Sunday 19 December 2021

363) Trying to define the theology of Abravanel



The length, breadth and depth of classical rabbinic thought continues to fascinate and intrigue me unabatedly. One such rabbinic figure is that of Abravanel (1437-1508), who, the more one reads about, the more complicated a personality he becomes.

We noted in an earlier article that Abravanel is difficult to define as being either a rationalist or a mystic as he seems to vacillate between the two approaches. This article, based extensively on research by Professor Eric Lawee[1], explores Abravanel’s complexity even further.

Traditionalist or disrupter?

Besides our uncertainty as to Abavanel’s relationship with mysticism (he wrote three messianic works during a short window in his life and he never returned to the subject) – there is also the uncertainty as to the nature of his relationship with tradition. At times he appears to be a great defender of tradition but then he sometimes responds boldly and assumes a more critical role, and other times he become quite innovative. Lawee (2001:6) describes this latter streak in Abravanel as follows:

Abarbanel’s approach to sacrosanct figures and his readings of classical Jewish texts could be decidedly, and at times quite wittingly—nay, provocatively—'untraditional.’”

So, for example, Abravanel rather sarcastically defines the “characteristic expression of Jewish thinking about truth[2] as simply “always referring back to something earlier.”[3]

Abravanel’s open use of non-Jewish sources

Although Abravanel did most of his writings while in Italy, most of his life was spent in Spain and there is a very distinct Iberian influence on his thinking and methodology. Many Jews who had previously lived in Muslim (southern) Spain, known as Andalusia, moved further north to Christian Spain and brough some of their Andalusian influence with them.

The Muslim south and Christian north divide brought with it some tension because centuries earlier, some Jews, like the family of Rambam (1135-1205) chose to remain within the Muslim sphere of influence and they embraced much of that ideology, especially the Greco-Arabic scientific and philosophic writings.

In time, however, some of this Andalusian influence, particularly in regard to poetry, scriptural interpretation and philosophy, was lost within northern Spain. Many Hispano-Jewish rabbis adopted and encouraged the emulation of some Christian approaches, including respectful decorum in synagogue and attentiveness during sermons. This warming to the Christian culture of northern Spain brough with it an appreciation for:

“for a number of Latin theological, philosophic, exegetical, and historiographic achievements… Some Hispano-Jewish litterati even sought to make precious Latin finds, like works of Thomas Aquinas, available in Hebrew translation. Among Iberian scholars, however, few if any rivalled Abarbanel for broad immersion in Latin literature” (Lawee:2001:28).

In his introduction to the Former Prophets, Abravanel points to his familiarity with Christian biblical interpretation. He says that he will “divide each of the books into pericopes [sections][4]” smaller than those devised by Gersonides (R. Levi ben Gershom or Ralbag) but larger than those sections devised by “the scholar Jerome, translator of Holy Writ for the Christians” (Lawee 2001:37).[7]

In Abravanel’s commentary on Samuel (204–205), he shows familiarity with fourteenth century converso churchman, Paul of Burgos. A few pages later he refers to the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible, produced by Jerome of Stridon who, in 382, was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to revise the Vetus Latina Gospels used by the Roman Church). Elsewhere, Abravanel writes of Augustine as the ”greatest of the Christian Scholars”. Then he makes use of an interpretation which is confirmed by “all the gentile scholars and adduced by the scholar Thomas in his work entitled Secunda secundae.” [Samuel 295–97]

Abravanel also borrowed extensively from Spanish Franciscan Alfonso de Madrigal, “el Tostado.” Lawee (2001:39) writes:

Even if a Hebrew translation of Thomas’ De spiritualibus creaturis ascribed to Abarbanel never existed, one notes a couple of formally laudatory references to Thomas (some censored from standard printed editions of Abarbanel’s Deuteronomy commentary)…

Surprisingly, more “faith-based”[8] interpretations from Christian scholars, were sometimes preferred by Abravanel over some rationalist rabbinical interpretations. Ralbag interpreted the stoppage of the sun in Joshua 10 as metaphorical. To Ralbag’s mind, the sun did not actually stop in the sky, but it was rather a poetic description of the victory that had occurred so swiftly and was as if the sun had stopped. Lawee (2001:40) explains’

Advocating a more faith-inspired religious stance than the one mustered by Gersonides and other late medieval Jewish rationalists, Abarbanel lauded the “scholars of Edom”—i.e., Christendom—none of whom “dared to contradict or malign” Scripture’s plain sense “despite their prodigious investigations into the sciences.”

Abravanel as critical biblical scholar

Abravanel towed the line on many issues but he was outspoken on the matter of authorship of certain biblical books. [See Kotzk Blog: 347) ABRAVANEL’S HYPOTHESIS:] Around the time of Abravanel and the Italian Renaissance, there emerged the phenomenon of the “Humanist biblicists”, who had a sense of history and a critical reading of classical and biblical texts. History and chronology became important. The Humanists attempted to reconstruct a true account of the past from variant historical accounts. Issues concerning biblical authorship never before explored, were now on the table and open for discussion. According to Lawee:

“One of the only places to see signs of this development in Hebrew biblical scholarship is in the biblical commentaries of Abarbanel.”

Abravanel makes some interesting comments on biblical authorship with statements like Jeremiah and Ezekiel being great prophets but deficient in their writing ability. This is why there are some grammatical and structural irregularities in the ketav and keri (the way the letters are sometimes written and pronounced). Abravanel writes:

“I believe that Jeremiah was not very proficient in the ordering of words or rhetorical embellishment, as was the prophet Isaiah and other prophets as well. Hence, you will find in Jeremiah’s speeches many verses that all commentators agree are missing a word or words…Similarly, you will find very, very often . . . that ‘al [properly “on”] is used in place of ’el [properly “to”], masculine for feminine and feminine for masculine… and the very same utterance may switch from second to third person…” [Jeremiah, 297–98.]

He continues to assert that Isaiah naturally spoke well as he was raised in court and of royal descent, but Jeremiah was raised among village priests and therefore expressed himself in less than perfect language (Lawee 2001:178).

While Abravanel speaks of some form of biblical editor (“metaken” and “mekabetz”) who gathered various “documents” (“ketuvim” and “maamarim”), he refused to apply these critical methods to the entire Torah of Moshe. (Lawee 2001:184) He did however question the provenance of the book of Deuteronomy [See Kotzk Blog: 342) HAYYUN’S HYPOTHESIS: DANCING BETWEEN THE LINES:]

Lawee (2001:185) writes that one should not discount the possibility that Abravanel, who wrote most of his Torah commentary towards the end of his life, may have been expressing himself more conservatively than he might have in his younger years.

Lawee (2001:186) deals with the oftentimes conflicting poles of Abravanel’s ideology by describing two different personas – Abravanel the exegete or commentator and Abravanel the theologian:

As an exegete shaped by some of the methods and mentality of the Renaissance, Abarbanel could trace the textual history of biblical texts, posit the unreliability of prebiblical scriptural sources, call attention to linguistic and stylistic flaws in the speeches and writings of eminent prophets, find witting bias built into a biblical book, and claim that an author inspired by the Holy Spirit erred in his understanding of an earlier biblical text.

As a theologian, however, and as a communal leader seeking to reinforce belief in the rock-hard inerrancy of scriptural prophecies of redemption, he was loath to admit that prophetic writings had ever experienced “confusion,” and he insisted that the Torah in particular was immune to the sorts of corruptions suffered by other texts handed down from antiquity.”

Abravanel’s anti-midrashic stance

Despite Abravanel sometimes leaning towards Christian faith-based interpretations, he had an ambivalent attitude towards the overly creative Midrashim. Sometimes he was prepared to “derive a bit of assistance from… the ways of the midrashot” but other times he chose to “incline away from them” (Lawee 2001:37).

Abravanel did not escape censure for his approach to Midrashim. The kabbalist Eliyahu Chaim of Genazzano condemned Abravanel who he referred to as the “man from Portugal[6], for defaming rabbis. He claimed Abravanel was trying to “destroy the words of the rabbinic sages and all of the other commentators”. And that Abravanel had:

criticized midrash improperly—not in secret, quietly, and by way of hint. Rather, he desecrated the name of the aggadists (ba‘alei ’aggadah) in public.

With what Lawee describes as “a frequency and nonchalance uncharacteristic of Rabbanite writers” Abravanel refers to Midrashim as “rachok” (unlikely or far- fetched), ”very unlikely”,  insufficient”, “dubious” or “bilti maspik”, “weak” and “zar” (foreign or strange).

Abravanel’s anti-Rashi stance

Because the great commentator Rashi quotes Midrashim in most of his commentary, he did not escape the critical eye of Abravanel who writes:

“[It is] an evil and bitter thing” that “the great rabbi Rashi contented himself in his commentaries on the Holy Scriptures in most matters with that which the rabbinic sages expounded.”

Abravanel also felt that Rashi had not dealt comprehensively with his commentary which was written in “great brevity”. He questioned whether commentators like Rashi knew that “the Torah has seventy faces” and that “the Holy Scriptures contain ‘light and understanding and great wisdom’ [Dan. 5:14]” (Lawee 2001:38).

Abravanel went so far as to exclude Rashi from his call for diligent Torah study when he saw that Ashkenazi Jews were neglecting Bible study and focussing only on Talmud. (Lawee 2001:88) He generally had a rather dim view of literalism in aggadic and midrashic interpretation and referred to such simplistic readings as “the way of the Ashkenazim.” Included in his view of even the most perfect of Ashkenazi sages, was the notion that most of them were as “stammerers without understanding[5] (Lawee 2001:44).

In fact, Abravanel claimed to usurp Rashi as the commentator whose main purpose was to explain “peshuto shel Mikra”, the plain meaning of the text of the Torah (Lawee 2001:93). According to Abravanel, Rashi had lost this position of expounder of the plain meaning of the Torah text because of his preoccupation with Midrashim. That position was now held by Abravanel.

Abravanel and Kabbalah

Abravanel also had a complex attitude towards Kabbalah. He interpreted many kabbalistic concepts neoplatonically.  This meant that in his view:

“certain ancient philosophic notions, ones advanced by Plato especially, coincided with Kabbalah” (Lawee 2001:46).

He maintains that a single universal truth pervaded the writings of “ancient theologians” of the distant pagan past, and he believes that the kabbalistic sefirot or spheres, were identical with Platonic ideas.

If one needed more convincing on Abravanels’ approach to Kabbalah, this is what he writes:

“I have no association with hidden things, and I have not traveled the ways of the Kabbalah, for it is distant from me”;

“I have not studied the wisdom of the Kabbalah and the knowledge of the holy ones I do not know” (Lawee 2001:131).

This all seems to imply that for Abravanel, Kabbalah was not a “privileged portion of authentic tradition handed down from antiquity” but instead something “that Abarbanel might have mastered had he wished to do so” (Lawee 2001:47). He did not choose to study Kabbalah because he questioned its authenticity within the corpus of Jewish literature.

Abravanel on Maimonides

As with so many other areas of Jewish theology, Abravanel entertained divided sentiment when it came to Rambam. In his Rosh Amanah (Abravanel’s Principles of Faith), he defends Maimonides’ Thirteen Principle of Faith from the attacks of by the like of Chasdai Crescas and his student Yosef Albo. Yet, strangely, he concludes that looking for principles of faith was misguided in Judaism as “the entire Torah, and every single verse, word, and letter in it is a principle and root that ought to be believed.” In other words, once we have the Torah, we no longer need a further creed, which was rooted anyway in non-Jewish perception of religion as dogma.

The mixed messages Abravanel is sending is quickly reconciled when he explains that principles of faith and compact dogma are necessary only for the masses who had not yet “delved into the Torah” and needed simple heuristic devices (Lawee 2001:49).

[Note: A heuristic is defined as a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. Heuristics are helpful in many situations, but they can also lead to cognitive biases.]

Abravanel expresses his feelings on Maimonides and is recorded as saying after delivering a lecture on Rambam’s Guide For the Perplexed in Lisbon:

“‘this is the intention of our master Moses [Maimonides], not the intention of Moses our master.’” [Or ha-hayyim 96]

In this instance, Abravanel is intimating that Rambam (Rabbeinu Moshe) had broken with the tradition of Moses (Moshe Rabbeinu)! (Lawee 2001:32).

Abravanel writes that he does not believe “all that the master [Maimonides] wrote”. And The good [in Maimonides] we accept and the bad we do not.” He is prepared to praise Rambam for rebutting the philosophers on three major issues, creation, divine knowledge, and providence – but as for “the rest of the topics” there were in Maimonides “undoubtedly things against which the traditionalist scholar (ha-torani) will protest” (Lawee 2001:56).


It emerges that Abravanel is not totally committed to rationalism or mysticism. (Lawee 2001:46) Although Abarbanel’s leaning towards rationalism was far more sustained and involved than his relationship with Kabbalah (Lawee 2001:208).

Similar ambiguity exists, as we have seen, with trying to establish which persona is Abravanel’s most dominant, Abravanel the commentator or Abravanel the theologian. Cedric Cohen-Skalli (2021:285) points out that "[i]n 1937, Yitzchak Baer made the point that Abravanel served kings all of his life yet developed acutely antimonarchical and antipolitical views, and he wrote many messianic commentaries but did not adopt the lifestyle of a messianic preacher eagerly awaiting the eschaton."

All this makes it very difficult to place him in any particular “box”. There were many other classical rabbis who are also difficult to categorise. This ambiguity is most uncomfortable for us today, looking back on Jewish history through the eyes of contemporary Judaism where allegiance to a particular approach or derech is expected, required and sacrosanct. Today, the first question one gets asked is “who is your Rov”? One wonders how Abravanel would have responded to such a question and whether he would even have understood it.

[1] Lawee, E., 2001, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue, State University of New York Press.

[2] Gershom Scholem, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1971), 290.

[3] Leo Strauss, “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” The Independent Journal of Philosophy 3 (1979): 112. (p.6) 

[4] Parenthesis mine.

[5] She’elot…Sha’ul ha-Kohen 6v.

[6Don Isaac’s seventy-one-year-long life can be divided geographically into three periods: the Portugal phase (1437–83), the Castile phase (1483–92), and the Italy phase (1492–1508). (Don Isaac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography, Cedric Cohen-Skalli, Translated by Avi Kallenbach, 2021, vii.)

[7] "Unlike the classical Jewish exegetes Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, who commented on single verses and even on single words, Abravanel contends with full “units”—that is, broader literary units defined and demarcated by the principle of a single “story” or idea. This method of homiletical exegesis has major similarities with certain fourteenth- and fifteenth-century homiletical works such as those of Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (HaRan, c. 1300–c. 1376) and Rabbi Isaac Arama (c. 1420–c. 1494, author of ‘Aqedat Yitshaq). Interestingly, Abravanel portrays his choice as a golden mean between the methods of Gersonides and the translation and commentary of Jerome" (Cohen-Skalli 2021 :113).

[8]  "Don Isaac depicts the Christian “scholars” as intellectuals who, despite their profound knowledge of philosophy and science, do not cast any doubt on creation ex nihilo or the possibility of miracles. Abravanel admires their ability to separate religion from philosophy and science, as well as their success in finding a golden mean between the two camps" (Cohen-Skali 2021:126).

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