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Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge and Eighteenth-Century Enlightened Discourse

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In one of the most dramatic introductions to an elementary manual on the natural sciences, Judah Loeb Margolioth (1747-1811) opens his Or 'olam 'al hokhmat ha-teva' (1782) with the provocative words of a woman in black personifying the science of nature. She proclaims:

Who will listen and pay attention to me? Wait. I am the science of nature who in the past was the cornerstone but now I have become like a lost vessel and like a rejected definition, abandoned and forgotten and forsaken. Canals run dry [Isa. 19:6] and there is no one on the earth who cures [or heals from my light and my precious lights. … Why is philosophy open and uncovered, peering through the window [Judg. 5:28], saturating its plump furrows [after Ps. 65:11]… while I am estranged. … I am astonished most of all by the officer of the Torah, the author of the Guide [Maimonides], notwithstanding the wonders he accomplished for the Torah and the law and the hidden lights his hand uncovered and the philosophy he seized with violent trembling [Gen. 27:33]. For from the time he wondrously made a praiseworthy name for it [philosophy], the task became onerous [echoing Exod. 5:9]. What perverseness did he find in the science of nature such that he left it bereaved and abandoned, proven displeasing by the fact that he did not designate her [see Exod. 21:8] because he went after philosophy whose buds are blown away like dust [Isa. 5:24].1

Margolioth's open contempt for Maimonides' privileging metaphysics over physics might be meaningfully compared with another remarkable declaration composed some fifty years earlier by the Italian Jewish Kabbalist Solomon Aviad Sar-Shalom Basilea in his Emunat hakhamim (1730). In this passage, Basilea describes an old sage in Mantua who had apparently accumulated much 'old-fashioned' learning which rendered him incapable of having any new insight other than what he had previously learned. Basilea cleverly offered to perform an experiment on him using the eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose. He said to him: 'Master, the spectacles on your nose can make people appear so that their heads are below and their feet are above; that they can extend their heads to the ground and their lower extremities toward heaven, so that when a person walks to the east, it will appear to him that he goes to the west. So all things might appear to be opposite of what they actually are'. The old philosopher dismissed Basilea's offer as nonsensical and attempted to offer philosophical proofs demonstrating the impossibility of what he was claiming to accomplish.



Date Posted: 03 August 2017