Anti-Maimonidean Demons by the SEFARADI FEDERATION 
Author José Faur 

To the blessed memory of R. Hayyim ha-Arukh of Segovia, and my maternal grandfather, Jacob Arukh Joli: ת'נ'צ'ב'ה'.

It is a generally accepted truism that in his endeavor to explain Judaism “philosophically,” Maimonides “established principles which did not by any means bear a Jewish stamp on them, nor were they in consonance with the Bible, and still less with the Talmud.” It is reasonable, therefore to argue that those, “whose learning was entirely confined to the Talmud” would oppose him. To support this assessment, it was pointed out that some Maimonidean doctrines, such as those regarding “miracles,” “prophecy,” “immortality,” and particularly the status of the non-legal elements of the Talmud (haggada), were “in the eyes, not only of the strict Talmudists, but also of more educated men, a heretical attack upon Judaism, which they believed it was their duty to energetically repel.” To further substantiate this view, scholars point out to the high level of assimilation, heresy, and apostasy befalling Iberian Jewry. “There were many, it would seem, in Spain, who found in Maimonidean philosophy convenient support for their extreme liberalism,” remarked a celebrated historian. “These men, accepted only a faith of reason and rejected popular beliefs. They put rational understanding ahead of the observance of the commandments.” In addition, they “denied the value of talmudic aggadot.” The cause, it is freely assumed, lies in the ‘philosophical’ and ‘rationalistic’ trends generated by the ‘Maimonideans,’ ‘Averroism’ in particular. In conscious opposition, the anti-Maimonideans are depicted as saintly men of superlative scholarship and impeccable behavior, motivated by altruistic ideals alone. Even when disagreeing with this or that particular act of some anti-Maimonidean, historians concur in the excellence of these men. In fact, the anti-Maimonideans are credited with stopping the tide of assimilation and standing in the frontline against ‘philosophy’ and other ‘rationalistic’ pursuits that, as it is well known, lead to religious laxity and apostasy.
The purpose of this paper is to question this truism. In the ancient communities of Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, and throughout North Africa, where Maimonides’ works and intellectual tradition reigned supreme, none of the above took place. Why? For reasons having to do more with ideology than scholarship, historians failed to take into consideration the connection between the triumph of the anti-Maimonideans, the rise of Kabbalah, and the decay of Jewish learning and leadership, leading to mass conversions and culminating in the Expulsion of 1492. It may not be superfluous to point out that mass apostasy to Christianity took place after not before the ban against Maimonides. Nobody cared to notice that apostates of the like of Petrus Alfonsi (12th century), Nicholas Donin (13th century) and Pablo Christiani (d. 1274) were all product of the anti-Maimonidean type of schooling. Elsewhere I proposed that rather than stopping assimilation, the anti-Maimonidean movement (1180-1240) brought about mass defection from Judaism and the total collapse of Iberian Jewry.

The anti-Maimonidean movement was the effect of assimilation to Christian patterns of thought and feeling, whereby the persecuted adopts the spiritual and psychological apparatus of the persecutor. Persecution creates the ‘others’; in religious terminology: ‘heretics’ --not the other way around. Responding to a mimetic impulse, the anti-Maimonideans went on a witch-hunt in the pursuit of Jewish ‘heretics,’ precisely, as Christians had engaged in the persecution of men of the stature of Peter Abelard (1079-1153) and Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274). Their source of inspiration were men like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)—described as the “great detective of heresy” and “the Father of Mysticism”-- not the sages of Israel. Take note of the reason given by R. Solomon ibn Adrete (ca. 1235-ca. 1310) for the ban against the Maimonideans, on July 26, 1305 he wrote:
Go into the far away lands inhabited by Canaanites [a code term for ‘Christians’] and all gentiles! They would condemn them [the Maimonideans] as heretics, even for a single heresy and abomination that they had written in their books... and they would tie them up in vine branches and incinerate them till they turn into ashes!

A mark of the anti-Maimonidean ideology (whereby zeal displaces halakha) is the sanction of violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of ‘religion.’ A strategic decision --with horrendous consequences as of yet not fully explored by historians-- was to approach the ecclesiastical authorities to fight Jewish ‘heretics.’ The anti-Maimonideans argued that in their endeavor to stamp out heresy, the ecclesiastical authorities should also incinerate the works of Jewish heretics. Consequently, they went on “crying and begging” the ecclesiastical authorities, “to pass judgment” also on “other works” [of Maimonides]. The anti-Maimonideans succeeded “and on their command they made a large fireplace” and burned Maimonides’ works. R. Jonah Gerondi (c. 1200-1263)—one of the most venerated men in Jewish pietistic circles-- went first to the Franciscans and then to the Dominicans, imploring them: “Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. You exterminate your heretics, exterminate ours, too!”R. Solomon ibn Adrete, who had the privilege to study under the saintly R. Jonah, applauded the spirit of ecumenicalism exhibited by the Church, and penned these golden lines:

Could I blame people who are not of the covenant [i.e. Christians] if they would stretch their hands against this corruption and blaspheme by the people of our Law, and they [i.e. Christians] just like us, would open their mouths [against them]?

Violence became the earmark of ‘devotion,’ both religious and intellectual. Jewish authorities saw nothing wrong with R. Jonah Gerondi’s brand of devotion. In appreciation, the community in Toledo awarded him the position of preacher, which he kept until his death. A telling detail of the anti-Maimonidean brand of scholarship is the aggressive style characterizing their writings. It attained a level of invective unprecedented in Jewish literary history. The strictures are designated hasagot (singular hasaga) meaning to ‘seize’ a victim in hot pursuit (see Ex 15:9, Dt 28:45, Ps. 7:6). A more benign nomenclature is haggaha ‘emendation’—a term referring to a scroll of the Tora that is ‘ritually void’ (pasul); such a text may not be kept unless properly ‘amended.’ Thus, the strategy of faultfinding, disinformation, and intimidation accepted as standard norms of ‘rabbinic discourse’ (both past and present).

Popular wisdom notwithstanding, the anti-Maimonideans were not motivated by concern for the preservation and promotion of ‘Talmud.’ Their alleged zeal should be carefully reviewed in light of the fact that they were directly responsible for bringing about the burning of the Talmud, beginning in 1242. One need not be particularly bright to have realized that requesting from the Dominicans to burn Maimonides’s works, established an extremely dangerous precedent. It should be a matter of some interest to note that those instigating the ecclesiastic authorities were apostates like Donin and Pablo Christiani who obtained their spiritual formation at Yeshivas reflecting anti-Maimonidean ideology. More alarming was the disappearance of the famous library of Lucena. It contained the oldest and most valuable collection of Talmud and Rabbinic literature in Spain, going all the way back to the Geonic period. After the collapse of the Jewish communities in Andalusia, the library was transported in its entirety to Toledo. It seems, that the last known scholar to have had access to it was R. Me’ir Abul‘afya (c. 1170-1244) the chief Rabbi of Toledo. As a result of the triumph of the anti-Maimonideans, it totally vanished: ‘Andalusian’ copies of the Talmud became a rarity. The library had been the depositary of works reflecting the long and rich literary and intellectual traditions of the Golden Age of Sepharad –values that were not necessarily congruent with the new ideologies. In addition, the copies of the Talmud and Rabbinical works it contained were at variance with the ‘improved’ editions being circulated by the anti-Maimonideans. Furthermore, the fact that the text of both Talmuds (Babli and Yerushalmi) were sloppily edited (it is hardly possible to find a single page free from error) by two apostates, Felix Pratensis and Jacob ibn Adoniah (c. 1470-c. 1538) and printed by a Christian, Daniel Bomberg (d. ca. 1549/53), should cast some doubt as to the earnestness of these self-appointed ‘guardians’ of ‘Talmud.’ If we consider as well the pilpul methodology–precluding any intelligent comprehension of the subject at hand—one might wonder what their true motivation really was.

The notion that the Maimonideans were scoundrels, willfully flouting the Law and tradition, needs to be critically evaluated. In a letter addressed to R. Judah al-Fakhkhar (d. 1235) the leader of the anti-Maimonideans in Toledo, R. Meshullam of Lunel (ca. 1175-ca. 1250) stressed the fact that those who support Maimonides’ Guide were thoroughly observant of the Law, “And if their heart follows the Guide, as they were inspired by heaven, they are God fearing and uphold His Law.” A similar point was made by R. David Qamhi (ca. 1160-ca. 1235). The anti-Maimonideans were not more punctilious in the observance of the Law. In fact, the opposite may be the case. In a letter addressed to R. al-Fakhkhar he wrote:

We are the ones who strengthen the Law, rely on the teachings of the Rabbis of blessed memory, and give aid without deceit. [We are the ones] who rise early in the morning and stay late at night in the House of the Lord, and stand with awe and reverence as it is [fit] for Israel. [We are] punctilious in the words of the Scribes, and we are those who [actually] teach the Law, not like the alleged accusations of [those] rebels.

We have inherited the legacy of our Patriarch Abraham, about whom the Lord testified, ‘In order that he should direct his children and family [to practice charity and justice].’ Our houses are wide open for travelers and those in need of respite. We toil in [the study of] the Tora day and night. We support the poor secretly, we distribute alms at all times and hours. Among us there are some who consecrate books for [the benefit] of the poor who need [those books], and they disburse the[ir] fee to study Scripture and Talmud.
Concluding with this overwhelming question: Are these to be called ‘transgressors of the Law’? Jewish scholars had tacitly answered the question in the affirmative. As a corollary, the anti-Maimonideans are portrayed as shining examples of ‘Jewish’ behavior.
The conviction that the anti-Maimonideans were more punctilious in the observance of the Law is without foundation. In what follows, I will try to show that the question posed by R. Qamhi deserves to be taken seriously, rather than dismissing it, simply, by assuming, as is often done, on the basis of truisms.


The view that some of the Maimonidean doctrines constitute ‘heresy’ is the result of Christian assimilation, whereby zeal and devotion displaces halakha. The same applies to the professed learning of the anti-Maimonideans. Because modern historians are themselves the product of the anti-Maimonidean tradition, they could not realize that their standards do not measure by the standards of the Rabbinic Schools of Andalusia and the Geonim. Studying the anti-Maimonidean writings today, from the vantage of contemporary scholarship, one wonders whether any of them possessed the intellectual tools to pass a critical judgment on Maimonides’ Guide. It was written in Arabic, a language foreign to them, about topics demanding a high level of intellectual training and sophistication. The Hebrew translation of the Guide could not help this type of reader any more than a Hebrew translation could help a Yeshiva student make heads or tails of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus or Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica.

The same applies, all the more, to the anti-Maimonidean reading of the Mishne Tora --a work based on a meticulous legal examination of the Talmud and juridical traditions of the Geonim. The anti-Maimonideans were unfamiliar with the rudiments of Semitic philology, rabbinic rhetoric and jurisprudence, and the major halakhic and hermeneutics principles developed in the Geonic Academies. The texts they studied, including the Scripture and Talmud, had been subjected to countless whimsical instances ‘doctoring’ by careless and semi-lettered scribes. Most of the objections against Maimonides rest on faulty texts, flawed readings, and unfamiliarity with Geonic scholarship. The following example is indicative of their intellectual standard.

A principal argument to delegitimize the Mishne Tora –frequently repeated by modern scholars-- is that Maimonides did not cite his sources. Characteristically, no one thought to ask them for their source that a code or a legal decision –whether in Jewish or in general jurisprudence-- is not authoritative unless stipulating its sources. Obviously, a public not versed in Rabbinics could not make heads or tails of a presumed ‘source.’ Such a public would have to rely on one authority or another (or on the supposed reliability of the presumed ‘source’) --but could not pass a critical judgment on the matter. Such information could be helpful only to a scholar with a partial knowledge of the subject under discussion. The anti-Maimonideans (and Jewish historians) did not know that the Rabbis barred passing such information to a scholar wishing to participate in a halakhic discussion. Specifically, the Rabbis stipulated that when examining a halakhic subject, “it is not to be explained to a scholar” (חכם), that is, either the logic or the source of the halakha under discussion. Moreover, if the scholar in question did not catch the halakha the first time, a request to repeat it should be denied: “…it is not [even] to be repeated to a scholar” (חכם). The sense of this norm is that someone unfamiliar with all relevant sources, or having a span of attention requiring hearing the halakha more than once, is unqualified to participate on an intelligent discussion of the subject. It takes a certain level of brazenness to criticize a scholar for not providing his less literate foes with sources that could help them discredit his writing in the eyes of an unlettered public.
Consequently, the anti-Maimonideans did not dare present their criticism to a rabbinic scholar. When R. David Qamhi --by far the most learned Jew in Western Europe at the time-- sought to come to Toledo to present a defense of Maimonides, permission was denied. (See below sections IX and XI)

Essential to the anti-Maimonidean crusade was the axis “French Rabbis”à “Kabbalah.” ‘French’ Rabbis meant those circles in France and Germany sympathetic to the anti-Maimonidean policies (to the exclusion of lesser ‘French’ Rabbis in the region of Provence who were not anti-Maimonideans). These ‘French’ Rabbis were invested with absolute hegemony over all Israel. “Our French Rabbis,” announced R. Joseph ben Todros Abul‘afya (12th and 13th centuries), one of the earliest Spaniards to join the anti-Maimonideans in Castile, are those who “from their waters we drink, and in all the confines of the land, we live by their mouths.” Similarly, R. al-Fakhkhar denied permission to R. David Qamhi to present a defense of Maimonides in Toledo, “in compliance with the decree of our French Rabbis.” Their supreme dominion has been recognized by the saintly R. Moses ben Nahman (1194-1270), known by the acronym Ramban. He addressed them: “Oh! Our Lords, French Rabbis, we are your pupils and by your words we live!” Their inalienable right as the supreme authority of all Israel was not predicated on their superlative knowledge alone, but also on the fact they “grow in the fields of Kabbalah, plump and fresh.” The anti-Maimonidean strategy becomes crystal clear upon notice that unless one accepts the theological notions of the Kabbalah, there is nothing heretical about the Maimonideans. Conversely, without an a priori recognition of the hegemony of “our Lords, the French Rabbis,” there is no means by which the authenticity of the Kabbalah could be established. To put this less ponderously: without “Kabbalah/French Rabbis” there would be no “Maimonideans/heretics.” The entire anti-Maimonidean movement would be then reduced to a cluster of irresponsible assertions backed up by neither reasoned argument nor palpable evidence. Hence, the axis “Kabbalah” à“French Rabbis”à “anti-Maimonideans.”
Accordingly, R. Joseph Abul‘afya, chided the Maimonideans for being wrathful at “our French Rabbis” and for not “following in the footsteps of the sages of the Kabbalah.” Clear evidence of the supremacy of the Kabbalah, lies in the fact that “all the sages of the Kabbalah whom I saw, or I heard their words or read their works, follow in the paths of our French Rabbis.” Conversely, the French Rabbis are the superior masters of Israel, because they are “the instructors, who teach and reveal to us every [Kabalistic] mystery.” In stark contrast, Maimonideans undermine “the foundations of the Kabbalah,” and obliquely “speak ill of our French Rabbis.” Thus, Abul‘afya’s plea to the Maimonideans to recant and “rely on the sages of the Kabbalah... because all what the sages of the Kabbalah have planted are flourishing trees, full of trustworthy seeds.” To defy the sages of the Kabbalah is nothing less than insubordination against God. Emphatically, it was declared that no one “should either rebel against the Almighty, or confront the sages of Kabbalah.”
In this precise sense, Kabbalah, from its incipient moment, was synonymous with strife. As aptly noted by the great historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), “Discord was the mother of this monstrosity [Kabbalah], which has ever been the cause of schism.” (See below section VIII)

In the following five segments I will touch upon five areas in which anti-Maimonidean teachings shadowed the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity, thus contributing to apostasy and heresy, particularly within the dense and oppressive environment of Medieval Spain.
First: Instituting the Kabbalah as the Supreme Theology of Israel.
We have seen the strategic linkage between the anti-Maimonidean movement and Kabbalah. It originated in Gerona and Barcelona, among the same circles leading the anti-Maimonidean campaigns. “The rise of this secret lore,” noted Graetz, “coincides with the time of the Maimunistic controversy, through which it was launched into existence.” Strategically, the anti-Maimonidean movement may be seen as a rouse designed to discredit the standard interpretations of Judaism, in order to promote their own brand of theological mysticism (see below). A major objective of the anti-Maimonidean àKabbalah movement was to undermine central authority and Rabbinic tradition. Originally, the term qabbala designated the traditions received by way of an uninterrupted chain by the national institutions of the Jewish people: the two Talmudic Yeshibot (Academies) in Babylonia and their Bet Din (Court). Later on this term was extended to include the Academies and Courts of the Geonim in quality of their expertise knowledge. By appropriating the term Kabbalah (=qabbala) to designate the new theological teachings, the anti-Maimonideans simultaneously awarded a mantle of respectability to their doctrines in the eyes of the unlettered and vacated authentic Rabbinic tradition. (See below section XI)
Displacement of Rabbinic qabbala came about in subtle ways, so as not to arouse the ire of the public. Let me offer the following illuminating example. In a question addressed to R. Solomon ibn Adrete, concerning a Rabbinic haggada that the world will last six thousand years and in the seventh thousand it will lay “wrecked” (חרוב), he formulated the principle that although one may interpret some passages of the Scripture allegorically, what “has been received in our hands” (מקובל בידנו) must be accepted in its literal sense. For reasons that will become evident in the course of our discussion, he omitted the fact that there were other conflicting Rabbinic views on this matter. More seriously, he failed to mention the qabbala of the Geonim and sages of old Sepharad. From Se‘adya Gaon (882-942) down the chain of tradition, the Geonim --including Sherira (c. 906-1006), Hayye (939-1038), and their disciples R. Hanan’el (d. 1055/6) and R. Nissim (ca. 990-1062)— upheld the principle that haggadot may be explained figuratively and could even be dismissed altogether (אין סומכין על דברי אגדה). This has been the consensus of all legal experts of old Sepharad, including R. Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103) and R. Judah al-Bargeloni (late eleven century), as well as the renowned poet R. Judah ha-Levi (ca. 1075-1141). In a letter addressed to the chief anti-Maimonidean in Toledo, R. David Qamhi reminded him that the principle stipulating that haggadot may be interpreted figuratively was not established by a group of trouble rousers, but by the highest authorities of Israel! From the hands of these sages the Jewish people received the entire Rabbinic apparatus, including the text of the Talmud and its interpretation.

Concerning the haggadot we explain them in accordance with the laws and [rational] evidence, since they are bonded to reason and allude to wisdom, as we were taught by our predecessors the Geonim, such as our teachers Sherira, Hayye, Isaac Alfasi, and the rest of the Geonim, pillars of the world and the foundations of the earth! Concerning the [interpretation] of haggadot, we depend and rely on their teachings and words, not on others!

The absence of any mention of the Geonim and authorities of Old Sepharad in this responsum was deliberate. The term qabbala and its derivatives appear in that responsum no less than twenty seven times! Not only are we appraised as to the importance of “the qabbala held in the hands of Israel from the mouths of their sages,” including “the qabbala that was received one generation after another from our teacher Moses,” and “the true qabbala” (הקבלההאמיתית) which “was received by us,” but also of the authenticity of “the qabbala in the hands of the old men and old women of our people.” An obvious implication of this omission is that the qabbala of the Geonim and the sages of old Sepharad is to be regarded as illegitimate. To make sure that the attentive reader would not miss the point, R. Solomon ibn Adrete declared at the opening of this responsum, that he would have nothing to say to “the heretics” (הכופרים). He then proceeded to identify these heretics, as those who maintain that “the impossible has a permanent nature”-- a direct quotation from the Guide (III, 15)! Elsewhere, he equated this view with those heretical doctrines “that are forbidden to be heard, even more to be voiced.” In his view, the whole premise of the Geonim since Se‘adya and of the sages of Old Sepharad, that it is permissible to study physical sciences and Tora, is an illegitimate oxymoron, since “all of their words rest on the premise [of the validity of] nature.” He concludes that, “Truly, it is impossible to join together two opposites [Tora and nature].” Thus, the intellectual tradition of old Sepharad and the Geonim is to be dismissed as illegitimate. Indeed, expressions such as the Kabbalah “that has been received in our hands” (מקובל בידנו), and “the true” Kabbalah (הקבלה האמיתית), was meant to delegitimize the ‘other,’ i. e., the qabbala of the Geonim and Old Sepharad.

For our purpose it should be noted, that the Rabbinic view that the world will last six thousand years and lay in a state of desolation in the seventh is, like so many haggadot, deliberately ambiguous. If one were to explain that the world would be actually destroyed, then the expression “one [thousand]” will make little sense. On the other hand, if one were to explain “wrecked” (חרוב) to mean ‘devastated’ and not ‘annihilated’ then the expression ‘one [thousand]’ could refer to the period of time in which the world would remain in a state of devastation. It follows, that in order to explain “wrecked” (חרוב) to mean annihilation, one would have had to explain “one [thousand]” in a figurative way. R. Solomon ibn Adrete recognized the problem.

Concerning your question: “how could those thousand [years] be measured, since there is no time without the orbiting of the spheres?” This would have been right if one would have taken the subject matter in its precise sense (על צד הכיוון האמיתי).
The question thus arises: since at least one of the terms must be interpreted figuratively, on what basis can it be determined that “wrecked” (חרוב) must be interpreted “in its precise sense” but not “one [thousand]”? Remarkably, ibn Adrete justified this decision on the basis of the Kabbalah “received in our hands” (מקובל בידנו); thus reverting to the cycle KabbalahàMaimonidean heresy.

Within the context of this investigation it would be helpful to note that in the course of his discussion ibn Adrete referred to the “true Kabbalah” (הקבלה האמיתית). This expression is synonymous with what was “received in our hands” (מקובל בידנו) or (בידינו קבלה). It is, essentially and fundamentally, a restrictive category: it excludes those rabbis who were not the recipients of God’s grace. In a different responsum, when he discussed the true mysteries of Israel, he exclaimed: “fortunate is he, that God privileged with knowledge of their holy mystery” (אשרי מי שזכהו השם יתברך לעמוד בסודן המקודש) (of the Divine Trinity, see below segment five). He identified this class of Kabbalah with the “true Kabbalah that was entrusted in the hands of the sages of Israel” (הקבלה האמיתית המסורה בידי חכמי ישראל). Unlike the prosaic qabbala of the Geonim and Old Sepharad, Kabbalah is the exclusive patrimony of “those who were graced by God” (למי שחננו השם יתברך). This is why in the responsum examined earlier he identified this class of esoterics with the Kabbalah “which is in our hands,” and that “which is accepted in the hand of some of the sages of our Tora” (מקובל ביד מקצת מחכמי תורתנו). This point acquires further depth and precision upon considering that according to this rabbi, “this Kabbalah which is in the hands of some of the sages of Israel is as if it was heard from the mouths of the prophets” (שזה קבלה ביד מקצת חכמי ישראל כמפי הנביאים). These were men endowed with supernatural powers. They had direct access to God, the angels, and the entire gamut of the supernatural, and bore the title nabi ‘prophet.’ These men could ascend to heaven and consult with the ministering angels (mal’akhe ha-sharet) and all types of supernatural beings. We can now understand why ibn Adrete refused to include the Geonim and the sages of Old Sepharad in said privilege.

It would be of some interest to note that the Kabbalah that was in “the hands of some of the sages of Israel” defended so diligently by ibn Adrete, and which is equivalent to prophecy, was formulated by no other than the great Spanish mystic Isidore of Seville (d. 636), who believed that the week of creation parallels the weeks of the world. It was now in “the hand of some of the sages of Israel,” specifically Ramban and his disciples. On the basis of Isidore de Seville’s doctrine, they developed their vision about the final restoration of all things to their pristine origin, which constitutes also “their return to the mystical pure Nothingness.”

Second: Subordination of Halakha to Kabbalah.

Although professing the abolition of the Law and spiritual freedom, Christendom soon discovered that human society couldn’t be properly organized without a legal system. Canon law differs from other legal systems (including the Jewish) because it posits a theological apparatus to which all juridical matters must be subordinated. By contrast, in Judaism (as in all modern legal systems), the law is not subordinated to another, hierarchically superior system. In Judaism theology is the consequence, not the grounds, of law. Thus, halakha is an autonomous concept, and it cannot be manipulated by extraneous ideologies. A principal objective of the anti-Maimonideans was to subordinate halakha to a theological system generated outside Jewish canonical texts and Rabbinic tradition. Since in Judaism theology is only implicit in the classical texts –never explicit as with Christianity-- the submission of halakha to theology means, for all practical purposes, the abrogation of the Law to whatever whimsical ‘theological’ explanation is supplied. Consider the doctrine taught by R. ‘Azriel (13th century), one of the fathers of Spanish Kabbalah, that “the Mishna”—the highest authority of Jewish law— represents “the darkness” (שהחושך זו המשנה). Echoing the Christian dogma that the Law is dead, we are taught that the Mishna is Moses’ sepulcher: “his sepulcher is the Mishna” (וקבורתא דיליה משנה איהי). It confirms the most fundamental of all Christian dogma, namely, that the ‘Old’ Law per se cannot provide ultimate salvation. Ramban graced this view with a special weight: there is a higher realm, “such as abstention from the pollution (ha-tum’a) that was not forbidden to us by the Law” and yet it is essential to attain salvation. As Professor Idel has incisively argued, “The significance of such a close relationship between theosophy and theurgy is… crucial for understanding the dynamics of the main trend of Kabbalah.” In fact, there is no split “between Nahmanides the kabbalist and Nahmanides the halakhist.” A revolutionary consequence, at least from the perspective of the Geonim and Old Sepharad, is the application of esoterics to halakha. In fact, concerning the Kabbalah of Ramban in particular, there is little doubt, “that certain mystical elements can also be found in his conception of halakhah.”

Third: Hermeneutics Displaces the Text of the Tora.
A corner stone of anti-Maimonidean ideology is that hermeneutics reveals the ‘true’ meaning of the Scripture, thus displacing Scripture. The thirteen rules of hermeneutics used by the Rabbis, pertain not only to the methodology but also to whatever was obtained through them. Therefore, there can be no difference between Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture. Thus, although the Rabbis stipulated the principle that hermeneutics cannot displace the peshat or sensus communis of Scripture, Ramban argued that since the ‘truth’ is one, what difference would it make whether something is explicit in the text or learned through hermeneutics. A consequence of this theory is the view advanced by R. Asher (c. 1250-1321) that the Scriptural commandment to write a Scroll of the Tora is “nowdays” permuted: “instead one should write the five books of the Tora separetly, the Mishna, Talmud, and commentaries, so that he and his children could use them for studying.”

As with Christian literary theory, the purpose of this brand of hermeneutics is to ‘un-cover’ the ‘original’ mind of the author and the pristine sense of the text. It assumes a theory, postulating an a priori knowledge of the “ideal” sense of the text. In this case, Julia Kristeva pointedly observed, “…one does not interpret something outside theory but rather that theory harbors its objects within its own logic.” The interpretor’s agenda is to ‘un-cover’ the text and ‘reveal’ the ‘ideals forms’ within. In fact, projecting the concepts that he had developed outside the text onto the text. In this fashion, the ‘ambiguity’ intrinsic to every written text is replaced by an interpretation that simultaneously explains the text and displaces it. The methodology is similar to the Christian dogma ascertaining that the Christian Scripture simultaneously interprets ‘Old Law’ and displaces it; i.e. it displaces it by interpreting it. (See following segment).
Fourth: Preeminence of the Hermetic Subtext of the Tora.
A primary strategy of Pauline anti-nomism is the distinction between the “letter” and “spirit” of the Law (Cor. 3:6). Spanish Kabbalah, too, distinguished between the “empty” sense of the evident tenor (peshat) of the Tora and the “soul” (נשמה). The Tora, we are appraised, “is not only empty as per its common sense (אין תורת ריקנית כפשוטה לבד), but it also has a soul that I [i. e. God] blew into the Tora, and that is what in fact is the most important (אבל יש לה נשמה שנפחתי אני בתורה, והוא העיקר).” The “soul” (probably identical to “the secret names of God”) is encoded in the subtext of the Tora, made up of the Hebrew consonants. By combining and rejoining the consonants it is possible to obtain “the secret names of God.” Indeed, “the Tora in its entirety is made up of names of God.” These names award the individual something far above wisdom: magical power. “In every section of the Pentateuch,” declared Ramban, “there is the name by which that thing was created or made, or how that theme was effected.” King Solomon’s wisdom came to him through possession of these names. Similarly, Moses was able to bring about the ten plagues and split the sea, because of a magical name that had been revealed to him. Possession of a certain magical name bestows power to resurrect the dead. Another “produces the secret miracles made for the pious.” “It is well known to many,” he declared solemnly, that these names were “used by the pious of the generations.” In this fashion, the pious “knew how to kill and to resurrect, to desolate and to destroy, to demolish and to annihilate, to build and to plant.” Moses transmitted these secret names to a selected few who managed to pass them secretly until eventually reaching the hermetic circles in and around Catalonia. (See below section X). This is consistent with the doctrine advanced by R. ‘Azriel that “whatever is derived from reason is called Tora.” By ‘reason’ he probably meant the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ of the text ‘revealed’ through their peculiar brand of hermeneutics.
Fifth: Dismantling a Word into its Consonants and Rearranging the Consonants to Form a new Word, thus Revealing a Hitherto Unknown Theological Doctrine Developed Outside the Tora and Rabbinic Tradition.
One of the methods peculiar to anti-Maimonidean hermeneutics is to dismantle a word into its consonants, and then to proceed to reconstruct a new term with these consonants. On the basis of the reconstructed term, a dogma developed outside the Scripture and Rabbinic tradition is ‘revealed.’ An illuminating example of this brand of hermeneutics is the Trinitarian doctrine examined by R. Solomon ibn Adrete. The discussion appears in a responsum in which R. Solomon ibn Adrete defended “the true mystical traditions which are in the hands of the sages of Israel,” i.e., the anti-Maimonideans in the regions of Catalonia, France, and Germany. Most notably, this doctrine supposes to elucidate “the mystery” (ha-sod) of the prayer addressing God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” For a proper evaluation of this matter it would be important to remember that already by the first third of the 13th century, Jewish apostates had interpret this doxology as a Jewish manifesto of the Christian Holy Trinity. The explanation discussed by R. Solomon ibn Adrete centered on the three Hebrew consonants B-R-K, making the word BaRuKh (‘blessed’). Following a technique used by Ramban and other authorities in Gerona, the consonants were rearranged to read RoKheB (‘mounted’), as God “Provident and Savior” (משגיח ומציל); BeKhoR (‘First Born’) for God’s “dominion and greatness over all” (ממשלה והגדולה על הכל); and KeRuB for the “intellect onto which one ought to cleave” (שכל שראוי להדבק בו). All three personas are one in “BaRuKh.” Similarly, R. ‘Azriel of Gerona proposed that God had created the universe, “with three names of His great name.” In the same theological mood, he explained that ’amen, consisting of the three consonants ’-M-N, could be rearranged as ’aMeN, ’uMaN, and ’iMuN, paralleling sekhel (reason), maskil (rational), and muskal (reasoned) –“three names of a single essence.” Within this context, “names” are not appellations of the deity, but real persona within the divinity. R. ‘Azriel had also referred to God as Rokheb, and identified Kerub with the Shekhina (‘Divine presence’). In the semantic context of the time, it would be difficult not to identify RoKheb with the ‘Father,’ BeKhoR with the ‘Son,’ and KeRuB with the ‘Holy Ghost’: these three persona being One in BaRuKh. The Christian Scripture, too, refers to Jesus as “the first born” (see Rom 8:29; Heb 1:6; Col 1:18), and “the First born of all Creation” (Col 1:15). Ramban, too, proposed that the first three words of the Tora (בראשית ברא אלקים) “At the beginning God created” should be rearranged to read, “at the beginning God was created” (בראש יתברא אלקים). This fundamental dogma was later substantiated by Jewish apostates who changed the vocalization of the Hebrew bara (‘created’) --the second word of the Tora—to Aramaic, rendering it bera (‘the son’), resulting: “At the beginning the son of God (ברא דא-דני) completed the heavens and earth.” Concerning the divine name ’E-Lo-H-Y-M (‘God’), R. Bahye bar Asher (13th century), a distinguished disciple of ibn Adrete, explained “that according to the Kabbalah” it “comprises two words: ’EL, HM [ א-ל, הם =They God ], and these are the meaning of the –Y-” which in Hebrew stands for number ten. The famous mystic R. Abraham Abul‘afya (1240- after 1291), reproached R. Solomon ibn Adrete for sponsoring this doctrine:
Accordingly, let me inform you, that the masters of Kabbalah [and] the sefirot thought to profess the unity of God, and escape the Trinitarian doctrine and [in fact] they made him ten. In the same fashion that the gentiles say ‘He is three and the three are one,’ some Kabbalists say that the divinity is ten sefirot and the ten are one.

The anti-Maimonidean movement had nothing to do with Maimonides. The attacks could have been launched against any other rabbinic authority in the East, including Se‘adya Gaon and Sherira Gaon; or in Spain against R. Judah al-Bargeloni and R. Judah ha-Levi. Targeting ‘Maimonides’ was a matter of expediency. Before the publication of Maimonides’ Code no one except for the rabbinic clergy had access to the law of Israel. In Toledo, for example, rabbis refused to teach the lay public not only the Talmud but also such a basic work as R. Isaac Alfasi’s Halakhot. The public was at the mercy of the clergy. Referring to R. Me’ir Abul‘afya, an earlier anti-Maimonidean and the chief Rabbi of Toledo, the president of the community wrote: “[He] would render judgments on his own, according to his whim. Nobody could challenge him because they did not know what the law was.” The publication of Maimonides’ Code changed all this. For first time, the public could assess the decisions rendered by the clergy in light of Maimonides’ Code. Again, referring to the Chief Rabbi, the head of the community made this valuable observation:
Upon seeing this, the above-mentioned judges, of whom this conceited idiot, speaking arrogantly is one of them, their envy grew, their anger kindled and they tried to allure those who support the ‘Law of Moses’ [Maimonides Code]…to depart from the right path. Now they are further sinning, speaking slanderously (about Maimonides) to the ignoramuses, like what that idiot wrote in a book. Many more things were [added later to the slander] in order that they [the public] should obey him [the chief rabbi] and not depart from his words.
The anti-Maimonideans challenged Talmudic authority. This was implicit in a doctrine advanced by Ramban. Concerning the mandate of the Jewish Court, the Scripture states that it is valid, “for your generations, in all your inhabitations” (Nu 35:29) –that is, even after the destruction of the Temple and throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Nonetheless, he stipulated that with the destruction of the Temple, the Jews ceased to have a Supreme Court --a doctrine that Spinoza would exploit to show that Rabbinic authority void. Shrewdly, Ramban rejected Maimonides’s view that the authority of the Rabbis (including the Mishna and Talmudic periods) was Scriptural, and insisted that their authority to legislate has no basis in the Tora. Basic to this is view is the belief that the authority of the sages of Israel did not derive from the national institutions of Israel (the Academies and the judiciary), but because they had access, like the ancient prophets of Israel, to the Holy Spirit.
There are serious consequences to this view. Traditionally, the authority of a rabbi stemmed from the fact that he was a member of the local Court of Justice (Bet Din). The clergy functioned as expert jurists transmitting to their constituency the Talmudic law, as it was taught and processed by the Academies of the Geonim and the great legal masters of Israel. Their authority was limited to the traditional legal corpus. The general public and legal scholars could test their decision on the basis of settled law. When new situations arose, the local Community would enact special decrees (תקנות הקהל) to deal with the situation. The fact that legal decisions did not rest on an individual, but on a communal institution --the Bet Din—solidified the authority of the community.
In line with Ramban’s view, the author of Sefer ha-Hinnukh (a member of Ramban’s circle) proposed a radical doctrine: the biblical commandment to submit to the Supreme Court is now to be fulfilled by obeying “the great sages among us during our days.” The submission must be total, whoever would
not submit to the counsel of the great Tora sages of the time in everything that they command is disregarding a positive commandment and his penalty is very grave.
He arrived at this doctrine by surreptitiously introducing two revolutionary concepts. First, the authority of the Supreme Court includes the power to determine “what is the mystery of the Tora” (סוד התורה). Second, he redefined the term ‘judge’ (שופט) to mean ‘sage.’ Thus, when paraphrasing the Scriptural commandment determining the judicial authority of the Supreme Court (Dt 17:10), he wrote:
Included in this commandment is the obligation to obey and execute at all times, as ordered by the judge, that is, the greatest sage among us in our time. As our Rabbis, of blessed memory taught: Jephtah in his time is as Samuel [was] in his [generation].
Some rabbinic authorities extended this doctrine to include the local rabbi: he must be obeyed as if he were “the Supreme Court having authority over (the people) of their generation.” He is inerrant and his decisions could not be appealed:
...Although all the city’s sages and notables may surpass the community rabbi in wisdom and expertise, they are irrelevant in regard to him. Since his authority was appointed over them, he has the legal status of royalty, ranking as the Supreme Court of Jerusalem, in regards to which all sages are irrelevant.
It is pertinent to our present discussion to consider that this brand of rabbi was believed to have been entrusted with a “divine spirit” and therefore was “inerrant.” The theological ground for this assertion is that invariably God Himself is acting through the judges. God, “is the real factor Who decides and, accordingly, a court cannot fail to decide justly.” Since the anti-Maimonidean rabbi acts by and through the “Spirit of God” and has access “to revelatory experiences,” that would permit him, as with Ramban “a greater creativity in the domain of Halakhah.” In which case, as the celebrated R. Abraham of Posquièrs who announced “the Holy Spirit appeared in our School!” I.e., he was inerrant.
An interesting corollary of the above is that those who express a different halakhic view are to be treated as heretics. Conflict could only be resolved through strife. Subsequent Jewish history illuminates the wisdom of this doctrine.

In one of his frequent digressions in praise of “the pious of Ashkenaz,” the author of a critically acclaimed study on the history of Sepharad, wrote this luminous passage:
The pietists of Germany, like their forefathers who had founded the communities and academies in the Rhineland, still drew vigor from the vitalizing fountains of talmudic lore. And even though they were influenced by theological ideas and popular beliefs current among their Christian neighbors, these simple men understood the fundamental principles of the lore of our sages better than any other generation in the history of the Diaspora.
There is little doubt, that their most successful representative --a proud embodiment of their noble ideals, so lofty and so pure-- was none other than the saintly R. Asher. In 1305, heaven rewarded the anti-Maimonideans and they succeeded in installing him as the rabbi of Toledo, Castile, and as such, as the supreme spiritual authority of all Jews in Christian Spain. Throughout their ministry he and his children brought to bear ‘the spirit of inerrant piety’ –commonly known as ‘חסידות’ --into Spain. He was Tora incarnate. “As long as I am alive,” he wrote, “there is Tora in Israel.” R. Asher was aware of his excellence. No one could vie with him either in wisdom or sanctity: “Thanks to God, God had graced me, and I possess all that pertains to the true reasoning of the Law of Moses our Teacher, as [good] as all the present sages of Sepharad today.” The rabbinic authorities preceding him in Toledo were, in his view, illegitimate, because their authority derived from “the authority invested on them by the king” (בכח המלך). The scribes and notaries, too, were untrustworthy, since they did their work “to increase their profit.” This meant, that for all practical purposes, one could refer neither to the early decisions of the court nor check with community clerks about legal practices and procedures. It stands without saying, that he would not recognize the right to cite Maimonides, to any one “who is not thorough with the Mishna and Talmud” —this meant to exclude anyone that was not approved by him. “Damned be (תפח רוחם) those who judge on the basis of the books and writings of great [scholars] and do not know Mishna and Talmud at all.” Differing with him constituted an affront to the Law of Moses and formal apostasy. Take, for example, the case of R. Jacob de Valencia. Following standard halakhic practice in Sepharad, he prohibited in his own hometown the use of a public throughway (מבוא מפולש) on the Sabbath, unless a real door would be appended to one of its entrances. R. Asher disagreed. Consequently, he threatened R. Jacob with excommunication: “I am excommunicating you. If you would have been at the time of the Sanhedrin they would have put you to death.” To make sure that he would comply, he wrote to some of his confidants, “you and other should persecute him” (ואתה ואחר תנוס לו). He then issued the following judgment:
I am warning you and all the community to excommunicate that madman, Jacob the son of Rabbi Moses.... And there is a religious commandment to excommunicate him throughout all the Communities of Sepharad. And also that he should be condemned to death, as with the law of a rebellious judge.
If he would not recant, then he would impose on R. Jacob de Valencia, “by the authority invested on me by our lord the king, the fine of a thousand coins to be paid to the governor of the city.”
His authority was supreme even in matters in which he could not claim proficiency. The case we are about to examine took place in the year 1321, a short time before his death. It concerned the text of a pre-nuptial agreement in the by-laws of the Community of Toledo. It was written in classical Arabic, a language that R. Asher did not know. There was no official Hebrew translation. R. Israel de Toledo (d. 1321), secretary of the Court and one of R. Asher’s staunchest supporters, made a translation for his benefit. R. Asher rendered a decision on the basis of this translation. The translator (as an expert witness) argued that R. Asher’s interpretation violated the semantic connotations of the original Arabic. Actually, as the presiding judge, R. Asher had the final authority to reject the translator’s testimony without further ado. Instead, he chose to justify his decision: he had based his decision on the very translation furnished to him by R. Israel de Toledo. The point of the translator, however, concerned the semantics, not the actual translation. R. Asher was a master in sidestepping questions with long, irrelevant digressions, full of dubious oversimplifications and highly debatable assertions. Part of his strategy was to impute to the opponent untenable views. Thus, he deflected what constituted basically a judicial issue (see below), to a confrontation of ‘philosophy vs. the Law of Moses.’ Shrewdly, he branded R. Israel’s ‘reason’ [semantic objections] ‘philosophy.’ He would be representing the Law of Moses. In what undoubtedly constituted the supreme moment of his ministry, he produced a gem: eerily lucid, convincing and full of passion. It is a resonant testimony to a type of disciplined intelligence that only someone truly wise and pious could master. I will quote the pertinent passage at some length to give an idea of R. Asher’s graceful and witty style.
About what you wrote concerning matters determined by reason [i.e. the semantic connotations of the original Arabic] and matters determined by Law. What could I reply? Let our Tora not be as your meaningless blabber! Shall we bring a proof or a confirmation, to render a guilty or innocent verdict, or to prohibit and allow, from the science of your logic [the linguistic analysis presented by the translator], which was denounced by all the Tora sages? Isn’t it true that those who instituted it did not believe in Moses and in the righteous judgments and injunctions that were given in writing and by tradition? Then, how could those who draw from its waters bring from it a proof for the injunctions and judgments of our Teacher Moses, may he rest in peace! Or [how could they] judge a case with parables that they use in the science of their logic? It shall not be so! No! Would in my days and in my place a case be judged with parables?!
We can picture this angelic figure pausing at an inward-looking moment. In trying to overcome the moral agony, he adds these painfully honest words. Thus granting the public a privileged admission into the hearts and minds of the truly wise and pious:
Thank God, as long as I live, there is still Law in Israel, to bring proofs from the Mishna, and the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and you have no need to bring parables to render a judgment. Since the science of philosophy and the science of the Law and judgments do not follow the same path --because the science of the Law is the tradition received by Moses at Sinai. The sage would expound it according to the hermeneutics that could be used to expound it, comparing one item to another. Although these things do not concur with physical science, we still will follow tradition. But the science of philosophy is natural, and they were very wise, and determined every item according to its nature. But from so much wisdom they went deep down and they became corrupt, and were forced to repudiate the Law of Moses, because all the Law is not natural, but tradition....
Concluding with a gem, cogent and minimally flawed:
Whoever would enter from the beginning into this science [philosophy], will never escape from it and bring to his heart the science of the Law, because he would not be able to recant from the natural science to which he was accustomed, because his heart will always be attracted to it. Therefore, he will never grasp the wisdom of the Law, which is the paths of life, since his heart will always be with natural science. He would wish to compare these two sciences, bring proofs from one onto the other. As a result he would twist the Law, because they are mutually exclusive and are not compatible with one another.
Indeed, at the beginning of his responsum he solemnly declared: “And although I do not know your secular knowledge, blessed be the Lord who saved me from it! And the sign and proof came [that it] had apostatized man from the fear of God and from His Law!” Thus, in one sweep, R. Asher was disposing of the Geonic tradition and the Spanish Golden Age as corrupt and illegitimate! It is pertinent to our discussion to note that in a different occasion R. Asher had asked R. Israel de Toledo to explain to him a Mishna in Kil’ayyim (having to do with a halakha bearing on elementary plane geometry, a subject a bit too complex for the learned rabbi to handle) and help him decide between two conflicting interpretations.
R. Asher’s position was not universally accepted. R. Envidal de Toledo (14th century) did not hesitate to base a halakhic decisions on the basis “of the science of optics.” R. Asher’s doctrine was rejected by no lesser a figure than R. Moses Isserles (1525/30-1572) –the Rama-- one of the great halakhic authorities of all times! In what is an obvious allusion to R. Asher’s view, he noted that the ban issued against ‘philosophy’ never included the study of physical sciences. They may have intended to prohibit some Aristotelian works,
They never intended, however, to prohibit the study of the works of scholars and their investigations concerning the material world and its nature (במהות המציואת וטבעיהן). On the contrary, through [this type of investigation] the greatness of the Creator becomes more manifest.
In support of this position, Rama recalled that the Talmud had declared: “Whoever pronounces a word of wisdom, although from the nations (i.e., a gentile) he should be entitled ‘sage’ (חכם).” Furthermore, even those claiming that the philosophical works of heathens may be somehow perilous, they would have to concede that this couldn’t apply if their ideas are learned,
From the works of the sages of blessed memory, from whose waters we (constantly) drink. In particular, from Maimonides, of blessed memory! No one ever thought to prohibit this! We could state with absolute certainty that nothing pernicious can be found in any of his works.
To let us know that he was aware of the events surrounding Maimonidean works, he added:
Although some sages disagreed with him and burnt his works, nonetheless his works have spread among all the later authorities (חכמים האחרונים) of blessed memory! Everyone placed them [Maimonides’ works] as a crown on their heads, and bring proofs from them as if they would constitute ‘a halakha received from Moses at Sinai’ (כהלכה למשה מסיני).
Attesting to his conviction, he began his famous Mappa on Shulhan ‘Arukh, Orah Hayyim with a quotation from the Guide.
Modern Jewish historians, hopelessly ignorant of both philosophy and law, reiterate R. Asher’s view and identify the above-mentioned issue as one of ‘philosophy vs. the Law.’ In fact, it is a purely halakhic matter having nothing to do with ‘philosophy.’ Early in its history, the Jewish Court recognized the value of expert testimony, regardless of whether the expert witness was Jew or gentile. Concerning translations, the Talmudic sages consulted pagans to learn from them the nuances of foreign terms. This type of consultation is permitted even when pertaining to the text of the Scripture! Thus, Hayye Gaon would consult with the local head of the Syrian Church about biblical lexicography. The issue raised by the translator is a legitimate one: it pertains to the extent that a judge is bound to take into consideration the semantic connotations of the original document, which are not reflected in the translation. Specifically, when the expert witness, in this case the translator himself, argues that the decision violates the connotation of the document. Se‘adya Gaon discussed the matter; obviously, it is up to the court to either accept or reject the points raised by the expert witness. The fact that neither the saintly rabbi nor the learned historians appear to come to grips with the halakhic issues and Rabbinic sources pertaining to the case at hand, speaks for itself.
R. Asher’s son, R. Judah (1270-1349) shared the views and policies of his father; after his death (1321) he was appointed as his worthy successor. This prodigious rabbi, too, belonged to the inerrantly pious, known simply as ‘pious’ (חסיד). Aware of the special lineage, he requested in his last will from his children that they, too, “should become pious” (להיות חסידים). There were complaints about his ministry. The incident we are about to examine took place at about the year 1345. Some expressed concern at the numerous halakhic conflicts dividing the community (see below). R. Judah denied the fact. On the contrary, in the last forty years “there never were less conflicts among the judicial experts” (הפוסקים). The second complaint concerned the circulation of “malicious slander” (מוציאי דבה עלי) about the rabbi. Addressing the officers of the community, he said:
(Occasionally) when (people were) incensed (at the rabbi’s behavior), you declare that you don’t believe it (the accusation) in your hearts, since you are my witnesses and also the community, that from the day that you have chosen me to sit on my father’s chair, I showed favor to no one in a judicial process. It is possible, however, that unknowingly I blundered, “Surely I am brutish, unlike a man, and have not the understanding of a man” (Prov 30:2). However, if rebelliously, or with impunity, or maliciously, I committed any injustice to anyone, may God never forgive me! This is why it gives me great pain that they are suspicious of me on any of those matters. Therefore, if an important person that no one in this land can judge either says or does anything with the intention of defaming me among the public, let God judge between me and him and repay him for his ill.
From the preceding one may wrongly conclude that unlike his father, R. Judah did not regard himself inerrant. This, however, was not the case. The above was expressed as a conciliatory remark, for public relations purposes. In reality, he, too, was inerrant. This may be gathered from the explanation he gave for dismissing the Community’s petition to adopt Maimonides’ Code. To quell the controversy surrounding him, some proposed to adopt Maimonides’s code, as it was done throughout Sepharad. To this end a preliminary accord (הסכמה) was drafted. For reasons that he did not care to divulge, he rejected the petition. “There are reasons,” replied R. Judah, “that exclude approving their accord (הסכמתם), that I do not wish now to spell out.” Instead, he offered this curious argument: “You should not learn from [the policies of] others in Sepharad! On the contrary others should learn from you because the city of Toledo is the metropolis of Israel (עיר ואם בישראל) and their grandees are the grandees of the Diaspora of Ariel!”—the term ‘ Ariel’ was an allusion to himself (Judah = Ariel). The gist of this this remark becomes obvious, upon considering that early in the same responsum he had argued that although most of Maimonides’ decisions were correct, some are not. By inference, one may conclude that his decisions were free from error. We can now appreciate the snide remarks and impatience with those daring to disagree with him.
The following case is paradigmatic. It also permits a glimpse at the grounds for some of the rumors surrounding the rabbi. Let us pay close attention to the particulars; they illustrate the type of ministry that the anti-Maimonideans fought so hard to establish (see below section IX). The case pertains to a decision issued by the rabbinic court in Segovia, presided by R. Hayyim ha-Arukh (14th century). The case revolved around three witnesses of dubious character testifying on behalf of a certain Moses ‘Atias to the effect that he had contracted matrimony with certain lady. In the process of collecting these testimonies, the court discovered that in a previous case one of the witnesses had been found guilty of willfully committing perjury in a judicial proceeding (שבועת שקר). The court also determined that the second witness had been found guilty of giving false testimony (שהעיד עדות שקר). The third witness was known to have desecrated the Sabbath (שחלל שבת במזיד). Since these witnesses were unqualified to testify in a Jewish Court of Law, and since the alleged bride denied that the ceremony had taken place, R. ha-Arukh issued a decision declaring the alleged wedding void and null and the presumed bride free to marry without the need for a bill of divorce. R. Judah disagreed and declared the decision illegitimate and the marriage valid.
Halakhic disputes are common. What makes this case worthy of attention is the patronizing, dismissive vein with which the presiding rabbi of the Court is treated. We shall call attention to three aspects of R. Judah’s response. First, R. ha-Arukh wrote a legal decision on the case (קונדרס). Except for an alleged slur made by R. ha-Arukh, R. Judah was careful not to quote from it. Rather, he sidestepped it, declaring that he would not “address himself to all the nonsense (דברים בטלים) that he [R. ha-Arukh] wrote in his decision.” Stated crudely, this means that the reader would not be permitted to consider the merits of the case, but he would have to rely solely on R. Judah’s conclusions. Without even a window of insight, R. Judah resolved to act on the on the basis of hearsay (שמענו מפי מגידי אמת) and rumor (שיצא קול) –most probably stemming from the party of the groom-- that the court’s verdict was illegal. Second, with prophetic clairvoyance he assumed that the members of the Court, including the presiding judge, were illiterate boors. Without presenting a shred of evidence, he argued: perhaps (אם) the witness did not commit perjury in a judicial procedure but only failed to fulfill a promissory oath (שבועת ביטוי); perhaps (אם) the other witness had not committed the kind of crime that would disqualify him (לאו שיש בו מלקות); perhaps (אם) the third witness only transgressed a Rabbinic prohibition (אם עבר על חילול שבת דרבנן, כגון מוקצה או אפי' הוצאה בזה"ז). To impute such gross errors to a court of law, on the basis of hearsay, without first instituting a formal judicial investigation, is so malicious a slander that it might be regarded as defamation. Third, rather than to hold judgment and invite the court to rebut these charges, he issued a series of invectives (“he deserves to be banned under excommunication, and to be cursed and punished by incarceration and death”; “he never studied nor he read”; “we will not address ourselves to the sources which he brought to prove the case from the Talmud, tractates Yebamot, Gittin, and Baba Mesi‘a; it is not worthy of reply because even a chick that did not yet open its eyes could not have written what he wrote, and furthermore he does not deserve to receive a response”; etc.). On the basis of these invectives, he issued the following judgment:
To the Holy Congregation, the Congregation of Segovia (may God protect them):
You are hereby warned! This letter or a copy should be sent immediately to that R. Hayyim ha-Arukh, (notifying him) that we are rendering a judgment (against him) and (issuing an) excommunicatory sentence (בכח נידוי ושמתא), that on the day that he shall see this letter or a copy of it certified by witnesses, that he should immediately renounce his above mentioned verdict and decision, and declare it void. Furthermore, that he should send it therewith to [the Community of] Segovia within a period of eight days, so that it would be read (in the presence) of the Community.
Fortunately, the authorities in Segovia managed to preserve a sense of humor, and did not react in kind. At the end of the responsum the scribe appended a note, stating that R. ha-Arukh withdrew his decision. Thereupon, the Community of Segovia arranged a meeting between him and the representatives of R. Judah, at the Rabbinic Court in Seville (a city where anti-Maimonideans were not permitted to roam freely). At the meeting, R. ha-Arukh presented his written decision (קונדרס) and was given an opportunity to reply to the rabbis of Toledo. The matter was fully debated, “And the rabbis of Seville agreed with the aforementioned judgment of R. Hayyim ha-Arukh.”


The foregoing is paradigmatic of the anti-Maimonidean tactic. As in the case of R. Qamhi, the ‘other’ is not allowed to present his views. If by chance a careless editor overlooked a contrary view, as in the case of Yeda‘ya of Bezièrs (13th century), then it must be confined to conspicuous silence (ibn Adrete did not a issue a reply to R. Yeda‘ya); or snidely dismissed, as R. Judah with R. ha-Arukh: in either case real confrontation must be avoided. Essential to the anti-Maimonideans tactic is to muzzle the ‘other.’ More particularly, by assuming the persecutors’ inviolable right to impute the views supposedly held by the persecuted, the persecuted is muzzled and his actual views put out of circulation. It is a very effective procedure widely used. Ironically, by relying on what the anti-Maimonidean impute to their foes, without critical analyses and documentation, historians jumped to preordained conclusions. They, too, ended up promoting the same ideology and procedure. The result is a didactic (rather then a critical judgment) chuck full of the same old prejudices.
Consider the oft-heard claim that the anti-Maimonideans acted to safeguard the public from ‘heretical’ views. And yet, we have seen outrageous heresies penned by anti-Maimonideans with hardly any notice from the rabbinic establishment. The text of the Scripture was subjected to extra-canonical systems of interpretation, whereby the “empty, common sense” of the Tora, could be imbued with a “soul,” like “BaRuKh” representing the Divine Trinity; or by dividing the first three words of the Tora to read בראש יתברא אלוקים, “at the beginning God was created.” Since it was appropriate to dismantle a word, it did not appear unseemly, as with Christian hermeneutics (derashot shel dofi), to tear a word out of its context and challenge a fundamental Jewish doctrine. Thus, the “face of the Lord” (פני האדן) would be equated with that of a human. Commenting on the verse, “Three times a year all of your male (population) should be present before the face of the Lord, God” (Ex 22: 17), the following question was asked: “To whom does ‘the face of the Lord, God’ refers”? To this query a highly suggestive answer is proposed: “That is R. Simon bar Yohai” (מאן פני האדון ה'? –דא רבי שמעון בר יוחי). Within the context of that time and place, it would have been impossible not to associate the foregoing with the doctrine, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). And yet, not a peep was raised in alarm.
For reasons transcending the scope of this paper, it seems that the anti-Maimonideans were more interested in undermining the central authority of the communities than teaching ‘Tora.’ A crucial first step was to de-legitimize the Mishne Tora and to discredit the values of Israel as formulated by the Geonim and the Golden Age. Anti-Maimonidean rabbis would fill the ensuing vacuum. Unlike the rabbis of Old Sepharad, these rabbis were inerrant. To question their excellence is heresy. Since their excellence is above those not privileged to freely receive the grace of God, the ‘unprivileged’ ought to be, first and foremost, a fidelis subditus (faithful subject), that is, he must remain in a state of constant submission to the hierarchically superior clergy (emunas hakhomim). This doctrine is not found in the Talmud. It was formulated by Pope Gregory the Great (6th century) who declared, “The verdict of the superior –no matter whether just or unjust—had to be obeyed by the inferior subject.” The Jew, too, as with the fidelis christianus, ought to express his faith, not by allegiance to an accessible system of laws and values –as with the Old Law -- but through obedience (emunas hakhomim) to those who are hierarchically superior, as with the Christian clergy: “because the subject has faith in the superior’s institutions.” Intimately bound up with this doctrine is the idea ‘inerrancy.’ One is ‘inerrant’ because those who owe him obedience (emunas hakhomim) may not challenge him. This essential point is implicit in a bull issued by Pope Boniface in 1302, establishing the principle that, “If the supreme power err it can be judged only by God and not by man.”
From the preceding it should be apparent why the application of critical knowledge, as promoted by the Maimonidean and old Rabbinic tradition, constitutes an act of in-subordination: a challenge by the inferior subditus to the hierarchically inerrant superior.
Since the excellence of the anti-Maimonidean rabbi is not demonstrable on the basis of his expertise in halakha and Rabbinic literature, it was important to marginalize their value. Very aptly, the Mishna came to represent “darkness” and “the Sepulcher of Moses.” Within this context, the function of pilpul is invaluable. Talmudic studies would be easily reduced to an incoherent hodgepodge. This is how R. Joseph Jabès (d. 1507) an eyewitness to the Expulsion, described the Talmudic Academies in Castile. As a result of the pilpul methodology,
they wasted all their days, never attaining the intent of the Law. One needs not to mention that they never attained the ultimate goal, which is [proper] behavior, but even (basic) knowledge of the laws needed in daily life.
The results of the new rabbinate were devastating. Far from bringing spiritual solace and guidance, the new spiritual leaders further contributed to the dissolution of Jewish values and the demoralization of the people. Here is how R. Solomon Al‘ami (c. 1370-1420), himself a foe of philosophical studies, described the new ministry produced in Spain:
Some of our recent sages lost their way in the wilderness! They erred [even with] the most obvious! Because they hate and are jealous of each other, and put up for sale the Tora for presents. Their goal of their curriculum is to know how to read [the Tora] meticulously and expand their own innovations. The study of Talmud and other works [also is wanting] because they are concerned with every minute detail of the law and the different views and opinions [not with its substance]. They thrust aside the humility of the virtuous, temperance and holiness. What [one rabbi] instructs the other darkens; what [one rabbi] permits the other prohibits. Through their quarrels the Law had become two! They knit [their views] on a spider’s web, embarrassing themselves and exposing their wickedness: their eyes are closed and cannot see; their hearts fail to understand. They show favor [when issuing legal decisions] of the Law, and fail to tell the people their disgrace. Because God had poured over them a spirit of foolishness and had close their eyes. This is what disgraces the Tora in the eyes of all those who see and hear [them].
Thus, the ministry of the anti-Maimonideans brought about the spiritual, intellectual and material collapse of Iberian Jewry. Erroneously, some, particularly “the best and the wisest” that could not accept pretentious and incoherent blathering as a substitute for ‘Tora,’ chose to defect to escape the madness reigning in the Juderías. This is how R. Moses Arragel described the situation in Spain in 1422, about one hundred and fifteen years after the anti-Maimonideans succeded in installing the inerrantly pious in the rabbinate of Toledo.
The Jews of Castile in the past prospered and were the crown and garland of all the Jewish Diaspora…Now our best and wisest children have left us. Nothing remains of our science…and at the riverbed whose waters once carried ships, there cannot be found today even small brooks. Our science has thus vanished.
The final unfolding of the minsitry of the inerrantly pious took place in 1492, when the last Chief Rabbi of Spain chose to convert rather than to join his brethren in the Expulsion.
It appears that some historians share not only the same anti-Maimonidean fundamentalism but also their intellectual apparatus: intuition needs not to be examined critically. Indeed, what can be more reliable than accusations hurled against the persecuted, particularly when the persecutors are folk-heroes of fabled deeds?

The personal integrity of the anti-Maimonideans has been greatly overrated. In fact, in spite of all the accusations hurled against the Maimonideans there is yet to be found any documentation substantiating these charges. From all the abundant documentation of that period, there is not a single case of a Maimonidean that could serve as a counterpart to such apostates as Abner de Burgos (c. 1270-1340) or Jerónimo de Santa Fe (d. c. 1419). The same is with the alleged religious laxity of the Maimonideans. There is not a shred of evidence to these charges.
The case of the Maimonidean scholar R. Levi ben Hayyim (b. c. 1250), from Provence, gives credence to this view.
The anti-Maimonideans had embattled him mercilessly for his alleged heresies and laxity. No lesser a figure than the late Professor Abraham Halkin (1903-1990) investigated these allegations. On the basis of a careful study of all the documentation available, he showed that the opposite was the case. Concluding with these lines:
Statements of this sort, in my humble opinion, prove conclusively that a grave injustice has been done to Levi ben Abraham ben Hayyim in branding him a heretic, a seducer and a subverter. His love of his faith, coupled with his admiration of philosophy, impelled him, as it did his fellow intellectuals, to strive zealously to demonstrate that Judaism contains all wisdom, nay, that it is the mother of all learning, which is now the proud possession of others.
Historians have performed great rhetorical acrobatics to explain why so may Jews failed at the time of the Expulsion. There is some cynicism in these efforts. In view of the preceding, it would be more appropriate to ask why, after two hundred and fifty years of spiritual and intellectual pandemonium, so many brave souls chose to leave Spain and Portugal rather than live as Christians!

Ramban’s crusade against the Maimonideans was not based on dogma, or on a simplistic distaste of rationalism, as is often taught. It was grounded on objective, scientific grounds. The fault with the Maimonideans --and the Andalusian tradition lingering in Sepharad-- was that they had the impudence to reject the dynamics of spiritism and demonology (= ruchnios; Heb. רוחניות). Maimonides went so far as to classify sorcery and witchcraft as “falsehood and fabrications.” This was a shameful lie, designed to hurt people of good faith like the Kabbalists! Referring to the Maimonideans as “those who pretend to be wise and emulate the Greek” (a code name for Maimonides), Ramban ascertained that the falsehood of this statement could be objectively proven on the basis of “the science of necromancy” (חכמת הנגרומנסיה). To discard this type of evidence is to refuse the most luminous truth. Ramban himself was personally familiar with “the science of magic and augury.” Through the pietistic circles in Germany (חסידי אשכנז), he became acquainted with demonology, and the various activities of evil spirits. This type of spiritual experience was not something peripheral, confined to a group of saintly sages: it touches the heart and soul of Israel. Consider these undeniable truths. Moses’ excellence rested on his mastery of the science of witchcraft and necromancy. After enumerating some of the areas in which Moses excelled, Ramban added: “higher than all that, was that he knew all types of witchcraft, and from there he would ascend to the spheres, to the heavens and their hosts.” King Solomon, too, “was expert in witchcraft, which was the wisdom of Egypt.” Moreover, spiritism (ruchnios, Heb. רוחניות) and belief in occultism and demonology constitute the basis of religion. By denying belief in demons and the realm of the spiritistic (ruchnios, Heb. רוחניות), the Maimonideans were in fact rejecting the grounds of religion. This is why, their teaching represents the rankest of all heresies. Worst than the heathen in pre-Mosaic times:
In those pristine days, as in the days of Moses our Teacher, may he rest in peace, all knew this. Because the sciences in those days were all spiritistic (רוחניות), involving the gamut of demons and witchcraft, and the types of incense [needed to attract] the forces of heaven. The reason for this was that since they were close to the time of Creation of the world and of the Flood, nobody either denied Creation of the world or rebelled against God. Although they wanted to benefit themselves by worshipping the sun, moon, and constellations, and they would build for them images to receive the heavenly power.... At any rate, at the time of Moses our Teacher, may he rest in peace, no one was [as] wicked or heretical as to deny these (beliefs). The only thing that the gentile nations doubted was prophecy.
Background noise aside, and within the ordinary limits of human error, the esoterics of "רוחניות" (ruchnios) is indistinguishable from the old cosmic sacrality, common to pagan humanity. For reasons of mental health and stability, both the Rabbis and the Church resisted this. It still lingered, however, among the peasants in Europe. This is how Mircea Eliade described Kabbalah:
Although in the eyes of a Puritan the cosmic religion of the southeastern European peasants could have been considered a form of paganism, it was still a “cosmic, Christian liturgy.” A similar process occurred in medieval Judaism. Thanks mainly to the tradition embodied in the Kabbalah, a “cosmic sacrality,” which seemed to have been irretrievably lost after the rabbinical reform have been successfully recovered.
In conscious contrast, Maimonideans regarded spiritism and magic as pure nonsense. Here is how R. Samuel ibn Tibbon (c. 1160-c. 1230) the Hebrew translator of the Guide, defined "רוחניות" –the spring of Ramban’s religion:
Spiritism (רוחניות). There were heathens who believed that the emanations of stars descend upon images specially built for the stars, and upon the Asheroth that they specially planted for their sake. They imagined that these images and Asheroth knew the future as per prophecy, and that they spoke to them.
From the Maimonidean perspective, the mystical and theological notions introduced as “Kabbalah” were disjointed hallucinations experienced by emotionally troubled spirits: an index of mental dislocation and nothing more. Ramban was gifted with a sharp and quick mind, and understood quite well the implications that denial of demonology meant, both for him personally and for the brand of spiritualism (ruchnios, Heb. רוחניות) that he was promoting. Hence, his anger at Maimonides and the Maimonideans. They were heartless. Actually, the real purpose behind their teachings was just to cause mental pain to those saintly figures who, like him, had witnessed demons and kept intimate contact with them and other supernatural beings. Thus, the anguish in Ramban’s impassionate cry:
Look here at the cruelty of the head of the philosophers and his obstinacy, may his name be blotted out! For he denies many things witnessed by many, and we also witnessed their truth, and they [these truth] are fully acknowledged throughout the world.
These are ‘objective facts’ witnessed by thousands and thousands of people, like those night-flying witches, metamorphoses, and witches’ sabbath filling the late medieval and renaissance world. These objective facts, as so aptly put by Trevor-Roper, could be “disbelieved only (as a doctor of the Sorbonne would write in 1609) by those of unsound mind.”
Those who investigated the psychological grounds of demonology offer the following description of the mechanism involved in the dynamics of witnessing demons:
Because it often appears as something unconscious that is independent of, and often counter to, my conscious intentions, it is experienced as something happening outside of me. That is the demons. As Paul says, they cause me not to do the good that I would do and to carry out the evil that I would not (Rom. 7:19). Since they often thwart my will, I experience them as alien to my ego. Thus there is a strong tendency to set them up outside myself. The danger there, of course, is that they then elude my ability to deal with them. In that case, they can easily transform into my neighbor.
Eliade offered a similar insight:
The conception of the enemy as a demonic being, a veritable incarnation of the powers of evil, has also survived until our own days. The psychoanalysis of these mythic images that still animate the modern world will perhaps show us the extent to which we project our own destructive desires upon the “enemy.” (italics added)
Psychologically, anti-Semitism, ethnic hatred, and all forms of bias and persecution, are nothing more than demons projected by one segment of the population onto the ‘other.’ Significantly, in spite of the rich documentation of the period, not a word of the anti-Maimonidean allegations can be supported by record. It seems to me, that just like the Christians were projecting their own demons onto the ‘other’ (the Jews), the anti-Maimonideans, in mimetic response, were projecting their own demons onto their own ‘other,’ the Maimonideans. Until the laxity and heresy of a single ‘Maimonidean’ will be actually documented and properly analyzed, it would be safe to assume that the demons that the anti-Maimonideans combated so heroically, inhabited deep inside their own psyche and nowhere else.
Post-Script. Fundamentally, the anti-Maimonidean movement was subversive. As with all such movements, appearances are of the essence. With this purpose in mind, key-terms such as qabbala, tora, halakha, barukh, eloqim, etc., were emptied from their original sense and packed with subversive connotations. A sine qua non for success is addressing a public not proficient in Jewish fundamentals, unable to make the distinction ‘exterior/interior’ and notice the nuances hidden within. We can now appreciate the motivation for discrediting Maimonidean texts and Maimonidean scholars. The literary genre associated with this crusade bears this thesis. Instead of writing their own books, many anti-Maimonideans expressed their views in the books of others. With this end in mind, they used popular works, such as the Halakhot of R. Isaac Alfasi and Maimonides’ Mishne Tora as conduits (in ‘aggressive’ editing, by appending glosses, ‘commentaries’ and digressions, or by introducing slight changes that would not be noticed by the unsuspecting reader). Why? It is true, that generally, anti-Maimonideans did not feel comfortable expressing themselves in correct Hebrew, and would avoid exposing themselves to a public who still was familiar with basic grammar. There may have been, however, another more substantive reason. It pertains to the subversive character of their ideology. By using works that have gained the confidence of the public for packaging, they could gain circulation among the semi-literate and silence the opposition at the same time. Anti-Maimonideans dread confronting real Maimonideans. It was imperative not to allow the opposition to express their own beliefs in their own words. This enabled them to control the flow of ideas. There was, in my view, yet another, more powerful reason. The ‘other’ must believe in what ‘we’ –the inerrant pious -- impute to them. Or else, how could ‘we’ cope with these nasty demons? In fact, upon some reflection it will be obvious that only anti-Maimonideans could know the beliefs lurking in the minds and hearts of Maimonideans. After all, they are their own demons and they ought to know them better than anybody else.