Sunday, 7 August 2022

394) Berachia’s attempt to replace ‘Midrashic fantasy’ with ‘naturalistic rationalism’


Mishlei Shu’alim (“Fox Fables,” Hebrew Version Of Aesop’s Fables) By Berachia Ben Natronai HaNakdan.


This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Tamás Visi[1] and explores the thought of Berachia ben Natronai haNakdan who lived around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Normandy, England and Provence (southern France). Berachia bases himself on some of the more rationalist ideas of Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) and develops them further in his Sefer haChibur, Mussar, Sefer haMetzaref as well as his Dodi veNechdi (a work of twelfth-century scientific questions and answers, supposedly between an uncle and his nephew).[2]

The starting point

The study of classical rabbinic thinking is full of surprises and we should not make the mistake of reflecting current and popular approaches and trends back onto them. As an example, this is how Visi describes the philosophical starting point of Rav Saadia:

“Saadyah’s starting point is his civilization and not his religion. He takes for granted that his readers are familiar with Greco-Arabic culture and that rational knowledge is an unproblematic frame of reference for them…He does not take the truth of Judaism for granted” (Visi 2011:93).

Berachia, on the other hand, adopts a very different point of departure by:

“stating the principles of creation and God’s unity as the foundations of the Jewish faith…For Berakhiah, the convenient starting point was traditional religiosity. The truth of Judaism is assumed at the very beginning” (Visi 2011:93).

Berachia, however, may have used his starting point and opening words as a literary screen to protect his French and Ashkenazi readers, who would have been very different from Rav Saadia’s readers a few centuries earlier, a milieu apart - during the Abbasid Caliphate in ninth-century Babylonia. Visi shows that in Berachia’s work entitled Mussar, he introduced his rationalist ideas - not in the beginning but only later on in his book. This way his Ashkenazi readers would not have been as shocked had they confronted these rationalist views already at the outset (as they were presented to the readership of Rav Saadia Gaon). Berachia’s rationalism, therefore:

“looses its original introductory role and becomes an afterthought…[and] Berakhiah’s clever move to change the arrangement suited the taste of the presumable target audience of the book” (Visi 2011:93).


“In some passages Berakhiah confronts the ‘way of the tradition’ with the ‘way of the intellect’ as two parallel kinds of discourse. His usage of these phrases implies that both are legitimate approaches; at the same time, he does not state this explicitly. Again, he waits for the reader to become accustomed to this distinction rather than beginning an ideological-apologetical discourse on the legitimacy of a rational approach to the basic tenets of Judaism” (Visi 2011:94-5).

As Berachia’s audience reads through his various works, they gradually become more comfortable with him, and eventually, he feels free to write in no uncertain terms that:

“I have culled all this information from the learning of the Greeks, which had been translated into other languages by certain non-Jews; I have redeemed it from the hand of the stranger, and have given it a purer turn of my own and incorporated it in this work.”[3]

Berachia (in both his Mussar and Dodi veNechdi) gets rather creative in his thinking because not only does he subtly introduce Rav Saadia’s more rationalist thought to his Ashkenazi audience but he slowly draws the reader away from the realm of theology and philosophy directly into a world of the sciences as they were perceived at that time:

“Berakhiah offers his readership many brief discussions of scientific facts and problems in a vivid and enjoyable style” (Visi 2011:98).

This is particularly the case with Dod veNechdi which is written as a dialogue between an inquiring nephew and a wise uncle.

Sefer haMetzaref

In his Sefer haMetzaref, Berachia continues to pursue the notion of intellectual understanding within the framework of religious Judaism:

“Berakhiah does not spare words to condemn those who blindly follow the traditional practice without understanding…All these passages are well in line with Saadyah’s project of renewing religion through intellectual understanding” (Visi 2011:99).

In this work, Berachia once again frames his discussion within statements and quotations from Talmudic and rabbinic sources, although they now appear side by side with his “rationalistic agenda”:

“Berakhiah states that after establishing the fear and love of God in our “heart” in a traditional way, we ought to be instructed through “the way of the intellect” as well…”(Visi 2011:99).

Here Berachia uses a phrase typically borrowed from Yehuda Ibn Tibbon[4]re’ayot mi’tzad ha’sekhel (proof from Reason).” And again, to cater to the traditional sensitivities of his readers, Berachia interspersed such rationalist statements with “piyyut-like phrases” to woo his traditionalist readers. Slowly and subliminally, Berachia was introducing rationalistic ideas to his Ashkenazic audience subtly clothed in the garb of traditional rabbinic writing style.

Berachia’s writing strategy

Berachia had likely learned this delicate technique from the “old translation” of Rav Saadia’s work Emunot veDe’ot, which dramatically toned down some of Rav Saadia’s original arguments and ideas and framed the writing along more traditionalist textual lines. We know that Berachia had used this “old translation” when he wrote his Mussar,  and it seems that he employed and copied this precedent to hide his “rationalistic agenda.”

In this way, the reader becomes softened by the distinction Berachia and Rav Saadia made regarding the phrase “way of the intellect” which they both commonly used, as opposed to the more traditional approaches which are described as the “way of Scripture,” or the “way of tradition”. Rav Saadia wrote about what he called an “honesty” of faith involving some form of intellectual content.

In a style that was also adopted by Maimonides (particularly in his Guide for the Perplexed):

“Berakhiah saw himself as contributing to an ongoing rational discourse that was based on both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and one in which new things could be discovered and said” (Visi 2011:101).

Berachia’s rationalist approach incorporated a system of early scientific “naturalism” that, he maintained, could and should go hand in hand with religious belief. This thought system is particularly evident in his Dodi veNechdi.

By “naturalism” is meant:

“a more or less well identifiable layer of reality which is governed by its immanent and impersonal laws that can be discovered by the human mind and can be described in a rational discourse, and that this layer of reality enjoys a relative independence from divine will and human symbolic institutions…Berakhiah systematically avoids mythical, magical or theological explanations in most of Dodi ve-nekhdi.” (Visi 2011:102).

This indicates a resemblance to the Maimonidean understanding of the popular concept of Hashgacha Peratit (Individual Divine Providence) which becomes Hashgacha Kelalit - where except for the person of Sechel (Intellect), G-d s said to take care of the broader species rather than the individual specifically.[5]

“Naturalism” and the disintegration of “Midrashic thought”

Berachia’s approach and strategy must be seen in the light of certain theological developments taking place in Ashkenaz and central Europe at that time. Scholars point to a decline in interest in Midrashic and Aggadic literature in Ashkenazi thought by the end of the twelfth century. The fanciful and mythical[6] style so apparent in Midrashic literature had fallen out of favour at that time. This observation is convincingly demonstrated by Hayim Soloveitchik.[7]  Although Midrash obviously remained alive in the texts, it had generally:

“lost its appeal to the Jewish intellectuals of medieval Germany and northern France” (Visi 2011:102).

An example of how Midrashic thinking was becoming unpopular, can be seen in the writings produced by Chasidei Ashkenaz during that period:

“there are hundreds of quotations from various midrashim in the Sefer Hasidim, but none of them depict God as the loving father of Israel” (Visi 2011:102).

Accordingly, there appears to have been a move away from traditional Midrashic thinking even in the mystical writings of Chasidei Ashkenaz.

A new symbolic world had to be created in light of the collapse of the old Midrashic ethos. According to Soloveitchik, this vacuum was to be filled by a choice of four options at that time:

(1) Popular belief and superstition.

(2) Esoteric texts and traditions coming from the Gaonic academies of Iraq, including Sefer Yetzira, Merkava texts, and others.

(3) Non-Jewish sources.

(4) Sephardi Jewish sources.

Chasidei Ashkenaz as well as the Tosafists[8] generally chose options 1 and 2. Berachia introduced option 3 by incorporating some non-Jewish ideas into his writings and thereby introducing them to Ashkenaz. (Option 4 was not very popular.)

Berachia tried, with some degree of success, to inculcate interest in rationalism and naturalism (as defined above) to replace Midrashic and Aggadic worldviews. Berachia’s Dodi veNechdi (Uncle and Nephew) symbolises that attempt at shifting the Hashkafic worldview:

“The implications of the new naturalistic worldview can be detected in some of the questions where the uncle’s reply strikingly differs from the answers provided by traditional literature.

'Why does man part from life, and die?' asks the nephew…A traditionalist respondent would quote the curse on Adam and his offspring that punished the sin of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. The uncle of Berakhiah’s dialogue does not make any allusion to the biblical narration; he offers a purely scientific explanation: the soul departs the body when the equilibrium of the four elements in the latter is broken.

This explanation is entirely unrelated to traditional Jewish literature but it does not lack a theological aspect…Thus, God is not eliminated from the new naturalistic worldview. What is eliminated is the mythic account of the origin of death” (Visi 2011:103-4).

In other words, while Berachia was trying to wean his readers off Midrashc literalism[9] and other general mythological patterns of thought and genres; and while he was gently incorporating rationalistic and naturalistic ideas into his writing, he continued to pursue a religious agenda – and he wanted to show that there need be no contradiction between rationalism and religion.


Berachia ben Natronai haNakdan presents a fascinating picture of sage delicately and sensitively (if not enterprisingly) offering a more rationalistic and naturalistic Hashkafic (outlook) option to the Ashkenazi world of the twelfth century which had fallen out of favour with mythical and Midrashic explanations regarding the realia of life.

To what extent his, and other more rationalist rabbis’ efforts were successful, is an interesting question, considering the general return to the ‘Midrashic approach’ that many quarters of the Jewish world seem, subsequently, to have re-adopted and appear more comfortable with.




Here are two examples (from Gollancz’s translation of Dodi veNechdi) of the questions of the nephew and the answers of the uncle:

Question VII. Bodl. 33; Ad. LIII.]

Why does not the Great Sea, fed as it is by mighty overflowing waters, grow larger? We have learnt that all streams go to the sea, and the sea is not full; and that there is, indeed, no limit to the number that do flow therein.

Uncle : My nephew is wise in his own eyes, and wisdom is girt in his loins; but if he were to spend all the days of his life in the endeavour, he could never prove to demonstration that all the streams do go to the sea, except to adduce the words of " Ecclesiastes." And just as he cannot prove this, so he cannot prove that some do not go to the sea. Hence we should know that just as some flow to the sea, so some streams are produced, that no sooner produced, they are absorbed. But I am more anxious about the following more remarkable phenomenon: that when the streams go to the sea, returning in their flow, they are carried beneath the earth, and are absorbed by reason of the heat of the sun and stars, some for all time. How does this happen?

For, this being the case, would not the sea grow less and become reduced? However, I consoled myself with this explanation: It is the nature of the sea to restore that which comes within its reach; in this sense, too, we can speak of the sea's vitality.


Question XVIII. [Bodl. 7; Ad. XII.]

Why do some animals see in the night, and others not? O Uncle! Mine ears have listened and understood, nor did I regard it as futile what thou hast delivered concerning the stomach. Do thou then teach me something as regards the sight of animals, as some see, and others do not see in the night.

Uncle : Dost thou not know, hast thou not heard, that there are seven films in the eye, and that there are three kinds of moisture in them, from which proceed the principle of sight?

First, the innermost of the three is called the white of the eye, being unusually so, and disperses the sight and brings it out. This is all sight.

Secondly, there is the middle part, not as white as the former, nor as dark as the third, which concentrates the rays, and prevents them from being scattered more than is proper, and which, so to speak, holds them in check.

The third is the outer portion, which is darker than the second; and the dark part in it is to collect and concentrate the seeing-power of the second, so as not to permit it to scatter itself according to its will and pleasure; it is also placed in charge of the second, and upon it depends primarily the organ of sight.

For this is patent and well known to all men of science, that if the vision were scattered in consequence of the whiteness of the two preceding parts, the eye could not see and make out any small and fine object. And now, since seeing is concentrated by means of this third portion, which in reality is the key to sight, it follows that the bird and the animals that have white in the eye to a greater degree than black, found in the two parts that collect the light, will be able to see in the night, since the white in the eye prevails in the darkness and the gloom more than by day. You may see this in the case of the cat that sees best by night, and cannot stand the clearness of daylight, as it is too strong and rare for it. Your eyes, for example, cannot stand the sight of the sun, but in the night when the sun's light is no hindrance to it, you can see better.

I have tested this with many people whose white of eye is more than the dark; when they come across snow, they cannot see at all, or but very little. And you can prove this yourself; when you wish to have a good look at a thing, you strain your sight and press your eyes together, that the rays of sight shall not be dispersed; for when this latter thing happens, you do not look at one object, but you look here and there. 


[1] Visi, T., 2011, ‘On the Peripheries of Ashkenaz Medieval Jewish Philosophers in Normandy and in the Czech Lands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century’, Palacky University, Olomouc, Habilitation dissertation.

[2] In 1902, this work was published in Englsh translation by Dr Hermann Gollancz. Some of the questions the nephew poses to the uncle can be found in the Apendix below. 

[3] Tr. Gollancz, Ethical Treatises, 90-93.

[4] See his Hebrew translation of Bahyah Ibn Pakuda’s work.

[6] While the word “myth” is ofen regarded as something that is not true, technically, the word means a “story,” particularly a “traditional story” and is not necessarily always used to convey a judgement as to the historical or scientific accuracy of the story.

[7] See Soloveitchik, H., 1976, ‘Three Themes in the Sefer Hasidim’, AJS Review 1, 311-357.

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