It was not to be expected that the age of the Second Dispersion should produce any high culture among the Jews; their energy was consumed in the brute task of survival. Education, in which they had excelled, was disrupted by the mobility and insecurity of life; and while Christian Europe moved with exhilaration into the Renaissance, the Jews of Christendom moved into the ghetto and the Cabala. The Second Commandment forbade them to share in the revival of art. Jewish scholars were many, but for the most part they sank themselves in the Talmud. There were grammarians like Profiat Duran and Abraham de Balmes, translators like Isaac ibn-Pulkar, who put al-Ghazzali into Hebrew, and Jakob Mantin, who rendered Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, and Levi ben Gerson into Latin. Elijah Levita alarmed orthodox Jews by arguing conclusively (1538) that the Masoretic text of the Old Testament—i.e., the text with notes, vowel points and punctuation—was not older than the fifth century A.D.
The Odyssey of the Abrabanels illustrates the vicissitudes of the Jewish intellect in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Born in Lisbon in 1437, Don Isaac Abrabanel served Affonso V of Portugal as finance minister; but he mingled his public life with Biblical and historical studies, and made his spacious home a salon of scholars, scientists, and men of affairs. When Affonso died Abrabanel lost the royal favor, and fled to Spain (1484). He was absorbed in writing commentaries on the historical books of the Bible when Ferdinand the Catholic called him to office, and for eight years Isaac shared in managing the finances of Castile. He labored to avert the disaster that befell the Jews in 1492; failing, he joined them in their melancholy exodus. At Naples he was employed by the government, but the French invaders (1495) sacked his home, destroyed his choice library, and forced him to flee to Corfu. There he wrote as many a Jew must have written in those years: “My wife, my sons, and my books are far from me, and I am left alone, a stranger in a strange land.”79 He made his way to Venice, and was given a diplomatic post (1503). Amid these fluctuations of fortune he found time to write several philosophical or theological works, now of minor interest; but he established the principle that Scriptural events and ideas should be interpreted in terms of the social and political life of their times. He was allowed to spend his final six years in unwonted security and peace.
His sons were his decoration. Samuel Abrabanel prospered at Salonika, was made finance minister at Naples, and earned the love of his people by his many philanthropies. Judah Leon Abrabanel—Leo Hebraeus—rose to such prominence as a physician in Genoa and Naples that he became known as Leon Medigo. He studied many sciences, wrote poetry, and ventured into metaphysics. In 1505 he was appointed physician to Gonzalo de Cordoba, but two years later the “Great Captain” fell out with Ferdinand, and Leon joined his father in Venice. His Dialoghi d’Amore (written in 1502, published in 1535) found quite an audience among the Renaissance Italians, for whom the philosophical analysis of love served as prelude or obbligato to amorous victories. Intellectual Beauty—the beauty of order, plan, and harmony—is superior to physical beauty, argued the Dialogues; the supreme beauty is the order, plan, and harmony of the universe, which is the outward expression of divine beauty; love rises in stages from the admiration and pursuit of physical to intellectual to heavenly beauty, and culminates in the intellectual love of God—the understanding and appreciation of the cosmic order, and the desire to be united with the Deity. The manuscript may have been known to Castiglione, who made Bembo speak to like effect in II cortigiano (1528); and the printed book may have found its way across a century to influence Spinoza’s amor dei intellectualis.80
To this ethereal amour the dispersed Portuguese Jews preferred Usque’s impassioned prose poem in Portuguese, Consolation for the Sorrows of Israel (Ferrara, 1553). It pictured the alternate triumphs and disasters of the Jewish nation, and comforted the Jews with the assurance that they were still God’s chosen people. They had been punished by God for their sins, but they were being purified by their sufferings; and no deviltry of man could cheat them of their divine destiny to happiness and glory.
Jewish contributions to science inevitably slackened in this prolonged vivisection of a people. Not only did insecurity, poverty, and instability impede scientific pursuits, but one of the most respected and influential of the rabbis, Solomon ben Abraham ben Adret of Barcelona, at the very beginning of this period (1305), had forbidden, under penalty of excommunication, the teaching of science or philosoohy to any Jew under the age of twenty-five, on the ground that such instruction might damage religious faith. Nevertheless Isaac Israeli the Younger, of Toledo, summarized the astronomy of his time (1320), and clarified the Jewish calendar and chronology; Immanuel Bonfils of Tarascon drew up valuable astronomical tables, and anticipated exponential and decimal calculus; Abraham Crescas of Majorca, “Master of Maps and Compasses to the Government of Aragon,” made a mapamundi (1377) which was so widely recognized as the best world map yet made that Aragon sent it as a distinguished gift to Charles VI of France, where it is now a prized possession of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Abraham’s son Jehuda Crescas was the first director of Henry the Navigator’s nautical observatory at Sagres, and helped to chart his explorations. Pedro Nuñes’s Treatise on the Sphere(1537) opened the way for Mercator and all modern cartography; and Garcia d’Orta’s Colloquios dos simples e drogas medicvnães (1563) marked an epoch in botany and founded tropical medicine.
Abraham Zacuto was the one major figure in the Jewish science of the fifteenth century. While teaching at Salamanca (1473–78) he compiled his Almanach perpetuum, whose astronomical tables were used as navigational guides on the voyages of Vasco da Gama, Cabral, Albuquerque, and (after 1496) Columbus. Zacuto was among the refugees from Spain (1492). He found temporary asylum in Portugal; he was consulted by the court in preparing Da Gama’s expedition to India, and the ships were equipped with his improved astrolabe. But in 1497 persecution drove him from Portugal too. For years he wandered in poverty until he settled in Tunis; and there, in his old age, he comforted himself by writing a history of his people. His pupil Joseph Vecinho, physician to John II of Portugal, was sent to chart latitudes and solar declinations along the Guinea coast, and the charts so prepared proved invaluable to Da Gama. Vecinho was one of the commission to which John II referred Columbus’s proposals for seeking a western route to the Indies (1484), and shared in the negative decision.81
Jewish physicians were still the most sought for in Europe. Harassed with religious condemnations and official restrictions, and risking their lives in treating prominent Christians, they were nevertheless the favorites of popes and kings. Their contributions to medical science were not now brilliant, except for d’Orta’s to tropical medicine; but Amatus Lusitanus exemplified the finest traditions of his profession and his people. Driven by the Inquisition from the Portugal whose Latin name he had taken, he lived passingly in Antwerp, Ferrara, and Rome, and settled in Ancona (c. 1549), whence he was often called to treat that same Pope Julius III who labored to destroy the Talmud. To the end of his life he was able to take oath that he had never concerned himself with compensation, had never accepted valuable presents, had served the poor without fee, had made no distinction in his practice among Christian, Jew, and Turk, and had allowed no difficulties of time or distance to interfere with devotion to his calling. HisCuriationum medicinalium centuriae septem (1563) gave clinical records of 700 cases that he had treated; these Centuries were studied and treasured by physicians throughout Europe. The king of Poland invited Amatus to be his personal physician; Lusitanus preferred to remain in Ancona; but in 1556 he was compelled to resume his wandering when Paul IV demanded the conversion or imprisonment of all Marranos in Italy.
Ben Adret’s moratorium on science and philosophy had less effect on philosophy than on science, and less in France than in Spain. The influence of Maimonides was still strong among the Jews who managed to survive in southern France. Joseph Kaspi dared to write treatises on logic and ethics for the guidance of his son, and defended the liberal philosophical tradition that had received its classical exposition in Maimonides’s Moreh Nebuchim. This approach produced a major Jewish thinker in Levi ben Gerson, known to the Christian world as Gersonides. Like most Jewish philosophers, he earned his bread by practicing medicine, and realized Hippocrates’s ideal of the physician-philosopher. Born at Bagnols (1288) in a family of scholars, he lived nearly all his life in Orange, Perpignan, and Avignon, where he worked in peace under the protection of the popes. There was hardly a science that he did not deal with, hardly a problem in philosophy that he left untouched. He was a learned Talmudist, he contributed to the mathematics of music, he wrote poetry.
In mathematics and astronomy he was among the lights of the age. He anticipated (1321) the method later formulated by Maurolico (1575) and Pascal (1654), finding the number of simple permutations of n objects by mathematical induction. His treatise on trigonometry paved the way for Regiomontanus, and was so widely esteemed that Pope Clement VI commissioned its translation into Latin as De sinibus, chordis, et arcubus (1342). He invented, or materially improved, the cross-staff for measuring the altitude of stars; this remained for two centuries a precious boon to navigation. He made his own astronomic observations, and ably critized the Ptolemaic system. He discussed but rejected the heliocentric hypothesis, in a manner suggesting that there were quite a few adherents of it in his time. He perfected the camera obscura, and used it, with the cross-staff, to determine more accurately the variations in the apparent diameter of the sun and moon.
As ben Gerson’s science stemmed from the Arabic mathematicians and astronomers, so his philosophy was based on a critical study of the commentaries in which Averroes had expounded Aristotle. During the years 1319–21 Levi composed commentaries on these commentaries, covering Aristotle’s treatises on logic, physics, astronomy, meteorology, botany, zoology, psychology, and metaphysics; and to these studies he added, of course, repeated readings of Maimonides. His own philosophy, and most of his science, were embodied in a Hebrew work entitled, in the fashion of the age, Milchamoth Adonai (Battles of the Lord, 1317–29). It ranks second only to the Moreh Nebuchim in Jewish medieval philosophy, and continues Maimonides’s attempt to reconcile Greek thought with Jewish faith, much to the detriment of the faith. When we consider the similar efforts of Averroes and Thomas Aquinas to harmonize Mohammedanism and Christianity with Aristotle, we might almost say that the impact of Aristotle on medieval theologies inaugurated their disintegration and the transition from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason. Gersonides sought to soften orthodox resentment by professing his readiness to abandon his views if these should be proved contrary to Scripture—an old Scholastic dodge. Nevertheless he went on to reason at great length about God, creation, the eternity of the world, the immortality of the soul; and when his conclusions contradicted Scripture he interpreted it with such violence to the text that his critics renamed his bookBattles against the Lord.82 We must not take literally, said Levi, such stories as that of Joshua stopping the sun; these and similar “miracles” were probably natural events whose causes were forgotten or unknown.83 Finally he proclaimed his rationalism without disguise: “The Torah cannot prevent us from considering to be true that which our reason urges us to believe.”84
Gersonides derived the existence of God from what the atheist Holbach would call “the system of nature”: the law and order of the universe reveal a cosmic Mind. To this he adds the teleological argument: most things in living nature seem designed as means to end, and Providence gives every organism the means of self-protection, development, and reproduction. The world as cosmos or order was created in time, but not out of nothing; an inert, formless mass pre-existed from eternity; creation gave it life and form. Between God and the created forms is an intermediary power which Gerson, following Aristotle and Averroes, calls nous poietikos, the Active or Creative Intellect; this emanation of divine intelligence guides all things, and becomes the soul in man. So far as the soul depends upon the individual’s sensations, it is mortal; so far as it conceives universals, and perceives the order and unity of the world, it becomes consciously part of the Active Intellect, which is immortal.
Ben Gerson’s philosophy was rejected by the Jews as essentially a form f Averroism, a rationalism that would ultimately dissolve religious belief. Christian thinkers studied him, Spinoza was influenced by him; but the heart and mind of thoughtful Jews were more faithfully expressed by Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas, who had imbibed the conservatism of Solomon ben Adret. Born in Barcelona in 1340. Crescas lived through a period of rabid antisemitism. He was arrested on a charge of having desecrated a Host; he was soon released, but his son, on the very eve of marriage, was killed in the massacres of 1391. Persecution strengthened Hasdai’s faith, for only by belief in a just God and a compensatory heaven could he bear a life so evil in injustice and suffering. Seven years after the martyrdom of his son he published in Spanish a Tratado which sought to explain to Christians why a Jew should not be asked to accept Christianity. Courteously and moderately he argued that the Christian dogmas of the Fall, Trinity, Immaculate Conception, Incarnation, Atonement, and Transubstantiation involved insuperable contradictions and absurd impossibilities. Yet when he composed his major work, Or Adonai (Light of the Lord, 1410), he took a stand from which the Christians might have defended these theories: he renounced reason and bade it surrender to faith. Though he was not officially a rabbi, he shared the rabbinical view that the renewed persecutions were a divine punishment for subjecting the revealed religion to rationalistic dilution. If he wrote philosophy it was through no admiration for it, but to prove the weakness of philosophy and reason, and to affirm the necessity of belief. He repudiated the attempts of Maimonides and Gerson to reconcile Judaism with Aristotle; who was this Greek thatGod had to agree with him? He protested the Aristotelian notion that God’s supreme quality is knowledge; rather it is love; God is the Absolutely Good. Crescas admitted that reason cannot harmonize God’s foreknowledge with man’s freedom; we must therefore reject not freedom but reason. We must believe in God, free will, and immortality for our peace of mind and our moral health, and we need make no pretense to prove these beliefs by reason. We must choose between our proud, weak reason, which dissolves belief and begets despair, and our humble faith in God’s Word, through which alone we can bear the indignities and inequities of life.
Crescas was the last of a brilliant line of medieval Jewish philosophers. He was not at once appreciated by his people, for his pupil Joseph Albo caught the philosophical audience with his more readable lkkarim (Fundamental Principles); this combined Maimonides and Crescas in an eclectic system more consonant than either with orthodox Judaism, which was not prepared to admit the irrationality of faith. After Albo’s death (1444) the Jews retired from philosophy, almost from history, till Spinoza. Massacres, dislocations, destitution, and restrictions of residence and occupation had broken their spirit, and had diminished their number to the lowest level since the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.85 The despised and rejected of men found refuge in the sorrowing chants and comforting fellowship of the synagogue, in hopes of divine forgiveness, earthly justification, and celestial bliss. Scholars buried themselves in the Talmud, confining their reasoning to the elucidation of the saving Law, while some followed the Cabala into a mysticism that sublimated misery into heaven-scaling delusions. Jewish poetry ceased to sing. Only a remnant lifted its head now and then defiantly against the storm, or softened the ironies of life with wistful humor and wry wit. Not till the humble Jew of Amsterdam would dare to unite Judaism, Scholasticism, and Cartesianism into a sublime merger of religion and science would the Jews wake from their long and healing sleep to take their place again in the raceless and timeless international of the mind.