Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture: Jewish interpretation and Controversy in Medieval Languedoc

Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture:Jewish interpretation and Controversy in Medieval Languedoc (Routledge, 2009), by Gregg Stern

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (Rachack Review)

This scholarly work of history documents the rise and fall of a relatively-unknown Jewish community in the Medieval period — the Jews of Languedoc (in modern-day Southern France). That community, often associated and conflated with Provence (which was located to its immediate east), was already home to Jews for some time when the Muslim Almohads intensely persecuted Andalusian Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and drove many of those Spanish Jews northwards to Languedoc around 1150s.

One of the important Spanish Jewish families who immigrated northward was the Ibn Tibbon family, led by Yehuda Ibn Tibbon (1120–1190). The Ibn Tibbon family introduced the long-standing Languedocian Jewish tradition of translation, as it was Yehuda and his son Shmuel Ibn Tibbon who rendered many Jewish works originally written in Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew, thus opening them up to a wider audience. These works include Rabbi Saadia Gaon's Emunot Ve'Deot, Bachya ibn Pakuda's Chovot HaLevavot, Yehuda HaLevi's Kuzari, Ibn Janach's works on Hebrew grammar and lexicon, and of course the works of Maimonides (especially his Guide for the Perplexed and commentary to the Mishnah). That tradition of translating the great sources into Hebrew also extended to works of science and philosophy of the Greco-Arabic stream, and led to a wide degree of acculturation in those fields on the part of the Jews in Languedoc.

Besides for the Ibn Tibbon family, other towering Torah scholars of Languedoc, Occitan, and Provence include such important figures as Zerachya HaLevi, Manoach of Narbonne, Avraham of Posquières, Eshtori HaParchi, Yaakov Anatoli, Avraham min HaHar (of Montpellier), Asher of Lunel, Moshe of Narbonne, Meir Meili, Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, Yedayah HaPenini, Levi ben Chaim, Ibn Kaspi, the Kimchi family, Gersonides, Dovid HaKochavi (Estelle), Nissim of Marseilles, and more.

Although Languedoc (and especially Montpellier) was an important flashpoint in the first Maimonidean controversy, by the second half of the 13th century Languedoc had become a stronghold of Maimonideanism, with that philosophically-infused brand of Judaism dominating the community. One of the important characters discussed in this book is Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, who followed precisely that trend. Meiri lived in the Languedocian city of Perpignan, and penned one of the most comprehensive and in-depth commentaries of the Talmud to date. His steadfast devotion to Maimondeanism and proud follower of the Languedocian Halachic traditions make him an especially noteworthy figure in the history of the community. Besides his voluminous Talmudic commentary, Meiri also wrote Kiryat Sefer which defended various local Languedocian customs from claims by Spanish Jews that those traditions were Halachically illegitimate. In this book, the author attempts to piece together Meiri’s world view, especially how he viewed Christianity and other world religions from his so-called “moderate” Maimonidean perspective.

Several chapters of this book are devoted to telling the story of the controversy sparked by a rabbinic scholar named Abba Mari who attempted to curtail the study of philosophy in Jewish Languedoc. He worried that following the philosophical approach to Judaism could steer Jews away from tradition and led them to heresy. He was especially concerned with how Jewish philosophers were re-interpreting Biblical narratives as allegorical allusions to philosophical ideas, an approach which he felt could potentially upend the entirety of Jewish belief and practice.

Although Abba Mari himself personally subscribed to the Maimoinidean approach, he wanted to tone down the importance of philosophy and reserve its study to elite Jewish scholars who were already mature in their studies. He felt that the more overly-philosophical approach should not be openly preached in the synagogues and at family events, but should be an esoteric wisdom studied by only a few. In doing so, he appealed to rabbinic authorities outside of Languedoc to intervene. In particular, he turned to Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Adret), a Catalonian scholar based in Barcelona who was widely recognized as the leader Jewish scholar of the time, to ban the study of philosophy for those younger than 25–30 years old.

This book details Abba Mari’s largely unsuccessful efforts and the blowback to his enlisting Rashba — who was actually Kabbalist, and thus suspect in the eyes of Maimonidean rationalists — for his cause. Other important characters in this tale include the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel), who was the exiled leading Ashkenazi authority that had spent some time in Languedoc before settling in the Castilian city of Toledo. Abba Mari compiled many letters and documents related to his crusade against the normalization of philosophy among Languedocian Jewry, many of which were published in the word Minchat Ken’aot.

The tragic end of the Languedocian community occurred in July 1306, when the French king Philip the Fair (1268–1314) expelled the Jews from his territories, thus sending the Jews of Narbonne, Beziers, Montpellier, Lunel and other Occitanian towns elsewhere. Jews were later readmitted and expelled again multiple times, but the Languedocian community was never the same and their unique brand of Judaism eventually fizzled out.

In conclusion, this book serves as a comprehensive exploration of the Languedocian Jewish community, unveiling its rich history through the lens of its key figures. The author's meticulous attention to detail is evident in the extensive endnotes provided after each chapter, ensuring transparency and scholarly rigor. Furthermore, the inclusion of maps enhances the reader's understanding of the geographical and cultural landscape in which this community thrived. Overall, this work not only sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of Jewish history but also invites readers to delve deeper into the complexities and legacy of the Languedocian Jewish community.