Sunday 28 July 2019





Rabbi Levi ben Avraham ben Chaim (1245-1315) was a southern French rationalist who followed the ways of Rambam (1135-1204) and like his exemplar, he too was persecuted for his views.

He was the grandfather of R. Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides or Ralbag (1288-1344).

R. Levi ben Avraham’s[1] mastery of Torah study should not be underestimated, as according to Yehudah Mosconi in his supercommentary on Ibn Ezra, R. Levi was regarded as one of the most prominent scholars of his time.

Besides being a Torah scholar, he was particularly interested in science and astronomy, and later championed a synthesis between Torah and secular study. Unfortunately for him, this occurred during the height of the anti-Maimonidean controversies of 1304-1305, when Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet) issued a ban against Rambam’s philosophical writings.
The ban was directed against:
“...any member of the [Barcelona] community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks on natural science or metaphysics [a veiled reference to Rambam’s philosophy][2], whether in the original language or in translation.”[3]

The Rashba’s ban, originally intended only for Barcelona, also included a prohibition against any allegorical interpretations of the Torah until the age of 25.

Rashba tried to get the rabbis of Southern France to officially enact the same ban as he had instituted in Barcelona, because: “[t]he [Jewish] people are split in two [as a result of the Maimonidean rationalists].[4] 

This ban, in the form of a letter, was dramatically read out by R. Abba Mari on a Shabbat morning in a synagogue in Montpellier (Southern France) on Erev Rosh haShana in 1304. And R. Levi ben Avraham was singled out as one of its chief targets.

An objection was immediately raised by R. Yaakov Ibn Tibbon, and chaos and confusion ensued in the synagogue and the community.

When the Jews of Southern France refused to accept such a ban, Rashba himself imposed it directly on them, going over the heads of their own rabbinic leadership.[5]

Within days of the issue of the ban, a group of enraged southern French rabbis excommunicated Abba Mari (who also hailed from southern France) for recruiting and inciting Rashba against them. In response, Abba Mari excommunicated them.

In all this chaos, R. Levi ben Avraham remained the centre of Rashba’s attention. Why was he singled out for such persecution?


Geographically, much of the opposition to Rambam was based in Northern France and Germany which was a stronghold for the (often mystical) Baalei haTosafot. Supporters of Rambam, however, were generally based in Provence located in Southern France. This unfortunately created a vicious north and south divide.

[For more on the conflict, see Maimonidean Controversies Part I and Part II.]


Before Rashba’s ban was issued, Levi ben Avraham had been staying with the wealthy Shmuel haSulami[6] in Narbonne in Southern France, but immediately after the ban became known, Shmuel felt pressured to expel his guest from his home.

The Rashba, in a letter to Levi ben Avraham, gave him the option either to solely occupy himself with Talmud and reject secular studies - or face excommunication. R. Levi chose to continue his secular studies and was soon excommunicated.

Being poverty struck, R. Levi then went to stay with his father-in-law until the Rashba wrote to his new host who was forced to expel him for the second time.

This despite the fact that R. Levi was: “very reserved and was communicative only to those who shared his views.[7]


According to a communication between Don Crescas Vidal and Rashba, Crescas was amazed that Rashba attacked R. Levi ben Avraham because:

What novelty is now in their land [of southern France][8], in the camp of the Hebrews, that has not long been, that they now bring their case before [you, Rashba] the judge? What do those who slander this country say such that [their countrymen] might be called the first to study philosophy and non-Jewish works? From long ago until now they have grown up with a mixture of [holy books and] the books of the Greeks.”

This appeal had no effect on Rashba and continued relentlessly:

 “Regarding the books that any one of those among them wrote, we judge its owner a heretic and the books as the books of the magicians. They and anyone who owns them stand in excommunication until they burn them completely and no longer mention their name [contents].”[9]


Rationalists lean towards allegorization while mystics lean towards mysticization. It is not clear if any mystics were ever condemned for over-mysticization[10] but R. Levi was certainly hounded for his strong tendency to rationalize and to allegorize. He took his cue from Rambam who believed that it was necessary, for example, to allegorize all the scriptural references to G-d having a body.

It is interesting to note that according to Rabbi Shmuel of Marseilles, most of the rabbis of Northern France were of the belief that G-d comprised some type of bodily form or corporeality.[11]

Rashba was fanatically opposed to the allegorists or darshanim of his time, writing that:
“Let the spirits of these people be snuffed out, and may a fire that never dies consume them. May their forms flit about in Sheol [hell][12], for the merit of the Patriarchs is insufficient to redeem them.”

Rashba wrote specifically of Levi ben Avraham:   
“A Mohammedan is far dearer to me than this man...

[who] is not ashamed to say openly that Abraham and the other patriarchs have ceased to exist as real personages and that their places have been filled by philosophical concepts...
Levi and his adherents are enemies not only of Judaism, but of every positive religion.” [13]

The attack got even more graphic:

“The other nations would punish them as heretics,
For even just one of the things - the corrupt teaching - that they write in their books!
If any [Christian or Muslim] would say that Abraham and Sarah represent Form and Matter,
They would put him on the pyre and burn him to lime!”

This was nothing new because a generation earlier, R. Yona Gerondi (the teacher of Rashba) went to the Christians – first the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:
“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 heretics, exterminate ours too.”[15]

So too now, it was hoped that by presenting red meat to the non-Jewish base, they would take care of people like R. Levi ben Avraham in an appropriate manner.[16]

A.S. Halkin describes R. Levi as follows:

“Undoubtedly Levi indulges extensively, - one might say: excessively – in allegorization.”[17]

According to R. Levi ben Avraham, the entire biblical Flood story, for example, was also about a flood or overpopulation of humans who did not indulge in intellectual pursuits and the Ark and all its details were woven into an intricate tapestry indicating how man can indeed rise above the floodwaters of debased humanity.

(It should be noted that Mystical and Chassidic interpretations of various biblical events and personalities also indulge in extreme allegorization, albeit in a Kabbalistic or Sefirotic sense. Thus Avraham, for example, relates to the attribute of Chessed etc.)

According to Minchat Kena’ot, some of the southern French rationalists were indeed quite outspoken, and he refers to them as ‘youths’:

“[One of the darshanim] announced in a loud voice that anyone who believes that the sun actually stood still in the time of Joshua is making a mistake, a fool who believes in any impossible thing.”[18]  


In fairness though, R. Levi, aware of perhaps a fundamental and radical form of over-allegorization taking hold, often introduced his allegorical interpretations with the statement:

Although the literal meaning is undoubtedly true, however, the words of Torah take on several meanings, being like a sledge-hammer which splits a rock.

Regarding the Revelation at Sinai, R. Levi writes:

Moses saw things clearly, without parable or riddle...Therefore those who convert the miracles or the precepts and laws into symbols, and discover illegitimate meanings in the Torah are heretics and Epicurians, and alter the words of the living God.[19]


It should be pointed, however, out that Rashba did not have firsthand knowledge of R. Levi’s writings, and acknowledged that he based his impressions on hearsay.[20]


Nevertheless, Rashba was joined by R. Abba Mari (who recorded 127 letters of correspondence in his Minchat Kena’ot, or Offerings of Zeal.[21]) and Rosh who all declared R. Levi to be an apostate.

R. Abba Mari was also concerned that the allegorists had gone too far. Although he rarely mentioned any of the allegorists by name, he wrote:

“They have nearly stripped all the literal meanings from the Torah and displayed her naked.”

The Rosh wrote:

“It is known to Your Honor that it was with unhappiness that I signed this document [of cherem]. How could I sign that they not study it until the age of twenty-five, thus implying that after twenty five I am permitting it, while in fact I believe it is prohibited to study it at all in this generation. But, it is only not to discourage others from signing that I signed.”[22]


R. Levi ben Avraham did not act or write in isolation but was part of a French group of followers of Rambam which included R. Moshe ben Shmuel Ibn Tibon[23], R. Yaakov Antuli, R. Yitzchak de Lattes, and of course his grandson, the Ralbag. He was also praised by the Meiri and Yedaya Bedarshi.[24]


In Yedaya Bedarshi’s letter to Rashba in defence of Levi ben Avraham, he says that he investigated the matter and found that the accusation was based on a misunderstanding of the role of a darshan (allegorist) and that even when an allegorical interpretation is presented it does not exclude the literal meaning. He goes on to quote a principle from Rambam[25] that where a literal meaning is quite tenable, there is no need to seek out an allegorical interpretation.

Rashba, however, wasn’t convinced. Instead, he furthermore claimed that R. Levi did not believe in any miracles. When he was informed that the only miracle he denied was the Talmudic[26] claim that the letters in the Ten Commandments were suspended in air, Rashba responded that this was sufficient to prove that he denied all the other miracles as well.[27] 

R. Levi claimed that small supporting stone braces prevented the middle of the mem and samech from falling out of the carved tablets of stone.

Yedaya Bedarshi implored the Rashba to withdraw his ban against studying Rambam. He pleaded with him to understand that the only reason the Christians and Moslems of his time respected the Jews, was because they were intelligent in matters of science and philosophy which they had also learned particularly from the Rambam’s influential Moreh Nevuchim.

Yedaya Bedarshi wrote:

“And despite their [the non-Jewish][28] hatred of us, they are not ashamed to admit the truth. And out of respect for him [Rambam], they even show honor to those Jews who identify with his works. How can we rise up and estrange ourselves from this honor and the source that remains to us and our Torah as protection from disrespect amongst the nations and our enemies who insult Israel and attribute to us ignorance of all knowledge and of all truth?
How can G-d cause us to act foolishly, to destroy from our midst, and to the benefit of our enemies, that residue of truth and honor that has remained with us? There can be no greater profanation of the Name than this.”[29]


Asher Bentzion Buchman explains what he considers to be the real reason for the ban, and it relates to the ongoing conflict between the mystics and the rationalists:

“Rashba, a master of kabbalah...therefore exhorts the scholars of Provence [who were followers of Rambam’s rationalism][30] who have immersed themselves in science and philosophy to turn instead to the true wisdom of kabbalah to understand the secrets of the Torah.”


The fact is that it was the collator of Minchat Kena’ot, Abba Mari himself, who pressured Rashba to issue his anti-Maimonidean ban. Rashba is recorded in Minchat Kena’ot as saying that there were three rabbis in Provence who were ‘endangering the survival of the Torah.’[31]  

However, although R. Levi ben Avraham wrote a letter in defence of himself to Rashba, his
letter was never published. Only Rashba’s response was published!

Nor did R. Abba Mari publish the arguments against the ban which were presented by the Meiri![32]


The mystics wanted nothing to do with the rabbis of Southern France and according to Asher Benzion Buchman:

It seems that for centuries the works of the followers of Rambam in Provence vanished from the public scene; only in this century was the invaluable work of Meiri published for the first time. Was this a result of the cherem of 1305?”[33]


Halkin concludes his textual study of Levi ben Avraham’s various writings with the following observation:

“[A] grave injustice has been done to Levi ben branding him a heretic, a seducer and a subverter. His love for his faith, coupled with his admiration for 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 the learning which is now the proud possession of others.”

According to Dr Gregg Stern:

“There is nothing hateful or antinomian about the interpretations of this Jewish community [of southern France][34]; they are quite Maimonidean. It is striking to see that – in the shadow of Maimonides – Rashba mistook the philosophic interpretation of the Commandments as antinomian.”


This article dealt with the systematic elimination of Maimonidean thought in Provence, Southern France, in the early 1300s.

However, within significant circles of religious Judaism today, there still exists a strong opposition to reading secular literature and even to studying Maimonides’ philosophical writings. [See Halachic Attitudes Towards Secular Studies, and Secular Education – A Great Divide.]

Asher Benzion Buchman writes that even today, there are: “...rabbis who are idolized in certain circles [who] utter such phrases as ‘the Rambam could say it; we cannot.’ 

In other words what Rambam wrote 850 years ago is too religiously controversial for our sensitive modern minds today.

Rambam’s philosophical teachings continue to be subverted precisely at a time when this generation of searchers from without, and especially from within the religious community, need them more than at any other time in Jewish history.

Buchman pleads, as the history of suppression of Maimonidean thought continues to repeat itself:

Let us hope that [the silenced voice of][35] Provence is poised to rise again.”



Rashba used a metaphor to describe how the rationalists of France were behaving: “They have taken foreign women into their homes and cast aside the daughter of Yehudah.” (Minchat Kena’ot. no. 20.)

Buchman comments:  
“According to Rambam’s approach, such a metaphor would be totally inappropriate...the other wisdoms are the wisdoms that were once known by Torah scholars and are part of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereishis. All wisdom is part of the same whole...These wisdoms are a part of Torah itself.”

It is interesting to see that even R. Abba Mari was not comfortable with Rashba’s analogy of the ‘foreign woman’ being applied to secular wisdom. He believed the ‘foreign women’ analogy should only apply to absolute heresy - and he wrote to Rashba for clarification which apparently never came.

R. Levi, basing himself on classical Maimonidean thought, maintained that knowledge of science and philosophy was originally held by the Jews but then became the province of the Gentiles. He writes that: “The sons of Japhet adorned themselves with the learning they took from Shem and the Hebrews.” And that this knowledge was then forgotten by its originators. (See R. Levi’s Batte haNefesh ve’haLechashim.)

R. Levi and the followers of Rambam believed they were restoring a component of Torah to its rightful owners.

[1] He is also referred to sometimes as Levi ben Chaim.
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Responsa of Rashba 1, no. 416. See Avraham and Sarah in Provence, by Asher Bentzion Buchman. 
[4] Minchat Kena’ot p. 730.
[5] Minchat Kena’ot p. 734.
[6] Also known as Samuel l’Escaleta. Meiri praised R. Shmuel as being one of great Halachists of southern France.
[7] Minchat Kena’ot, no. 121.
[8] Parenthesis mine. Translation Dr Gregg Stern.
[9] Minchat Kena’ot p. 737. Translation Dr Gregg Stern.
[10] Besides the opponents to Hagshamah (the belief that G-d has a body), although not to the same vitriolic extent.
[11]rov chachmei tzorfat magshimim
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Minchat Kena’ot, no 14.
[14] Minchat Kena’ot p. 412. Translation by Dr. Gregg Stern: Allegorizers of the Torah and Story of their Persecution in Languedoc (1305).
[15] Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).
[16] Minchat Kena’ot p. 383.
[17] Why Was Levi ben Hayyim Hounded, by A.S. Halkin.
[18] Minchat Kena’ot p. 408.
[19] Translation by A.S. Henkin.
[20] Rashba admits this in one of his letters which is published in Minchat Kena’ot (Shut haRashba).
[21] R. Abba Mari explains why he compiled his Minchat Kena’ot: “I became enraged with zeal for the Lord, God of Israel when I saw a man of the Holy Seed defiling himself with ‘the food of the gentiles,’ destroying the narrative of the Torah [with allegory], while she had no one to inquire and save [her].” (MK p. 225.)
[22] Ibid. Avraham and Sarah in Provence.
[23] He was from the famous Ibn Tibbon family who translated, amongst other writings, Rambam’s Arabic writings into Hebrew.
[24] In the latter’s Iggeret Hitnatzlut.
[25] Moreh Nevuchim 2:25
[26] Shabbat 104a.
[27] Minchat Kena’ot , no. 42.
[28] Parenthesis mine.
[29] Yedaya Bedarshi’s letter to Rashba, translated by Asher Benzion Buchman.
[30] Parenthesis mine.
[31] Minchat Kena’ot, nos. 50, 94, 105.
[32] R. Levi’s unpublished letter is lost but Meiri’s letter still survives.
[33] Ibid. Avraham and Sarah in Provence.
[34] Parenthesis mine.
[35] Parenthesis mine.

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