Medieval Judaism Essay Research Paper MEDIEVAL JUDAISM

Medieval Judaism Essay, Research Paper


In a review of a Jews in Antiquity by Baile, Martha

Himmelfarb writes, “Biale does not minimize the Jews’ subjection

to local or distant lords. But, like Salo Baron before him, he

strives mightily to dispel the picture of Jewish, medieval life

as one long tale of ’suffering and learning.’ Hence the emphasis

upon the ‘considerable influence in high governing circles’ and

the significant degree of control over day-to-day life enjoyed by

many pre-modern Jewish communities. Hence, too, the attention to

‘the very active political struggles’ within those communities.

Normalization of Jewish political life, in this sense at least,

did not have to wait for the rise of Zionism” (Himmelfarb, 1994,


According to Himmelfarb, Baile gathers a body of references

to Jewish wealth in antiquity, wealth that he insists would have

created anti-Jewish feelings. Yet given the silence of the

ancient sources, it is hard to imagine that writers would have

emphasized the role of economic factors in antiquity if it were

not for the significant role played by the activities of the Jews

as moneylenders and merchants in the development of anti-Semitism

in medieval Europe.

Another striking example of the problematic use of a model

drawn from the Christian Middle Ages is an emphasis on an

economic cause for popular animosity toward the Jews. Medieval

sources neglect to mention such a cause, but ancient historians

are rarely interested in economic causes. A clear observation

(rather than stereotype) of Jews throughout history reveals that

while the Jewish people inhabit all socioeconomic levels, they

tend to be successful at whatever they do. It doesn’t happen

just because they’re Jewish and therefore chosen, it happens

because practicing, committed Jews know all their traditional

history-it’s part of Jewish parents’ responsibility to teach

their children to continue the Jewish tradition and commitment:

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon

your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk

about them when you sit at home and when you walk along

the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie

them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your

foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses

and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9, NIV).

More is known today about the Jewish philosophy of the time

than of specific Jewish life. Though there was a verbal battle

between two Islamic philosophers, Avicenna and al-Ghanzali,

regarding the validity of the Neoplatonism theory of God’s

relationship with and distance from mankind in general and

individuals in particular.

The premier Jewish philosopher of the era, Maimonides, was

highly gifted. He had gained knowledge of the Talmud,

philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. After his

father and brother died, he took up the practice of medicine as a

means of earning a livelihood. In time he became physician in the

court of Saladin, and an Arabic historian states that Richard the

Lionhearted offered him a similar position in London, which he

declined (Shapiro, 1993). In addition, Maimonides produced many

important rabbinical and philosophical writings, as well as a

number of medical works that reveal him to have had an

understanding of medicine far in advance of his times. His

writings are generally accepted by Orthodox Jews and form part of

the Orthodox synagogue service. His principal philosophical work

is the Moreh Nebuhim (1190; Guide for the Perplexed). His

object, and this became the main object of medieval Jewish

philosophy, was to unify faith with reason, and to reconcile

Judaism with the teachings of Aristotle, whom Maimonides admired

above all philosophers. By definition, if Maimonides supported

the philosophy of Aristotle, he was opposed to the growing

doctrine of Neoplatonism.

The Jewish people of the Middle Ages were generally on the

high end of their respective levels, as they tend to be at any

point in history. There is evidence of growing anti-Semitism,

but the term could well be simply a misnomer for jealousy and




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