Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 13th August 1971.
The Mediaeval Jewish Mind. By Chaim Pearl. Vallentine, Mitchell. 1971. £2.80.
The sub-title of this book is “The Religious Philosophy of Isaac Arama” of which Dr Pearl gives a thorough and comprehensive account. Isaac Arama was born in northern Spain in about 1420 and died about 1495, though whether in Spain or elsewhere is, as Dr Pearl points out, none too clear.
Arama acted as rabbi and preacher in Tarragona and Calatayud. His sermons were strongly philosophical in content, yet evidently not above the heads of congregants thirsting for a rational exposition of the great Jewish themes.
These sermons were collected and revised by the author to form the work Akedat Yitzhak (“The Binding of Isaac”), a book that became a happy hunting-ground for preachers in search of sermonic material.
Arama was not an original thinker but an eclectic. Precisely because of this a study of his work such as the one undertaken here really does give us an accurate picture of the medieval Jewish mind.
Under Dr Pearl’s guidance we are led through the problems that bothered Jews who had been influenced by Greek thought in its Arabic garb: the relationship between revealed religion and human reason; the creation of the world; the nature of the soul; the question of miracles; free will; prophecy; and the purpose of the mitzvot.
Many of these problems would be formulated rather differently nowadays but we still can learn much from their consideration by Arama and, specially, from his courage in tackling them.
Pearl provides us, too, with a bibliography and learned notes to assist further investigation into these weighty topics.