03.10.06, Bagliani, The Jews and the Sciences

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Dr. Ira Robinson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.006


Bagliani, Agostino Paravicini, ed.. The Jews and the Sciences. Series: Micrologus. Florence: Sismel Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2001. Pp. 300. ISBN: 1123-2560.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Ira Robinson
Concordia University

This volume of the annual Micrologus presents fifteen essays, in English, French, and Italian, devoted to the Jews and the sciences in the medieval and early modern periods. Though there is no direct statement of the origin of this volume, it is apparent from internal evidence (252) that at least some of the essays were presented at an international conference on the Jews and science held in the city of Trent [Trento], Italy. As with most such volumes, the essays are diverse in theme. In their diversity, however, they succeed in capturing some of the major areas of research in this field. Some of the articles look at the internal development of scientific writing and education among Jews. Others attempt to deal with the interface between Jewish scholars and physicians and their Muslim or Christian counterparts. Still others are mainly focussed on the Jews seen, and misunderstood, from an outside perspective.

Ron Barkai, in his "Origines et sources de la medecine hebraique au Moyen Age" (9-19), attempts to situate the issue of the practice of medicine by Jews within medieval Christendom in the context of the creation of a medical literature in Hebrew between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. While some of these scientific and medical texts were originally composed in Hebrew, the majority of this corpus constituted part of a larger project of the translation of major religious, scientific, and philosophical texts into Hebrew, mostly from Arabic, but, in a more minor degree, also from Latin. This, of course, raises the question not merely why Jews preferred to study medicine in Hebrew, but also how the Hebrew language, through this translation project, acquired the ability to express itself in philosophical, mathematical and scientific modes.

Tony Levy's "Les Debuts de la litterature mathematique hebraique: la geometrie d'Abraham bar Hiyya (xie-xiie siecle)" (35-64), and Shlomo Sela's "Abraham Ibn Ezra's Strategy in the Creation of a Hebrew Scientific Terminology" (65-87) both carry forward the major question raised by Barkai's article by attempting to determine, in the case of two major Hebrew writers on science and mathematics, how Hebrew equivalents of scientific and technical terms were created in a language which had hitherto been utilized mainly for purposes of Bible study and liturgy. In particular, it is interesting to see how Ibn Ezra's lexicon was influenced by his study of the Hebrew Bible and its linguistics. Related to this is Y. Tzvi Langerman's article, "Studies in Medieval Hebrew Pythagoreanism: Translations and Notes to Nichomachus Arithmological Texts" (219-236) in which the name of Abraham Ibn Ezra also figures prominently.

The place of science and philosophy among medieval Spanish Jews is the theme of Lola Ferre's "The Place of Scientific Knowledge in Some Spanish Jewish Authors" (21-34). Ferre is concerned largely with the importance of the assimilation of contemporary scientific and philosophical thought expressed in Arabic on major medieval Spanish Jewish thinkers, particularly Solomon ibn Gabirol. The fact that the number of original works of this nature produced by these Jews seems relatively few may be explained by the fact that in an Arabic speaking milieu, Jews of al-Andalus had immediate access to the scientific library already produced in Arabic.

Boaz Huss in his article, ""Mysticism versus Philosophy in Kabbalistic Literature" (125-135), deals, in a later period, with the relationship of Aristotelian science and kabbala, the medieval Jewish mystical tradition. His major point is that, though science and kabbala represented essentially opposite world views, the treatment of philosophy in kabbalistic texts is by no means wholly condemnatory. On the contrary, there are texts in which philosophy is either essentially identified with kabbala or, more frequently, granted a sort of inferior level of validity. Gad Freudenthal, in "Holiness and Defilement: the Ambivalent Perception of Philosophy by its Opponents in the Early Fourteenth Century" (169-193) also speaks of the opposition to a philosophical understanding of Judaism as adumbrated in the so-called Maimonidean controversies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. One of Freudenthal's major points is that, by the fourteenth century, even the "opponents" of Aristotelian philosophy had incorporated significant elements of the philosophical world view into their understanding of Judaism. Finally, a general survey of the issue of miracles in Judaic thought from the ancient Rabbinic literature to Spinoza is offered by Myriam Silvera in her "'Le Leggi della natura sono cosi perfette e efficienti da no potersi ad esse nulla aggiungere e nelle togliere': L'Ordine naturale e il problema del miracolo de fonte rabbiniche a Spinoza" (269-278).

The article of Mirko D. Grmek, "Une consultation venetienne de Paolo Sarpi sur l'exercice de la medecine par les juifs" (89-104) deals with an early seventeenth century legal opinion by a noted Christian theologian, on the appropriateness of Jews practicing medicine on Christian patients. The author concludes that, despite a well-known bull of Gregory XIII forbidding such a relationship, the Church's prohibition of Jews treating Christians remained mostly a dead letter (100). Related to this issue is Diego Quaglioni's article, "Orta est disputatio super matheria promotionis inter doctores: L'Ammisione degli ebrei al dottorato" (249-267), which discusses the issue of the granting of doctoral degrees to Jews by Italian universities. Also pertaining to the medieval Christian view of Jews is Piero Morpurgo's "La polemica medievale contro la cultura e la scienza degli ebrei" (105-124). This article chronicles medieval Christian reactions to and reflections of the culture and science of the Jews, which ranged from grudging admiration of the seeming universality of male Jewish literacy to outright revulsion and condemnation of Jewish literature. Peter Biller's "A 'Scientific' View of Jews From Paris Around 1300" (137-168) has essentially nothing to do with Jewish culture per se. It is rather an interesting study of the ways in which medieval Christian scholars, whether from the theological or arts faculties, viewed Jews as "anthropological specimens." In particular, the author deals with the history of the idea that Jewish males suffered from a monthly flow of blood, which "fact" was explained by various authorities both "naturally" and "theologically."

Dealing with an individual of significance in the development of scientific thought among Jews is Joseph Shatzmiller's article on "Jacob ben Elie, traducteur multilingue a Venise a la fin du xiiie siecle" (195-202) in which he elucidates several details of Jacob's biography which had been the subject of scholarly controversy. Similarly, the study by Mauro Zonta, "Aristotle's Physics in Late-Medieval Jewish Philosophy (14th-15th Century) and a Newly Identified Commentary by Yehuda Messer Leon" (203-217) enables the author to conclude that Christian scholastic thought had an important influence on fifteenth-century Jewish scholars in Italy. Finally, Giuliano Tamani's study, "La Biblioteca scientifica di Mordekay Finzi (Mantova, sec. xv)" (237-247), enables us to reconstruct the sort of philosophical and scientific material available to a fifteenth century Italian Jew.

Clearly these disparate articles, even taken together, should not be expected to amount to a coherent account of medieval Jewish philosophy and science. An evaluation of the important fourteenth-century figure of Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides), among others, is conspicuous by its absence. On the other hand, these articles are sufficient to indicate a growing interest in the investigation of medieval and early modern Jewish philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians. It is also encouraging that a publication like Micrologus has placed this subject on the agenda of investigators of the relationship between nature, the sciences, and medieval societies.

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Dr. Ira Robinson

Concordia University