R. Chasdai Crescas – Intellectual Profile

R. Chasdai Crescas
Name
R. Chasdai Crescas
ר' חסדאי בן ר' יהודה
Datesc. 1340 – 1410/11
LocationsBarcelona, Saragossa
WorksOhr Hashem, Derashat HaPesach, Bittul Ikkarei HaNotzerim
Exegetical Characteristics
Influenced byRan
Impacted onR"Y Albo, Nimmukei Yosef

Background

Life

  • Name – R. Chasdai b. R. Yehuda
    • Hebrew name – ר' חסדאי בן ר' יהודה‎1
    • Catalan name – Crescas2
  • Dates – c. 1340 – 1410/11
  • Locations – R. Chasdai was born in Barcelona to a family of rabbis and merchants. He moved to Saragossa in 1389.
  • Occupation
    • Already by the 1370s, R. Chasdai was a prominent teacher of rabbinics and philosophy at the Barcelona yeshivah.3
    • In 1389, R. Chasdai assumed the position of rabbi of Saragossa, the capital of the crown of Aragon. He served as an advisor to John I and his queen, Violant of Bar. In 1390, the king and queen appointed R. Chasdai the supreme judge for all Jews of the kingdom.
    • After the catastrophic pogroms and mass conversions of 1391, R. Chasdai dedicated himself to rebuilding the communities of Aragon which had been destroyed.
  • Family
    • First marriage: Married טולרנה and had a son who was martyred in Barcelona during the riots of 1391.
    • Second marriage: After his only son was martyred, R. Chasdai received permission from the king to take a second wife, as his first wife was no longer able to bear children. With his second wife, R. Chasdai fathered a son and three daughters.
  • Teachers – R. Chasdai was a close disciple of R. Nissim b. Reuven of Gerona ("Ran"). He studied both traditional rabbinics and philosophy with R. Nissim.
  • Contemporaries – R. Yitzchak b. Sheshet ("Rivash"),4 Profiat Duran (Efodi), R. Reuven b. R. Nissim (son of Ran).
  • Students – R. Yosef Albo,5 R. Yosef ibn Habib,6 R. Avraham b. Yehuda,7 Zerachyah b. Yitzchak HaLevi, Mattityah HaYiẓhari, Moshe ibn Abbas, Astruc HaLevi.
  • Time period:
    • 1348-1350 – The Black Plague strikes the Iberian Peninsula.
    • Peter IV of Aragon (Catalonia at that time belonged to the crown of Aragon) ruled from 1336-1387.
    • John I of Aragon succeeded his father Peter IV, and ruled from 1387-1396.
    • Martin of Aragon succeeded John I in 1396 and ruled until his death in 1410.
    • 1391 – Anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions throughout Castile and Aragon. Many Jewish communities were wiped out through wholesale slaughter and coerced mass baptisms, with local synagogues often being converted into churches.

Works

  • Biblical commentaries – R. Chasdai did not write any Biblical commentaries.
  • Jewish thought and Rabbinics:
    • Ohr Hashem8 – R. Chasdai's philosophical magnum opus.
      • According to its introduction, this was meant to be a comprehensive two-part work encompassing Jewish philosophy and Halakhah. R. Chasdai intended to replace Rambam's two great works – Guide to the Perplexed and Mishneh Torah, which he viewed as problematic.
      • The colophon of the Florence manuscript of Ohr Hashem,9 dates the completion of the work to 1410, near the end of R. Chasdai's life.10
      • The work is divided into four books, with each book subdivided into multiple layers of sections and subsections. The topics of the four books are:11
        1. The presuppositions or roots ("שורשים") of Torah – A discussion and refutation of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, a discussion of proofs of God's existence, and a presentation of R. Chasdai's views about the nature of God.
        2. The foundations ("פינות") of Torah – Including Divine knowledge, providence, and power, prophecy, freedom of the will, and the purpose of Torah.
        3. Other obligatory beliefs of Torah – Containing two parts. Part One includes discussions of: creation of the universe, immortality of the soul, reward and punishment, resurrection of the dead, Moshe's prophecy, the Urim VeTumim, and the messiah. Part Two discusses: prayer, repentance, and Jewish festivals.
        4. Some non-obligatory speculations – Thirteen separate discussions on topics such as: Will the universe exist forever? Are there infinite worlds? Do demons exist? Where are the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom?
    • Derashat HaPesach12 – A sermon for the holiday of Passover that discusses issues such as the nature of miracles, the nature of belief, and determinism. The work is divided into two parts, a philosophical discussion13 and a discussion of the laws of Passover.14
    • Bittul Ikkarei HaNotzerim (Refutation of Christian Principles) – A polemical work originally written in Catalan; only the medieval Hebrew translation by Rabbi Yosef Ibn Shem Tov is extant.15 This work refutes ten Christian principles of faith. Its emphasis on philosophical critique, rather than scriptural, is unique among medieval anti-Christian polemics.
  • Other works:
    • Sod HaKaddish16 – A kabbalistic commentary to the traditional Kaddish prayer; apparently written in R. Chasdai's youth.17
    • Cham Libi18 – A piyyut composed in 1370 by R. Chasdai as part of a friendly poetry competition between the poet R. Avraham b. Yitzchak HaLevi TaMaKH, in Gerona, and Ran and his students in Barcelona.19
    • Letter to Avignon20 – A letter written by R. Chasdai in which he describes in detail the persecutions of 1391.

Textual Issues

  • Manuscripts
  • Printings
  • Textual layers

Biblical Exegesis

R. Chasdai is known mainly as a philosopher, and he wrote no biblical commentaries per se. However, he sometimes incorporated biblical exegesis into his philosophical discussions.

Characteristics

  • Opposition to Maimonidean/Aristotelian Interpretation of Traditional Jewish Sources – R. Chasdai's approach to Scripture rejects the kind of rationalist/Maimonidean exegesis21 that was prevalent in his day.22 This can be seen in a number of key discussions in Ohr Hashem:23
    • Accounts of Miracles Interpreted Literally24 – R. Chasdai rejects allegorization of miracles,25 yet his philosophical-scientific awareness drove him occasionally to modify the simple understanding of miracles.26 Thus, R. Chasdai explains that Joshua did not completely stop the sun and moon (Joshua 10:12-14), but rather slowed their motion, along with that of all the celestial bodies in suitable proportion. This was more consonant with R. Chasdai's understanding of the scientific consequences involved in tampering with the motion of such bodies.
    • No Commandments to Believe – R. Chasdai maintains that belief in God's existence is not one of the 613 Commandments, and that the first statement of the Decalogue27 cannot be a commandment, but is simply identifying the Tetragrammaton as the name of the deity who took Israel out of Egypt.28 According to R. Chasdai, no verses should be interpreted as commanding belief – all commandments are practical in nature, not philosophical.29 R. Chasdai offers both logical30 and psychological31 arguments in support of his position.
    • The Terms Ma'aseh Bereshit and Ma'aseh Merkavah Relate to Jewish Esoteric Doctrines, Not Aristotelian Teachings32 – R. Chasdai33 defines Ma'aseh Bereshit (Account of Creation) as the "description of the act of creation," which cannot be understood through philosophical investigation. Rather, it is described in the traditional esoteric text Sefer Yetzirah, and is connected with the secrets of the Divine Name. R. Chasdai's view of the meaning of Ma'aseh Merkavah (Account of the Chariot) is less clear, but it is likely he believes the term to refer to the nature of the ten sefirot of the Kabbalah.34 R. Chasdai argued that Talmudic sources show that the terms Ma'aseh Bereshit and Ma'aseh Merkavah refer to matters of sublime sanctity that demand great secrecy.35

Distinctive Views

  • Determinism – In Ohr Hashem 1:5:1-3, R. Chasdai presents arguments for and against determinism, and reaches a deterministic conclusion that involves both theological and physical determinism.
    • Theological Determinism – A person's actions are determined because God has perfect knowledge of what he will do in the future.
    • Physical Determinism – A person's actions are determined because he is part of the chain of physical cause and effect.36
    • Human Will Can Choose – R. Chasdai recognizes that human will "in itself" has the ability to choose (meaning, assuming there were no causes acting upon it), but that the choice is, in fact, determined by causes.
    • Distinction Between Voluntary and Involuntary Acts – While a person is not free to choose his actions, there is a difference between a voluntary act and an involuntary one. When a person lacks a subjective feeling of compulsion or necessity to perform an act, then the act is said to be voluntary. An involuntary act is one regarding which the agent feels compelled.
    • Justification of Reward and Punishment – Reward and punishment are justified for voluntary acts.37
    • Human Efforts Still Required – R. Chasdai38 maintains that Yaakov did not actually fear Esav39 due to the Divine promise of protection.40 Even when a future outcome is predetermined, a person is obligated to put forth efforts to realize this outcome.41
  • Human Perfection and Purpose of Life – Emotional Rather than Intellectual42 – the ultimate goal is love of Hashem:
    • The purpose of the commandments relates more to man's emotions than his intellect.43 The commandments' ultimate goal is to engender love - both among men,44 and between man and God.45
    • Man's fulfillment is found in his experience of love of God, which is mainly a product of fulfillment of the commandments. In R. Chasdai's system, the ultimate objective of life and Torah (i.e. the experience of an emotional attachment to God) is not limited to an intellectual elite, but is accessible to all men through mitzvah observance.
    • Divine providence and the afterlife are the lot of anyone who fulfills the commandments, regardless of intellectual achievement.46
  • Covenant of Circumcision Corrects Original Sin47 – While R. Chasdai accepts an idea of original sin,48 he states that the commandment of circumcision given to Avraham redeemed his descendants from damnation.49 He thus argues that not only are the Christians wrong in assuming that Jesus is the savior from Adam's sin, but that they actually discarded the very covenant meant to play that role.
  • Trials of the Righteous – the righteous are tested by Hashem (נסיונות) so they can actualize their love of God.50
    • God knows the outcome of נסיונות in advance. They are given to help the person grow closer to God.
    • Such difficult trials are what the Talmudic sages refer to as "ייסורין של אהבה" ("afflictions of love"), which God sometimes brings upon a person even in total absence of sin.51 When a person fulfills God's will through these trying circumstances it brings them emotionally closer to God.
    • For examples, see the binding of Yitzchak (Bereshit 22),52 the bondage in Egypt,53 the testing of the Israelites in the wilderness (Devarim 8:2), and the test of the people with a false prophet (Devarim 13:4).
    • This view of נסיונות fits with R. Chasdai's deterministic outlook.54 Even though success in the trial is not the result of free choice, the experience will benefit the subject by strengthening his bond of love with God.
  • Bondage in Egypt and the Pesach
    • Egyptian Exile was not a punishment for sin55 – The exile and bondage in Egypt were intended to induce the Israelites to commit themselves to the worship of God.56
    • Israelites in Egypt refused to adopt the Egyptian religion57 – The Israelites maintained the monotheism they had inherited from the Patriarchs. If the Israelites had been willing to assimilate and adopt the Egyptian religion, the Egyptians would not have continued enslaving them.58
    • Hardening of Paroh's Heart – God hardened Paroh's heart in order to bring plagues and miracles59 – This was justified because Paroh was wicked, and it served the ultimate goal of instilling future generations of the Jewish people with faith in God.60
    • Paschal Offering – The Pesach offering was an expression of gratitude61 The Israelites offered the Pesach lamb in their own stead, to express gratitude for God having passed over them during the slaughter of the Egyptian first born.
  • Revelation, Prophecy, and Moshe's Status
    • Revelation at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience, rather than the miracles in Egypt, provides incontrovertible proof of the authenticity of Moshe and the Torah.62 Miracles as proof of God's existence or involvement can be doubted in two ways: they may have been performed through magic, or they may have been performed independently by the prophet. The miracles in Egypt could not completely dispel this second doubt. Only the direct experience of hearing God speak to Moshe at Sinai was indisputable proof for God's existence and Moshe's Divine agency.63
    • Moshe's Prophecy – Moshe's prophecy was miraculous, while all other prophets prophesied in a natural manner.64
    • Moshe's Miracles – Moshe's miracles were greater than those of all other prophets.65
      • Based on Devarim 34:11-12, Moshe's miracles were greater in three ways: quantity ("in all the signs and the wonders"), renown among opponents ("which the Lord sent him to do… to Paroh, and to all his servants, and to all his land"), and persistence ("and in all the mighty hand").
      • The persistent miracles mentioned by R. Chasdai include the manna66 the Clouds of Glory,67 and Moshe's divine glow.68
      • The greatest of Moshe's miracles was his bonding with the Divine Presence when prophesying.69
    • Signs given to Moshe – Each miraculous sign given to Moses had its own unique purpose:70
      • Staff Turning to Serpent – This sign was meant to show that Moses' power was not based on magic, as he used no incantations or sorcery techniques.
      • The Leprous Hand – This was meant to prove that Moses acted as an agent of God, and not on his own initiative.71
    • False Prophets – The false prophet can be established based on an inaccurate prophecy of either reward or punishment.72 Although even a true prophet's predictions will sometimes not be fulfilled (as God's providence reacts to changes in behavior – for the better or worse), when a true prophet speaks a prophecy meant to verify his authenticity, God will always fulfill the prophecy. Thus, the lack of fulfillment of any such prophecy, whether predicting reward or punishment, will indicate that the prophet is a false prophet.

Sources

Significant Influences

  • Earlier Sources – Ramban
  • Teachers – Ran
  • Christian Influences – Abner of Burgos, Bernard Matege73
  • Foils – Rationalists such as Rambam and Ralbag.

Occasional Usage

Possible Relationship

  • Gerona circle of Kabbalists74

Impact

Jewish Scholars

  • R. Chasdai influenced the religious views of Moses Mendelssohn, and the philosophical views of Yehudah Abarbanel (Leone Ebreo) and Spinoza.75

Non-Jewish Scholars

  • R. Chasdai's critique of Aristotelian science impacted Giovanni Pico della Mirandola76 and Giordano Bruno.77
×