Originally published in The Heythrop Journal, A Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology, 26:3 (1985), pp. 322-3.
Joseph Ibn Kaspi’s Gevia ‘Kesef. By Basil Herring. Pp. xii, 301, New York, Ktav, 1982, no price given.
Joseph Kaspi was born in Argentiere (argent = kesef, ‘silver’, in Hebrew, hence the name Kaspi) in Southern France in the year 1279; in a place and time where Jewish scholars were strongly influenced by the ferment in the general religious world, especially in connection with the relationship between religion and philosophy. Maimonides had written his Guide for the Perplexed, a work venerated by Ibn Kaspi, in which he endeavoured to reconcile Aristoteleanism with Judaism, successfully according to some, only to descend into heresy according to others. Ibn Kaspi followed the path trodden by his master, though he could disagree with him on occasion. Ibn Kaspi was evidently a cantankerous scholar and a rich man to boot. Few were spared his criticism, neither the learned nor the ignorant, neither Jew nor Christian. This probably accounts, as Herring suggests, for the total neglect of his writings until the lastc when they were published from manuscript. A prolific author, he called most of his works after some Biblical expression in which the word kesef appears. The Gevia ‘Kesef (‘Silver Goblet’) is here published for the first time, the original Hebrew text together with an annotated translation into English. In addition there is a fine study of the whole of the Ibn Kaspi corpus and an erudite account of the background to his life and thought.
Among matters treated are Ibn Kaspi’s attitude to the Bible; his rationalistic stance; his elitism, not to say his intellectual snobbery; and his view of miracles. While the rationalistic Jewish exegetes, among whom Ibn Kaspi is to be numbered, believed unquestionably in the sanctity of the Scriptures and that they were divinely inspired, this did not preclude them from explaining many of the apparent supernatural events in the Bible in a naturalistic way. Ibn Kaspi, for example, held that the supernatural explanation was most suited to the masses but the philosopher knows better. Thus the crossing of the Red Sea was achieved by a wind that caused the waters to freeze into immobility, though he did accept certain miracles at their face value as being the result of the suspension of natural processes. Very interesting in this connection is his psychological explanation of the efficacy of blessings and curses. For people who believe in their power these have a beneficial psychological effect in the case of blessings and a baneful effect in the case of curses. That is why God had to change Balaam’s curse into a blessing.
This book provides an excellent introduction to Jewish medieval thought. It is well written and scholarly and, mercifully, the many learned notes are where they should be in a book of this nature, at the foot of the page.
St John’s Wood