Payback time – the Case of the Catalonian Rabbis

By José Faur

Jewish Heroic ideology penetrated the Iberian Peninsula in a three-prong movement: ‘anti-Maimonedean,’ ‘Kabbalah,’ and ‘Rabbis of France’ (usually referred to as חכמי צרפת ‘the Sages of France’ רבותינו הצרפתים ‘our French masters’; and גדולי צרפת ‘the Grandees of France’). Generally, these subjects are studied separately, as if disconnected from one another. Attention should be paid, however, to the fact that Spanish Kabbalah [not to be confused with Lurianic Kabbalah] originated in the cities of Gerona and Barcelona, the hotbed of anti-Maimonedean activities. The link connecting these two movements, neglected by contemporary historians, is ‘Rabbis of France.’ “The rise of this secret lore,” noted the great historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), “coincides with the time of the Maimunistic controversy, through which it was launched into existence.”[1] R. Jonah of Gerona (c. 1200-1263) – who had the distinction to have introduced German hasidut into Spain – and was a major player in the anti-Maimonedean movement, studied Kabbalah with R. Isaac the Blind (son and disciple of Maimondes’ nemesis, R. David of Posquièrs).[2] In what follows, I would like to propose that ‘anti-Maimonedean’ –>’Kabbalah’–>’Rabbis of France’ constituted a single movement.

The anti-Maimonedean movement (1180-1240) came at a critical moment in Iberian Jewish history. Until the mid 12th century the Jewish Communities in Central and Northern Spain were governed, more or less, according to the values, culture, and traditions as their brethren in Andalusia. With the destruction of Andalusian Communities by Muslim fanatics from North Africa, Jewish intelligentsia left Spain. For political, as well as cultural reasons, Jewish leadership passed over to Castile. Soon, this leadership was challenged by the anti-Maimonideans penetrating from Catalonia from the North. Overtly, their intention was to combat heresy and promote Kabbalah. Actually, their aim was to discredit the established institutions and leadership. To understand their motivation let us begin by pointing out that Catalonia was never part of Sepharad (More or less like Naples and Sicily, regarding the rest of Italy). Granted, at one time Catalonian Jewry, like other communities in the Iberian Peninsula, acknowledged some of the values and leadership of Jewish Andalusia. However, they never conceded their hegemony. Catalonian Jewry did not feel, not in fact was regarded as, part of Sepharad. Their liturgy was different. A disciple of R. Solomon Adrete informed us that the Catalonian Synagogue continued to “include the piyyutim of Yannai in their prayers.”[3] Their halakhic practices, too, differed. A Catalan rabbi in North Africa explained:

“You should know, that we are (children) of those who had been banished from Catalonia, and we conduct ourselves in accordance (with the norms) followed by our ancestors, we continue these practices in the places that, because of our sins, we have been driven… And although the legal decisions [of their rabbis] are not commonly known, nonetheless, it would be improper to question the norms of their communities. Even though a particular custom may not be registered on any book we must assume that the norm had been established in accordance with the great [rabbis].”[4]

Catalan Jewry, too, was independent of their brethren from Castile. While Jews in Castile continued to use Arabic (see below Chapter 61), Catalan Jews translated the Scripture into Catalan, before it was translated into the Spanish of Castile.[5] Maran Joseph Caro was careful to register separately the ‘custom of Sepharad’ and ‘the custom of Catalonia.[6]

Catalonian Jewry was fiercely independent. Concerning the recitation of the Targum they did not hesitate to confront R. Samuel ha-Nagid, who, in turn, referred to them as holding “some aspects of minut” (see above Chapter 50 and Appendix 61). During this conflict, some of these rebels “ died under the whip.”[7] It is hard to believe that Catalonian rabbis would have forgotten such ignomity. Rather, it would be safe to assume that in the “ Day of the Willow” they would not have flinched , and would have stood firmly on the side of the shrieking Talmudist. The collapse of Andalusian Jewry opened up a window of opportunity for pay back. The window could close quickly. There was something ominous in neighboring Toledo. As a result of the collapse of Andalusian Jewry a large influx of refugees arrived in that city. Among the refugees, there were Andalusian sages planning to open a Talmudic academy. R. Abraham ibn Daud, one of these refugees, reported that, since the children of R. Joseph ibn Megas

“…were unable to maintain academies [in Lucena] and were [among] the first to flee to the city of Toledo, they have been making whatever effort they could to raise disciples, and the Holy One, blessed be He, has shown His approval of their deeds. They are the last of the Talmudic scholars of the present age.”[8]

To strengthen their position, the newcomers brought with them the library of Lucena, as well as the private collection of R. Samuel ha-Nagid, containing the most prestigious copies of Talmud and Rabbinics, going all the way back to the Geonic period (see below Concluding Reflections).

Success of these sages would have marked the end of the Catalonian rabbinate. Something had to be done to discredit the newcomers and insure that their Talmudic academy would not succeed. The decisive battle would have to be fought in Toledo – the new ‘Jewish’ capital of Sepharad. The first step, however, was to outlaw the ‘Maimonedeans’ in Catalonia. With this in goal in mind three separate groups were organized. To combat the sages raised in’ Sepharad,’ a new brand of spiritual leadership was introduced: the ‘Rabbis of France’ (see following Chapter). These rabbis were credited with heroic knowledge and might. To justify their disdain for the Talmudic qabbala of the Geonim and Andalusia, a new, more potent alternative was proposed: ‘archaic’ Kabbalah – descending in mysterious channels from Moses to the mystics of Gerona (see below Chapter 57). Unlike the mundane ‘philosophy’ of the ‘Maimonedeans,’ something more sublime and potent was offered: cosmic sacrality and paranormal knowledge. In place of science and logic and reason, the new creed proposed the occult, magic, and the power to manipulate the demonic forces causing havoc in the world (see below, Chapters 58-60). Instead of earthly sages, Israel would be guided by heroes and saints. However, a hero without a cause is a waste. Heroic logic demands a paranormal foe to confront and destroy, as with the legendary knights marching forth to slay the dragons (and Don Quixote charging against the windmills). Without a demoniac nemesis, heroes are useless. Hence, the imperative to find a worthy enemy. The designated foe was ‘Maimonides.’ As with legendary chevaliers fighting Moors and Saracens in the Chansons de Geste, these heroes, too, came from France to rescue the helpless Catalan damsels from the claws of the perfidious Maimonideans. The shiny knights were the ‘Rabbis of France.’  Who were these rabbis?

From The Horizontal Society (The Academic Press: Boston 2010), Chapter 54, pp. 346-349.

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[1] H. Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1894), p. 547. The expression “French Rabbis” did not include the lesser French Rabbis in the region of Provençe, who were not anti-Maimonedeans; see the valuable study of E. E. Urbach, “The Participation of German and French Scholars in the Controversy about Maimonides and his Works,” (Heb.), Zion 12 (1947), pp. 149-159. The first rabbis in Spain to allude to “French Rabbis” were from Ramban’s circle. The earliest time that mention was made is found in his Hiddushim on Baba Batra 55a s.v. wu-massati; ´Aboda Zara 72a s.v. ve-khatab; Holin 37b s.v. ve-yesh; 53a s.v. emar. It is also found among commentators from the same region; see R. Salomon b. Adrete, Hiddushim on ‘Erubin 89b s.v. ella; 90a s.v. be-‘emetBessa 21b s.v. wul-‘inyan; Ketubot  16a s.v. ha; Gittin 4a s.v. me-hadrenan; ‘Aboda Zara 51a. See also, Ritba on Rosh ha-Shana 34a s.v. ve-ha-ta‘am; Sukka 45b s.v. mihu; Ketubot 8a s.v. rab; Qiddushin 10a s.v. amar; 28a s.v. ve-‘ad.

[2] On this school of Kabbalah, see Gershom Scholem, Ha-Qabbalah be-Probanss (Jerusalem: Academon, 5746/1986); idem, Reshit ha-Qabbala (Jerusalem: Schocken, 5708/1948), pp. 99-126. On the life and ideology of R. Jonah, see the eminent study of Professor Israel Ta-Shma, “Hasidut Ashkenaz bi-Sfarad; Rabbenu Yona Gerondi, ha-‘ish wu-fa‘olo,” in Galut Ahar Gola (Jerusalem: Machon Ben Zvi, 1989).

[3] R. Joshua ibn Shu‘eb, Derashot (Constantinople, 5282/1522). Shemini (n.p.).

[4] R. Abraham ibn Tawwah, Hut ha-Mshullash, III, #10, in Sefer ha-Tashbess, part IV, 3d. It seems that the Catalonian rabbinate had their own edition of the Talmud “גמרות קטלוניא”; see the quotation in Birke Yosef, Orah Hayyim, XXV, 5.

[5] Ladino was never a language spoken by the Jews (just like Jews never spoke the Aramaic of the Targum). Rather, it was the language used to translate the Scripture. Hence, the verb ladinar. The syntax is radically different than the spoken language, referred to as ‘Judío’ — a noun synonymous to ‘Yiddish.’ My grandmother used to refer to that language as ‘castilla’; i.e. the language spoken in Castile.

[6] See Bet Yosef, Orah Hayyim, XLVI, s.v. katab ha-‘ugur; CXLIII, s.v. wama-she-pirash; DCXIX, s.v. wuma-she’amar rabbenu; Yoreh De’a CCLXXIX, s.v. wuma-she’amar ve-afillu.

[7] Sefer ha-‘Ittim, p. 267.

[8] Sefer ha-Qabbalah, p. 88; (Heb., p. 66, II. 314-316).

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