, drawing on translations. That means you have a number of gatekeepers, translators, who decide what will go into the Jewish cultural system and what will remain outside. So as it happens, for example, our mutual friend Avicenna was almost not at all translated and did not influence Jewish thought in the Middle Ages or later.

Actually, I was just thinking that there's an interesting contrast here between Avicenna and Maimonides because what happens in the Islamic philosophical tradition is that Avicenna comes along and effectively replaces Aristotle. And Maimonides, who you might think of as someone who plays a comparable role in Jewish philosophy, just in that he's the most important figure in the tradition, he has the exact reverse effect, which is that everyone flocks to Aristotelian texts because they feel like they won't be able to understand Maimonides without reading, say, Averroes. That's quite strange and interesting.

Well, perhaps there are also other reasons, but it's not quite clear why Avicenna was not at all received in Hebrew. It's probably more a question of the attitudes to Avicenna in the Iberian peninsula from where came the texts that the Jews were translating. 

Almost all the translators came from Andalusia and had their own set of values of different philosophers -- who is better and who is more important. The Jewish translators came with these values to France and translated according to the Andalusian preferences. And there Avicenna was low.

I guess that brings us to something else that's worth noting about Jewish philosophy under Christendom, which is that it varies very widely from one place to another. The situation in Provence is nothing like, for example, the situation among Jews living in Germany. And one of the differences is that in some communities, they seem to be much more interested in science and philosophy than in other communities. So is that really just a function of how close they were to Andalusia and so how much access they had to this Arabic Hebrew translation culture?

 Probably not. The texts travelled very easily from the south to the north and vice versa. So if the Jews in northern Europe were interested in science and philosophy, they would be able to get themselves these texts. The reason is rather that the Jewish culture in northern Europe remained Talmud-centric. They had a very flourishing culture of Talmud commentary called the Tosafot, and they thought their culture was superior to any other culture. For this reason, they were not interested in anything that could come from any other culture, either Jewish or non-Jewish. This was a kind of closed system that did not at all seek for any improvement or any input from outside. Of course, there are always small exceptions, but the big picture is that the culture of Jews in northern France and in northern Germany remained hostile to the study of philosophy and science. Also in southern France there were conflicts over the study of philosophy, because it was never the case that an entire community was wholly committed to Maimonides. There were always people, probably the majority, who rejected this study. When conflicts over the study of philosophy broke out in southern France, the northerners sided with those who were hostile to philosophy and science. This was really a constant condition of Jewish cultures in northern Europe. This is exactly why I insisted that we should never talk about “the Jewish culture” in the singular, but about “Jewish cultures”, because they vary a lot. They vary even between northern France and northern Germany, a fortiori  between the north and the south.

How do things then develop as we move on past what we might consider the medieval era into what we might be more tempted to call the Renaissance or early modern Europe?

Here we have to make further distinctions. First of all, Italy has its own history. There are close relations between Christians and Jews already in the 13th century, I mean intellectuals, and this is the only place where you have Jewish intellectuals who know something about Christian philosophy. In the Renaissance, you have a number of quite important intellectuals who get involved in Italian Renaissance philosophy, who study in the Italian universities and so on. This is one story. As to the greatest centres of Jewish life in East Europe - they are a kind of sequel of the Ashkenazi Jewry, who moved to the East - their hostile attitude towards the study of science and philosophy continued in their new residences, mainly in Poland, in Russia, in Lithuania. And so we have there a culture which continues to study the Talmud almost exclusively. The Guide of the Perplexed is nearly not studied at all. It is printed one time toward the end of the 15th century and then never again for nearly two hundred years. When Rabbi David Fraenkel, Moses Mendelson's teacher, printed the Guide in 1743 near Berlin, this was a revolutionary event that signalled the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment called Haskala in Hebrew. Here the Guide was again, with three canonical commentaries. To speak to the Jews interested in philosophy, Fraenkel chose as the best means to do it to reprint a work that had been written more than 500 years earlier. Maimonides was still the symbol of interest in and openness to philosophy. With this printing of Maimonides in 1743, David Fraenkel got the Haskala into rolling. That means that this entire episode of the Jewish philosophy in Hebrew in the Middle Ages was the starting point for the interest in philosophy among Jews in the early modern period. It's really paradoxical because the general Enlightenment was intent on discarding the medieval authors. Here on the contrary, you used them in order to get into contact with modernity.



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