Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies 35:2.
Allan Lazaroff, The Theology of Abraham Bibago: A Defense of the Divine Will, Knowledge and Providence in Fifteenth Century Spanish-Jewish Philosophy, University of Alabama Press, Alabama, 1981, xiii, 139 pp. £9.00.
Kalman P. Bland, The Epistle on the Possibility of Conjunction with the Active Intellect by Ibn Rushd with the Commentary of Moses Narboni: A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, 1982, xiii, 151pp. Hebrew text, 155 pp. $25.00.
Isaac Rabinowitz, The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow( Sepher Nopheth Suphim) by Judah Messer Leon: A Critical Edition and Translation, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1983, lxx, 604 pp.
The first of these volumes is a scholarly study of an important but largely neglected mediaeval Jewish philosopher; the other two are critical editions and translations, with full scientific apparatus, of thinkers belonging to the same period. Interesting in themselves to all mediaevalists, all three books will be of immense help to the student anxious to come to grips with mediaeval Jewish texts in philosophy, the language of which is frequently obscure, and the thought-pat terns unfamiliar, not to say out-dated on the surface to the contemporary reader.
Lazaroff acknowledges his indebtedness to two foremost scholars of mediaeval Jewish philosophy, Alexander Altman and Shlomo Pines. His monograph on the pre-Expulsion Spanish thinker, Abraham Bibago, examines in detail the theology of Bibago’s chief work, Derekh ‘Emunah, a defence of Judaism in the rationalistic mode against the attacks of Christianity and the philosophers, compiled is Saragossa around 1480, published for the first and only time in Constantinople. Bibago’s master par excellence is Maimonides, to whom he refers with the utmost deference on almost every page. Yet he can occasionally bring himself to take issue with Maimonides and even with the Talmudic Rabbis, quoting the old saying, so convenient a justification for daring innovation by a traditionalist, a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant can see farther. Bibago was also a consistent Avveroist, referring to Ibn Rushd as a “great philosopher”.
Among the works of Ibn Rushd to which Bibago refers is The Epistle on the Possibility of Conjunction, the work edited and translated by Bland (who also acknowledges his indebtedness to Altman). Bland’s edition is based on ten extant manuscripts. The subject of the Epistle and Narboni’s Commentary is the doctrine, accepted by the Arabic and Jewish Aristoteleans, that the hylic soul of man must become attached to the Active Intellect through the contemplation and assimilation of metaphysical truths and thus acquire immortality: for Ibn Rushd this immortality is collective rather than individual. The doctrine explains the title: there is a possibility of man’s hylic soul becoming conjoined with the Active Intellect. Both in this work and in his Commentary to Maimonides’ Guide, Narboni is a loyal disciple of Ibn Rushd while remaining true to his Jewish beliefs. As Bland remarks: “Despite a two-hundred-year separation in time and vast, religious, cultural differences, a Jewish intellectual could embrace a Muslim thinker as a respected philosophic authority, citing with approval his systematic philosophy as well as many of his religious values and practices”.
The Rabinowitz edition of Messer Leon’s work is the first critical edition of the Hebrew text, drawing on a manuscript, the first printed edition of Mantua, 1475/6, and other pertinent sources. Nophet Suphim is a treatise on rhetoric in which the author provides copious illustrations of the various forms from the Hebrew Scriptures, making this one of the earliest Jewish works to treat the Bible as literature, the divinely-inspired text being recorded in “the language of men”. The chief importance of the work throughout the Renaissance period, however, lies in its re-statement of the idea, going back to Philo, that all scientific and scholarly knowledge is essentially Scriptural or Israelite in origin, thus legitimising the study of Greek philosophy and the sciences as really “Jewish”.