We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Gregg Stern





Allegorizers of Torah and the Story of Their Prosecution in Languedoc





APA e-journal

Gregg Stern





Allegorizers of Torah and the Story of Their Prosecution in Languedoc








Edit article


Allegorizers of Torah and the Story of Their Prosecution in Languedoc

In 1305, the great Catalonian Sage, Rashba, tried to limit philosophic study and interpretation of Torah in Languedoc (southern France). In the process, he and went so far as to excommunicate one of the great scholars involved in such philosophical readings of Torah, Levi ben Avraham ben Hayyim of Villefranche-de-Conflent.


Allegorizers of Torah and the Story of Their Prosecution in Languedoc

Mosaic of symbols of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. Wikimedia cc


The Jewish Allegorists: Rashba’s Curse

In a public letter to Abba Mari of Montpellier (more about him later), the great Catalonian sage, Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 1235-1310; Barcelona, Catalonia), had this to say in 1304 about Jews in Languedoc[1] who were reading Scripture through philosophic allegory:

מקצתם לא הניחו מקרא שלא הפכוהו, ואומ’ הלא ממשל משלים הוא.
Some of them have left no scriptural verse undisrupted, saying that it contains some type of allegory.
עשו לנו אברהם ושרה חומר וצורה.
They made Abraham and Sarah figurae for Aristotelian Form and Matter.
ועקרו כל הגבולות, לפרש שנים עשר בני יעקב שנים עשר מזלות
They uprooted all the interpretive boundaries in order to interpret the Twelve Tribes of Jacob as signifiers of the Twelve Constellations of the Zodiac,
ועמלק יצר הרע,
Amalek as a signifier of the Evil Inclination,
ולוט השכל
Lot as a signifier of Intellect,
ואשתו החומר…
His wife as a signifier of Matter…
האנשים האלה רוחם תפח ותאכלם אש לא נפח וצורם לבלות שאול כי אין די בזכות אבות לגאול.
Let the spirits of these people be snuffed out, and may a fire that never dies consume them. May their forms flit about in Sheol, for the merit of the Patriarchs is insufficient to redeem them.[2]

What is this dangerous interpretive approach? How did Rashba get involved in the attempt to stop it? The story is below.

Reading the Torah as a Philosophic Allegory

Philosophic allegory is essential, according to Maimonides (12th Century, Egypt) — and his followers in Languedoc (southern France, 13th – 14th centuries) — who believe, for example, that no biblical reference to God’s body or God’s emotions may be understood literally. In such a case, the goal of the allegorist is to vitiate the surface meaning of the biblical text and allow its deeper philosophic meaning to shine forth.

More frequently, however, the philosophic interpreter uses allegory to reveal, ever so carefully and selectively, the text’s inner meaning, without harming its superficial meaning. In this context, Maimonides refers to the biblical text as “an apple of gold, encased within a silver filigree.”[3] This suggests that the text’s external meaning is only slightly less precious and should be preserved in the process of peering through its lattices.

Languedoc map


Abba Mari’s Disquiet over Philosophical Allegory

Levi ben Avraham ben Hayyim[4] of Villefranche-de-Conflent, an older contemporary of Menahem ha-Meiri (1249-1310), was an itinerant teacher and an encyclopedist. He wrote a voluminous Hebrew-language encyclopedia of science, philosophy, and Jewish interpretation, Livyat Hen (1295) as well as a long didactic poem on the sciences, “Batte ha-Nefesh veha-Lahashim” (1276).[5]

Levi’s commitment to scientific study and philosophic interpretation are part of his community’s mainstream. Nothing about his philosophic commitments or his exegesis warrant discipline or critique. Yet Levi’s stunning and troubling persecution by Rashba — the greatest Jewish religious authority of the day — emerges out of a growing consternation within Languedoc over the increasingly widespread use of philosophic allegory.

Restricting Philosophy to the Elite

Abba Mari ben Moses of Montpellier (late 13th – early 14th cent.) was a learned “local Jew” of some means.[6] He esteemed philosophy as the very pinnacle of the Jewish tradition and believed it critical to enforce the Maimonidean injunction to restrict philosophic study to the qualified elite.

Abba Mari was a leading conservative Maimonidean voice in his day. His Minhat Qena’ot (Offering of Zeal) is responsible for the preservation of much important contemporary correspondence, including his own. Abba Mari hoped that the Jewish scholars of Languedoc would censure those who, in his view, had overly popularized the philosophic tradition in their community.

minchat kenoet

The generations of students following Samuel ibn Tibbon (c. 1150-1230), a path-breaking translator from the Arabic into Hebrew and philosophic interpreter of the Bible, part of a family who translated Arabic works (such as Maimonides’ Guide) into Hebrew, sought to widen the scope of allegorical interpretation and make it more accessible to a wider audience.

For example, the three books of the “Solomonic Corpus”— Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs — were taken in Languedoc as three distinct stages in King Solomon’s spiritual development, or, perhaps, modes of his spiritual expression. This exegetical strategy emerges out of Samuel ibn Tibbon’s Ecclesiastes Commentary, his son Moses’ Song of Songs Commentary, and Jacob Anatoli’s Malmad ha-Talmidim.

Ecclesiastes, in this approach, is the metaphysical grappling of a youth; Proverbs, the mature work of philosophic ethics; and Song of Songs, the yearning and anticipation of an elder for the departure of his acquired intellect and its subsequent union with the Divine Intellect. Menahem ha-Meiri takes this approach in his Proverbs Commentary.

In Languedoc, the successful interpreter of the Solomonic Corpus had to penetrate the husks of its parables in order to liberate the kernels of its philosophic and ethical truths. This widening of the scope of allegorical interpretation seemed to Abba Mari to endanger the historicity of biblical narrative and, at times, even threaten the literal meaning of the commandments.

Abba Mari went so far as to proclaim,

כמעט הפשיטו כל פשטי התורה והציגוה ערומה!
“They have nearly stripped all the literal meanings from the Torah and displayed her naked!”[7]

In his correspondence, Abba Mari seems at times to be most concerned with the oral presentation of philosophic allegory at community gatherings, such as synagogue sermons and weddings as particularly problematic; at other times, he seems generally perturbed about recently composed allegorical commentaries on the Torah.

In either case, he scrupulously avoided mentioning the transgressors by name, hardly mentioning Levi throughout his lengthy correspondence. Instead, Abba Mari describes this as a general problem for the Languedocian Jewish community. Nevertheless, Abba Mari or someone in his circle likely “advised” Rashba orally that it would be “helpful” to persecute Levi.[8]

The Study of Averroes’ Commentaries on Aristotle in Languedoc

In Languedoc, Aristotle’s writings were not studied directly, but only as they were found embedded in Averroes’Commentaries. Translated into Hebrew in large part by Samuel ibn Tibbon’s son Moses in the mid-thirteenth century, Averroes’ Commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus were among the most sophisticated philosophic works in circulation at the dawn of the fourteenth century.

Statue of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in Córdoba, Spain. Wikimedia

Enthusiasm for these Commentaries placed the scholars whom Abba Mari condemned squarely within the cultural orbit of the philosophic translators and biblical commentators of Languedoc.[9] As Abba Mari would have it, the devotion of a certain group of Languedocian scholars to Averroes’ Commentaries inspired their reckless interpretations.

Abba Mari calls his work מנחת קנאות Offering of Zeal.[10] It is a collection of approximately 127 letters from the controversy edited by Abba Mari himself sometime after 1306, including his ספר הירח Book of the Moon, a pamphlet that he published during the controversy to clarify his position. In Minhat Qena’ot, Abba Mari tells us that he deliberately excluded letters from Meiri and Levi (among others) from this collection.[11] He opens (p. 225), with the words,

קנא קנאתי לה’ אלהי ישראל,
בראותי איש מזרע קדש
מפת בג העמים מתגאל,
הורס בסיפור התורה
ואין לה דורש וגואל.
I became enraged with zeal for the Lord, God of Israel
When I saw a man of the Holy Seed
Defiling himself with ‘the food of the gentiles,’
Destroying the narrative of the Torah [with allegory],
While she had no one to inquire and save [her].

Abba Mari finds Averroes’ scientific claims and philosophic arguments overwhelmingly powerful and therefore determinative of the scriptural interpretation of any Jew who is exposed to them. In Abba Mari’s account, once Averroes is consumed, radical philosophic allegory will result – simply in order to coordinate the meaning of Scripture with the reader’s newly found philosophical positions.

The Accusation: Specifics

Abba Mari’s description of the problematic teachings is limited to a few slogans:

Abraham and Sarah are figurae for Form and Matter. This slogan entails the following claim: the biblical narrative concerning Abraham and Sarah contains a layer of meaning regarding Aristotelian physics (which is based upon the interplay of Form and Matter).[12] To the philosophically minded, this deeper level of meaning is more precious than the superficial level of human narrative concerning the Patriarchs.

In fact, the scientific teaching signified allegorically may be the ultimate intent of the patriarchal narrative. Of greatest concern to traditional Jewish scholars is the possibility that the deeper allegorical scientific meaning of the narrative might displace its superficial literary and historical meaning.

Abba Mari is horrified by such an interpretive move, and hopes to evoke his contemporaries’ horror and to sway them to the position that the public discussion or writing of such scientific allegories must be terminated and prevented. Abba Mari believes that Languedocian Jewry has become drunk with science and philosophy, which has caused its scriptural interpretation to spin out of control.

The Four Matriarchs signify the Four Elements (water, earth, air, fire). These are the building blocks of the material world below the Sphere of the Moon. The Seven Planets and their Spheres, as well as the Sphere of the Fixed Stars are made of the fifth Heavenly Element, which is not subject to processes of generation and corruption that occur below the Sphere of the Moon.

Jacob’s twelve sons represent the Signs of the Zodiac. Astrology and astronomy are among the most important sciences in the curriculum on account of the lofty stature of the heavens and on account of the influence of the planets and stars on the region below the sphere of the Moon.

The Urim and Tummim may be understood as an astrolabe.[13] This is an astronomical instrument of some importance in the early 14th-century. Abba Mari’s contemporary, Jacob ben Makhir ibn Tibbon of Montpellier had designed the newest version of the astrolabe, which attracted the attention of Christian scholars.

The Fear of Christian Antinomian Interpretations

Abba Mari feared that the unidentified scholars’ allegorical reading of the Commandments endangered Jewish religious observance – for Abba Mari knew that contemporary Christians maintained that the Commandments were allegories, as Christians had since antiquity. In addition, these Jewish scholars’ public discussion of the Torah’s inner philosophic meaning violated Talmudic law, in Abba Mari’s view.

At times, Abba Mari reports of “just two or three [persons]” who require censure, but sometimes he stands aghast at the troubling and dangerous philosophic interpretations that a small group of “youths” share publicly in the synagogue. He quotes one case in which he accuses the speaker of actually mocking the simple meaning of a miracle:

וענה בקול רם כי המאמין עמידת השמש ליהושע אינו אלא טועה, פתי מאמין לכל הדברים הנמנעים.
[One of the darshanim] announced in a loud voice that anyone who believes that the sun actually stood still in the time of Joshua is making a mistake, a fool who believes in any impossible thing. (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 408)

The Position of the Languedocian Leaders

Most Languedocian scholars dismissed Abba Mari’s accusations as false, but some moderate scholars — like Meiri and Levi – did acknowledge that certain individuals misuse philosophic allegory and shared their inappropriate interpretations too frequently at public gatherings.[14]Meiri expresses great concern for the abuse of the Torah and for the honor of Languedocian Jewry on account of the significant public forum for transgressive philosophic allegory:

ערות הארץ אשר היא חרפה לנו בקום עלינו תמיד אדם בלתי יודע וידרוש ברבים ויורה פנים שלא כהלכה ויציר פבשוטי המקראות צורות רחוקות אין להם אם למקרא ולא הם למסורת.
The nakedness of this country [Languedoc] and our shame is that ignorant men continuously rise against us and preach in public. They teach antinomian interpretations of the Torah [ve-yoreh panim she-lo ka-halakhah] and out of the literal sense of Scripture produce far-fetched figurae [tzurot rehoqot] which have no basis in the biblical text or rabbinic tradition.

Levi also condemned “teaching antinomian interpretations of the Torah” by using the same Mishnaic idiom—literally, “the improper uncovering of the Torah’s face”—as Meiri.[15] Despite these serious concerns, Meiri and the Jewish scholars of Languedoc overwhelmingly supported the use of philosophic allegory. Hence, Abba Mari was unable to sway local Jewish scholars toward any definitive public action against it. [16]


Abba Mari Turns to Rashba – The Great Catalonian (not Languedocian) Scholar

RashbaThe decisive opposition to Abba Mari’s attack on Levi and the allegorizers within Languedoc strengthened his resolve to secure the intervention of a powerful external authority. Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 1235-1310; Barcelona, Catalonia) was widely regarded as the greatest Jewish legal scholar of the day and was widely known not to endorse philosophic study. Abba Mari could thus write to him with confidence that his request to censure the philosophic allegorists of Languedoc would be well received.[17]

Abba Mari’s Synagogue Announcement

With the community gathered in the synagogue of Montpellier for the Sabbath morning services on Erev Rosh Hashanah 1304, Abba Mari produced a letter from Rashba, hoping that its authority might create a consensus in favor of a local ban against excessive philosophic allegory. According to the letter that Abba Mari reads aloud that Sabbath morning, Rashba and the scholars of Barcelona believe the philosophic allegory current among Languedocian Jews to have far-reaching antinomian intentions (Minhat Qena’ot, pp. 411-2):[18]

עשו התורה כולה פלסתר, וחכם יחשב כי ישב לסתיר עצה במצוה, ואף בספרים יעמיק להיות חותר, והכוונה להם באמת יכרת, לומר שאין המצוה כפשטים, כי מה אכפת להשם בין הנחורים לשחוטים.
They falsify the whole Torah, and he is considered wise who plots to discover an antinomian interpretation of a commandment. They allegorize, even in writing, as one who burrows under [the Law]. Their intention is clearly recognizable: to say that the commandments are not to be taken literally. “For why should God care whether an animal is slaughtered by the neck or the throat?”

In their letter, the Barcelona scholars identify the activity of Levi as the central figure behind the problematic allegoresis,[19] and claim that his teachings involve a profound departure not only from Judaism, but also from a religious tradition held in common with Christians and Muslims.

Invoking the Albigensian Crusade

In the thirteenth century, the Cathars of Languedoc were effectively obliterated from the region on the pretext of their non-Catholic Christian teachings.[20] The violence and bloodshed of the Cathar Crusade would not have escaped anyone’s notice, nor would it have been easily forgotten. Subtly evoking this crusade, the scholars of Barcelona argue to their audience in Languedoc that local interpreters like Levi deserved similar treatment (Minhat Qena’ot, pp. 412-3).

ויענישו אותם כל הגוים ככופרים,
ואף על אחד מן הדברים, וחקקי און אשר כתבו למו בספרים, האם האמור על אברהם ושרה, חומר וצורה, הלא יקיפום זמורות וישרפום לשיד, כי כל האומות מתיחסים בהם, ואלה יאמרו שאינם רק משלים, הם ובניהם.
 The other nations would punish them as heretics, For even just one of the things—the corrupt teaching—that they write in their books! If any [Christian or Muslim] would say that Abraham and Sarah represent Form and Matter, They would put him on the pyre and burn him to lime! All nations claim descent from [Abraham and Sarah], And these say that they are but figurae, they and their descendants.

Those listening to this letter in the synagogue in Montpellier could have had little doubt as to the precise nature of the suggestions from Barcelona: the scholars of Languedoc ought to suppress the teachings emanating from around Levi, just as the Christians had eliminated the teachings of the Cathars.

The Letter Falls on Deaf Ears

After Abba Mari had concluded reading the letter, Jacob ben Makhir ibn Tibbon, a leading astronomer and scientific translator, came forward and raised his voice against the promulgation of the ban that the letter proposed. As it turned out, the community took no action and the gathering ended in confusion. Apparently, Abba Mari had not paved the way for the presentation of the letter as well as he had thought.

Upon hearing the news of this setback, Rashba temporarily retreated. To the protests of the group in Montpellier that stood against the proposed ban he responded (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 452):

ואתם גדולי דעה והעצה, תעשו כאשר תראו בעין שכלכם.
Great ones of judgment and council, act as your intellect sees fit. We have no more involvement in this matter.
Albigensian Crusade
Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Albigensians (left), Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders (right)

Rashba Goes on the Offensive

Despite this setback, without any noticeable delay, Rashba wrote to his former student Crescas Vidal,[21] a Catalonian Talmudist living in Perpignan. Rashba had reason to believe that Crescas possessed the ability and would be willing to help to punish Levi. In his letter to Crescas, Rashba condemns Levi’s exegesis in the harshest of terms. He deems Levi’s allegoresis to be more extensive and destructive to Judaism than Christian interpretation of the Law (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 381):

וקשה גזרתו של זה וחבריו מגזרת הגוים. אם הגוים חולקים ומפרשים כדעתם שנים או שלשה מקראות, וזה חבריו לא ישאירו בתורה אפילו אות.
The penalty of this man [Levi] and his colleagues is more severe than that of the gentiles. While the gentiles dissent [from us] and allegorically interpret two or three verses according to their views, this man and his colleagues do not leave even a letter of the Torah [in its literal sense].

In fact, Rashba was convinced that Levi was the leader of a Languedocian Jewish group who repudiated the historicity of the biblical narrative, the possibility of miracles, and the very existence of revelation from God. As such, Christians would violently obliterate this group were its views to become known generally (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 383):

כי האנשים האלה כופרים בכל הדתות, וכריתות שלהם על כל לוחות ספרי האומות חרותות, ולו עתה נודע בגוים לא ימלט אותם ביתם, כסף וזהב משחיתותם.
For these people deny all religions and their excision is engraved on the tablets of the books of the [gentile] nations. Were [their heresy] now known among the gentiles, neither their homes [or their] silver and gold would not save them on account of their depravity.[22]

Rashba again evokes the possibility of a Christian crusade against the Jewish heretics.[23]Although Levi had made extensive use of allegory, Rashba’s hyperbolic description of his work and leadership is more a statement of how Rashba felt about Jewish philosophic interpretation in Languedoc than an accurate description of anything that Levi actually had written or done.

Mem ם and Samech ס in Moses' Tablets: Not a Miracle

One example of Levi’s philosophic teaching about which Rashba was informed accurately, concerns his interpretation of the ancient Rabbis’ statement, “the mem and samekh in Moses’ tablets floated miraculously in stone” without external support.[24]

As Moses’ tablets were said to be entirely cut through the depth of the stone, closed letters like mem and samekh would simply have fallen out of the tablets, once they were carved, were they not somehow suspended – either mechanically, magnetically, or magically. In Livyat Hen, Levi writes that these two closed letters must have been suspended in the tablets by some hidden support mechanism. And Rashba cites this view as the interpretation of “The leader of these [heretical allegorists],” in his excommunication of the allegory in Languedoc.

Intriguingly, this interpretation of Levi’s impresses one as rather typically Maimonidean, yet Rashba draws the dubious conclusion that Levi’s desire to provide an interpretation that obviates the need for a miraculous suspension of these letters constitutes an implicit rejection of all miracles on philosophic grounds, as well as the divinity and enduring validity of the Commandments.

Crescas Presses Rashba to Back Down

In his correspondence with Crescas, Rashba inquired several times about the presence of any heretical individuals or writings in Languedoc. Apparently having grasped more than a bit of Rashba’s agenda, Crescas at first responds in a tone of rhetorical argumentation. Sounding frustrated, he asks why Rashba seems to have forgotten that Languedocian Jewry had incorporated philosophic study and interpretation in its curriculum for generations. (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 367).

ועתה בעיני יפלא מה ראו היום על ככה מעוררי הדברים. מה חדוש עתה בארצם אשר מכבר לא היה, כי היום עד האלהים יביאו דבריהם ובמחנה העברים. מה יאמרו מוציאי דבת הארץ כי יאמר להם המה היו ראשונים ולהתעסק בהגיון ובספרם החיצונים. ומעודם ועד עתה הגדילו בתערובת ספרי היונים. מי יתן והיה לבבם זה שלם לאהבה את השם בלב תמים, אבל המה מראים עצמם כחסידים, וצרבת המכוה עשתה בלבם רשמים.
What have “the agitators” [Abba Mari] seen just now? What novelty is now in their land, in the camp of the Hebrews, that has not long been, that they now bring their case before [you, Rashba] the judge? What do those who slander this country say such that [their countrymen] might be called the first to study philosophy and non-Jewish works? From long ago until now they have grown up with a mixture of [holy books and] the books of the Greeks. Would that their inner hearts were devoted to the sincere love of God, but they certainly appear most pious despite the fact that the searing brand [philosophy] has left its scars upon their hearts.

Crescas suggests that “the agitators” [Abba Mari] targeted Levi, and his protector, Samuel, without justification. Thus, he feels compelled to defend them both.

Crescas’ Evaluation of Levi

Crescas does confess to being uncertain at first as about Levi’s character as a scholar and a Jew, but subsequently clarified the matter with his son’s father-in-law Samuel ha-Sulami (more on him in the next section), and was satisfied with Samuel’s positive evaluation (Minhat Qena’ot, pp. 369-70).[25]

In fact, Crescas suggests that the only fault of Levi’s that he can detect is that, as Levi was in financial need, he would teach philosophy to whoever paid him, regardless of their qualifications.

Crescas’ Evaluation of Languedocian Jewry

Similarly, Crescas maintains that he can find no evidence to substantiate Rashba’s concerns regarding Languedocian Jewry.[26] As a result, he rejects, out of hand, Rashba’s call for him to act as an inquisitor and whistleblower in Languedoc (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 371).

על יד המעוררים ישוב אדננו ויחקור הדברים. ואם כצעקתה הבאה אליכם עשו כלה, כלה אותם עד תם, ואת אשר תקרא לשם אלהיך וסכים על ידיך ואמך בעד כל העם יחתום.
Let our lord [Rashba] return and investigate matters by means of “the agitators.” If the cry that has come up to you [is substantiated], wreak havoc, destroy them until nothing is left. If you summon your God there, He will support your actions, and all the [Jewish] people [of Languedoc] will sign in favor [of your action against philosophic learning].

In Crescas’s opinion, Rashba should return to “the agitators” to investigate and ferret out the suspected heresy, and expresses confidence that, if such heresy is substantiated, the Jews of Languedoc would support a merciless assault upon it. Crescas’ real point is that as he sees no problem with the philosophical bend of Languedocian Torah scholars, including Levi; he is not interested in Rashba trying to turn him into an agent of the inquisition, so to speak.

Rashba Tries with Crescas Again

Despite this unequivocal rejection by Crescas, Rashba wrote to him once again, in even stronger terms, regarding the urgency of censuring Levi as well as any other transgressive interpreters in Languedoc. In this letter, Rashba informs Crescas that he supports a prohibition on the study of non-Jewish philosophic works before the age of thirty in Languedoc, but insists that the initiative for any such prohibition had to come from local scholars.[27] This time, Crescas made no response to Rashba. As far as we know, Crescas did not write to him again.


Pressuring Samuel Sulami to Kick Levi out of his House

Levi had found residence in the home of Samuel ha-Sulami (of Escaleta),[28] a wealthy Narbonnese moneylender and philosophically oriented Talmudist who was also the mechutan of Crescas Vidal (Crescas’ son married Samuel’s daughter). Meiri speaks of Samuel as one of the reknowned halakhists of Languedoc who were,

…יודעי חכמת התלמוד על השלמות תמידין כסדרן ומוספין וחדושין ותוספות כהלכתן ועם זה היו בקיאים בחכמות אם בכלם אם ברבם אם במקצתן.
[C]ompletely familiar with the science of the Talmud—being its perpetual students, contributing new insights and interpretations—and in addition, were expert in the sciences, whether all of them, most of them, or some of them (Hoshen Mishpat, 163).

Samuel’s significant land holdings, while not unheard-of for a Languedocian Jew, are surely an indication of his lofty status in the Jewish community. Crescas Vidal’s son Astruc had married Samuel’s daughter Dulcia, who brought with her a handsome dowry of six thousand solidi. Crescas himself had taken instruction from Samuel in philosophy as well as in Talmud.

Apparently unimpressed by Crescas’s assurances, Rashba continued to condemn Levi and sought his removal from Samuel’s home. Rashba turned to Samuel Sulami directly. In an especially moving and forceful letter, Rashba expresses his affection and admiration for Samuel and urges him to abandon philosophic study and to expel Levi from his home (Minhat Qena’ot, pp. 387-90). [29]

Samuel did not respond to Rashba’s letter. Levi, however, now wrote directly to Rashba on his own. Samuel may, in fact, have asked him to respond in Samuel’s stead. Unfortunately, Abba Mari chose not to include Levi’s letter to Rashba in Minhat Qena’ot. He does inform us of its existence,[30] relating only that Levi’s letter contained “his apologia that he immersed himself in the Mishnah and Talmud prior to putting his head into books written on other scientific subjects” (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 390). In response to Levi, Rashba pens a rather dry and condescending reprimand, instructing Levi to return to “traditional study” – as if any Jewish philosopher in Languedoc in the fourteenth century could return to traditional study!

The Death of Samuel’s Daughter and the Expulsion of Levi from Samuel’s House

Rashba’s persecution of Levi then took an unexpected turn. An anonymous student of Rashba, living in Narbonne, had been following his teacher’s engagement with Languedocian Jewry with some interest. Seeking to encourage Rashba, as well as to be updated regarding these conflicts, the student asked his teacher three questions. The question of interest to us is why had Rashba had not publicly congratulated Samuel for expelling Levi.[31]

Samuel’s daughter Dulcia – Crescas’ daughter-in-law – died after an unspecified illness. In mourning, Samuel appears to have expelled Levi from his home.[32] (We do not learn of these circumstances from Levi and Samuel directly, but from Abba Mari’s introductory note to Rashba’s response to the student’s letter.)[33]

In reply to the student’s inquiry, Rashba wrote an affectionate, peacemaking report. He explains that Samuel is “in great pain (גדול הכאב מאד)”; were he, Rashba, to write now, Samuel “would justifiably judge me as a jester and speaker of profanity (ואם דברתי דברים אלה בשעת הקלקלה באמת היה לו לדונני כמשחק ודובר נבלה ).” Rashba concludes this public message by asking the student to greet Samuel and “bless him in my name (גם אתה ברכהו בשמי)” (Minhat Qena’ot, pp. 396-399).

Section 5

Rashba’s Ban on Philosophy for Students Under Twenty-Five

In July 1305, Rashba finally agreed to assist Abba Mari by promulgating a model Catalonian excommunication. On Tisha be’Av (July 29) 1305, in an assembly of the entire community on the Sabbath in synagogue, the elders of the Barcelonan Jewish community, where Rashba was the acknowledged leader, proclaimed the following ban (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 723):

וגזרנו וקבלנו עלינו ועל זרענו ועל הנלוים עלינו בכח החרם לבל ילמוד איש מבני קהלנו בספרי היונים אשר חברו בחכמת הטבע וחכמת האלהות בין המחוברים בלשונם בין שהועתקו בלשון אחר מיום ועד חמשים שנה, עד היותו בן חמש ועשרים שנה. ושלא ללמד איש מבני קהלנו את אחד מבני ישראל בחכמות האלו עד השיהו בני עשרים וחמש שנה, בן ימשכו אותו החכמות ההם אחריהם ויסירו אותו מאחרי תורת ישראל, שהיא למעלה מן החכמות האל.
We have decreed and accepted upon ourselves and our progeny and those who are joined to us [in fellowship], with the force of a ban, that no individual from among the members of our community should study the works of the Greeks that they composed on natural science [physics] and divine science [metaphysics]—whether they were written in their [own] language, whether they were translated to another language, from this day forward for the next fifty years—until he has reached twenty five years of age; and no member of our community should teach one of the children of Israel these sciences until they are twenty-five years old, lest those sciences entice him to follow them and cause him to depart from behind the Torah of Israel, which is above all of those sciences.[34]

Rashba Requests Languedoc Issue a Parallel Ban

Rashba did not intend for his proclamation to have legal force outside of Catalonia, Rashba’s own community. Thus, in an appended document, he implores the scholars of Languedoc in the most forceful and urgent terms to enact a parallel decree (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 730).

ואתם אילי הצדק, אם טוב הדבר בעיניכם, כתבו לכם כמנו ושאו ידיכם קדש, לקדש את השם, וכתבו לכם כטוב בעיניכם, כי לא טוב הדבר אשר הם עושים ולא טובה השמועה מעבירים עם ה’. וחלילה פן יחלק העם לשנים ויתחלל על ידיהם חס ושלום שם שמים.
You mighty ones of righteousness [in Languedoc]! If the matter is fitting in your eyes, write for yourselves as we [in Barcelona have written]. Raise your hands in holiness to sanctify the Lord. Write for yourselves as you see fit. For that which they [the philosophic allegorical interpreters in Languedoc] are doing is not good. Lest—far be it!—the [Jewish] people are split in two, and at their hand—heaven forefend—the Name of Heaven is profaned.

Rashba argues that a ban on philosophic study is the only way to halt the abuse of philosophic allegory in Languedoc.[35] While implicitly acknowledging the independence of the Languedocian scholars, Rashba suggests that, were they to refrain from enacting a ban on philosophic study, the Languedocian scholars would risk responsibility for a schism between traditionalists and allegorists, as well as the continued heresy of the allegorists.

Rashba Excommunicates the Languedocian Allegorists

In a second appended document, Rashba directly excommunicated the Languedocian allegorists and their interpretations, without regard for the jurisdiction of the Jewish scholars of Languedoc (Minhat Qena’ot, pp. 734-5).

Exclusively Philosophic Interpretations

וחקקי און בספריהם חוקקים וממלאים בתיהן כלים רקים, לאמר כי מבראשית עד מתן תורה הכל משל, ואברהם ושרה חומר וצורה, ושנים עשר בני יעקב שנים עשר מזלות. וארבעה מלכים אשר נלחמו את החמשה הם ארבעה יסודות וחמשה הרגשים.
They inscribe wicked inscriptions in their books and fill their homes with empty vessels saying: Every narrative from Creation to Revelation has an exclusively allegorical meaning. Abraham and Sarah are Form and Matter, the twelve sons of Jacob are the twelve constellations, and the four kings who battled the five kings are the four elements and the five senses.

Allegorizing Commandments

גם שמענו כי במצות שלחו ידיהם לאמר, כי האורים והתמים הם מלאכת האצטרולב. ובתפילין ותפלה נתנו תפלה,
We have heard that they even extended their hands against the Commandments [through allegory] saying: the Urim and Thummim are the mechanism of the astrolabe. They have rendered the phylacteries and prayer unimportant.

Torah is not from Heaven

ולא יראו לדבר גם במשה לאמר חס ושלום כי נימוס היה באומרים אין תורה מן השמים רק נימוסין והנהגות שעשה משה.
They have not feared to speak against Moses himself saying, heaven forbid, that [the Torah] is a nomos; saying the Torah is not from heaven, rather norms and customs that Moses decreed.

Utilitarian interpretation

עד שאמר אחד מהם דורש ברבים בבית הכנסת כמתמיה, מה ראה משה לאסור את החזיר? אם מחמת רוע איכותו, החכמים לא מצאו בו רוע איכות כל כך.
If it is on account of its poor quality [as food], the scholars have not found it to be of such poor quality. [This went] so far that one of them said, speaking publicly in the synagogue, in wonderment: Why did Moses see fit to prohibit the swine?

Allegorizing Tefillin

ואמר אחד מהם שאין הכונה במצות התפלין להניחם על הראש ועל הזרוע ממש, שאין החפץ בזה רק שיבין ויזכור את השם, שמקומות התפלין הרמוזים בראש כנגד המוח ובזרוע כנגד הלב, שהם כלי ההבנה והזכרון לרמוז שיבין ויזכור לא זולת זה.
One of them said: the intention of the phylacteries is not literally to wear them on the head and arm, because the intention of this commandment is solely to understand and remember the Lord. [This is the case] because the legislated place of the phylacteries—the head apposite the brain and the arm apposite the heart—as they are the instruments of understanding and memory—to intimate that one ought to understand and remember, and nothing more.

Rashba’s knowledge of Jewish allegorical interpretation in Languedoc derived exclusively from oral reports. What he reports having heard is a horrifying variety of reification allegory, which discarded the literal, surface meaning of scripture, as if it were a shell, in favor of the philosophic nut that it might have contained. In the absence of some corroborating evidence, it is very possible that these oral reports are the result of misunderstanding or even hearsay passed along from a third or fourth party.[36]

There is nothing hateful or antinomian about the interpretations of this Jewish community; they are quite Maimonidean. It is striking to see that – in the shadow of Maimonides –Rashba mistook the philosophic interpretation of the Commandments as antinomian.[37] There is no evidence, for example, that anyone stopped putting on tefillin on account of a philosophic interpretation of them.[38] Certainly, Levi himself was an observant Jewish philosophic interpreter and encyclopedist – and Levi is their supposed high-profile example! So who is this terrifying “antinomian philosopher,” if not Levi?

Nevertheless, Rashba promulgates his excommunication against Levi and his fellow allegorizers, their writings, and anyone who continues to preserve these writings (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 737):

מחוייבים כל ישראל להחרימם ולנדותם, ולא יכפר להם העון הזה עד ימותון, אש של גהינם כלה וגופם של אלו באש לא נפח, אש לא תכבה נתון…
All Israel is required to excommunicate these sinners. Until their death, they shall not atone for this transgression. The fire of Gehinom will be extinguished, but the bodies of these [sinners] will not be consumed. Upon [their bodies] the flame will go never go out . . .
והספרים שחקקו אחת מאלה בתוכם, אנו דנין הבעלים כמין והספרים כספרי קוסמין, והרי הם והמחזיק בהם בנדוי בחרם כיוצא בהם, עד שישרפום ולא יזכרו עוד בשמם עד תמם כמצות התורה בפסילי אלהיהם לשרוף באש ולאבד את שמם, ואשר ישוב ונחם מן השמים ירוחם…
Regarding the books that any one of those among them wrote, we judge its owner a heretic and the books as the books of the magicians. They and anyone who owns them stand in excommunication until they burn them completely and no longer mention their name [contents]. Following the commandment of the Torah regarding the statues of their gods, to burn with fire and erase their name [memory]. But one who repents and regrets will receive mercy from heaven….
burning books
Detail from a painting by Pedro Berruguete on the life of Santo Domingo de Guzmán depicting Dominican friars burning heretical books

The Fizzling Out of the Ban

Despite Rashba’s dramatic description of the damnation of the allegorist’s souls in Gehenim and his calls to burn Levi’s books, Rashba’s ferocious demand went unheeded in Languedoc. The Jewish community there had no doubt about its authentic piety as well as the unquestionable validity and independence of its local philosophic culture. As a result, Rashba failed to stimulate the results that Abba Mari sought, and the possibilities for Rashba’s involvement in Languedoc were exhausted.

Rashba Gives Up

At this point, Rashba made it patent that – despite his intense concern for Abba Mari’s cause – he would not attempt to impose his will directly upon the leaders of Languedocian Jewry. In any case, such an action almost certainly would have done no good. Indeed, Abba Mari’s powerful adversaries in Montpellier (an important city in Langeudoc) deemed Rashba’s mere promulgation of a model Catalonian decree to be used or copied by the Langudocian leadership as a brazen foreign overreach into their jurisdiction; and they made it quite clear how strongly they disapproved of Abba Mari’s consort with Rashba.[39]

If Rashba’s fiery second appendix was, in fact, ever received in Languedoc, it was completely ignored there.[40] In fact, no acknowledgement of any kind exists to Rashba’s international condemnation of transgressive philosophic allegory. In the extensive correspondence that follows the excommunications, even the scholars of Catalonia made no mention of this second condemnation.

Yet the condemnation is found in both Abba Mari’s Minhat Qena’ot and Rashba’s collected responsa. Perhaps Rashba’s second appendix — which focused on Levi’s supposed crimes — was perceived universally as such an utter blunder that all those involved, including the Catalonian scholars, thought it better to conduct themselves as if it simply did not exist. Rashba himself certainly never took up the issue again.

What Happened to Levi and His Approach

We don’t know what happened to Levi after his removal from Samuel’s house. At the time of the controversy, Levi was an older man. As far as we know, he continued his life as an itinerant scholar. We do not know that any harm came to him as a result of Rashba’s severe herem against him, which is not so much as acknowledged in Languedoc, or in Catalonia for that matter. Ultimately, Rashba is compelled to retreat, as the anger, offense, and defiance of Languedocian Jewry defeats Rashba’s attempted intervention.

Levi’s book, Livyat Hen, never garnered much interest outside of Languedoc, and only parts of it are still extant. This does not reflect active suppression of the work; not just Livyat Hen, but a large portion of the Languedocian legal-interpretive legacy became submerged during the late Middle Ages and early Modern Period. It seems likely that, to a great extent, the gradual dissolution of Languedocian Jewry over the course of the fourteenth century effected this disappearance. After their expulsion from Languedoc, the Languedocians were absorbed into other Jewries, and failed to preserve most of their cultural legacy.[41]


Reflection: What was at Stake?

This early fourteenth-century debate reflects the question of to what extent Torah should be reconciled to contemporary intellectual norms, and more specifically, if the mitzvot should be allegorized, and how biblical depictions of God’s voice should be understood. The Languedocians had no interest in undoing the authority of the Torah, but an educated and philosophically minded community like Languedoc insisted upon a sophisticated philosophical understanding of Scripture. Others clearly disagreed.

Allegorizing Mitzvot

Rashba never outright says that Levi or the allegorizer no longer keep mitzvot, yet the accusation of non-observance is often strongly implied. Philosophical interpretation of Commandments diminishes their legal force, in Rashba’s view. He seems to worry that they interpret the law in order to free themselves from it. Why else would they engage in such “atrocious” behavior? A Languedocian Jew would answer, “In order to understand the Commandments properly,” but this is something Rashba has trouble accepting. In fact, we know that the interpretation of Jews like Levi is not antinomian at all.

God’s Voice at Sinai

In one of his attacks on local darshanim, Abba Mari offers the following description (Minhat Qena’ot, p. 408),

ומענין הקול הנשמע בסיני
שמענו דבר סרה
אשר השומע צריך קריעה
ומזכירו צריך כפרה
And regarding the voice heard at Sinai,
We heard a wayward speech,
Which anyone who hears would need to tear [his clothes] And anyone who mentions it would require atonement.

Abba Mari does not want to repeat what he heard from the darshan, but we can surmise. This seems little more than following Maimonides’ discrete, carefully couched claim in the Guide to the Perplexed that God is utterly beyond bestowing verbal commands. God’s wisdom must be articulated in language by men who understand Him. What Maimonides said discreetly, the scholars Languedoc claimed openly, and this was one of Abba Mari’s main objections.

In short, the Torah says that God spoke to Moses, but according to fourteenth-century science—or even twenty-first century science—how might God literally speak? So, of course, there was no “voice” at Sinai.. To the philosophically minded Jews of Langudoc it was obvious that the references to God’s speech must be a philosophic allegory. In Languedoc, what else could it be?


November 5, 2015


Last Updated

March 20, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Gregg Stern is a Harvard-trained historian of medieval Jewish thought and culture. He is the author of Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture and the forthcoming Flashpoints: The Communal Struggle with the Legacy of Maimonides (1188-1340). Stern has taught and conducted research at colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel.