The Rise of Kabbalah on the Demise of Iberian Jewry

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez

The following is an excerpt of several passages from a large paper I am working on. I apologize for the foot note numbering which will be revised in the future.

For  Jose Faur’s excellent article on the influence of Kabbalah on the demise of Iberian Jewry, visit the following site:

Click to access -A_Crisis_of_Categories_Kabbalah_and_the_Rise_of_Apostasy_in_Spain.pdf

According to Jose Faur, the rise of the Converso phenomena is in large part connected to the undermining of Jewish religious institutions.  The rise of the anti-Maimonidean movement in the 12th and 13th centuries as well as the changing nature of rabbinic leadership in the Iberian Peninsula led to the gradual collapse of Jewish communal life and leadership. This generally held view also holds that the anti-Maimonidean forces held the line against assimilationist trends engendered by the rationalistic and philosophic camps of the former.[1] The anti-Maimonidean forces are generally considered the authentic expression of Judaism.[2]


Instead, Faur contends, the opposite is actually true and the anti-Maimonidean forces far from embracing a more authentic Jewish expression were actually reflective of an assimilation of prevailing Christian attitudes towards philosophy and humanistic studies. Faur states:

“Unknowingly, the anti-Maimonideans promoted Christian ideology. It should be emphasized that they were not conscious of their mental assimilation. Their opposition fostered the illusion of total autonomy, barring an analysis of the basic elements affecting their own thinking process.”[3]

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Jose Faur’s proposition is as follows: “A mark of the anti-Maimonidean ideology (whereby zeal displaces halakhah) is the sanction of violence as a legitimate means for the implementation of ‘religion.’” Among the principal characteristics of then contemporary Christian society was the persecution of heterodox minority communities. Persecution became a major component of Christian ideology. In the context of the Jewish community, the anti-Maimonidean circles harassed Jews who favored other approaches to Jewish thought other than their own and created a distinct group marked for persecution.[4] The consequences of these actions cannot be underestimated as Faur notes:

“One need not be particularly bright to have realized that requesting the Dominicans to burn Maimonides’ works established an extremely dangerous precedent.”[5]

The trend resulted in the loss of the creativity that had been characteristic of Iberian Jewish life in centuries before. Intellectual life in it’s scientific, humanistic, and diplomatic life ended. An alienation of the lay elite occurred and the loss of creative leadership were felt when anti-Semitic riots of the 14th and 15th centuries were experienced.

The other major internal reason critical to the rise of the Converso phenomena is the changing of religious leadership in Spain which led to a spiritual vacuum as well as diplomatic ineptitude when crisis arose.[1]  The intellectual and religious life of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula had previously reflected a religious tradition that was based upon the ideal of a pluralistic society of Andalusia, where Christian, Moorish, and Jewish scholars worked “side by side” to transmit the classics rediscovered and produced by Islamic schools.   Jewish life until the Maimonidean era was regulated on the basis that the commandments of the Torah were regulated by precise legislation and not by impulsive religious zeal. As Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi had noted, the commandments had exactly known definitions and functioned as the ultimate categories of Judaism.[2]

Jews of Iberia-3D
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Onne of the anti-Maimonidean forces’ greatest champion was Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman. Nachman reflected a new form of Jewish orthodoxy deeply rooted in emerging Kabbalistic thought and strongly opposed the philosophical inclinations so reflective of Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers and halachists. Nachman’s approach to both the basis of rabbinic authority and an understanding of the observance of Jewish law were radically different than that of his predecessors. It arguably subordinated halakhah to Kabbalah.[3]  It is also not simply an issue of the growing importance of Kabbalah, but of specific ideas like reincarnation that may have played an influential role in Spanish Jewish society. While the idea of reincarnation exists in the Bahir and in the Zohar, they represent limited forms of this concept and did not per the views of Moses De Leon and Isaac ibn Latif include the idea that reincarnation was the primary means of divine retribution. Interestingly, Shem Tov ben Shem Tov, one of the individuals who blamed philosophy as the principal reason for the mass conversion, in his Sefer Ha-Emunot actually proposed reincarnation as the primary means of divine reward and punishment. That reincarnation would undermine the adherence to Jewish law is not definitive but does raise a complicated scenario. Cutler and Cutler state:

“Rather, the way G-d punished the sinner was by temporarily bringing his soul back again in a lower form of life. But if in this subsequent earthly life the sinner behaved, he could rise up the ladder of rebirth and come back as a person again in his next reincarnation. Thus, punishment for sin was not eternal, and punishment for the ultimate sin of apostasy was also not eternal. Such being the case, why should the Jews not convert en masse…”[4]

It is a question worth noting. Norman Roth supports the view that Kabbalah played a major component. He states:

“There is, therefore no question but that the fifteenth century saw a complete breakdown and virtual collapse of the high level of Jewish learning which had characterized Spanish Jewry from the earliest days. The vacuum was filled, to the extent that it was, not by Baer’s nemesis, philosophy, but by its opponent qabalah….all these factors paved the way for the final chapter, which saw the conversion of undoubtedly the majority of Jews of Spain before the Expulsion was decreed.”[5]

In short Nachman’s approach posited him as a harsh critic of the rationalism previously hitherto known in Andalusian Jewish communities. The issue is not the validity of Nachman’s views but rather the radically different approaches and antagonism that arose against what had been the mainstay of Jewish life for centuries. The philosophically and nationalistically leaning approaches of former years were over. Nachman’s redirection in rabbinic thought was not simply one focused towards the mystical.

It was according to Faur, a complete transformation of the halakhic foundations that had been characteristic before of Judaism before. Nachman according to Faur, no longer recognized the Torah as the singular constitutive of human relationship with G-d. Commenting on the Torah, Nachman argued that one could be depraved within the boundaries of the Torah. While this might seem to be a call toward a higher level of righteousness, it repositioned the authority of the Torah. Nachman indicated that a higher decisive factor was needed to achieve the holiness reflected in Leviticus 19:2. Nachman stated “such as abstention from the pollution that although it was not forbidden to us by the Law.” In effect, he argued that perfection transcended the commandments of the Torah.

The Andalusian tradition however, had reflected the views of Rabbi Judah ha-Levi who had argued that the commandments had exactly known definitions which functioned as the ultimate categories of Judaism. According to this view, Jews were to follow the divine will by living “according to its definitions and stipulations.”[6] The “it” in question was the Torah which was definite and composed of precise legal definitions. Personal instinct and wisdom were not the factors determining Israel’s religious obligations. The former factors were representative of elements within the concept of itjihad meaning personal endeavor. The most revealing example of itjihad was the biblical example of Israel worshipping the golden calf. Israel’s sin was not worshipping another G-d, but worshipping G-d according to itjihad. In the Kuzari, the pagan King is introduced as a good man who was diligent (yujtahad) in his religious observance. An angel appears to him and reveals that though his intentions were good, his actions were not. The goal of ha-Levi’s Kuzari was the repudiation of the concept of itjihad.

Ha-Levi’s goal was arguably not the elimination of zeal or passion from Jewish worship, but rather the restraint of its application in relation to the Torah. The restraint of itjihad was in fact a major distinction between Judaism and other religious traditions. Judaism was grounded on the Torah’s revelation at Sinai. Personal endeavor was present in Jewish tradition, but was subordinate to the well defined categories of the Torah. Other religious traditions, however, were founded on itjihad. If personal endeavor were accepted as a spiritual decisive factor, no distinction between heathenism, magic, or any religious creed would exist. Nachmanides, Faur argues, epitomized the embrace of itjihad by various Spanish and French rabbis. Nachmanides argued that rabbi’s authority to legislate was not predetermined in the Torah. Consequently, another source, independent of the Torah must determine man’s obligations towards G-d.

Nachmanides rejected the Maimonides’ view that what could be inferred from the Torah was the Torah itself and instead maintained that whatever was derived as a result of personal intuition and study was explicitly ordered by the Torah. Incidentally, this rejection of Maimonides’ position was also a refutation of Judah ha-Levi’s notion of an “alien cult.”[7] But the most significant differentiation in the approach of Nachmanides and Maimonides was not simply the anti-rationalism of the former, but his belief in and moreover interest in the “the science of necromancy.” In a key passage, Nachmanides argued that rationalism could be disregarded on the evidence of necromancy.[8] The fact that Nachmanides viewed necromancy as a basis for seeing rationalism as futile opposed the views of Maimonides who viewed sorcery and witchcraft as lies as falsehood. Nachmanides went as far as opposing the Maimonidean view by attacking “those who pretend to be wise, and emulate the Greek (i.e. Aristotle). Nachmanides stated:

“This would be known with spirits through the science of necromancy (hokhmat ha-negromansia), and it also could be known to the minds through the clues of the Tora, to those who understand their secrets. And I cannot explain [further], because we would have to shut up the mouth of those who pretend to be wise about nature, emulating the Greek [i.e. Aristotle], who rejected everything that he could not perceive with the senses. And haughtily he and his evil disciples thought that everything that he did not grasp with his reason is untrue.”[9]

For Faur, Nachmanides’ views are a reflection not of anti-rationalistic sentiments seeking to affirm Jewish authority against non-Jewish cultural influences. It was rather of distinct cultural patterns set in opposition to each other.[10] A major shift in philosophy and leadership of the community was one of several critical factors transforming the Jewish community of the Iberian peninsula into a significantly weaker and more divided one.

[1] Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995), p. 13.

[2] David H. Baneth, The Kuzari (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1977), III, 49, p.129.

[3]Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College, 20.

[4] Allan Harris Cutler and Helen Elmquist Cutler, The Jews as Ally of the Muslim: Medieval Roots of Anti-Semitism, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1986), p. 281.

[5] Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995), p. 13.

[6] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p. 10.

[7] Jose Faur argues that a primary example of Nachmanides’ position is his rejection of the Maimonidean view that prayer was a biblical commandment. “Since prayer are not part of the Sinaitic pact, and since rabbinic authority is not biblical, it follows that prayers are a purely human institution- a form of Jewish itjihad, not unlike any other form of religious cult.” Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p.13.

[8] His Commentary to Exodus 20:3 – Pirush ha-Ramban, Volume 1, p. 393 refers to the “science of magic and divination”as does his comments on Genesis 4:22 where he references “books on the use of demons.” In addition, he was in contact with “masters of demons” with whom he had sought “clarification” from. See Torat Hashem Temima, pp.146, 149. Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p.223.

[9] Keter ha-Torah, ed. R. Joseph Hasid (Jerusalem, 1970), vol. 3, 122b cited in Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p. 223

[10] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p. 14.

[1] Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Volume 1, (Philadelphia; Jewish Publication Society, 1961), p. 96-110.

[2]  In his article Anti- Maimonidean Demons, Jose Faur, notes the simple point that the mass apostasy to Christianity took place after and not before the attack on Maimonides. This is a point largely ignored by those placing blame on the impact of philosophical speculation on those who converted. Conversely one may argue that Faur’s contention that the radical change in Jewish leadership and philosophical outlook in the Peninsula set the stage for the conversions should be muted since they occurred two hundred years after.

[3] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), p. 1.  See also Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College.

[4]  Ibid. 2.

[5]  Jose Faur, Anti-Maimonidean Demons, Netanya College.

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?

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