This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Problems with the Preacher*

The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is usually accompanied by at least one sermon on a religious theme, and sometimes by several of them. Depending on the customs of the community, the learnedness of the participants and the patience of the guests, the festivities might be graced by erudite discourses spoken by the bride and groom, by their friends, by the presiding rabbi, or by other participants. A well-drafted wedding d'var Torah will weave together appropriate passages from the Bible and Talmud in order to illustrate such themes as the importance of the Jewish family, the sanctity of marriage, and the conjugal bliss that awaits the new couple.

While Jewish wedding discourses can differ considerably with respect to their structures, contents or delivery, you can usually be quite certain that they will try to avoid controversial subjects. Nevertheless, in some rare instances, they have been known to provoke heated disputes.

Such was the case at a wedding ceremony that was held in Montpellier, in southern France (which was then known as Provence) in the early fourteenth century. The scholar who rose to address the assembly on that occasion devoted his exposition to the idyllic marriage of the very first Jewish couple, Abraham and Sarah. In that connection, the preacher cited the talmudic legend about Rabbi Bana'ah who had entered the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and was treated to an intimate glimpse of the affectionate couple enjoying their eternal rest, as Abraham snuggled in Sarah's arms, and she gazed admiringly at her husband's head.

Unfortunately, the eminent speaker did not leave the matter there. He went on to argue that the Bible and Talmud should not be understood in their literal sense, as speaking about the familiar historical figures from the Bible. Instead, he insisted that Abraham and Sarah are really abstract allegorical symbols for metaphysical teachings, representing the Aristotelian concepts of matter and form, in accordance with the prevalent teachings of medieval science and philosophy.

For several of the individuals in attendance at the wedding, this liberal reading of the classic Jewish texts was too much to bear. At least one guest stood up before the crowd and indignantly castigated the preacher for publicly denying the literal truth of the biblical narrative and of the rabbinic traditions, and for sowing doubts in the minds of naïve Jews about the validity of their faith and traditions.

So incensed was the community's spiritual leader, Rabbi Abba Mari Astruc, that he decided that the time had come to put a complete stop to the public preaching of philosophical ideas. Realizing that he would need some powerful rabbinic muscle to fight a trend that was solidly entrenched in Provence's Jewish culture, he turned to one of the most renowned Spanish scholars of his generation, Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret of Barcelona, known familiarly by his acronym Rashba.

Rashba was even more hostile than Abba Mari to the indiscriminate dissemination of allegorical homilies. He observed that sermons of that sort were usually delivered by the young and the ignorant, who gave themselves airs as if they were accomplished scholars and leaders, and allowed themselves to concoct unheard-of interpretations.

Most distressing to Ibn Adret was the fact that this type of discourse tended to neglect the most important value of traditional Judaism: the obligation to observe the commandments. To make matters even worse--if the allegorical method were to be applied extensively to the mitzvot, and people would come to view them as mere symbols of philosophical ideas, then many Jews would draw the conclusion that there was no longer any meaningful purpose to the literal observance of the precepts after their deeper symbolism had been grasped. This would lead inevitably to a widespread breakdown of ritual standards.

In spite of his fundamental sympathy for Abba Mari's cause, Ibn Adret was reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the Provençal community, and he feared that the locals would resent his interference. He did, however, consent to take the initiative in issuing a ban in his own town, Barcelona, against the study of non-Jewish philosophical works by people under the age of twenty-five. Hopefully, the existence of that precedent would make it easier for Rabbi Abba Mari to impose a similar enactment in Provence.

However, the Provençal Jewish philosophers beat Abba Mari to the punch. Before he had a chance to impose his ban, they declared one of their own, in which they solemnly excommunicated any person who complied with the Barcelona ban. When Abba Mari and his supporters went ahead with their counter-ban, the community was thrown into a deadlock.

Contrary to appearances, the struggle that was embroiling the Provençal Jewish community was not really over the legitimacy or permissibility of philosophical study. Such a struggle had taken place in earlier generations, following the publication of Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed and its translation into Hebrew by Samuel Ibn Tibbon of Marseilles. Since that time, the philosophical approach to Judaism had emerged as an unshakable feature of Jewish religiosity in Provence.

The Jews of France and Provence still recalled with horror how their denunciations of Maimonides' philosophical works had set in motion a process that culminated in 1244 with the public burning of the Talmud itself by the Dominicans. Rabbi Abba Mari was himself an advocate of rationalism, and he believed that metaphysical contemplation, in the manner of Aristotelian philosophy, was a vital religious imperative for Jews. Like many of his contemporaries, he was convinced that the ancient Greeks had acquired their rationalist tradition from Hebrew teachers, though exile and persecution had afterwards caused those teachings to be forgotten by most Jews. Therefore, the Jewish pursuit of philosophical study was actually a repatriation of our native heritage of theological wisdom.

Abba Mari's opposition was not to philosophy as such, but only to its dissemination among the unsophisticated masses, at venues like that infamous wedding sermon. Even Maimonides himself had been acutely aware of the subversive potential of unrestricted philosophical speculation. Because most people possess neither the intellect nor the intense training that is required for proper metaphysical investigation, exposure to philosophical ideas might undermine their faith. Thus, it was precisely because of their commitment to the fundamental validity of the philosophical approach that Rabbi Abba Mari and his supporters were wary of popularizing it among the Provençal masses.

This was not the reason that motivated Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret in Spain. He was the foremost disciple of Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, and a follower of his teacher's Kabbalistic approach to Judaism. Ibn Adret was altogether opposed to philosophy, which he dismissed as a foreign intrusion into realm of authentic Torah.

Only after he had thrown his lot in with Ibn Adret did it begin to dawn on Abba Mari that his Spanish ally did not really share his theological outlook. At this point he sent him a letter asking for reassurance that his objections were only to extreme heresies, but not to legitimate philosophy of the Maimonidean variety. He never received a reply to that letter.

The ideological conflagration that was sparked by that imprudent wedding discourse continued to divide Provençal Jewry for several years, until their internal squabbles were eclipsed by a more urgent crisis: the order of expulsion that was issued against French Jewry in 1306.

No doubt, there are many profound lessons to be derived form this affair, about the subtleties of Judaism, its theology and its communal politics.

At the very least, we might infer that it is not always advisable to take wedding sermons too seriously.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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