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The Past And The Present.


Since the human mind, when witnessing any extraordinary state of circumstances, can only rest satisfied after it has perceived and digested the events to which this state of things has given rise, even where it is not able to favour this new state, nor to approve of it: I feel myself impelled to endeavour to explain the present struggle in the bosom of Judaism by a retrospective glance at the occurrences of bygone days. Because the contest now proceeding between ancient customs and usages on the one side and philosophy on the other; between an adherence to figurative forms, intended to bear upon vital ideas of religion, and in connexion with which they were first introduced to the minds of the people, and the plain unveiling of these ideas themselves; between the decayed results of a former mode of thinking and the substitution, therefore, of the result of opinions of more recent origin—presents one of the most powerful movements which developes itself in the history of the world. The dissensions between philosophy and the belief in the necessity of forms have existed at all times; occasionally concealed from public observation, or at least only perceived by a few individuals, at other times, however, openly exciting the two contending parties, when the champions of both these views entered the battle-field against each <<243>>other with spiritual arms, and leaving it again, each claiming the victory, but in fact leaving the decision as doubtful as ever, thus kindling the flame for a renewed struggle at a later period.

When the Arabs became acquainted, through means of translations, with the literature of the Greeks, especially their philosophy, the Israelites did not neglect this new spiritual awakening. Even Rabbi Saadiah Gaon favoured these studies. He endeavoured to prove by reason, מן השכל, the doctrines of the Jewish faith; for instance, the creation of the world out of absolute chaos; free will, reward and punishment in a future life, &c. He also laboured to remove from Judaism the prevailing false opinions of his times, such as the corporeality of God;* the existence of a Satan; the interference of God with the free agency of man; the transmigration of the soul, &c. To effect his end he explained many passages in the Bible as figurative, and conceded some points which seemed at variance with philosophy.

* Not being acquainted with the writings of R. Saadiah, we cannot determine how far our correspondent may be correct in his view of the opinions entertained by the Jews of that period. But it appears to us that such an idea as the corporeality of God is one which is so utterly opposed to Judaism, that it could never have been the prevalent opinion of the learned at all events. Will our correspondent furnish us the necessary quotations?—Ed. Oc.

In these endeavours he was followed by Rabbenu Hananel and Rabbenu Nissim. Another of the Gaonim, R. Samuel Ben Hophni Hackohen advanced even the important idea “that nothing can be admitted as true which is contradictory to reason.” Such doctrines, as may readily be supposed, had many opponents, and R. Hayi Gaon contended that in cases where reason and rabbinical opinions did not agree, the former must yield to the latter.

But the greatest struggle in this respect broke out in another country—the Provence. It was here that the religious poems and the philosophical labours of the Spanish Jews were opposed by the rabbinical opinions of the French Israelites; and it was here that the works of Moses, son of Maimuni, (the Rambam,) elicited a protracted and fierce warfare. This great talmudist, philosopher and physician charged himself with the task of solving the difficult problem, the reconciliation of religion with philosophy. His invaluable philosophical work מורה נבוכים “the Guide of the Perplexed”† was destined to settle this important <<244>>question. In composing this work he endeavoured, and effectually succeeded, to reconcile Judaism with philosophy, as he plainly expresses himself in his introduction: “I have not written for beginners, but for the initiated, for such men as adhere to the word of God but are driven into doubts by philosophical erroneous views.” This collision he wished to reconcile by rational explanations of the words of the Bible, especially those appellations applied to the Deity which have an appearance of humanity in them. He also teaches us, in his truly philosophical system, that the future rewards and punishments are merely spiritual, and he denies all corporeal happiness or sufferings in the future state.

† It was written originally in Arabic, and was translated into Hebrew, by Rabbi Samuel Ebn Tibbon. A letter from Maimonides to this R. Samuel gives us an account of the excessive labours  of the former. R. Samuel intended to go to Cairo, in order to converse with Maimonides, who thereupon wrote to him, “ I have to visit the Sultan and his family every day to ask after their health, and to attend on them medically, if necessary ; when I return to my house I am consulted by so many sick persons, that l can scarcely find the time to eat my meals; on Sabbath the members of the congregation come to talk about religious matters; although, therefore, I should be glad to see you, my friend, I do not expect to get time for much conversation.” From the letters of Rambam.

But more influential in Judaism was his works on the laws of the Pentateuch. In this he gives a reason for the observance of each of these laws, and asserts that all these statutes tend to elevate our spirit to God, and to improve our hearts in his service, and to remove us from irrational actions. The idea, connected with the deeds, not the external form alone, is the bond which draws us nearer to God, and man is the agent himself to unite himself either firmly or loosely to his Maker.

In Spain, in Africa, in France, and in Germany, he was highly esteemed, and his adversaries, Rabbi Abraham ben David, in Provence, and Rabbi Meir ben Todros Hallevi, in Toledo, were not regarded. The latter complained that the Moreh strengthens the root of religion, but lops off the branches; that it repairs the breaches in the foundation, but cuts down the fences  that in its throat there are praises of God, but that on its tongue there is life as well as death; that it draws us near with the left and repels us with the right hand; and that no one studying it can remain pure.

The writings of Maimonides, notwithstanding this opposition, increased in popularity both in Spain and Provence; and finally <<245>>the contest to which I alluded to above, broke out at Montpelier ההר. R. Shelomo ben Abraham, of that city, placed himself at the head of the opponents of Maimonides, and effected that an interdict חרם was pronounced against the מורה and ספר המדע of the sage of Cordova. Armed with this, Shelomo and his scholars went to work to raise up a party against Maimonides; but in persecuting him they displayed a great want of philosophical knowledge, for they did not even enter into the depth of his system as it is elaborated in the Moreh; but they attacked him for speaking against the corporeality of God, for calling all those heretics who represent God as possessing bodily qualities. They also objected to the hypothesis of the future life, as Maimonides taught it, since he explained the feast of Leviathan, as mentioned in the Talmud, in a figurative sense, referring to spiritual enjoyment.

R. .Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides רמב״ן) and R. Samuel ben Abraham Sforta defended Maimonides, proving that his adversaries were not informed on the points in dispute; but the contest was not ended thereby, as the Moreh remained the thorn in the eyes of its opponents. It was then that the illustrious R. David ben Joseph Kimchi (רד״ק), with other supporters of Maimonides, stepped forth as the defenders of enlightened inquiry. In this dilemma the pious Shelomoh took recourse to denunciation. He went to the monks, saying that his fellow-believers were becoming heretics, seduced thereto by the Egyptian Moses, who had written books full of heresy, and as they punished their heretics; so he begged them to remove ours likewise, and to order the מורה andספר המדע to be burnt. But this step was also in vain; the Christian jurisdiction declared that those who accused were calumniators and informers, and some of them were punished in a cruel manner, which caused their death.

In the year 4995 A. M., Abraham the son of Maimonides, learnt at Cairo these occurrences, and deeply affected by the unjust censure cast on his father’s memory, he wrote the “book of the wars of the Lord,” ספר מלחמות ה׳, in which he exhibited the ignorance of his adversaries.

Peace was thus restored, and the orthodoxy of Maimonides conceded; but the basis of his philosophical writings was still contested, and half a century later, the friends of philosophy in <<246>>Baghdad were compelled  to pronounce an excommunication against all who would calumniate Maimonides and his books.*

* See כרם חמד vol. 3.

In the Provence the writings of Maimonides were studied with increased ardour; the family of Tibbon, especially R. Samuel Ebn Tibbon, produced translations of them; and the Moreh there enjoyed numerous friends, and was approved of by the majority of Israelites. Spain, of old the land of science, was at that time suffering under the infliction of Christian fanaticism, which raged not with spiritual weapons merely, but with fire and sword; and this failed not to have an influence on the Jews. Philosophical studies were not yet forgotten; but their flourishing period was past. R. Shelomoh ben Adereth could therefore succeed in influencing the mind of his contemporaries, and with the assistance of R. Asher ben Jechiel, the celebrated Talmudist, he interdicted the study of philosophy to all under the age of thirty years. Against this interdict the friends of philosophy objected; and as the contest had lasted so long already, peace was ardently desired by all. It came; but it was soon succeeded by a sad state of things. France expelled the Jews; Spain followed the example after some time; and the oppression heaped on us at the close of the Middle Ages extinguished well nigh all spiritual light among us. The champions were banished to different countries; the whole controversy was lost sight of, and the oppression did not permit an aspiring genius to rise up. But the books produced by the above contest still exist, and deserve to be read in our days, in which spiritual life has been rekindled amongst the Jews. We have reason to be proud of our ancestral literature at that period; and it must be borne in mind that Maimonides and his adversaries lived in an age when dark midnight prevailed throughout Europe. The influence of Maimonides’ writings was great at all times, and continues so to the present moment, and they have always given an impulse to a liberal spiritual movement in Judaism.

What could not be accomplished in that distant period, owing to the iron-handed oppression of the Middle Ages, ought to be attempted again in our days, and we should labour to solve the all-important problem, “how to remove from our fellow-believers both superstition and unbelief.”


New Orleans, May 25, 5608.