Science in Medieval Jewish Scholarship

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

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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.

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