“Our Lords, the Rabbis of France”

By José Faur

 ‘Rabbis of France’ was a code term invented to bully the opposition. It referred to rabbis in France and Germany sympathetic to the anti-Maimonidean policies. They comprised the type of dysfunctional Talmudist confronted by R. Samuel ha-Nagid; in every detail (see above Chapter 51). The supreme authority of the “Rabbis of France” was formally instituted by the saintly R. Moses b. Nahman (1194-1270), known by the acronym Ramban—a cousin and disciple of the magnificent R. Jonah.[1] This is how he addressed them: “Oh, Our Lords, French Rabbis, we are your pupils and by your words we live!”[2] These rabbis were invested with imperial authority over all Israel. “Our Rabbis of France,” announced R. Joseph ben Todros Abul’afya (12th and 13th centuries), one of the earliest anti-Maimonideans in Castile, are those who “from whose waters we drink, and by their words live in all the confines of the world.” Their decisions and interpretations are binding on all parties. On their authority, R. Judah al-Fakhkhar (d. 1235) denied permission to R. David Qimhi (ca. 1160-ca. 1235)—one of the most learned Jews in Western Europe at the time—to present a defense of Maimonides in Toledo, “in compliance with the verdict of our Rabbis of France.”[3] There are two fundamentals characteristics to this appellative.  First, the rabbis are anonymous. Not only are the people not told who had transmitted to the anti-Maimonideans in Spain the verdict of the “Rabbis of France,” but what is particularly revealing, no one needs to know who these sages are, their names, when and where they lived, in which communities they served, what they wrote, or from whence they acquired their judicial supremacy. Second, they have judicial supremacy in the interpretation of the Tora even on matters pertaining to life and death. Questioning their opinions, even when running against the Law and Talmud, is nothing less than blasphemy. On their behalf, Jewish Law must be put aside. An illuminating example is a note by R. Yom Tob as-Sibili (c. 1250-1330); known by the acronym Ritba)—one of the great Talmudist from Christian Spain. In a passage examining whether it is permitted to commit suicide or to speed one’s own demise to avoid torture, he cited a marginal note that he had found appended to the Tosafot. In the note, a reference was made to a passage in Bereshit Rabba (XXXIV, 13, vol. 1, p. 324), proposing that King Saul was not guilty of suicide, since he killed himself to avoid dreadful torture and dishonor (see 1S 31:4). This is followed by an anonymous note: “We learn from the preceding that it is permitted to slaughter children in a pogrom for (fear) that they will be forced to apostatize.” The argument is unpersuasive. The view concerning King Saul’s suicide is not recorded in the Talmud but in the Midrash—which is generally not recognized as an authoritative source of halakhah.[4] More to the point, forced conversions, as deplorable as they may be, do not equal the case of King Saul, involving the certainty of ghastly torture and national disgrace.[5] Finally, there is a huge difference between self­-inflicted deaths, as with the case of King Saul, and murdering little babies! Ritba was unconvinced: “These are matters requiring study and serious investigation.” So far, he was following standard rabbinic reasoning. Unexpectedly, he retracted, appending this baffling remark: “However, since an elder has passed judgment (permitting the slaughtering of children) the matter is settled.” The source citing the “elder” (an allusion to R. Tam) was not identified. One would think that citing a verdict by one of the most meticulous legal minds standing in glaring contradiction to the Sixth Commandment (“Do not murder”), would warrant disclosing the source and argument. By the same token, one would expect that Ritba, who never before shied away from disagreeing with R. Tam, would present a contrary position. None of this happened. As if per magic, the mind of this great Talmudist came to a full stop when confronted with the phrase ‘Rabbis of France.’ Submissively, he recanted: “We have heard in the name of the Grandees of France that it is permitted to carry on in practice this decision” (הלכה למעשה).[6]

            Let us consider the following three points. First, the authority of the ‘Rabbis of France’ may not be questioned, even in matters entailing the commission of heinous crimes. Second, it is a self-justifying pronouncement warranting no corroboration. It suffices for someone to utter: ‘Rabbi of France,’ or for an anonymous hand to write it on the margin of a text, to render a view inviolable, thus excluding nasty questions such as: who they are, what evidence is there that they actually issued such a verdict, where can it be found, when was it issued, and under which circumstance. Such inquiries, standard in rabbinic legal tradition, are to be put aside in deference to the ‘Rabbis of France.’ Third, they are inerrant. Although the Supreme Court of Israel is prone to error, ‘Rabbis of France’ are infallible, and standard consideration must be put aside in deference to their rank. See Appendix 67.

            The status of the ‘Rabbis of France’ acquires precision upon considering that their supremacy was not predicated on standard knowledge and authority, but on the fact that they “grew up in the fields of Kabbalah, plump and fresh.”[7] R. Joseph Abul‘afya chided the Maimonideans for being wrathful at “our Rabbis of France” and for refusing to “follow in the footsteps of the sages of the Kabbalah, whom I saw, heard their words or read their works, follow in the paths of our Rabbis of France.”[8] Conversely, “our French Rabbis” are the supreme authority over all Israel, because they are “the instructors that teach and disclose to us every [Kabbalistic] mystery.”[9] In stark contrast, the Maimonideans undermine “the foundations of the Kabbalah,” and obliquely “speak ill of our French Rabbis.” Thus, he pleaded with them to recant, and “rely on the sages of the Kabbalah… because everything that the sages of the Kabbalah have planted are blooming trees, full of trust worthy seeds.” To defy them is nothing less than insubordination against God: no one “should either rebel against the Almighty, or confront the sages of Kabbalah.”[10]

            The anti-Maimonidean strategy will become crystal clear upon noticing that unless one accepts the theological notions of the Kabbalah, there is nothing heretical about Maimonideans. Conversely, without a priori recognition of the hegemony of “our Lords, the Rabbis of France,” there are no means by which to authenticate the Kabbalah. To put it less ponderously: without ‘Kabbalah/Rabbis of France’ there would be no ‘Maimonideans/heretics.’ The entire anti-Maimonidean movement would then be reduced to a cluster of irresponsible assertions, backed up by neither reasoned argument nor palpable evidence. Hence the axis: Kabbalah®Rabbis of France®anti-Maimonideans.

            By way of conclusion let us note that during the 13th and 14th centuries, when the anti-Maimonidean movement rages in Spain, there were large number of Jewish communities all over France. These communities were not homogenous. Each had its own religious and intellectual modality, rooted in very ancient and venerable traditions. Isn’t it strange that although they were often quoted, nobody cared to identify these ‘Rabbis of France,’ or say who had crowned them with this title? It would certainly not be irrelevant to know how somebody in Castile or Catalonia knew their views. When the illustrious Chief Rabbi of Toledo, R. Me’ir Abul’afya (c. 1170-1244), who at the time had joined the anti-Maimonidean movement, asserted that he “was writing to all the sages of France”[11]—are we to believe that he had taken an inventory of every single rabbi in France and forwarded the letter to them? By the same token, we cannot prevent ourselves from asking why it is that in his epistle to the ‘Rabbis of France’ in ‘defense’ of the Maimonideans, Ramban managed to omit their names and addresses. Granted that some rabbis in France were pro-Kabbalah and anti-Maimonidean; granted that also some rabbis in Spain communicated with some of their colleagues in France, were these rabbis speaking for the entire French rabbinate? If so, who anointed them: where and when? Bearing this in mind I would like to suggest—provocative as it may seem—that we are dealing with a literary device used by a preachy group moved by ideological fervor. A group, unable to persuade through judicious argument, used the formula ‘Rabbis of France’ to bludgeon the public over their heads with hectoring assertions. Before we rush to judgment, we should consider that we are dealing with the enchanted world of heroes and devils and knights and damsels in distress. As Cervantes taught, in that world, every knight had the right to fashion a Dulcinea in the mythical kingdom of Toboso. The ‘Rabbis of France’ were the Dulcinea of anti-Maimonidean knights chasing windmills in Spain. Would anyone fault Don Quixote (I, 4) for stopping the traveling merchants and demanding they acknowledge Dulcinea’s supreme beauty and excellence—or else?

From The Horizontal Society (The Academic Press: Boston 2010), Chapter 55, pp. 349-353.


[1] See Kitbe ha-Ramban, vol. 1, p. 397 n. 1. See below n. 124.

[2] In his “Letter to the French Rabbis,” in Iggerot Qena’ot, III, 8b. Accordingly, he proposed in his Perush on Lev 19:2, vol. 1. pp. 115-117, that when the Tora urged the Jews to be qedoshim it meant that they should adapt heroic virtue; see below Chapter 64. In a poem, Kitbe Ramban, vol. 1, p. 402, he praised qedoshim-style martyrdom.

[3] The first quotation is from “Milhemet ha-Dat,” ed. J. I. Kobakak, Jeshurun VIII (Bamberg, 1875), p. 29; and the second from ibid. p. 40. See Appendix 57.

[4] The bibliography on the subject is vast. For some learned insights, see Otzar hillufe Mihagim, ed. B. M. Lewin (Heb.) (Jerusalem: Major, 1972), #40, p. 80; Tashbess, III, #160; R. Mal’akhi Cohen, Yod Mal’akhi (New York: Keter, 5706/1946), #72; R. Hayyim J. D. Azulai, ‘En Zokher, (Leghorn, 5552/1792), Alef, #42. Cf. R. Jacob Hajez, Halakhot Qetannot (Venice, 5464/1704) II, #34, 30c; etc.

[5] See R. Samuel Ashkenazi, Yefe To’ar (Bereshit) (Venice: 5357/1597), 217a. Cf. The City of GodI, 17, p. 22; and I, 20, p. 26. For the best and most comprehensive examination of suicide in Jewish law, see R. Israel Moshe Hazzan, Kerakh she Romi (Leghorn, 5636/1876), #15.

[6] Hiddushe ha-Ritba, ‘Aboda Zara (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook: 5756/1996), cl. 81. Cf. Maran, Bedeq ha-Bayit, 10a-b, on Yore De‘a CLVII, s.v. b”h. On his behalf we should point out that some scholars abstained from expressing ideas that could be construed as ‘Maimonedean’ for fear of their life; see Milhamot ha-Shem, p. 77. The following are some of the places in which Ritba disagrees with R. Tam; Hiddushe ha-Ritba (Mossad Harav Kook): ‘Erubin, col. 490; Shebu‘ot, cols. 482-483; ‘Aboda Zara, col. 302; Holin, cols. 175, 206, 228; etc.

[7] “Letter to the French Rabbis,” in Iggerot Qena’ot, III, 8c. This may be an allusion to the special power granted to Kabbalists; see below nn. 153, 213.

[8]Milhemet ha-Dat,” pp. 30, 45’cf. ibid., p. 22.

[9] Ramban, “Introduction,” Dine De-Garme, printed at the end of his Commentary to Baba Batra. To soothe the fear of these rabbis, he assured them that in Spain “no one” [as of yet] has condemned or disparaged “our Kabbalah”; see “Letter to the French Rabbis,” in “Iggerot Qena’ot,” Qobess Teshubot, III, 9a.

[10]Milhemet ha-Dat,” pp. 22, 45, 32, 46.

[11] Kitab Al-Rasa’yil le-Rabbenu Me’ir ha-Levi (henceforth: Kitab Al-Rasa’yil) (Paris, 5631/1871), First Epistle, p. 2. The same applies to with Ritba, Hiddushim, at Rosh ha-Shana 34a s.v. ve-ha-ta‘am.

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