The Medieval Era
What is God?
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When was the Jewish Medieval Era? The year 1000 is a commonly cited year, not because anything happened then, but because it is a round number that is easy to remember. It happens that right around the turn of the millennium Jewish communities in the western Mediterranean were coming into their own, independent of the academies of Bavel. Italian, Spanish, French, and North African communities by now had copies of the Talmud, the major Midrashim, and the translation of Onkelos. They were familiar with Talmudic methodology and the ethical style of Midrash. They had somehow received mystical traditions from either Israel or Bavel and were beginning to develop those traditions into their own theological systems. They likely had access the work of Saadia Gaon in addition to the teachings of Aristotle and Plato, and the neo-Platonic schools of thought. They were almost ready to put all this together to formulate a complete system of Jewish philosophy. More than anything else, the Jewish medieval period is defined by continuing the old through transforming and adopting it to the new.
Without being able to narrow it down to a given decade, we are stuck with the 10th century as a starting point. The earliest stirrings of a new system in the works took place in Spain. This was the beginning of the Golden Age of Spain and of the high point of the long-lasting Sefaradi Jewish world in Iberia. With Jews ranging from rabbis to politicians to financiers to physicians, they enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity despite their permanent secondary status to Moslems. The first of the notable Jewish figures was Hasdai ibn Shabrut (about 915-970), the court physician and minister of the Spanish Caliph Abd al-Rahman III. He was a scholar himself, but is better known for promoting Jewish scholarship in Spain that was independent of the Babylonian academies. Among other things, he is credited with the correspondence with the ruler of the Khazar kingdom around the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia.
Following Hasdai, the true peak of Sefaradi Spanish history came with the glorious period of Samuel the Prince, (Shmuel HaNagid in Hebrew) who lived from about 990 to 1060. He was an outstanding scholar of both Jewish and secular subjects and remarkably enough, attained the status of vizier and general of the Moslem Caliphate in Spain. Among other things, he wrote a text on Hebrew grammar, commentaries on a few books of the Bible, and a brief explanation of Talmudic methodology.
It was during the lifetime of Samuel the Prince that philosophy became integrated with Jewish theology. One of the key players in making this happen was a person whose name is well known but whose works are rarely studied in Jewish circles. His name was Solomon ibn Gabirol (about 1020-1060). He was the epitome of the Jewish poet/philosopher – two disciplines that seem to us to be totally incongruous but were a perfect match in 11th and 12th century Jewish Spain. Philosophy was the ultimate in human thought. That it included both science (called natural philosophy), and all matters of spirituality including theology (called metaphysics), was a given. These two branches of knowledge went hand-in-hand during medieval times. It wasn’t until the advent of modern times that they were separated. Poetry was the ultimate expression of human emotion. That human emotion should be directed towards spiritual matters such as God was the most natural thing in the world.
Ibn Gabirol specialized in both of these highly intellectual and emotional pursuits. Among other things, he managed to combine them in several of his devotional poems. The most dramatic example of this is the long poem Keter Malkut (Royal Crown), which practically drips with this unlikely combination of different faculties of the mind. God is all over the poem, but so is the state of the art of 11th century astronomy. Another poem that is attributed to ibn Gabirol is the more famous Adon Olam (Master of the Universe). This short and remarkably inspiring song has found its way into the prayer services of virtually all branches of Judaism. Whether ibn Gabirol actually wrote it or not is an unresolved debate. What is more important, for our purposes, is its content. It will present the first image of God from the Medieval Era.
Following ibn Gabirol, Jewish thought in Spain was divided into three frequently overlapping directions – rabbinic scholarship in Talmud and Bible, philosophy, and mysticism. Bible specialists included Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) whose commentary possibly ranks third only to those of Rashi and Nachmanides in importance. Slightly after ibn Ezra came Yehuda Halevi (about 1080-1141), who is most famous for his book ‘Kuzari’, a semi-fictionalized dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars based on the correspondence between Hasdai ibn Shabrut and the king. This book, which became one the most influential books ever in the shaping of the basic beliefs of Judaism, was really a combination of both rabbinic scholarship and philosophy. It weaves the two together in such a seamless manner that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Philosophy reached its peak with Maimonides (1135-1204). While his major work, the Mishna Torah, which we have introduced elsewhere, is primarily an organization of Talmudic law into a code of Halacha, it also contains smatterings of philosophy. His major philosophical work was the famous Moreh Hanevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) which deals with almost every important matter of philosophy as it pertained to Judaism. His works exerted tremendous influence and controversy both in his time and ever since. With little doubt, Maimonides is the most influential Jewish scholar in the long history of Jewish scholarship.
The influence of the Mishna Torah was primarily in matters of Jewish law. Rabbinic scholars have used it as the primary source for deciding complex issues of Halacha for over 800 years. However, in the area of philosophy, it has also become a major source. While only a small percentage of the long work (14 highly dense and complex volumes) concerns philosophy, what is there is crucial. At the beginning he discusses his ideas about God. Most of them are fairly standard and expected from a scholar who combined Talmud, Scripture, and philosophy. In the middle of it is a short statement that is nothing short of mind-blowing (a term that Maimonides would cringe at). This will be our second image from this section.
Jewish mysticism was the third branch of Sefaradi intellectual pursuits. It frequently inhabited a region all to itself, owing to its esoteric form of knowledge that was only slightly based on rabbinic law and rational thought. But it almost always maintained a very close contact with Scripture, usually founding its major doctrines on some liberally interpreted verse or concept in the Bible. The Zohar, of almost mystically uncertain origin, is the best example of this. The author/redactor was the Kabbalistic scholar Moshe de Leon (around 1250–1305). Jewish tradition has assigned the actual composition of the Zohar to the much earlier rabbinic figure of Shimon bar Yochai of 2nd century Israel. Shimon bar Yochai’s name comes up all over the Zohar, but that only adds to the confusion of its authorship. Without entering into that minefield, it is safe to say that the teachings of the Zohar have formed the backbone of Jewish mysticism for over 700 years. Its theology, and the image of God that it portrays, will be our fourth selection.
A contemporary of Moshe de Leon was the famous Talmudist/Bible commentator/mystic/part-time philosopher, Nachmanides (1194-1270). He is invariably called Ramban in Jewish religious circles. At heart, he was a mystic, and it is in mysticism that his most famous work, his commentary on the Bible, finds its most creative path. He steered away from the unknowable, almost unapproachable image of God that the philosophers advocated. He favored an image that was around since the time Ezekiel first saw it on that Throne 1800 years earlier. It was the image of God that could be sensed in the workings of the world and the spiritual journeys of the mind. While he did not go the full route of a corporeal/physical God as depicted in works like the Shiur Komah, his image was detectable to those who knew the way. This will be our fifth image.
Ashkenazi origins are shrouded in the fog of Dark Age Europe. The earliest Ashkenazim were Jewish traders from Southern Europe or the Middle East who traveled from town to town and eventually formed small communities here and there. This was augmented by the emigration of Jews from Italy during the 8th through 11the centuries, who included among their ranks Jewish scholars of note. The semi-famous Kalonymus family, which can be traced back to 8th century Italy, formed the foundation of much of the Ashkenazi rabbinic world. Along with other Jewish families, their emigration slowly augmented the Jewish communities that were developing along the Rhine River valley in Germany.
In addition to the Rhine River communities, another community that is widely considered to be Ashkenazi was located in southern France along the region known as Provence. The center was the city of Lunel, possibly founded by Jews shortly after the destruction of the second temple. This area had a long tradition of Jewish scholarship that may have been developed by the importing of a rabbinic leader from Bavel in the 8th century. Rashi (1040-1104), the most famous of the Ashkenazi scholars and unquestionably the leading commentator on both the Talmud and the Bible, probably came from a family that had its roots in this region. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Rashi to the subsequent development of Judaism.
Among the many names that grace the annuls of Medieval Ashkenazi history, one of the greatest was Yehuda Hahasid, meaning ‘the pious’ (1140-1217). He was from Speyer, one of the main Rhine communities. He was a prominent member of a small but highly influential group of Ashkenazi spiritual seekers who are called the Hasidei Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi pietists). Their focus, in general, was not on the traditional Ashkenazi bastions of Talmud and Scripture, but on the more hidden pathways of mystical unity with God and the inner workings of the soul. There seems to be a strong chance that some of the writings of the Merkavah mystics found their way to Germany and exerted a strong influence on this group.
Yehuda Hahasid came at about the midpoint of their history and wrote the book that defined the lifestyle and beliefs of the Hasidei Ashkenaz. This book is called Sefer Hasidim, (Book of the Pious). The long poem, Shir Hayichud (Song of Unity) is generally attributed to either him or his father. The shorter Shir Hakavod (Song of Glory) is almost unquestionably from his hand. They give very graphic images of God, which reflect the highly personal and imaginative philosophical/mystical approach of Ashkenazi mysticism. His major philosophical/mystical work was the almost unknown and possibly lost text, Sefer Hakavod. We will examine a short section of this text that deals with that favorite subject of both the philosophers and the mystics - the interface between God and the creation. It will be our third image from this period.
There were many other images that we could have chosen from in the almost infinite well of Jewish sources from medieval times. The selections chosen, we believe, represent the best of the many different worlds the Jews inhabited during this period. They include two selections from the Sefaradi Moslem world (Adon Olam and Maimonides), both of which are philosophically based. There are also two from the Sefaradi Christian world (Nachmanides and the Zohar), which are mystically based with a little philosophical flavor. The fifth is from the Ashkenazi Christian world (Sefer Hakavod) which integrates philosophy and mysticism in an almost seamless unity. All-in-all it promises to be a treasure trove of Jewish images of God and the gateway to all future images that Jews would produce.
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