The Medieval Jews



ISRAEL now had a law, but no state; a book, but no home. To 614 Jerusalem was a Christian city; till 629, Persian; till 637, again Christian; then, till 1099, a Moslem provincial capital. In that year the Crusaders besieged Jerusalem; the Jews joined the Moslems in its defense; when it fell, the surviving Jews were driven into a synagogue, and were burned to death.1 A rapid growth of Palestinian Jewry followed the recapture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187; and Saladin’s brother, the Sultan al-Adil, welcomed the 300 rabbis who in 1211 fled from England and France. Fifty-two years later, however, Nachmanides found there a mere handful of Jews;2 the Holy City had become overwhelmingly Mohammedan.

Despite conversions and occasional persecutions, Jews remained numerous in Moslem Syria, Babylonia (Iraq), and Persia, and developed a vigorous economic and cultural life. In their internal affairs they continued, as under the Sasanian kings, to enjoy self-government under their exilarch and the directors of their rabbinical academies. The exilarch was accepted by the caliphs as the head of all the Jews in Babylonia, Armenia, Turkestan, Persia, and Yemen; according to Benjamin of Tudela all subjects of the caliphs were required “to rise in the presence of the Prince of the Captivity and to salute him respectfully.”3 The office of exilarch was hereditary in one famly, which traced its lineage to David; it was a political rather than a spiritual power; and its efforts to control the rabbinate led to its decline and fall. After 762 the directors of the academies elected and dominated the exilarch.

The rabbinical colleges at Sura and Pumbeditha provided religious and intellectual leadership for the Jews of Islam, and in less degree for those of Christendom. In 658 the Caliph Ali freed the academy of Sura from the jurisdiction of the exilarch; thereupon its head, Mar-Isaac, took the title Gaon, or Excellency, and inaugurated the Gaonate, the epoch of the Geonim in Babylonian religion and scholarship.4 As the college of Pumbeditha rose in revenues and dignity from its proximity to Baghdad, its directors also assumed the title of Gaon. From the seventh to the eleventh century, questions in Talmudic law were addressed to these Geonim from all the Jewish world; and their responsa created a new legal literature for Judaism.

The rise of the Geonim coincided with—perhaps in some measure it was necessitated by—a heresy that now shook and divided Oriental Jewry. In 762, when the Exilarch Solomon died, his nephew Anan ben David stood in line for the succession; but the heads of Sura and Pumbeditha, discarding the hereditary principle, installed as exilarch Anan’s younger brother Chananya. Anan denounced the two Geonim, fled to Palestine, established his own synagogue, and called upon Jews everywhere to reject the Talmud and obey only the law of the Pentateuch. This was a return to the position of the Sadducees; it corresponded to the repudiation of the “traditions,” and exaltation of the Koran, by the Shia sect in Islam, and to the Protestant abandonment of Catholic traditions for a return to the Gospels. Anan went further, and reexamined the Pentateuch in a commentary that marked a bold advance in the critical study of the Biblical text. He protested against the changes that the Talmudic rabbis had made in the Mosaic Law by their adaptive interpretations, and insisted on the strict fulfillment of the Pentateuch decrees; hence his followers received the name of Qaraites *—“adherents of the text.” Anan praised Jesus as a holy man who had wished to set aside not the written Law of Moses but only the oral Law of the scribes and the Pharisees; Jesus, in Anan’s view, had aimed not to found a new religion but to cleanse and strengthen Judaism.5 The Qaraites became numerous in Palestine, Egypt, and Spain; they declined in the twelfth century, and only a vanishing remnant survives in Turkey, South Russia, and Arabia. Qaraites of the ninth century, presumably influenced by the Mutazilites of Islam, abandoned Anan’s principle of literal interpretation, and proposed that the resurrection of the body, and certain physical descriptions of God in the Bible, should be taken with a metaphorical grain of salt. The orthodox “Rabbanite” Jews, reverting to literalism in their turn, insisted, like orthodox Moslems, that phrases like “God’s hand” or “God sitting down” were to be taken literally; some expositors calculated the precise measurements of God’s body, members, and beard.6A few Jewish freethinkers, like Chivi al-Balchi, rejected even the Pentateuch as a binding law.7 It was in this environment of economic prosperity, religious freedom, and lively debate that Judaism produced its first famous medieval philosopher.

Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayyumi was born at Dilaz, a village of the Faiyûm, in 892. He grew up in Egypt, and married there. In 915 he migrated to Palestine, then to Babylonia. He must have been an apt student and sound teacher, for at the youthful age of thirty-six he was made Gaon or director of the college at Sura. Perceiving the inroads that Qaraism and skepticism had made upon orthodox Judaism, he set himself the same task that the mutakal-limun had undertaken in Islam—to demonstrate the full accord of the traditional faith with reason and history. In his brief life of fifty years Saadia produced—mostly in Arabic—a mass of writings rivaled only by those of Maimonides in the record of medieval Jewish thought. His Agron, an Aramaic dictionary of Hebrew, founded Hebrew philology; his Kitab al-Lugah, or Book of Language, is the oldest known grammar of the Hebrew tongue; his Arabic translation of the Old Testament remained to our time the version used by Arabic-speaking Jews; his several commentaries on books of the Bible rank him as “perhaps the greatest Bible commentator of all time”;8 his Kitab al-Amanat, or Book of Philosophical Doctrines and Beliefs (933), is the Summa contra Gentiles of Jewish theology.

Saadia accepts both revelation and tradition, the written and the oral Law; but he also accepts reason, and proposes to prove by reason the truth of revelation and tradition. Wherever the Bible clearly contradicts reason, we may assume that the passage is not meant to be taken literally by adult minds. Anthropomorphic descriptions of the deity are to be understood metaphorically; God is not like a man. The order and law of the world indicate an intelligent creator. It is unreasonable to suppose that an intelligent God would fail to reward virtue, but obviously virtue is not always rewarded in this life; consequently there must be another life, which will redeem the apparent injustice of this one. Perhaps the sufferings of the virtuous here are punishments for their occasional sins, so that they may enter paradise at once when they die; and the earthly triumphs of the wicked are rewards for their incidental virtues, so that… But even those who achieve the highest virtue, prosperity, and happiness on earth feel in their hearts that there is a better state than this one of indefinite possibilities and limited fulfillments; and how could a God intelligent enough to create so marvelous a world allow such hopes to form in the soul if they were never to be realized?9 Saadia took a leaf or two from Moslem theologians, and followed their methods of exposition, even, now and then, the details of their argument. In turn his work permeated the Jewish world, and influenced Maimonides. “Were it not for, Saadia,” said ben Maimon, “the Torah would almost have disappeared.”10

It must be admitted that Saadia was a man of some acerbity, and that his quarrel with the Exilarch David ben Zakkai injured Babylonian Jewry. In 930 David excommunicated Saadia, and Saadia excommunicated David. In 940 David died, and Saadia appointed a new exilarch; but this appointee was assassinated by Moslems on the ground that he had disparaged Mohammed. Saadia appointed the victim’s son to succeed him, whereupon this youth also was slain. The discouraged Jews decided to leave the office unfilled; and in 942 the Babylonian exilarchate closed its career of seven centuries. In that year Saadia died. The disintegration of the Baghdad caliphate, the establishment of Egypt, North Africa, and Spain as independent Moslem states, weakened the bonds between Asiatic, African, and European Jewry. The Babylonian Jews shared in the economic decline of Eastern Islam after the tenth century; the college of Sura closed its doors in 1034, that of Pumbeditha four years later; and in 1040 the Gaonate came to an end. The Crusades further isolated the Babylonian from the Egyptian and European Jews; and after the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 the Babylonian Jewish community almost disappeared from history.

Long before these catastrophes many Oriental Jews had migrated to further Asia, Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, and Europe. Ceylon had 23,000 Hebrews in 1165;11 several Jewish communities in Arabia survived the hostility of Mohammed; when Amr conquered Egypt in 641 he reported “40,000 tributary” (taxpaying) Jews in Alexandria. As Cairo spread its proliferations, its Jewish population, orthodox and Qaraite, increased. The Egyptian Jews enjoyed self-government in internal affairs under their nagid, or prince; they rose to wealth in commerce and to a high place in the administration of the Moslem state.12 In 960, according to a tradition, four rabbis sailed from Bari in Italy; their vessel was captured by a Spanish Moslem admiral, and they were sold into slavery: Rabbi Moses and his son Chanoch at Cordova, Rabbi Shemaria at Alexandria, Rabbi Hushiel at Qairwan. Each rabbi, we are told, was freed, and founded an academy in the city where he had been sold. It is usually assumed, but not certain, that they were scholars from Sura; in any case they brought the learning of Eastern Jewry to the West, and while Judaism declined in Asia it entered upon its halcyon days in Egypt and Spain.

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