Science in Medieval Jewish Scholarship

Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages viewed science as an avenue for knowing God.

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From the tenth to fifteenth centuries, scholars throughout the Jewish world engaged in the appropriation and integration of classical and Islamic scientific traditions. So strong was the influence of this scientific trend that to be an intellectual, one was virtually required to study philosophy and the natural sciences. 

Early Middle Ages

Jews living in Islamic lands, who were well-integrated into their cultural environment, participated actively in the scientific renaissance of the early Middle Ages. In addition to acquiring scientific knowledge, producing their own scientific literature, and promoting the appreciation of natural wonders, these Jewish scholars, who wrote primarily in Arabic, played an important role in the transmission of Greek science to Islamic society.

They contributed to major, collaborative endeavors funded by non-Jewish patrons and served as physicians and astronomers in royal courts across Europe and the Middle East. Several prominent figures, among them Saadia Gaon (882–942) and Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), endeavored to demonstrate that the study of natural science and philosophy was not inconsistent with religious belief and was, perhaps, even a prerequisite to true faith.

Later Middle Ages

During the latter half of this era, Jewish scientific activity was focused in the Christian regions of southern France and northern Spain and was conducted primarily in Hebrew. In Provence, Jewish scholars skilled in Arabic and philosophical thought, including Abraham bar Hiyya (d. 1145), Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), and members of the ibn Tibbon family, engaged in the translation of scientific writings from Arabic to Hebrew; the transcription of vernacular scientific works in Hebrew characters; and the composition of original scientific treatises.

jewish scienceMuch of this intellectual activity was inspired by the influx of Jews fleeing the Almohad persecutions in Muslim Spain. Some of these scholars were involved in large-scale translation projects sponsored by local patrons and functioned as intermediaries between Muslim and Christian cultures. By adjusting their medium, the transplants also succeeded in transmitting their cultural heritage to Provencal Jewry, a community whose literary language was Hebrew and whose primary intellectual endeavor was the study of Talmud and Jewish law.

Other important centers of Jewish scientific inquiry during these centuries included Italy and Sicily; Greece and Turkey; Egypt, the Land of Israel, Syria, and Iraq; Yemen and North Africa; and even eastern Europe.

In Ashkenaz

Jews living in northern France and Germany did not, for the most part, embrace the study of the natural sciences or philosophy, as did their co-religionists in other regions. Few translations or original works emanated from these communities, nor did the sciences significantly impact their other scholarly writings and literary productions.

More isolated from general culture than the Jews of Southern Europe, the scholars of Ashkenaz were in the vanguard of an anti-rationalist campaign to ban the infiltration of "alien wisdom" into religious study, perceiving philosophy and the sciences as antithetical to true faith.

Nonetheless, although they rejected Aristotelian thought and remained outside the sphere of Islamic philosophical influence, northern European Jews did not remain entirely unaffected by the scientific trends of their age. An appreciation for the wonders of the natural world is evidenced in their writings as well as in those from the "scientific" communities.

Astronomy

Amongst Jewish scholars, astronomy was the most widely-studied and widely-practiced of the natural sciences. It was, in fact, the primary field in which Jewish scholars made original contributions, innovating new theories, tables, and instruments.

Though there is no definitive explanation, astronomy's popularity may have been the result of its practical use in the determination of the Hebrew calendar or of the significance of the celestial bodies to the study of metaphysics, which was the ultimate goal of scientific inquiry for most Jewish intellectuals.

Prominent astronomers included the previously-mentioned Abraham bar Hiyya and Levi ben Gershon, as well as Judah ibn Verga (fifteenth century). Physics was also a widely-studied discipline due to its theological import.

Medicine

Medicine, traditionally perceived as a "Jewish" discipline, was another field of interest which afforded medieval Jews opportunities for social, political, and economic advancement. Maimonides was perhaps the most famous medieval Jewish doctor, but there were countless others.

Research has demonstrated that the number of Jews studying and practicing medicine in medieval Europe was disproportionate to their share of the population, despite the fact that Jews were barred from most universities. Pharmacology was a prominent field as well, and Jewish intellectuals and practitioners theorized and debated the efficacy of drugs and dosages.

Mathematics

Mathematics was mostly studied in the context of astronomy or philosophy; consequently, the branches which merited attention were geometry and trigonometry. Algebra was not widely appreciated by medieval Jews, as it was perceived to be of little practical or philosophical value.

A focus on numbers and numerology is evident in many medieval Jewish works, prominent among them the writings of Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167), which were heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism, and of Judah ha-Levi (1075–1141), who sought to counter this influence.

Science and Magic

The demarcation between science and magic was not always distinct during the Middle Ages, and disciplines that would now be considered of dubious scientific value were also the focus of Jewish inquiry, including astrology.

Although Maimonides and other Jewish scholars denounced astrology as a questionable scientific pursuit and a religiously-prohibited form of divination, Abraham ibn Ezra, Abraham bar Hiyya, and other serious scientists engaged in astrological study and relied upon its principles in their scholarly writings. Few Jews, however, engaged in the study or practice of alchemy (attempting to transmute baser metals into gold), a curiosity which has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

Scientific Encyclopedias

In addition to discrete treatises, numerous scientific encyclopedias were compiled during this era. Hebrew translations of Greek and Andalusian texts constituted much of the material anthologized in these works, which ranged in focus from mathematics, physics, and astronomy to meteorology, biology, and natural philosophy. Yet despite their scientific bent, most of these compilations were written for religious purposes and also included long sections on theology and Biblical exegesis.

Science with a Religious Flavor

Some claim that medieval Jews were not true scientists, as they studied natural phenomenon primarily for practical purposes or as an avenue for knowing God, rather than as an end unto itself. Their pursuit of the natural sciences, which was often, if not always, undertaken in the context of philosophical study, was largely inseparable from their activity in the realms of theology and metaphysics.

Indeed, most of the prominent Jewish scientists of the medieval era were traditional scholars whose erudition and creativity was primarily expressed through Biblical exegesis, Talmudic commentaries, legal treatises, and religious philosophy.

Levi ben Gershon ("Gersonides"), among the most celebrated Jewish scientists of the medieval era, is an outstanding example. Like other Jewish scientists, he was widely-known for his Biblical commentaries, Talmudic works, and liturgical compositions. Among his scientific contributions were astronomical models, tables for solar and lunar motion, theories concerning the camera obscura (an optical device used in drawing--an ancestor to photography), an improved model for the astrolabe (a classical astronomical instrument), and other astronomical instruments, including the Jacob Staff, which measures the angles between celestial bodies and was utilized as a navigational device by sailors until the mid-eighteenth century.

Foreign Wisdom?

In their passion for science, a number of medieval scholars, including Judah Ha-Levi, claimed that scientific thought originated with the People of Israel and the Torah, and not with the Greeks, as was commonly believed. Others, including Maimonides, conceded that in their quest for scientific wisdom, Jews would need to look outside their own traditions, though Maimonides too was of the opinion that the Talmudic rabbis had been masters of science despite subsequently abandoning such pursuits.

Medieval scholars recognized that many scientific theories of their own day contradicted assumptions advanced by earlier Jewish thinkers, and they generally drew distinctions between disputing scientific precedent and challenging religious tradition.

Yet in contrast to Ha-Levi, Maimonides' approach reflected a remarkable openness to the influence of "foreign wisdom." The legitimization of appropriating knowledge that originated from non-Jewish sources and outside the confines of the Jewish community was a major effect of the medieval scientific movement.

Anti-Rationalism

Science was not without its detractors, as demonstrated by the so-called "Maimonidean Controversy," an anti-rationalist campaign that rejected the philosophical and scientific trend which characterized much of the Jewish scholarship emanating from Andalusia in Spain and, later, from Provence.

Anti-rationalist movements existed alongside the rationalist bent in Jewish thought from the time of Saadia Gaon, though the dispute between the scientist-philosophers and the traditional religious thinkers peaked in the early decades of the thirteenth century and again in the fourteenth.

Opponents of "Greek wisdom," who drew support from the scholars of northern Europe, rejected the synthesis of faith and reason and attempted to ban the study of philosophy and science. But despite their best efforts, the detractors were unable to stamp out the scientific movement, which impacted Jewish scholarship to an extent that was not felt again until the enlightenment of the modern era.

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Rachel Furst is a Talmud teacher and a graduate student in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.