Defining “Jewish Averroism”
Abū-l-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Ibn Rushd (Cordoba, 1126-Marrakesh, 1198), Averroes in the Latin West, is a key figure in the history of mediaeval and early-modern philosophical thought. While the measure of his influence in the Arabic world is a source of debate for modern scholars (Von Kügelgen 1994 ; Najjar 2004), who show, with the exception of some cases such as Averroes’ “disciple” Ibn Ṭumūs (Asìn Palacios, 1908 ; Aouad 2004), that in the Muslim medieval milieu Averroes seems not to have had any legacy, Averroes had an extraordinary impact in Jewish philosophical circles as early as the 12th century, during his own lifetime, continuing throughout the 13th-15th centuries in Spain, Southern France and Italy up to the 16th century. Although the term “averroism” currently refers to the reception of Averroes’ philosophical treatises both in Latin and in Jewish culture, its meaning denotes two different phenomena which took place in parallel from a chronological point of view, but were profoundly different in their contents. In the Latin West, the term “averroist” was employed starting from the 13th century by Christian scholars to designate those philosophers and theologians accused of being followers of Averroes and in particular of adhering to the so-called theory of the “double truth” (Bianchi 2008, König-Pralong 2014).
The Latin anti-averroistic polemics, whose center was at the University of Paris, occurred throughout the 13th century and reached its peak during three condemnations that took place in 1241, 1270 and in 1277 respectively. The first one was against several “Greek” (late ancient and Byzantine) doctrines concerning the impossibility to realize a direct vision of God and to know His essence. (De Libera 1994). The following two condemnations took place in December 1270 and March 1277 respectively and focused on numerous fundamental theses linked to peripatetic emanationism and on some specific points of Averroes’ teachings, with particular concern for his noetic (Bianchi 1990, Piché 1999). Nevertheless, in spite of the condemnations, Averroes became “the commentator” of Aristotle for both the Latin and the Jewish mediaeval cultures up to early modern times.
In the Jewish world, Averroes was known and appreciated already in the 12th century, when the Cordovan philosopher was still alive. The 13th century, as in the Latin realm, saw the beginning of the process of translation of Averroes’ writings and of the Greco-Arabic philosophical corpus. This phenomenon gave rise to severe reactions against philosophical studies from orthodox leaders within the Jewish communities of Spain and Southern France. The polemic against Averroes was preceded by the outbreak at the end of the 12th century of the so-called Maimonidean controversy, where Maimonides’ writings and his sources characterize the 13th-century Jewish philosophical debate (Silver 1965). It reached its climax in 1306 with the ban on studying philosophy before the age of 25. Even if not directly related to each other, the Maimonidean controversy and the polemic against Averroes had a common factor, namely, the struggle against Aristotelian philosophy. The struggle against Maimonides was thus – as underlined by Septimus (1982) – the ideal background for the spread of radical tendencies increased by the diffusion of Averroes’ writings. In fact, the polemic wasn’t addressed only against Averroes’ writings, or specifically against his Jewish followers, but against the Aristotelian philosophical and scientific theses which were considered as being in open contradiction with revelation.
As the main source for the study of natural philosophy and science, Aristotle was at the center of the Jewish philosophical curriculum and was studied mainly through the commentaries of Averroes, who was considered his most important interpreter and de facto introduced Aristotle’s logic, natural science, psychology, politics and ethics into mediaeval Jewish culture. In the same vein, Jewish Aristotelian philosophers strove to show the agreement between two distinct paths : the philosophical and scientific method of examination in order access to knowledge and eventually to reach the truth, and the religious way based on revelation and tradition. Beside this theme, Averroes’ theory of the unicity of intellect and the conjunction (Ar. ittiṣāl ; Heb. dᵉvequt) with the Universal intellect (active intellect) inspired some Jewish scholars, due to its implications for their conceptions of (1) the destiny of the soul after physical death ; (2) universal vs personal divine providence ; (3) and the difficult problem raised by the assumption of the existence of a separate intellect and an impersonal eternity, which implies severe consequences for the religious dogma of God’s reward and punishment (gᵉmul ve-ʿonesh) for individuals.
The measure of the relevance of Jewish averroism for mediaeval and early modern philosophy is testified by the impressive number of manuscripts of the “Hebrew Averroes” (often the only witnesses for a lost original Arabic-language treatise – Zonta 1992) which circulated all over the Mediterranean from the 13th up to the 16th century and beyond. Therefore, while “Latin averroism” is a concept resulting from the accusations against certain Christian scholars who were suspected of following Averroes’ teachings, “Jewish averroism” is used to designate the Jewish followers of Averroes independent of the polemics against philosophy generated in the Jewish world. With this difference in mind, contemporary scholars have recently begun to question the correctness of this historical category. Since Renan (Renan 1852), “Jewish averroism” has often been employed to describe the impressive diffusion of Averroes’ ideas among Jewish philosophers (Vajda 1960, 2000). In his essay Averroès et l’averroïsme, Renan adopts for the first time the term “averroism” as referring to a historical phenomenon in the Jewish world. The first chapter of the second section of Averroès et l’averroïsme is devoted to L’averroisme chez les juifs.
Renan’s analysis focuses on the influence of Averroes on Maimonides’ thought, then on the Maimonidean philosophers somehow related to the translation movement from Arabic into Hebrew, and in particular three figures : Levi ben Gershom, Moses Narboni and Elijah Delmedigo. While “Latin averroism” was an historical category already before Renan’s study (König-Pralong 2014), Averroès et l’averroïsme represents the first comprehensive study on the influence of Averroes on Jewish culture. Its general assumption is that the participation of Jews in the development of Arabic philosophy and the continuity of the themes at the center of their philosophical quest, meant that in the West, the authentic heirs of Averroes were the Jews. The first organized project that focused on the Arabic, Latin and Hebrew versions of Averroes’ writings was conceived by H.A. Wolfson, who aimed at retrieving “the tremendous impact that Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle had in Western philosophy” (Wolfson 1963). Wolfson’s editorial project was set out in two articles developing a plan for the edition of the whole corpus of writings based upon the Arabic, Latin and Hebrew manuscripts (Wolfson 1931).
In 1960 Georges Vajda published his pioneering study on Isaac Albalag averroïste juif traducteur et annotateur de Ghazali (Vajda 1960), where “Jewish averroism” is employed in contiguity with the Latin tradition, as may be seen from one of the final chapters on Albalag and Latin averroism, written more to show the proximity between the two phenomena than the distances. The same direction is followed by Averroès et l’averroïsme, published in 1991 by Alain de Libera and Maurice-Ruben Hayoun, describing “averroism” as the distinctive trait d’union between the Jewish-Christian-Muslim faiths, thus laying the groundwork for a shared and modern world vision in the three Abrahamic religions (de Libera-Hayoun 1991). An opposite line of research is followed by the scholars who look at the impact of averroism in the Judeo-Christian controversies. By cross-referencing Christian and Jewish sources, averroism is analyzed in its implications for conversions to Christianity and as a factor that “undermined Jewish resistance to the conversionary attempts” (Netanyahu 1966, Baer 1971, Lasker 1980, Schwartz 1996, Ben Shalom 1999, Sadik 2016).
Aware of the historical implications of the term “averroism”, contemporary scholarship shows a more careful approach, calling attention to the need to rethink the category of “Jewish averroism” in the light of the new researches in this field and encouraging a clearer definition of “who was a Jewish averroist” (Harvey 2000) : “If an averroist is one who follows Averroes’ teachings, we should recall that there is still no consensus on his precise personal views on several theological-philosophic problems” (Harvey, 2000, pp. 118). For modern scholars (Leaman 1996/98), in fact, both these categories could be considered “mistaken or at least imprecise” (Leicht 2018).
The warnings expressed by Harvey and Leicht underline to what extent defining “Jewish Averroism” is a challenge. To provide a global picture of this phenomenon necessarily requires one to include at least three different intellectual figures : those who were declared admirers of Averroes, those who were more cautious interpreters, and those who were sharp critics of the Cordovan. This heterogeneous character of “Jewish Averroism” is due to the fact that for centuries Jewish philosophers studied the Aristotelian heritage through Averroes, reading his commentaries, quoting them, transmitting them, endorsing some or many of his philosophical positions and/or criticizing other points of his system. (Guttmann 1964 ; Sirat 1988). The interaction between Averroes’ philosophy and Jewish thought was in its very essence quite creative, both when Averroes was regarded as a master as well as when he was considered a target of critique. For this reason, this entry will focus on the most renowned authors explicitly engaged in a strong dialogue with Averroes. The majority of the Jewish thinkers evoked in this entry endorsed Averroes’ philosophy, albeit not blindly, and each one had his own vision.
I included in the entry three crucial figures whose thought was creatively shaped by the confrontation with Averroes, namely Hillel of Verona, Gersonides and Ḥasdai Crescas. These scholars were severe critics of Averroes but their constant engagement with the Aristotelian tradition and Averroes’ thought was crucial in shaping their intellectual projects. Their impact on Jewish medieval philosophy was very important and their legacy reached early modern times. I cite them as representative of a prolific medieval anti-averroism that sees Averroes’ writings at the center of the debate. For the same reason, I chose to leave out other later minor figures and other later philosophers (such as Spinoza), important for a broader study on Averroes’ impact in modern philosophy ; adding, however, some references in the bibliography at the end of the entry.
The first references to Averroes in Jewish sources.
One of the first references to Averroes in Jewish sources can be found in a letter by Maimonides (Cordoba, 1135-Fustat, 1204) directed to his pupil and the addressee of the Guide, Joseph ben Judah Ibn Shimʿon (12th-13th c.). The letter is part of the correspondence between the master and his student and it constitutes the earliest witnesses of the place occupied by Averroes among Jewish philosophers. Written in 1190, almost at the end of Maimonides’ redaction of the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote to Joseph ben Judah that he received Averroes’ commentaries and that he was very impressed by their content (Shailat 1988). The second source is represented by Joseph ben Judah Ibn Shimʿon’s letter of reply to his master, the so-called allegorical letter, where the name of Averroes is cited besides that of Maimonides. In the allegorical letter Joseph describes the day of his wedding with Kima alias Pleiade, a woman symbolizing philosophy. Two famous witnesses were attended these events : “the fellows Ben ʿObeid Allah (Maimonides) and Ibn Rushd” (Munk p. 59). R. Leicht has recently stressed the double value of Joseph’s letter, which both testifies to the diffusion of Averroes among Jewish scholars, and reveals a very early reception of Averroes in the Eastern Islamic countries (Leicht 2018).
A third witness is the letter written by Maimonides in 1199 to the translator of the Guide of the Perplexed, Samuel Ibn Tibbon (for editions of the various versions of this letter, see Forte, 2016). In this important document Maimonides recommends to Samuel that he study Aristotle by means of the commentaries on his works, and sketches an ideal curriculum studiorum in which the name of Averroes appears among the first classic commentators of late antiquity :
“The works of Aristotle are the roots and foundations of all works on the sciences. But they cannot be understood except with the help of commentaries, those of Alexander of Aphrodisias, those of Themistius, and those of Averroes. I tell you : as for works on logic, one should only study the writings of Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī. All his writings are faultlessly excellent. One ought to study and understand them. For he is a great man. Though the works of Avicenna may give rise to objections and are not as [good] as those of Abū Naṣr [al-Fārābī], Abū Bakr al-Ṣā’igh [Ibn Bājja] was also a great philosopher, and all his writings are of a high standard.” (Marx 1935).
In this passage Maimonides clearly states his admiration for the Greek and Arab philosophers that would soon be translated into Hebrew and that affected many of those authors considered nowadays as Jewish averroists by scholars, such as Moses of Narbonne (d. c. 1362) and Joseph Ibn Caspi (Arles, 1280-Majorca 1345). The impact that Maimonides’ letter had on the elaboration of the curriculum of study within Jewish philosophical circles has been a source of debate for modern scholars. The major question concerns the extent to which the letter could have determined, at least in the formative period, the canon of texts translated from Arabic into Hebrew and the philosophers that were to be translated and studied by Jewish philosophers.
This thesis is endorsed by Harvey (Harvey 1992). In two places Zonta suggested that the choice of Averroes as the reader of Aristotle was due more to the free choice of mediaeval scholars who saw in his commentaries, the epitomai and the middle commentaries in particular, a good didactic tool (Zonta 1996, pp 141 ; Freudenthal-Zonta 2012 ; Forte, 2016). More recently Zonta agreed with Harvey in considering the decisive impact of Maimonides’ letter among Jewish intellectuals (Zonta 2016).
The Arabic into Hebrew translation movement
The translation movement from Arabic into Hebrew represents a crucial stage in the history of Jewish philosophy. Between the beginning of the 13th and the middle of the 14th century, several Jewish scholars were engaged in the project of translating philosophical and scientific treatises rooted in the Greco-Arabic tradition. Judah Ibn Tibbon (Granada, 1120- Marseille, 1190) was the first promoter of the movement and the father of Samuel Ibn Tibbon (Lunel, 1160 - Marseille, 1232), the translator of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. The Guide was the first Aristotelian treatise translated into Hebrew. Its contents and, more, Maimonides’ letter itself, urged Jewish philosophers to study the corpus of commentaries on Aristotle produced in the Islamic countries. Samuel Ibn Tibbon completed the Hebrew version of the Guide in 1204. But it was with Jacob Abba Mari Anatoli (c. 1194- c.1256), Samuel’s son-in-law, that the programmatic translation of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle had its beginning. Jewish scholars considered Averroes’ commentaries the most comprehensive source of Aristotelian thought (Sirat, 1988, Harvey 2003). The wide corpus of Averroes’ commentaries and treatises translated into Hebrew testifies to Averroes’ paramount importance among the Jews. The “Hebrew Averroes” consists of (1) the Hebrew translations of Averroes’ short, middle and long commentaries on Aristotle’s writings, and (2) the translation of some independent works.
The Jewish translators of Averroes also wrote original treatises inspired by his writings. Among the most original authors, it is worth mentioning Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Moses Ibn Tibbon (Marseille, 1195-1274), and Qalonymos ben Qalonymos (Arles, 1286- c. 1328). In addition to this corpus of translations one needs to take in account the encyclopedic works, such as Midrash ha-Ḥokhmah (The Exposition of Sciences) by Judah ben Solomon ha-Kohen (Italy, mid-13th c.) and Deʿot ha-filosofim (The Opinions of the Philosophers) by Shem Ṭov Falaquera (Spain, 1225-c. 1290) that contain Hebrew paraphrases and translations of Averroes’ commentaries. Falaquera was also the author of Moreh ha-Moreh (Guide to the Guide) (Shiffman 2001) and. Iggeret ha-vikkuaḥ (The Epistle of the Debate), a treatise on the harmony between philosophy and religion inspired by Averroes’ Faṣl al-maqāl (Decisive Treatise). Another Hebrew encyclopedist, Gershom ben Solomon of Arles (late 13th c.), composed the Shaʿar ha-shamayim (The Gate of Heaven), which contains citations and selections from Averroes’ Colliget (Kullīyāt) and the treatises on intellect (Gross 1879, Robinson 2000).
The relevance of the Hebrew Averroes for the study of Aristotelian philosophy among Jews goes beyond late mediaeval times. An example of the spread of these mediaeval translations of Averroes and their relevance as major sources for the study of Aristotle is the late 15th-century philosophical anthology, Liqquṭim (Anthology), by the Italian scholar Johanan Alemanno (Gentili 2019).
Some 13th- and 14th-century Jewish Interpreters of Averroes.
Simultaneously with the translation project, two important phenomena occurred in Jewish mediaeval culture that involved the same geographical area of Spain and Provence : (1) the Maimonidean controversy, (2) and the rise of Kabbalah. The polemic against philosophy saw French and Spanish rabbinic scholars rising up against those Jewish philosophers involved in, or close to, the translation movement. Initially centered on Maimonides’ writings, the dispute rapidly included Aristotelian philosophy and the Greco-Arabic sciences, considered to endorse beliefs and research methods in the quest of truth that were contrary to, or put into doubt, both revelation and the Jewish rabbinical tradition. Starting in the second half of the 12th century, rabbinical discussions on the legitimacy of philosophy within the classical Jewish curriculum studiorum underwent several stages during the 13th century and finally led to a definitive ban on philosophy in 1306 (Freudenthal 1993, 1995 ; Jospe 1993). In spite of the condemnation of philosophical studies, the translation movement continued to work on its project to render Greco-Arabic science into the Hebrew language. Not only were Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle considered the main source for Aristotelian philosophy, but they gave rise to a rich corpus of supercommentaries and several independent works composed by Jewish scholars between the 13th and the 16th centuries (Zonta 2011, 2013).
Among the most famous authors of this period who were strongly influenced by Averroes, although in different ways, it is worth mentioning Isaac Albalag, Levi ben Abraham, Nissim of Marseille, Isaac Polqar, Moses Narboni, Joseph Ibn Caspi, Abraham Bibago and Elijah Delmedigo, the last being one of the latest and most important averroists of the Renaissance. A different place is occupied by Hillel ben Samuel of Verona, Levi ben Gershom and Ḥasdai Crescas whose relation to Averroes was mainly based on the refutation of his noetic and psychology. What characterizes these authors is engagement with Averroes as commentator and philosopher while maintaining a critical approach regarding several subjects that were difficult to reconcile with classical Judaism. What Vajda stressed concerning Isaac Polqar could be extended to the majority of the “Jewish averroists” : far from being a blind averroism (Vajda 1960), their adherence to his purposes came mostly with an awareness of how to establish bridges between Aristotelianism and Jewish tradition. In fact, one of the main purposes of the Jewish philosophical tradition was to read and interpret Judaism in the light of philosophy, showing the inner harmony between philosophical Truth and Revelation.
Three central points in Averroes’ philosophy seems to have determined the intellectual debate among the Jewish “averroists” : (1) Averroes’ doctrine of the intellect ; (2) the proof of the harmony between religious truth and philosophical demonstration ; (3) the necessity of allegorical exegesis for those passages of the Bible concerning sensitive subjects such as the creation vs eternity of the world, miracles and prophetic knowledge. The first point represents the trademark of Averroes’ noetic, based on the theory of the existence of a separate, universal intellect shared by all human beings and the theory of the conjunction (ittiṣāl) with the active intellect.
Averroes conceives the intellect as a cosmological substance : it is not part of a personal individual ego but is something composed of (a) the individual disposition (istiʿdād) of the soul (that is, the form of the body) to receive the forms ; (b) the material intellect, called potential intellect ; and (c) an external intellect, called the active intellect, which is universal and shared by all humans. It is defined as a substance which is neither mixed with matter nor a property of the individual body (neque corpus neque virtus in corpore), and exactly like the active intellect, it is neither generated nor perishable (long commentary on De Anima, ed. de Libera 1998). Averroes developed the definition of the material intellect throughout his life but one of the latest definitions is preserved in his long commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, where the material intellect is described as a disposition of the soul to receive (Coccia 2005, Di Giovanni 2017). The theory of an intellectus materialis not subjected to generation and corruption was developed by Averroes in commenting on Aristotle and al-Fārābī’s theory of intellect (Pines 1978), the latter of whose treatise on ʿaql (the Risālat fī-lʿaql wa-l-maʿqūl) also circulated and influenced Jewish philosophers such as Judah Ha-Levi (c. Toledo, 1075- c.1141), Abraham Ibn Daud (Cordoba, c.1110- Toledo, c.1180) and Maimonides (Davidson 1992 ; Freudenthal 2002).
The different approaches to noetic developed by Arab philosophers constituted a matter of debate among many Jewish scholars. It concerned in particular : a) the peculiar nature of the human intellect and its capability to receive the forms of the intellection, by direct or indirect emanation from the active intellect ; b) the theory of the ittiṣāl, in Hebrew dᵉvekut, the conjunction between the material (also called possible) intellect and the external active intellect, according to which the individual soul has access to the sensible forms whose role it is to allow the passage of the intellection process from potentiality to actuality. Receiving the phantasmata (imaginations) of the sensible forms starts the process that lets everyone reach his own intellectual perfection, each according to his own natural disposition. Since the potential intellect is not an inner faculty of the soul (it cannot think alone but only in conjunction with the active intellect), it follows that Averroes argues for the mortality of the individual soul while holding to the thesis of the immortality of the universal intellect. The individual soul eternalizes itself only through intellectual activity, joining the universal intellect which is devoid of any of the personal characteristics of human souls. The second and the third points mentioned constitute matter of debate not only between philosophers and traditionalists (rabbis), but also between philosophers and kabbalists, whose doctrines developed in Spain and Provence more or less in the same period of time through the contact between Jewish and non-Jewish late antique traditions and Islamic sources (Ebstein-Weiss 2015).
Averroes’ doctrine of the intellect had great importance in Jewish culture and it constituted the perfect breeding ground for the encounter between Averroes’ noetic and psychology with classical Judaism. His long commentary on De Anima wasn’t known in Hebrew before the 15th century, but it was read through Thomas Aquinas’ De imitate intellectus contra Averroistas. This is the case of two Italian scholars : Hillel ben Samuel of Verona (Forlì, c.1220- c.1295) who dedicated to these themes his famous work Tagmulei ha-nefesh (The Rewards of the Soul), a treatise dealing with the nature of the soul and of the intellect, and that examines the question of the soul’s reward. Familiar with the Greco-Arabic philosophic tradition as well as with Latin sources, Hillel endorses Averroes’ theory of a universal active intellect and the conjunction with the individual soul, but strongly denies the existence of an intellect completely separated from the individual soul, which he saw as contrary to the basic beliefs of Judaism concerning the reward and punishment of the individual soul in the hereafter. Hillel rather stands with Thomas Aquinas’ refutation of Averroes as presented in his De Unitate Intellectus, partially translated into Hebrew at the beginning of the Tagmulei ha-Nefesh (Sirat 1988 ; Rigo 95 ; Schwartz 2012). Familiarity with Latin sources was one of the distinctive traits of 13th-century Italian Jewish scholars (Sirat 1988).
This is the case also of Judah Romano (Rome, c.1280-c.1325), whose philosophical commentaries and individual works present different sources : of course Maimonides, but Latin sources as well (he translated from Latin into Hebrew the Liber de Causis, Averroes’ De Substantia Orbis (Hyman 1986), Gundissalinus’ De unitate et uno and works by Egidio Romano, Albertus Magnus, Angelo of Camerino and Thomas Aquinas), and Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle with particular interest in the theory of the conjunction with the universal intellect (Sermoneta 1965 ; Rigo 1998).
Particularly interesting is the case of Isaac Albalag (Northern Spain or Southern France, 13th c.), a Jewish scholar considered for a long time as the first genuine averroist of his day (Vajda 1960). A translator and philosopher, Albalag is known for his Hebrew version of the Maqāṣid al-falāsifa (in Hebrew : Kavvanot ha-filosofim, The intentions of the philosophers) by the Muslim theologian Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (1058-1111). His critical annotations to the Maqāṣid constitute the independent treatise Tiqqun ha-deʿot (Righting of Doctrines). A first partial edition of the Hebrew text of the Tiqqun ha-deʿot was edited by Schorr (Schorr 1859). In 1973 Vajda published a critical edition of the text, over a decade after his rich study of the treatise appeared (Vajda 1960). Albalag’s criticism of al-Ghazālī includes direct opposition to some points of Avicenna’s and Maimonides’ philosophical thought and adherence to Aristotle’s teachings as interpreted by Averroes. Albalag’s Tiqqun discusses several important questions for the Greco-Arabic-Jewish Aristotelian tradition : the existence of God ; the distinction between essence and existence ; the divine pedagogy based on reward and punishment ; the survival of the soul after the corruption of the physical body.
Albalag discusses the theory of the eternity of the world, and argues against the kabbalists in favor of the necessity of a correct allegorical exegesis showing the compatibility between revelation and philosophy. Especially in his commentary on Genesis, Albalag adheres to the existence of two different degrees of truth : the philosophical truth by way of demonstration, and the prophetical truth by way of miracles (Vajda 1960, pp. 130-169). This position led scholars to set Albalag not far from the positions of the Latin scholars Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia accused of “averroism”, namely following the theory of the “double truth” (Vajda 1960, pp. 251-266 ; Sirat 1988, p. 242). Like Hillel of Verona, Albalag defends the immortality of the soul after the individual’s physical death, but contrary to the Italian scholar, he critiques Averroes’ theory of conjunction with the active intellect, denying its authenticity as part of Averroes’ philosophy.
However, neither Albalag’s translation of al-Ghazālī nor his Tiqqun ha-deʿot had much diffusion in the Jewish world except for the positive remarks made by another Spanish philosopher and follower of Averroes, Isaac Polqar (or Pulgar, Pollegar ; Northern Spain, 13th-14th c.), who completed Albalag’s translation of al-Ghazālī’s Maqāṣid al-falāsifa. Younger than Albalag, Polqar has been rediscovered recently, in particular for the role he played in the polemic with Christianity (Haliva 2017). Philosopher, poet and physician, Polqar is also considered an averroist. He composed several commentaries on biblical books (unfortunately lost today), ethical treatises, a refutation of astrology and a free paraphrase of al-Ghazali’s Maqāṣid al-falāsifa (ead.). In his major work, the ʿEzer ha-dat (In Support of the Law), Polqar responds to his former teacher Abner of Burgos (c. 1260-1347), alias Alfonso of Valladolid, a Jewish converso and fervent partisan of Christianity. Against Abner, Polqar attempts to defend Judaism as the perfect religion in accord with philosophy and the Torah as the tool which helps man to acquire theoretical and practical knowledge, as well as moral integrity (Sirat 1988).
Polqar’s averroism drove his arguments in favor of the unicity of God against the Christian dogma of the trinity ; the question of free will coincides with the attempt to defend Judaism as a true religion against Christianity and to demonstrate the compatibility between revelation and rational philosophy and, more specifically, the intimate coincidence between Jewish faith and the true philosophical principles (ead.).
The 14th century is dominated by the figure of Gersonides (Bagnol-sur-Cèze, 1288-Perpignan, 1344), known by the acronym Ralbag, also called Levi ben Gershom, Maestro Leo de Bagnols, Magister Leo Hebraeus. Ralbag can’t be labelled as “averroist”, especially because of his programmatic critique of Averroes writings. However, his relation to the Cordovan should be mentioned, because it represented a paradigm with which Gersonides’ thought was constantly confronted and through which he shaped his very innovative approach to philosophy. Philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and biblical commentator, Gersonides’ originality is reflected in the attempt to develop a philosophical project rooted in the Aristotelian tradition where all the disciplines are integrated into a unitary system of thought (Gersonides’ Afterlife 2020). He was the author of several scientific works on arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry and astronomy. Some of them were translated into Latin and are preserved only in this language, such as the treatise De numeris harmonicis (The harmony of numbers) composed for Philip of Vitry, the bishop of Meaux, and the De sinibus, chordis et arcibus (On Sines, Cords and Arcs) dedicated to Pope Clement VI.
Gersonides’ intellectual activity is deeply tied to the name of Averroes. His major philosophical work, the Milḥamot ha-Shem (The Wars of the Lord), composed between 1317 and 1329 (and its treatise on astronomy till c. 1340), treats subjects such as the nature of the separate intellect, the immortality of the soul, the nature of the celestial spheres and the nature of God, creation, miracles and prophecy. His discussions constantly refer to Aristotle and the Averroean commentaries, along with citations from the Bible and Talmud. In spite of the great diffusion that it had in the Middle Ages, as the manuscript tradition shows, the Milḥamot ha-Shem until recently was printed only twice, first in 1560 (Riva da Trento) and much later in Leipzig in 1863. A distinctive trait of Gersonides’ attitude is constituted by his independent thinking, shown by his very personal approach to Aristotle and Averroes.
An example of that is the theory of the intellect and the immortality of the soul, as commented on in the first book of Milḥamot ha-Shem. There, Gersonides agrees with the Greco-Arabic tradition in connecting immortality with the intellectual perfection of the material (potential) intellect, but radically rejects three points : (1) Alexander of Aphrodisias’s definition of the nature of the material intellect ; (2) the notion of conjunction between the material and the active intellect ; (3) the idea that knowledge is emanated from the active intellect. Knowledge should be grounded in particulars and individual intellect reflects the rational knowledge inherent in the Agent Intellect. The acquisition of the knowledge of the particulars constitutes the intellectual immortality of man. The realist ontology of Gersonides seems to imply that human felicity could be reached by the knowledge of the sublunary world (by science in particular), and it is this intellectual acquisition that determines the immortality of the material (personal) intellect (Rudavsky 2015 ; Feldman 2000).
Gersonides’ extensive interest in Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle led him to compose several commentaries on them. His philosophy is rooted in the sciences (mathematics and astronomy in particular) and led him to a very peculiar way of shaping the relation between science and theology. For, as suggested by Galsner (2015) Gersonides’ philosophical ideas went against the grain of traditional Jewish thought and challenged Latin scholastics with whom Gersonides had personal relations, as well. One of his first philosophical treatises was the Sefer ha-heqqesh ha-yashar (The Book of the Right Syllogism), composed in 1319 and translated into Latin under the title Liber syllogism recti. It presents Gersonides’ reconsideration of some positions of Aristotle on syllogisms, as stated by the Stagirite in the Analytica Priora. He was also the author of several supercommentaries on Aristotle via Averroes’ commentaries on Physics (1321), on Generatione et Corruptione (1321), on De Caelo (1321), on Metereologica (1321), on De animalibus (1323), on De Anima (1323), on Parva Naturalia (1324), on the Organon (1323), on Metaphysics (lost ; Glasner 2015), on De Plantibus (lost), on Averroes’ questions of logic and the theory of intellect (Kellner 1994).
In spite of the prominent role that Gersonides played in the attempts to reconcile Jewish faith with Aristotelian philosophy, his analytic/scholastic method (Rudavsky 2015) was harshly criticized by later Jewish thinkers, in particular for certain seemingly heterodox teachings put forward in the Milḥamot ha-Shem.
Contemporary with Gersonides was Joseph Ibn Caspi (Arles, 1280-Majorca, 1345), also called En Bonafous (or Bonafoux), well known for his activity as a biblical exegete, philosopher, and linguist. His philosophical sensitivity creates a unique encounter between biblical exegesis, logic and a philosophical approach to the grammar of the Hebrew language, which enabled Caspi to develop a peculiar synthesis between Judaism and philosophical thought. His extensive bibliography is listed in his work Qᵉvutzat Kesef (“The Collection of Silver” – a title that plays with the meaning of the surname Caspi, “silvery”), of which two different versions exist (Sirat 1988). Among his major works, it is worth mentioning Sharshot Kesef, a philosophical dictionary of the roots of biblical Hebrew ; Retuqot Kesef, a treatise on philosophy of language, focused on Caspi’s philosophical theory of the excellence of the Hebrew language (morphology, syntax, meaning) ; and two separate commentaries on the Guide of the Perplexed.
Beside these treatises, Caspi gives great importance to Biblical commentaries which mirror an “averroistic” understanding of the necessity of allegorical exegesis and distinction between religious arguments and philosophical truth (Leaman 1998). Prophecy and miracles could be explained as natural events in the context of the Revelation (an account of Averroes’ theory of prophecy can be found in his commentaries on De Anima and Parva Naturalia, see Taylor 2012) but, contrary to Averroes’ view, their inner meaning cannot be grasped with certitude, not even by philosophers, because of their location in the distant past. Caspi endorses an historical approach : when the literal interpretation differs from the philosophical, even the philosophers should rely on the literal meaning of a sentence pronounced in another time (Leaman 1998, Sackson 2017).
The relevance of allegorical exegesis in the philosophical thought of Jewish authors engaged with Averroes is reflected in the writings by two Provençal Maimonidean philosophers : Levi ben Abraham and Nissim of Marseille. Both these authors were followers of Maimonides and pursued the philosophical biblical exegesis elaborated by Abraham Ibn Ezra, Samuel Ibn Tibbon and Moshe Ibn Tibbon, that are often quoted in their commentaries (EJ 2008).
Levi ben Abraham (ca. 1235- ca. 1305) was a great polymath and one of the most esteemed philosophers and biblical exegetes of his generation (Harvey 2000 ; Kreisel 2015). He is known primarily for two philosophical encyclopedias : the Levyat Ḥen (“Chaplet of Grace”), a voluminous treatise on biblical exegesis and prophecy in which the Scriptures are interpreted as bearers of hidden philosophical allegories ; and a long poem, Battei ha-Nefesh ve-ha-Leḥashim (“Brooches and Charms”), on the sciences, syllogism, prophecy and Jewish beliefs (Davidson 1939 ; Kreisel 2015). Following the genre of the scientific encyclopedia. which developed greatly in 13th-14th-century Jewish philosophy, the aim of Levi ben Abraham was to provide access to the philosophical Truth embodied in the Scriptures and the divine commandments by his philosophical exegesis. His work made him the target of the anti-philosophical movement that in 1305-1306 promulgated the ban against the study of philosophy before the age of 25.
The work of Nissim of Marseille (14th century), considered a radical philosophical exegete and author of several commentaries on the Torah such as the Sefer ha-Nissim (“Book of the Miracles”, a wordplay based on the Hebrew word nissim “miracles” and the name of the author) and Ikkarei ha-Daʿat (“Principles of Faith”), is testimony to the great relevance that the Averroistic project of conciliation between rational Aristotelianism and revealed truth had for “Jewish averroists”. Following the project pursued by Levi ben Abraham of deriving both practical and theoretical philosophical knowledge from the Torah (and not only from aggadoth and the prophets, as Samuel and Moshe Ibn Tibbon had done), Nissim attempted to provide naturalistic explanations of the supernatural events described in the Scriptures and metaphorical readings of prophetic visions (Kreisel 2000, 2001).
The 14th century finds in Moses Narboni (Perpignan, 1300-Soria, 1362), alias Maitre Vidal Belsom, one of averroism’s latest original and committed adherents. Born in Perpignan, he traveled extensively and lived in several Spanish philosophical centers, among them Toledo, Barcelona, and Burgos. Perhaps, like Qalonymos ben Qalonymos (c. 1286-c. 1328), the famous translator of several of Averroes’ commentaries into Hebrew (see the table in section 2), he knew Latin, perhaps Arabic (but it is not clear how advanced a knowledge of Arabic he had), and Arabic philosophy was the main object of his studies. His impressive production is constituted mainly of original commentaries and supercommentaries on the Book of Lamentations, on Alexander of Aphrodisias’s Treatise of the Intellect, al-Ghazālī’s Maqāṣid al-falāsifa, Ibn Ṭufayl’s philosophical tale Ḥayy Ibn Yaqẓān, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and of several commentaries and treatises on Averroes namely : The possibility of conjunction with the active intellect (Bland) ; on The Perfection of the Soul:on the epitome and the middle commentary of Averroes on Physics, on the Organon and on the Treatise on the substance of the spheres. Two more commentaries on Metaphysics and the De Caelo seem to be lost (Sirat 1988) and a commentary on Job is ascribed to him (Hayoun 1986).
Considered to be one of the more fervent averroists of his generation (Ivry 2007), Narboni’s philosophical research is among the first attempts in late mediaeval philosophy to reconcile philosophy with the seemingly adverse realms of astrology and kabbalah (Hayoun year ?). He dedicated an important part of his research to the question of the perfection of the individual soul and the implications of the conjunction with the active intellect. For Narboni, following Averroes, intellection is “the chain that links the forms together” (Sirat 1988) and imagination plays a great part in the intellectual process of abstraction, because it prepares the material intellect to grasp those forms that lead to the threshold of the conjunction with active intellect (Ivry 2007). Man is the agent of God on earth in the sense that the intellectual conjunction with the active intellect enables the individual mind to join the divine knowledge, brings it to the sublunary world and eventually, in the case of the prophet, enables it to accomplish miracles. A peculiar interpretation of Averroes’ harmonization of religion and philosophy led Narboni to the attempt to harmonize rational thinking with tradition, in particular with kabbalistic writings (often quoted by Narboni) because they retain ancient true traditions (Pirqei Moshe). In the same vein as Joseph ben Abraham Ibn Waqqar (Spain, 14th-c.), the author of the Maqāla al-jamiʿa bayna al-falsafa wa-sh-sharīʿa (Discourse of Conciliation between Philosophy and Religion), Narboni saw kabbalah and astrology as complementary forms of knowledge, whose doctrines could be integrated to the rational observation of nature.
The fourteenth century saw the rise of one of the greatest adversaries of Averroes and Aristotelianism in general : Ḥasdai Crescas (c. 1340 – c. 1410/11). Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community of Aragon, he was one of the most charismatic figures for the Hispanic Jews of his times. Together with Maimonides and Gersonides, Averroes was one of the main targets of his radical critique of Aristotelianism (Harvey 2010, 2018). Nevertheless, Crescas’ critical approach to Aristotelianism creatively shaped his thought. Averroes was both a target for criticism and a source of inspiration, in the sense that Crescas could not disregard his philosophy, which became one of the major sources of debate in his major work, the Or Adonay (“Light of the Lord”). Analyzing with a critical attitude the Aristotelian sources conveyed by the Arabic sources translated into Hebrew, Maimonides’ writings and the neo-platonic thought as espoused by authors such as Abner of Burgos, for example, Crescas was one of the most original thinkers of his time, developing a unique system of thought engaged in showing Judaism as the real path to Knowledge. His critique aimed at highlighting how Aristotelianism was in open contradiction both with Jewish tradition and with the empirical and rational understanding of the world (Sadik 2020).
In the Or Adonay (which despite its relevance in Jewish thought is yet to be translated completely into any modern language), Averroes is quoted twenty times (Harvey 2018) in relation to Crescas’ discussions of questions of physics, metaphysics and fundamental Jewish beliefs, among them the question of the eternity of the soul after the separation from the body. The topic of the destiny of the soul in the afterlife was a crucial subject for Aristotelian philosophers. Crescas exposes and criticizes several Aristotelian opinions, including that of Averroes, opposing the latter’s theory of an impersonal eternity of individual knowledge that comes back into the realm of the active intellect, and the platonic view of the immortality of every single soul comprised of all its parts. Besides that, Crescas discussed important Aristotelian topics such as the theory of the vacuum and the eternity of the world, and harshly criticized Maimonides’ negative theology opposing a positive definition of the essence of God. One of the main differences between Crescas and his Jewish Aristotelian predecessors is the radical shift toward Platonism and the refutation of intellectual felicity intended as a mere mental achievement. God can be known by the whole soul and all its faculties, by actions and by the empirical experience of the world created by God’s will which is ever good (Guttmann, 1964).
Crescas’ rejection of Aristotelian intellectualism was supported by Jewish tradition and by platonic philosophy (Harvey 1988). Crescas’ thought would be continued by his 15th-century followers, and new studies have recently shown the impact that his thought had on thinkers such as Pico della Mirandola and Spinoza (Zonta 2001 ; Sadik 2020).
Averroes in the 15th- and 16th-century Jewish world.
Averroes continued to be the “voice” of Aristotle in 15th-century Jewish scholasticism, and his commentaries, as well as his treatises, were employed as the main source for the writings of the Stagirite (Zonta 2006). Not only Aristotle but Averroes himself continued to be the main philosophical authority for many Jewish thinkers, in particular in Spain and Italy. Two of the most illustrious scholars of Spanish “averroism” are the Aragonese thinkers Abraham ben Shem Ṭov Bibago and Eli ben Joseph Ḥabillo. The Aristotelian philosopher, commentator and religious authority Abraham ben Shem Ṭov Bibago was one of the main actors in the 15th-century disputes with Christian scholars. The disputes took place in the years immediately before the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and concerned several subjects, including the question of the unity of God vs the Trinity. Like Joseph Polqar two centuries before, Bibago had to face aggressive policies against the Jews, who at this time were forced either to convert to Christianity or be expelled from the Peninsula.
In spite of the tense time in which Bibago lived, he was a brilliant intellectual, a community leader (in 1470 he was appointed head of the Yeshiva of Saragossa) and an acute scholar. Like many 15th-century Jewish scholars, he knew Latin, was acquainted with Latin scholasticism and was the author of numerous philosophical, scientific and religious writings. His major work is Derekh Emunah (Way of Faith) which “presents a unified portrait of the world, which preserves a place for science and philosophy alongside Talmudic based religious life” (Halper 2015). He firmly theorizes the need for “two ways of life” : one according to philosophy and one according to Scriptures (Halper 2015). Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish tradition are complementary ways for attaining human happiness and reaching the ultimate intellectual perfection through the conjunction with the active intellect. For him, conforming to Averroes’ and Maimonides’ hierarchy of intellects, the philosopher has access to truth by means of syllogistic reasoning, while those who have no disposition for demonstrative reasoning have access to truth by means of prophecy and Divine providence (Halper 2013).
A rationalist and partisan of free philosophical inquiry, Bibago admitted “allegorical interpretation as a tool for bring Aristotelian philosophy deep into the heart of religious life” (Halper 2014). However, as shown by Halper (Halper 2015), Bibago seems to develop two different considerations on the power of the human intellect and its conjunction with active intellect. The author of Derekh Emunah admits the conjunction as a process of noetic unification between intellects while the author of the supercommentary on the Metaphysics seems to avoid any reference to it and even seems to undermine the theories exposed in the Derekh Emunah (Halper 2015).
Eli ben Joseph Ḥabillo shared with Bibago the same intellectual engagement with both averroistic Aristotelian philosophy and with Latin sources (Rothschild 1994). Ḥabillo’s engagement with Latin scholasticism earned him the title of a “Hebrew scholastic” philosopher (Zonta 2006). His extensive corpus of Latin into Hebrew translations was achieved between 1470 and 1480 and includes the translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian De Causis ; Thomas Aquinas ; William Ockham ; and six translations of the Questiones by the French Dominican Thomist John Versor. Some pieces of evidence in the manuscript tradition caused Steinschneider to suggest the same identity for a certain “Eli,” known as well as “Maestro Manuel” (Steinschneider 1893), and therefore to suppose that Habillo converted to Christianity to attend philosophical studies at the University. His engagement with Averroes includes a lost supercommentary on Averroes’ middle commentary on the Metaphysics and some works attributed to Eli alias Maestro Manuel, such as supercommentaries to Averroes’ middle commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge, and to Aristotle’s Categories, De Interpretatione, Analytica Priora (Zonta 2006).
Starting from the 15th-16th century, Averroes’ writings seems to have circulated in the Karaite community as well. There is still no systematic study of these copies, and at present these authors can’t be labeled as averroists. However, scholars have been able to register the reception of Averroes in some 14th- to 17th-century Karaite thinkers : Aaron ben Elijah (Nicomedia, c. 1328-Constantinople, c. 1369), author of ʿEẓ Ḥayyim (The Tree of Life) (Renan 1852 and later edited by Delitzsch in 1841) ; the Byzantine scholar Caleb Afendopulos (c. 1430) owned several manuscripts of Averroes, whose glosses are still available in some of his autograph copies (Lasker 2008) ; Abraham Ben Jacob Bali (c. 1510) and Moses Almonsino (Salonica, c. 1515-c.1580) (Manekin 2012).
Finally, 15th-century “Jewish averroism” finds its most important transmission in the Latin world, where its greatest representative was the naturalized Italian philosopher Elijah Delmedigo (c. 1455-1492/3). A native of Candia (nowadays Heraklion), Elijah Delmedigo moved to Italy where he studied at the important University of Padua. He was the first Hebrew into Latin translator of Averroes’ commentaries. Delmedigo himself wrote both in Hebrew and in Latin. His versions were printed, thus representing the first printed editions of Averroes’ writings and marking “the beginning of a more detailed knowledge of Averroes in the Renaissance” (Licata 2019). The corpus of Averroes’ commentaries translated comprehends the epitomai of Aristotle’s Metereologica (Venice 1488) and De Anima (partial) ; the middle commentary on Metereologica (partial, Venice 1488) ; the Proemium to Book 12 of Metaphysics (Venice 1488) ; the long commentary to Metaphysics Books 1-7 (Venice 1488) ; Liber de proprietatibus elementorum (Venice 1496) ; Quaestiones in Analytica Priora (Venice 1497) ; De spermate (Venice 1560) ; two paraphrases on the middle commentary on Plato’s Republic and on the middle commentary of Aristotle’s De Partibus Animalium (in Licata 2019).
The major period of Delmedigo’s activity as translator, teacher, and philosopher was during his stay in Padua between 1480-1490 (Engel 2019), at the time a renewed center for the study of Aristotelian philosophy through the commentaries of Averroes. The cross-analysis of historical sources with Delmedigo’s rich biography and bibliography shows that he was probably one of the “most reliable interpreters of Aristotle’s philosophy” of his time (Licata 2019). His interests were mainly focused on metaphysics, natural philosophy and psychology, with a particular concern with the theory of conjunction that was at the center of his teachings to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whom he befriended in 1481. Among Delmedigo’s major independent works in Latin, it is worth mentioning Quaestiones de intellectu (Two investigations on the Nature of the Human Soul) on the relationship between philosophy and religion, and several critical observations on Kabbalah (Licata 2019) ; the treatises De efficentia mundi, De primo motore, De Substantia Orbis and Annotationes in librum De phisico auditu, where Delmedigo focuses on important averroistic questions such as the theory of the unicity of the intellect, the eternity of the world, and the relation between philosophical examination and Revelation.
Delmedigo’s major independent work in Hebrew is the Beḥinat ha-Dat (The Examination of Religion) that follows the path of Averroes’ Faṣl al-maqāl, reshaping “many features of Averroes’ theological-political thought according to the Jewish context” (Licata 2019), for instance, the religious necessity of the study of philosophy and the division between the intellectual elite who have access to demonstrations and the simple people for whom the Torah is a book intended to educate with rhetorical and metaphorical images (Licata 2013). Delmedigo seems to have had a great impact on Italian averroism (Poppi 1966 ; Engel 2017 ; Fellina 2017). His critical approach toward both Maimonides’ Guide and the Kabbalah underlines the great interest of this thinker, who clearly perceived himself as a follower of Averroes engaged in constant dialogue with a threefold tradition : Averroes’ commentary tradition to Aristotle, scholastics and the Christian Platonism of the Renaissance (Engel 2013).
The translation project of the Hebrew Averroes into Latin culminated with the versions made in the 16th century by the Jewish translators Abraham De Balmes and Jacob Mantino. Both active in Northern Italy, their Hebrew into Latin translation of Averroes’ commentaries served as the base for the study of Averroes in the Renaissance (Di Donato 2013, Licata 2014). The 13th- and 14th-century Jewish translations of Averroes had the ambitious aim of rendering Greco-Arabic philosophy and science into the Hebrew language. The aim of these translators went much further. The Hebrew translations of Averroes became the fundamental works upon which Jewish and Christian scholars inaugurated the first modern studies of Aristotle in the universities of the Renaissance.
After the 16th century Averroes seems to have had minor influence on Jewish thinkers and his commentaries didn’t receive the same attention they had in the Middle Ages. Yet his work, and the same could be said for Greco-Arabic philosophy in general, stands among the fundamental sources of the 13th-15th-century Jewish philosophical and religious discussions on the accord between rationalism and religion. In the modern times his name may have been forgotten, but the debates, the themes and the Hebrew philosophical language shaped by the Arabic into Hebrew translators of Averroes were transmitted, to the point that that the study of Averroes becomes a fundamental piece of the multifaceted picture called Jewish philosophy.
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