The Medieval Era ‎

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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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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