History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Gersonides And Asherides: A Contrast

Levi ben Gerson.

Some years before the final expulsion, in Bagnol (Piedmont), in the Provence of Southern France, that old centre of Jewish culture, Levi ben Gerson (Gersonides) was born, in the year 1288. Rashba's prohibition against teaching science and philosophy to youth was then in force. None the less in the face of this interdict, Gersonides was given a scientific training and indeed he specialized in science. The salvation of laws that are blunders is that they cannot always be enforced. We have so far seen that from the time of Mar Samuel of Babylonia up to the time of the French expulsion, almost every Jewish scholar was something of a physician and something of an astronomer. Gersonides was a good deal of both.

He added to the science of medicine by writing and discovery; and in astronomy he revised the conclusions of his day, exposed the defects of the Ptolemaic theory, that the sun moved round the fixed earth, and invented an instrument for scanning the heavens. This, by the way, was some three hundred years before the days of Galileo, who is credited with the invention of the first telescope for practical scientific use. Astronomers based their calculations on the observations of Gersonides. Pope Clement V. had the gist of this work translated into Latin, which meant giving it to the Christian world. The renowned astronomer Kepler tried hard to obtain a copy.

We must regretfully pass over his other literary activities, covering a period of twenty years, his biblical and Talmudic commentaries and his treatises on syllogisms, algebra and geometry, and come at once to his activity in philosophy. For his greatest achievement lay here.

Philosophy of Gersonides.

His chief work is called Milchamoth Adonai (wars of the Lord). This is simply a fanciful title taken from a Bible phrase.

His attitude was most daring. He would know the truth unhampered by any restrictions or previously accepted beliefs; undismayed by the possibility that the conclusions he reached might contradict some teachings of the Torah. Such is the only spirit in which the scholar can advance if he desires to know more of the realities of the universe. It is the attitude of the scientist rather than that of the theologian. It does not follow that, taking such a stand, one's discoveries will necessarily be heretical, sceptical or destructive. As a matter of fact those of Gersonides were really conservative and on the whole tending to endorse the Law. A philosopher of a later age, Descartes, reached positive belief through this same process.

More courageous in this respect even than Maimonides, he was also more democratic in his attitude towards philosophy. For Gersonides believed that science was not occult learning for the few, but a revelation possible for all.

Like most of the mediaeval philosophers, he expressed his opinions on Divine Omniscience, Providence, Immortality, Prophecy, the Celestial Spheres, the Eternity of Matter. On all of these questions he differed somewhat both from Aristotle and Maimonides. We have room for but a word here for his views on each of these great themes.

(a) Divine Omniscience. Does God only know universal truths as Aristotle said, or also particulars, as Maimonides claimed? Not quite in agreement with either, Gersonides said, God knows essentials and therefore he knows the good in each individual.

(b) Providence. This term for God's wise provision and care for all his creatures is not equally bestowed on all, according to Gersonides. He asserted all men are surveyed in different ways. But the higher man develops his soul, the nearer does he come under divine solicitude. Thus is it in our human power to vary the divine regard.

(c) Immortality. Here he distinguishes between the animal soul with which we are born and the imaginative soul, which we acquire, when stirred by the Universal Intellect. It is only the latter which survives the death of the body.

(d) Prophecy requires no supernatural gifts. It needs only moral and intellectual excellence.

(e) Celestial Spheres. Gersonides believed in two groups of natural laws. This left room for miracles. Like all scholars before the Renaissance, that period of great scientific discovery, he believed the spheres were conscious beings midway between God and man. He further posits an Active Intellect between the First Cause, God and these Celestial Intelligences.

(f) Eternity of Matter. This Aristotelian dictum he denies. But declares that the world once created by divine fiat, is endless.

Gersonides flourished in troublous times. He was among the refugees expelled from France and witnessed the sufferings of his people under the Shepherd Uprising. He wrote under difficulties, often lacking the needed books to revise his work. He says, "The woes of Israel are so intense that no mediation could remedy them." History rather disproves that sad conclusion. They have been worse and they have been remedied.

Asher ben Jechiel.

Persecution in another land drove into exile at the same time a scholar of a different type. This was Asher ben Jechiel pupil and successor of Meir of Rothenberg. He flourished at the time of the savage Rindfieisch riots, named after the ringleader, in 1298, and the varied persecutions due to the anarchy and demoralization that followed the struggle for the German crown. Least concerned in the conflict, the Jews were among the greatest sufferers — those of Wurzburg and Neuenberg were destroyed. This devastation of Jewish communities reached as far as Austria. The new Emperor Albrecht of Austria put it down with a strong hand. But then so much of the mischief had already been done.

This persecution brought Asheri to Spain. His advent was big with consequence for Jewish learning and theology, but not altogether in a salutary way. It meant the transfer of narrow scholarship of Germany to liberal Spain. On recommendation of Solomon ben Adret, he was made rabbi of Toledo. He belonged to that exclusive school that interpreted Judaism in rigid and gloomy terms and looked with suspicion on all secular learning. Science was evil in his eyes and the Talmud all sufficient for education and religion. Asheri thanked God that he knew naught outside the Torah! So that which in Solomon ben Adret was a tendency, in Asheri was life's central motive. He more than seconded the former in his chercm, ban, against all scientific books, except those on medicine, and against those who read them prior to the age of thirty. This endorsement of that severe and narrow policy brought counter-excommunication from Jewish centres of scientific and philosophic culture. None the less, the conflict sowed discord in Israel and resulted naturally in discouraging even if it did not kill the broader intellectual activities of the Jews. For Asheri continued as the head of the Spanish community and issued many Responsa. His attitude towards religion and life stood in striking contrast to that of Gersonides, his contemporary in France. Yet the pity of it was that while the latter influenced his time but slightly, Asheri met a heartier response. He was enabled to exercise a species of censorship over all that was now written by a Jewish pen.

Asheri was a man who would leave no room for individual religious spontaneity. For example, if the Law commanded worship three times daily, he would permit no addition to the regulation. There it was stated—crystalized and final.

For the strengthening of that unbending attitude he compiled a terse summary of all practical usages from the Talmud, of which he was a consummate master. By this digest of law he would have Israel solely guided; for "this was the whole duty of man." Commentaries were written on the Rosh (named after his initials) and it gradually superseded the earlier summary of Alfassi (p. 71).

While Gersonides, the original scientist and daring philosopher, created no school, his slight influence dying wth him, Asheri transmitted his restricted conception of Judaism to his sons and it thus became perpetuated in Israel. From now on Jewish students were induced to forsake general culture and to concentrate all study on Talmudic law. So the legalistic spirit hitherto confined to France and Germany spread through Spain and hecame the prevailing Jewish attitude, till the end of the 18th century.

Asheri's Ethical Teachings.

Rut though narrow theologically he was a man of fine principles ethically. The following quotation from Asheri's ethical will reveals his high moral standard:

"Avoid all dealings wherein there is a lie; utter not the name of God superfluously to no useful end, or in places dirty or defiled. Cut from under thee all mere human supports, make not gold the foremost longing of thy life; for that is the first step to idol worship, a heathen religion. Nay, rather wander in all humility before thy Creator, and where thou seest His will to be so, give up thy money at once. He can more than replace it. Rather give money than words; and as to ill words, see that thou place them in the scale of understanding before they leave thy lips. What hath been uttered in thy presence, even though not told as secret, let it not pass from thee to others.

Do not fix thy eyes too much on one who is far above thee in wealth, but on those who are behind thee in worldly fortime. Only in respect to the service and the fear of God look up to the great, and never to the insignificant. Take pleasure in being warned from wrong and set to right.

Put no one to open shame; misuse not thy power against any one. Do not struggle vaingloriously for the small triumphs of showing thyself in the right, and a wise man in the wrong; thou art not one whit the wiser therefor.

Be and remain grateful to anyone who hath helped thee to thy bread; be sincere and true with everyone, Jews and non-Jews; be the first to extend courteous greeting to everyone, whatever be his faith; provoke not to wrath one of another behef than thine.

Never be violently angry with thy wife, and if haply thy left hand had repulsed her, let thy right draw her quickly to thy heart again. Before thou eatest, before thou goest to thy bed, occupy thyself for some set time with the Law, and let thy discourse at table be on matters which it contains.

Prayer is the soul's service to God.

Jacob bar Asher's Code of Law.

The most famous of Asheri's sons and perhaps more famous than the father, was Jacob bar Asher. In year 1340 he compiled a complete summary of Talmudic law in four parts (Arba Turim). Hence known as the Tor. Its divisions were:

Part I. Orach Chayim (Way of Life). Ritual laws.

Part II. Yorch Dcah (Teaching Knowledge). Regulations on things lawful and unlawful.

Part III. Eben Haeser (The Stone of Help). Marriage and divorce laws.

Part IV. Choshan Hamishpat (Breastplate of Justice). Civil laws.

Briefer than the Yod Hachesakah, the summary of Jewish law of Maimonides, it was as complete, and included also some decisions of the Geonim and even of the Kabala. But while Maimuni gave a philosophic atmosphere to his Code by reasoning out the causes of many injunctions and by always bringing out the religious aim, Asherides gave a Code simply without question or inference.

Unfortunately, Israel chose, as it had so often chosen before, the work of lesser religious value. Certainly this Code supplied a want of the times for those at a distance, seeking information on civil and ritual law. But was such a code to answer life's great needs; did it feed the spiritual side of the Jew? Perhaps it did in so far as it cultivated a discipline of obedience and gave a conscientious sense of obligation fulfilled. Yet might not this discipline have been cultivated for observances, the ethical aim of which was more manifest? Who can say.

Concise in form this book became the guide of Israel for four centuries, largely replacing independent research. We might say it remade Israel after its likeness.

In the 16th century the Tur was modified and expanded up to date and was known as the Shulchan Aruch (Spread Table). This latter work continued the spirit of its predecessor—the spirit of Asherides.


Gersonides:—His scholarly spirit was grander than his scholarly achievement. He lacked the persistent industry, the synthetic grasp of Maimonides to give to Judaism a complete philosophic system — he produced rather a philosophic critique. His conservative opponents satirized his work as "Wars against the Lord."

Asher ben Jechiel:—To regard the Bible and Talmud as all sufficient for religion and culture recalls the attitude of one type of Moslem, for whom all books outside the Koran were superfluous and dangerous. In the same spirit. Christian monks erased classic writings to use the parchment for their monkish chronicles. Modern scholars now attempt to decipher what has been erased below. This doubly-used parchment is called a palimpsest.

Theme for Discussion:Why did Asherides exercise a greater influence on Judaism than Gersonides?