Sunday 25 February 2024

462) Efodi’s challenge to the study of Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah



Efodi (d. 1433) is well acquainted with three powerful streams of Jewish learning ─ Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah. He argues that each of these schools has inherent and significant flaws in terms of their authenticity of tradition, let alone that they promote scholarly elitism. In their place, he boldly and controversially suggests a democratisation of Jewish scholarship through a return to the basics of Torah (i.e., biblical) study. Was this radical attempt at reshaping the Jewish learning curriculum a response to the Christian persecutions in Spain in 1391, or was it meant only as a remedy for the hour?


This article ─ based extensively on the research by Professor Yoel Marciano[1] ─ examines how Perfeyt Duran, known as Efodi, introduced and proposed a change in the traditional study curriculum, ironically by going back to pure grassroots.  His approach was anti-elitist and empowered all Jews, particularly non-scholars, to reach perfection without the need to pass through the three options of the rigours of Talmud study, Maimonidean Philosophy, or Kabbalah. He suggested, instead, a return to the simple study of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). 

Efodi had survived the anti-Jewish riots in Spain ─ which began in 1391 ─ and had been forced to convert to Christianity. He was, therefore acutely aware of his fellow Conversos and Marranos who had adopted outward Christian practices but internally lived the lives of secret Jews. He understood how concerned they were about the survival of their souls in the afterlife and he offered a novel doctrine that could have potentially changed the face of Jewish learning, forever. 

This recommendation to return to pure Torah (or biblical study) was indeed a bold innovation considering: 

1) that the Talmud had become the undisputed mainstay of Jewish learning;  

2) that Maimonidean Philosophy had taken root and was gaining momentum in important circles (before it was eradicated to the point of almost extinction by the mystics); and

3) that the Zohar had taken on an overarching de facto authority since its publication a century earlier, in 1290. 


R. Yitzchak ben Moses Halevi was known by many titles including Perfeyt Duran, Efodi, and Honoratus De Bonafide. During his lifetime he saw how the once flourishing Jewish communities of Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia had been destroyed. Some estimates suggest that around half of the remaining Jews had either forcibly or voluntarily converted to Christianity after the riots of 1391 which served as an inflection point for the ultimate expulsion of Jews from Spain, a century later in 1492. 

Efodi decided not to flee to the haven of Muslim lands but chose to remain with, and lead, his people in Spain. He bravely composed some anti-Christian polemical works and other literature which he distributed to his people. 

Efodi’s ideas on the change in the traditional curriculum are found in the Introduction to his Ma’ashe Efod (a work on Hebrew grammar). He wrote under the assumed name Efod which alluded to the Efod that the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) wore in the Temple. The various items worn by the Cohen Gadol were said to have atoned for different sins and the Efod was to have atoned for Idolatry ─ an allusion to his life as a Converso. Efod also stands for “En” (an honorific title in Catalan, similar to the Castilian “Don”) Profeyt Duran.[2] 

Efodi started out as a follower of Maimonidean rational thought, where sechel or intellect was considered the highest human pursuit. Although Efodi was criticised for his commentary on Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) by Abravanel: 

“there is no known Jewish writer who denounced him on account of his dual identity or attempted to ban his books” (Marciano 2022:347-8). 

However, Efodi later broke away from the stark Maimonidean approach as he considered it too elitist. He also parted ways with the other approaches of Talmud and Kabbalah as he similarly considered them to be too elitist. Efodi, thus became a promotor of non-elitist religion for the people, as he opposed the: 

“three elitist streams: Talmudic, philosophical, and Kabbalistic… Its main characteristic is the complete absence of elitism, and deliberate avoidance of any attempt to understand the reasons for commandments” (Marciano 2022:350). 

Efodi lists these three streams, together with their constituent followers, and specifically identifies them as theological targets: 

“The first sect is the followers of the discipline of the Talmud … 

The second sect is the followers of the Torah who make use of philosophy 

The third sect is the followers of Kabbalah …” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 4,6,9).   

1) Rejection of the Talmudic approach

Efodi rejects the approach of the central role of Talmud study: 

“It is impossible that the Talmud as a composition is devoted to Man’s acquisition of his ultimate felicity [fulfilment][3], because this work includes many matters that cannot be the cause of Man’s ultimate felicity. This is the case for many of the parables and stories included in it. Moreover, this work includes the great disputes about the laws of the Torah that came up between the Sages of Israel, in which one side of the argument is correct, and the other is false. It is impossible that the false causes eternal felicity” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 6). 

In other words, because there is so much debate in the Talmud, there can be no way, in his view, that it can serve as a meaningful mainstay capable of guiding people in search for clear meaning and direction. 

But it seems that Efodi was most concerned with scholarly one-upmanship that often goes hand in hand with Talmud study: 

“I have heard about and seen how some who attempt to investigate the wisdom of the Talmud will engage in persecution, self-importantly lording over others and making everybody stand up before them, seeking to act as princes over the nation of the Lord based on the limited amount that they understand from the Talmud” (Efodi, Ma‘aseh Efod, 9). 

And in a similar vein, Efodi continues: 

“What has brought them to neglect study of scriptures is inquiry into the deep and broad wisdom of the Talmud. They use up their days involved in it, and put aside Bible study entirely, tossing it behind them. Many of them focus on achieving profound debating skills […], not in order to achieve the ultimate objective […], but in order to self-importantly lord over one another” (Efodi, Ma‘aseh Efod, 14). 

2) Rejection of the Maimonidean/Philosophical approach

Then Efodi moves on to attack the path set out by philosophers like the “followers of our teacher Moses [Maimonides]”: 

“Philosophically-inclined adherents of the Torah are those who walk in the footsteps of philosophers like Aristotle and his followers, but at the same time remain followers of the Torah in their own opinion, and wish to reconcile these two opposites” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 6). 

Maimonides, in one of his more radical formulations, considers the study of science and philosophy to be even higher than the Torah. Maimonides put forward his famous and controversial Palace Analogy: 

“According to this allegory, the King is in the center of the palace. Some people turn their backs on the palace and walk in other directions, and others seek an audience with the king. Of the latter, some have never even seen the outer walls of the palace, and some are circling the palace trying to find the entrance. Others are wandering the halls of the palace, some have located the inner chambers, and some are inside the inner chambers. With sufficient effort, one could go further, and be together with the King. In this allegory, each group that is attempting to reach the king gets as close as it can, according to its level. Maimonides seems to locate the talmudists in the outer circle of the palace, because only the philosophers who have studied Metaphysics are mentioned as meriting a direct audience with the king” (Marciano 2022:359). 

Efodi, who is no longer a follower of Maimonidean rationalism, objects to this analogy and amends it liberally so that not only the Philosophers see the King, but the Philosophers together with the Talmudists see the King. He suggests a strained reading of the analogy where Maimonides meant to include the Talmudists with the Philosophers, but he inadvertently left the Talmudists out because, in the context, he was focusing on the Philosophers. 

Fascinatingly, and illustrating how far Efodi has drifted from his initial and favourable Maimonidean encounters: 

“This reading of Maimonides’ palace allegory is sharply different from the philosophical interpretation in [Profeyt] Duran’s commentary that is printed in Hebrew editions of the Guide” (Marciano 2022:359, footnote 45). 

Efodi had certainly moved away from Maimonidean thinking as the record of his apparent earlier writings (his commentary on the Guide) differed from his later writings (his Introduction to Ma’aseh Efod). 

Shem Tov ben Yosef Ibn Shem Tov noted the fundamental challenges presented by Maimonides’ Palace Analogy too, and he writes in his commentary on the Guide for the Perplexed: 

“Many rabbinic scholars say that Maimonides probably did not write this chapter, and if he wrote it, it should be hidden away, or better yet, burned. How could he say that those who know about physical things are on a greater level than those studying religion? Saying that they are with the king in his inner chambers makes it even more objectionable. If so, philosophers studying Physics and Metaphysics would be at a greater level than those who are studying Torah! As a very young man, I saw a nice interpretation in the Introduction to the Efodi [Ma‘ase Efod] that explained this chapter in a manner that removes the objection…” (Shem Tov ben Yosef Ibn Shem Tov, commentary to Guide, III, 51, 64b). 

This way, Shem Tov endorses Efodi’s reworking of the Maimonidean Palace Analogy and also places the Talmudists together with the Philosophers as they meet the king. This is a rejection of the elitist Maimonidean elevation of the position of the Philosophers in the hierarchy of Jewish scholars, as evidenced by Shem Tov and Efodi who refused to accept Palace Analogy at face value. 

Efodi blatantly turns his back on Maimonides and writes that he regrets the time he spent following his teachings. He acknowledges that some may rightly consider him to be hypocritical for rebuking those who study Philosophy because he too had been involved in that pursuit in his youth: 

“Some may object that my ideas are all very well, but I do not practice what I preach, because I have leaned toward studying the books of the philosophers more than is fitting, decreasing my occupation with the Torah, which is my life. For one of the requirements of an instructor is to refrain from doing what he warns his students against. And I do admit that I have strayed from the path of intellect, and I did not listen to the voice of my teachers nor incline my ear to my instructors” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 25). 

3) Rejection of the Kabbalistic approach

Efodi’s rejection of Kabbalah follows a similar line of reasoning as his rejection of the Talmudic tradition. Efodi writes: 

“But what can we do, opinions have become confounded in this science [of Kabbalah] as well. Its adherents have fallen into controversy and confusion, and agreement is lacking on many of their greatest desiderata [ideals], much the same as is the case with the practical law and its received tradition [in the Talmud]” [4] (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 9-10). 

This is a rather strong statement by Efodi who equates the lack of consensus and clarity in Talmudic literature with the lack of authoritative record of received tradition in Kabbalah. In his view, both sets of literature suffer from a similar lack of authority. 

“[Efodi] acknowledges the idea that there are secrets hidden in the Torah, but he casts doubt on the soundness and accuracy of the information that the kabbalists have received. His proof for the unreliability of their tradition is that kabbalists differ in their opinions… Likewise, the information that has been lost in transmission over the generations cannot be recovered by the use of reason. Therefore, this path is also faulty, and cannot be a means to achieving Man’s ultimate end” (Marciano 2022:361). 

4) Replacing Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah with Torah

Efodi has effectively rejected the three (albeit diverse) cornerstones of traditional Jewish learning ─  Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah in one fell swoop. He suggests that, in their place, these three sets of literature get replaced by simple Torah (Bible) study. Efodi writes: 

“What seems to me better than everything else said so far, is that the Wisdom of the Torah is the Torah itself” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod,10). 

Ironically, in a mystical-like fashion (although he opposed Kabbalah, Efodi remained a mystic in his worldview), Efodi explains why he is promoting the rejection of the three pillars of rabbinical literature and substituting Torah study in their place: 

“This exile [is caused by] the closing of the gates of this sanctified book, which is the sanctuary of the Lord, established by His hands, and to extinguish the lights by neglecting its study. The anger of the Lord was kindled and ‘He gave Jacob over to spoilers and Israel to plunderers’ (Isaiah 42:24), and because they sinned against God’s Torah, and against the words of prophecy, for which water is an allegory, He poured His wrath out upon them like water” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 14). 

The reason for Efodi’s choice of the ‘angry’ water analogy is significant because: 

“pouring of wrath like water” (after Hoshea 5:10) was a widely used expression in the years following the riots of 1391, intended to imply that the forced baptism, i.e. pouring of water over Jews, had been a divine punishment” (Marciano 2022:361, footnote 58). 

According to Efodi’s mystical schema, the persecutions of 1391 were a punishment for neglecting the Torah (Bible), in favour of the three ‘external’ rabbinic genres of literature. 

Once again, although Efodi rejected the study of Kabbalah, his worldview remains mystico-centric. He explains how Tefillin and Mezuzah, for example, cause: 

“divine emanation to flow down, and divine Providence to adhere to the nation, through the power (segula) inherent in the words of the Torah” (Efodi, Ma’aseh Efod, 10). 

In Efodi’s view, it is the words of the Torah contained on the scrolls in the Tefillin and Mezuza, more than the religious artefact, that afford the protection. 

The ‘subversive’ notion of a return to Torah

Efodi’s revolutionary attempt to change the accepted curriculum is always respectful and measured although it is subversive. It may seem strange to refer to Torah study as subversive, but considering that (besides during periods of history like the times of the Karaites) Jews have not engaged exclusively with the study of Scriptures. The various rabbinic traditions of Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah had formed the major portion of the study curriculum. All of them were elitist, and Efodi effectively: 

“challenges the elitist conventions that stood at the center of the Jewish thought of his time” (Marciano 2022:363). 


One could argue that Efodi presented his views specifically to that generation living as oppressed Conversos, because: 

“achieving immortality of the soul through scripture – is within reach of every converso and every Jew, without difficulty or peril, because the scriptures were permitted to conversos in Christian society, albeit not in Hebrew…and even the mere presence of the book among one’s possessions, can connect a person with the power (segula) inherent in it” (Marciano 2022:364). 

However, from his well-structured arguments against the three streams of the accepted study protocols, it seems that Efodi would have opposed them even if the persecutions and forced conversions of 1391 had not taken place. And it seems and that this innovation of returning to Torah as the major source of Jewish study was his attempt to radically reconstruct the study curriculum for his vision of the Jew of the future.

[1] Marciano, Y., 2022, ‘The Socioreligious Teachings of Perfeyt Duran in the Introduction to Ma’ase Efod’, Revue des Études Juives, 181, 3-4, 345-375. 

[2] Efod also stands for Ani (I am) or Amar (thus says) Profiyat Duran.

[3] Square brackets are mine.

[4] Square brackets are mine. 

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