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­­­­­­­­One of the most fascinating yet often overlooked Jewish scholars, exhibiting enormous originality and creativity, was the fourteenth century French Jewish philosopher Levi Ben Gerson (1288-1344), Gersonides, also known as RaLBaG. Gersonides was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and physician who incredibly excelled in all these areas. As a Renaissance man before the Renaissance, his achievements challenge our imagination of what humans can accomplish and earn our highest admiration.

His accomplishments in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and mechanical invention are nothing short of astonishing. In astronomy he showed how his astute observations refuted Ptolemy’s claims based upon the sun revolving around the earth. In doing this he provided firm groundwork for Copernicus about 200 years before the latter set forth his perspective. It is within real possibility he was aware of the heliocentric reality but was reluctant to assert it at his early time. Most amazingly he also provided the groundwork for various vital areas of astrophysics arguing that time itself was created with a formless substance which today we call quantum foam that existed in a state of chaos. It agrees with the most current theoretical physics developed by the twentieth century astrophysicist John Wheeler and refined by others. He also invented a vital navigational device called Jacob’s staff that was utilized for hundreds of years to determine a ship’s position based upon the precise configuration of the stars at the horizon. In addition he invented a special pinhole camera obscura which projected very faint stars onto a background screen for astronomical evaluation.


However, it was his philosophical insights that until rather recently by some went largely unappreciated in both originality and depth. This was contained in his central work “Sefer-Milhamot Ha- Shem” (Wars of the Lord). In his approach to religion, written in Hebrew, (also translated into Latin by Pope Clement) he adopted a philosophical perspective, utilizing some of the key ideas of Aristotle in Jewish thinking while adding many of his own, yet remaining connected with his Jewish underpinnings. In this commitment he avoided the error of Spinoza of wandering adrift and distancing himself from those valued Jewish underpinnings, while he had a significant impact on the latter philosopher as well as the philosopher Leibnitz.

It is significant to note, however, Levi has often been viewed as an intellectual rebel, and sometimes regarded as moving in the direction of heresy, although this is largely due to the originality of his thought. This involved granting rationality a dominant role. He strenuously maintained, however, that the Torah when correctly understood is completely true and we must tap our deepest capacity of understanding to fathom it. This reaches its fullest realization in his position that when rationality in conflict with our Torah interpretation, we must modify the interpretation to allow rationality to prevail. This presumes Torah cannot ever be mistaken and must be re-interpreted when conflict challenges us. For example in interpreting Joshua’s overtaking of Jericho, the tumbling of the walls is rationally linked to the vibrations of the trumpets and marching while the sun’s remaining stationary is linked to the very short time the battle lasted. Miracles consequently becomes an issue of uncanny timing, involving no breach of physical law but rather happening at appropriate times to promote Divine purpose.    Some may well argue he did not include the Jewish version of faith “emunah” in his approach, and although perhaps a sound assessment this should not lead us to overlook his many other insights. It may also be noted that both the Talmud and the Kabbalah provide 4 broad stipulated methods of deepening interpretations known as the Pardes.

In one his most challenging positions Gersonides upholds that in order to grant humankind free will, one cannot allow that God is able to foretell human actions. This would paradoxically deny God perfect knowledge and omnipotence. God on this view limits God’s own power out of concern for humankind. It is on his view the only way human freedom can be salvaged.This raises the question of how we can have a God of limited power and yet still remain as God infinite. I believe that this can perhaps reconciled in two ways. Firstly limitation of power when self- imposed is not a deficiency but rather an act of love when dealing in human relations; and the same may be said of a God-humankind relation. It allows ongoing self-determination by humankind which is a way of respecting their freedom and becomes a way of sharing ongoing creation. Respectful leaders, parents and teachers in life often relinquish autonomy in order to promote this objective.

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Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy