Ralbag's Surprising Take on Ruth's Conversion
An Overview of Ralbag and his Views
At the beginning of the month of Nisan in the year 1329 Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (1288–1344), known to the Jewish world as Ralbag and to the wider world as Gersonides, completed his commentary on the Scroll of Ruth—the scroll we read on the holiday of Shavuot. We have no way of knowing if Ralbag scheduled his writing so that his Ruth commentary would be completed in time for Shavuot, but it would be nice to think so.
Ralbag wrote important and often groundbreaking works in many fields. These include biblical exegesis, astronomy, astrology, geometry, halakhah, logic, mathematics, philosophy, and philosophical theology; he also wrote extensive supercommentaries on the commentaries of Averroes on Aristotle.
As far as is known, Ralbag spent all his fifty-six years in Provence (in the cities of Orange and Avignon, the seat of the papacy during its 1309–1378 Babylonian Captivity), in what is now France. Details of his biography are scarce. His reputation in the wider world was such that a very large number of his scientific and philosophical works were translated into Latin and his astronomical tables were sought after by Johannes Kepler.
In the world of Jewish tradition, Ralbag is best known as the author of commentaries on the former prophets and on Job. These commentaries are found today in the Mikra’ot Gedolot editions of the Bible along with other traditional commentaries. This is actually surprising, given many of his views, views that many writers found (and find) to be deeply offensive. Indeed, the early 20th century historian of medieval Jewish philosophy, Isaac Husik, called Ralbag’s views on the nature of God’s knowledge, “theologically monstrous.”
What did Ralbag write that so offended later generations? Let us look at a few examples.
God’s Limited Knowledge
God knows all that may be known, and knows it perfectly. What can be known, however, does not include what actually happens on Earth, to whom and by whom. God has perfect knowledge of the formal structure of the cosmos, but not of individuals who are individuated by their materiality—i.e. you and me. God has perfect knowledge of the natural world that God created but humans can, thanks to the way God created them, exercise free choice. Most humans do not exercise free choice in Ralbag’s estimation, but when they do, God cannot be aware of the choices and their outcomes. (Just consider what this does to traditional religious views of providence, reward and punishment, and prayer.)
God Cannot Fully Control the Evil in the World
God created the universe, but out of a pre-existent uncreated matter, which stubbornly resists God’s not wholly successful attempt to impose order and goodness upon it. There is thus evil in the world, and it is not just an absence of good (as Maimonides and countless others would have us say), but real, thumping evil (even if controlled and minimized by God to the greatest extent possible).
Prophets are really Super-Philosophers
Ralbag accepts as correct what Maimonides calls the philosophical conception of prophecy, which makes prophets into nothing other than “super-philosophers.”
Very Few Humans will Achieve Immortality
Some few humans may indeed achieve immortality, but in doing so they must sacrifice their individuality. How could it be otherwise, since what individuates us is our matter (which surely does not survive death)?
It is hardly surprising that in many circles, Ralbag’s ideas were (and are) considered too hot to handle. Indeed, as was reported by the man who first published Milchamot HaShem (Wars of the Lord), the book was sometimes called Milchamot im HaShem (Wars With/Against the Lord).
Ralbag on Ruth: Ruth as a Convert to Jewish Religion
None of these shocking ideas shows up in his commentary on Ruth, which focuses on elucidation of peshat. It is therefore surprising that unlike other prominent parshanim on Ruth, Ralbag, leaving peshat behind, repeatedly emphasizes that Ruth was a technical convert to Judaism. Ruth, unlike her sister-in-law Orpah, Ralbag explains, was sincerely attracted to dat yisrael, the religion of Israel (1:14). Yet the Ruth story itself never indicates that Ruth underwent any sort of formal conversion. Why specifically here did Ralbag leave peshat behind?
Ralbag here is somewhat influenced by Rambam, who was among the first to define Judaism as what today we would call a religion. Before Rambam, Judaism, as the term is understood today (and as it has been understood since the dawn of modernity) did not exist. There was not even a word for it “religion” in any traditional Jewish language. Rather, what we call “Judaism” today was generally understood as a complex amalgam of religious belief, practice, and national/ethnic identification. That view prevailed in many circles until modern times.
The peshat of Ruth does not focus on Judaism as a theological system, and belies the notion that she underwent a formal conversion ceremony. Ruth clearly states that she identifies first with the people of Naomi, and only after that with Naomi’s God (1:16). In other words, Ruth was adopted into the Jewish people first and foremost because of her identification with that people, and only secondarily because of her attachment to the God of Israel; she assimilates primarily to am yisrael, and only secondarily to “Judaism.” This form of assimilation apparently made Ralbag uncomfortable, and he therefore portrayed her as a formal convert, against the peshat of the text.
Ruth vs. Ezra = Maimonides vs. Halevi
A number of scholars have suggested that Ruth and Ezra function as antitheses: Ruth emphasizes the fundamental equality of all human beings, while Ezra emphasizes the unique character of zera yisrael, the seed of Israel alone as zera hakodesh, “the holy seed” (9:2). According to the straightforward account in the Scroll of Ruth there is no sharp distinction between Jews (more accurately: Israelites) and non-Jews that cannot be overcome by a formal act of conversion. This approach is congenial for Rambam who denied that there is any essentialist difference between Jew and gentile; he even anticipated a messianic era in which the distinction between Jew and gentile would disappear.
But, by insisting that Ruth be seen as a technical convert, Ralbag is disagreeing with Rambam, emphasizing instead that the Jew/gentile distinction is hard and fast, and cannot wither away. As my friend Professor Daniel J. Lasker put it so well, for Rambam, the difference between Jew and gentile is a matter of software only (views held and actions done). For Halevi (and after him, the Zohar and Kabbalah generally), the difference between Jew and gentile is one of hardware, of some irreducible difference on the level of ontology, not only on the level of thought and action. This continues the view expressed in the book of Ezra, which emphasizes the fundamental otherness of non-Jews; they are not, and can never become zera hakodesh, “the holy seed.”
To be anachronistic, it would seem that the author of the Scroll of Ruth is in one respect a closet Maimonidean (in the sense of denying a hard and fast distinction between Jew and gentile, but not in the sense of seeing Judaims as a religion), telling us that David king of Israel was descended from a gentile (and a Moabite at that!), and not of pure zera yisrael antecedents.
To be sure, as a traditional medieval Jew Ralbag could not be a “hard-core” Ezraite; he had no choice but to accept that there is such a thing as conversion. Nevertheless, the fact that Ralbag insists on discussing her technical conversion, whereas other commentators simply ignore the issue, indicates to my mind that he sees the gulf between Jew and gentile as very deep, requiring a process for overcoming it, even though this does not seem to fit the theme of the story. This is a surprising idea coming from an admirer of Aristotle, Rambam, and Averroes, a man who worked in collegial harmony with Christian churchmen.
Ralbag was a complex figure. He clearly followed Rambam on the necessity of studying science and philosophy in order to understand (and observe) Torah properly, but, as we have seen here ever so briefly, he did not follow Rambam in his thorough-going universalism. When push comes to shove, he may have been closer to the Book of Ezra and to Halevi on the nature of the Jewish people than he was to the peshat of the Scroll of Ruth and to Rambam. But, despite his clear affinity to Halevi here, to the best of my recollection, he never once mentions Halevi in all his voluminous writings.
Moral of the Story
This is all very interesting (at least for a person like me), but I think that there is a lesson to be learned here. I write these words under the impress of recent so-called “price tag” attacks on Arabs and Arab property here in Israel. The outright anti-gentile racism expressed by many people who support the “price tag” hooligans shows how easy it is for otherwise good and decent people to adopt the ideas of the Book of Ezra. That a figure such as Gersonides may have found the Book of Ezra more congenial to his Judaism than the simple meaning of the Scroll of Ruth is an indication of how careful we must all be not to succumb to the dark side of the Jewish force.
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May 29, 2014
January 2, 2021
Prof. Menachem Kellner is faculty at Shalem College’s Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought. He is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, where, among things, he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Religious Thought. He did his B.A, M.A. and Ph.D. at Washington University. Kellner is probably best known for his book, Must a Jew Believe Anything?
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