Averroism, Jewish

Averroism was enthusiastically taken up by many Jewish philosophers and adapted in a number of ways that extended its scope beyond mere repetition of Averroes' own arguments. Jewish Averroists were particularly drawn by the potential they found in Averroism for resolving the delicate questions they faced about the relationship between philosophy and religion. The idea that both philosophy and religion are true even when they appear to produce different answers to the same question. Fascinated by the Averroistic idea that religious claims can be interpreted as popular expressions of philosophical truths, the Jewish Averroists followed up with vigour the programme of showing how to translate traditional religious statements into philosophical statements.

Many Jewish philosophers found themselves in a difficulty which they took great pains to resolve, namely, how to reconcile what they believed through faith with what they believed through reason. Averroism seems to be the solution to this problem, since it embodies a theory that explains how faith and reason are connected and makes it possiblc to be both religious and rational at the same time. It is not surprising, then, that many Jewish thinkers were attracted to this philosophical doctrine.

  1. Averroes in the Jewish world
  2. Isaac Albalag
  3. Joseph ibn Caspi
  4. Moses Narboni
  5. Further consequences

1. Averroes in the Jewish world

Averroes (see Ibn Rushd) came to have a significance in both Christian and Jewish settings that far exceeded his influence in the Islamic lands. There are many reasons for this. Jewish philosophers were impressed with the depth of Ibn Rushd's arguments and with his understanding of Aristotle, who was typically regarded as the paradigmatic philosophical thinker. They were undoubtedly also fascinated by the radical implications of his views. There were many translations of his works into Hebrew and transliterations of Arabic texts of his work into Hebrew script, and these extended far beyond Spain and the intellectual world of the Iberian Peninsula. Many Jewish philosophers wrote commentaries on his works and were influenced by him, in particular Crescas and Gersonides, and he set the agenda for much of Jewish philosophy. The positive references that Maimonides had made to him obviously helped his reception in the Jewish world, and his thought is often linked with that of Maimonides, since on some important topics they are clearly not far apart.

It would be wrong to think of all the Jewish philosophers who were influenced by Averroes as Averroists. Many often argued with his central ideas and criticized his conclusions, and there is no clear category of thinkers who are 'Averroists' in the sense that they accepted everything that Averroes argued. The philosophers discussed below are those who came closest to sharing Averroes' main principles and who tried to adapt them to Jewish intellectual life.

2. Isaac Albalag

Isaac Albalag came from the Pyrenees region during the second half of the thirteenth century. He was in no doubt at all concerning the merits of Averroes over his Islamic predecessors, or even over Maimonides. He translated al-Ghazali's Maqasid al-falasifah (Intentions of the Philosophers) into Hebrew, and argued that this book represented al-Ghazali's real views - a thesis that would have horrified the original author (see al-Ghazali §3). Albalag does accept al-Ghazali's argument that there are certain doctrines that must be accepted by religion. These are the existence of reward and punishment for our actions, the survival of the soul after the death of the body and the fact of providence whereby God watches over our actions. In his Sefer Tikkun ha-De'ot (Setting Doctrines Right), he recognizes that philosophy in its Averroistic form does not think much of these religious ideas, and suggests that they are to be accepted by ordinary people who are not capable of philosophy. These ideas will enable them to achieve the highest level of well-being of which they are capable; but that must be contrasted with the sort of felicity that philosophers can achieve, since philosophers can understand far more about the nature of reality than can ordinary believers. The vital tool of understanding here is demonstrative argument, which Albalag, like Averroes, saw as the paradigmatic method of philosophy. Only philosophers are really capable of this sort of thought, and as a consequence, only philosophers can really be allowed to say that they know what is the case.

But what about all those religious texts which it is not possible to verify demonstratively, and which are based on prophecy? Albalag argues that these can be known but not necessarily demonstratively, and that this is no criticism of them. Here Albalag deviates from Averroes, since the latter criticized the claims of kalam (dialectical theology) to understand religious texts, especially difficult religious texts (see Islamic theology §2). There is no point in thinking that theology can help us with such texts, Averroes argued, since it possesses no methodology that can derive a valid conclusion from premisses. Albalag tends to place the interpretations of those in the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah (see Kabbalah) in the same position as Averroes' kalam theologians. He holds that they are capable only of providing dubious and weak readings of Scripture. Indeed, he tends to separate philosophical and religious explanations more radically than Averroes allows. Such a separation is a common feature of Christian and Jewish Averroists (see Averroism). In Albalag's case, what we find is acceptance of both views, but the treatment of one is much less vigorous and intellectually satisfying than the other: when the literal sense of a text cannot be reconciled with a philosophical understanding of the topic, both the literal sense and the philosophical understanding have to be accepted, but in different ways. The literal sense is accepted as something which one would understand completely if one were in the position of the prophets who had originally transmitted the text. One must assume, even though one cannot see how, that this meaning is reconcilable with the philosophical meaning.

A crucial example in Jewish philosophy is the creation of the world. According to the philosophers, on Albalag's account, this doctrine must be understood to cohere with the eternity of the world. What results is a theory according to which God creates the world eternally (see Eternity of the world, medieval views of). Albalag criticizes Maimonides for claiming that Aristotle did not claim to know with certainty whether the world is eternal. In fact, Albalag believes, Aristotle had no doubts concerning the eternity of the world; Maimonides agreed with Aristotle, but did not wish to threaten the faith of the ordinary believers in Judaism. That is the reason for what Albalag sees as Maimonides' ambivalence about the demonstrability of the origins of the world. However, Maimonides should not have suggested that the eternity of the world cannot be established by reason. It can, and philosophers have no choice but to acknowledge that eternity, although they need not broadcast their views widely if they think hearing such things would upset the beliefs and practices of the naive. It is possible to accept the eternity of the world through reason and its createdness through faith, and there is no need to work out how to reconcile these two diverse positions. Albalag does not say why not; but he seems to go further than Averroes, who argues that there is one truth expressible in two different ways, whereas Albalag appears to argue that there are two truths. This takes him closer to the so-called doctrine of double truth often ascribed to the Christian Averroists in their more radical moments.

3. Joseph ibn Caspi

Joseph ibn Caspi was born in 1279 in Provence, and wrote a variety of theological and philosophical works. He was heavily influenced by Maimonides, Averroes and Abraham ibn Ezra, especially by the latter's construction of a philosophical grammar of the Hebrew language (see Ibn Ezra, A.). Caspi defended the literal sense of many passages in Scripture as accurate accounts of past events, and criticized as misleading many of Maimonides' attempts at explaining many of them as prophetic allegories. On the other hand, he shares Averroes' rather ambivalent attitude towards miracles, suggesting that there is a natural explanation for miracles, were we able to understand all aspects of the events in question. To understand a report of a miracle, it seems, we need to understand the point of view and knowledge of those actually present at the time. Prophecy also has to be interpreted in terms of the audience it is designed to impress, and if there are aspects of the event which we do not now entirely grasp, we should put this down to our distance from its occurrence and to our relative lack of knowledge of how the event was regarded at that time. Prophets are able to tell what is going to happen in the future because they are able to understand how the things they observe in the present link with what is to come. The role of the deity in this process is quite limited. Many religious statements are not capable of a truth value; their function is to move people to action and to teach them how to behave. Where philosophy and prophecy diverge, we should remember that they are different and it is hardly surprising that they do not always agree. If we really knew why prophets said what they say and why miracles take the forms they do, then we should understand how they might be reconciled; indeed, we might understand how prophecies are merely more popularly accessible expressions of philosophical truth. Since we are limited in our understanding of religious statements by our distance from their original formulation, we have to accept them as aspects of faith. We can remain confident nonetheless that such statements are in principle equivalent to philosophical truths. Unlike Maimonides and Averroes, Caspi had little sympathy with the idea that the secrets of interpretation should be restricted to the intellectual elite. His point was that they have to remain secrets, since there is no possibility now of finding out precisely what the ancient statements originally meant, given the differences in audience, language and context (see Prophecy).

4. Moses Narboni

Moses Narboni was born in Perpignan around 1300 and died approximately sixty-two years later. He wrote many commentaries on theological and religious texts, together with some original works and several commentaries on the works of Averroes. He wrote extensively on Maimonides, and tended to criticize Maimonides using arguments drawn from Averroes, as he was one of the few philosophers of the time to recognize that Averroes was seeking to challenge the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) which formed so important a part of Maimonides' thinking. Narboni also developed Averroes' theory of the 'active intellect' in such a way as to make it relevant to Jewish philosophy.

As human thinking becomes progressively better perfected it moves from being imaginative to becoming intellectual. Ultimately it fuses with the active intellect itself, which is the very principle of intellectual thought. As a result, the material part of us comes under the control of our thought. Using this theory, Narboni is in a position to explain miracles and prophecy as resulting from a certain sort of thinking that produces appropriate material effects, that optimally illustrate the ideas in the consciousness of the prophets but which adapt those ideas to the level of understanding of the audience the prophet has in mind. Here a kind of Neoplatonism creeps back in, for Narboni's language is clearly based on the idea of a hierarchy of intellects where each intellect is connected with an existent (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy §2).

The parallelism between intellects and existents usefully echoes a similar parallelism between doctrines and acts. The idea of what is to be done results in the creation of that state of affairs, and similarly a religious doctrine has as its material aspect a particular form of practice. All of this accords nicely with the unified approach that Averroes takes to the relationship between such diverse phenomena as body and mind, the material and the spiritual, and the theoretical and the practical. The Torah, which is perfect, consists of doctrines which are true and accord with practices designed to bring about a desirable end in line with those true beliefs. Of course, it takes a remarkable individual to understand all aspects of the Torah, and only Moses fulfils that role, a role very similar to that which Averroes ascribes to Muhammad.

Narboni, like Averroes, upholds the principle of plenitude, according to which something is possible only if it is (at some time) actual; and he uses this principle to argue that in an eternal universe, if there can be a most perfect created being then (at some time) there will be. Moses fits the bill exactly. Lesser mortals will not be able to grasp perspicuously the reasons for all the doctrines in the Torah, and will have to accept these doctrines on the basis of faith alone. Narboni thinks it is bad policy to encourage ordinary believers to trouble themselves excessively with finding out the reasons for the commandments. Most people would not understand these reasons even if they were presented with them, and a fruitless search would only frustrate and undermine the faith of the seekers. The prophets are provided precisely for such people, since they are capable of representing philosophical truths in imaginative language which will impress the masses and keep them on the right path. Only those capable of philosophy will understand precisely what is actually intended, and only they should seek such understanding. We see here a reformulation of a genuine doctrine of Averroes, that there is one truth that is expressed in at least two different ways, one intellectually respectable and the other practical and effective.

5. Further consequences

Clearly, there are aspects of Jewish Averroism which are very different both from the philosophy of Averroes himself and from Christian Averroism. In the Jewish milieu, Averroes was commonly linked with Maimonides and, more surprisingly perhaps, with Abraham ibn Ezra. Some thinkers such as Narboni were interested in introducing Kabbalistic doctrines in their explication of the thought of Averroes. Narboni's discussion of providence in terms of astrological causation would have surprised Averroes and horrified Maimonides, but this is by no means a criticism of the approach of the Jewish Averroists to Averroes himself. They employed his thought, and what they considered could be derived from his thought, creatively and combined it with other relevant philosophical and theological theses to produce a novel account of the issues then of concern to the philosophical community.

There were a large number of other thinkers whose work is largely based upon Averroes but who have not been discussed here in detail. The work of Joseph ibn Waqar and Moses ibn Crispin, for example, provides evidence of considerable discussion on Averroistic themes within the Jewish community. It is only with the onset of the Renaissance and the last major Averroist thinker in the community, Elijah Delmedigo, that the passionate interest in Averroes started to decline. Averroes was long seen as the first commentator on Aristotle, and the relative decline in interest in Aristotle was matched with decreasing concern for the thought of Averroes.

One of the contributions of Jewish Averroism is its way of tackling the distinction between religious and philosophical truths. The argument that the pursuit of philosophy is not only permitted by religion but is even necessary for the intelligent adherent comes straight from Averroes himself in his Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise). The warning against trying to prove the truth of religion through philosophy was taken very seriously by the Jewish Averroists, for two reasons. It is a category mistake to try to explain through philosophy what is capable only of religious explanation. Also, the discovery that the truths of Judaism cannot be established philosophically might lead to disbelief or scepticism. This gives rise to an interesting question. If it is inappropriate to refer to the rational basis of a religion as the justification of that religion, what reason is there to prefer one religion to another? This was a lively issue during the Middle Ages, since there were strenuous efforts by Islam and Christianity to convert Jews, and equally strenuous efforts by Jewish thinkers to resist such pressure. The Jewish Averroists had no doubt of the superiority of their religion over its competitors, and they argued that Christianity in particular involves the acceptance of self-contradictory notions.

We must distinguish between those ideas which are in themselves possible and can be actualized through the miraculous intervention of the deity, and those ideas which even God could not bring about, since they are impossible and only an imperfect deity could wish to bring them about. This was the approach which Jewish philosophers took to the notion of God becoming man, the Incarnation, which they regarded as obviously an imperfection, along with a whole range of other crucial Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, transubstantiation and the Virgin Birth (see Incarnation and Christology; Trinity). A whole range of logical problems were discovered in these doctrines and contrasted with the bases of Judaism which, it was argued, is an acceptably rational faith. At least Judaism does not involve the acceptance of self-contradictory notions, although it is true that some of the stories of miracles offend against our understanding of natural necessity. As Aristotelians, the Jewish Averroists might have been expected to have been more wary of allowing for miraculous interventions in nature, since Averroes seems to have regarded such events as just as impossible as logical self contradictions. This is where the use of Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra in combination with Averroes proves so useful. Maimonides was used to suggest that the accounts of miracles need not be taken to be literally true (by philosophical readers), and Ibn Ezra was used to show that we are so distant from the time of the miraculous events that we do not really know precisely what the narratives about them are supposed to mean. We do not even know what the language used then really meant, nor how astrological forces brought about change in the sublunar world.

Jewish Averroism should not, then, be seen as a slavish adaptation of Averroes to issues of interest in Jewish philosophy. Some of Averroes' main theses were combined with the opinions of quite disparate philosophers and out of this heady mixture a rich variety of arguments emerges. These arguments are generally more than merely eclectic and they involve a sustained treatment of the logic of the relationship between religious and philosophical language.

See also: Aristotelianism, medieval; Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Averroism; Ibn Rushd

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Bland, K. (1981) The Epistle on the Possibility of Conjunction with the Active Intellect by Ibn Rushd with the Commentary of Moses Narboni, New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. (An edition and translation of an important commentary.)

Golb, M. (1956-7) 'The Hebrew Translation of Averroes' Fasl al-Maqal', Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 25: 91-113; 26: 41-64. (Useful exploration of the popularity of the text in the Jewish world.)

Hayoun, M.-R. (1982) 'L'êpitre du libre-arbitre de Moise de Narbonne' (Moses Narboni's Letter on Free Will), Revue des études juives 141: 139-67. (An edition and translation of Narboni's Ma'amar ha-Behira (Treatise on Free Will).)

Hayoun, M.-R. (1986) Moshe Narboni, Tübingen: Mohr. (Edition and translation of Part 1 of Narboni's commentary on Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed.)

Lasker, D. (1980) 'Averroistic trends in Jewish-Christian Polemics in the Late Middle Ages', Speculum 55: 294-304. (The relevance of Averroes for interreligious debate.)

Leaman, O. (1988) Averroes and His Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press. (A general survey of Averroes and Averroism.)

Leaman, O. (1996) 'Jewish Averroism', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 769-80. (Good introductory article.)

Mesch, B. (1982) 'Principles of Judaism in Maimonides and Joseph ibn Caspi', in J. Reinharz and D. Schwetschinski (eds) Mystics, Philosophers and Politicians, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 85-98. (Useful account of the relationship between these thinkers.)

Sirat, C. (1985) A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Extensive bibliography of Jewish Averroists.)

Steinschneider, M. (1956) Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (The Hebrew Translations of the Middle Ages and the Jews as Interpreters), Graz: Akademische Druck- under Verlagsanstalt. (Reprint of the celebrated 1893 bibliography.)

Vajda, G. (1952) 'A propos de l'Averroïsme juif' (On Jewish Averroism), Sefarad XII: 3- 29. (A useful general survey of the area with interesting remarks on, in particular, the thought of Moses ibn Crispin.)

Vajda, G. (1960) Isaac Albalag - Averroiste juif, traducteur et commentateur d'Al-Ghazali (Isaac Albalag - Jewish Averroist, Translator and Commentator on al-Ghazali), Paris: Vrin. (Translation and study of the Tikkun ha-De'ot.)

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