At first glance, it seems that at certain periods in Jewish history, the study of the philosophy of the day—whether Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel or Kierkegaard—weakened Jewish faith and often led to apostasy and the abandonment of Jewish faith and Jewish identity. Perhaps in some cases this is true. Let us focus on the Jews of medieval Spain, especially under Christian rule, to test this hypothesis.
Yitzhak Fritz Baer, one of the premier Jewish historians of the 20th century, an exile from Germany who taught history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was convinced that there was a dichotomy between a Sephardi Jewry that had an elite that studied Aristotle and the pious Askenazi community along the Rhine River that was far more insular and more willing to martyr themselves and their families rather than be forced by Crusaders to convert to Christianity. Baer, an expert on the Jews of Christian Spain, posited that the elite of Sephardi Jewry in the medieval period was “pampered by the elegance of wealth and Arabic culture” in contrast to most Jews in Spain who were “backward masses, primitive in their outlook and way of life.” While the claims of Jewish philosopher and poet Judah Halevi even earlier in the 11th century under Muslim rule condemned that attempt to try to reconcile Judaism with Greek philosophy as interpreted by Muslim scholars—God’s revelation of the Torah in history should have been enough to legitimize Judaism—it seems that Professor Baer’s dichotomy between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewries borders on caricature. This is so even though Maimonides composed his great philosophical work, Guide of the Perplexed, to keep Sephardi intellectuals from abandoning their faith through study of philosophy. In fact, The Guide is a prime example of a Jewish thinker who successfully reconciled Judaism with Aristotelianism and did not lose his faith in God and did not abandon Torah. Did the study of philosophy weaken Jewish faith among the Jews of Spain, especially in the last century of Jews living under Christians, when there were both forced conversions and voluntary apostasy as well? Who were the Jews in Spain who abandoned Judaism and why? As well, in 1492, once Spain was united under Ferdinand and Isabella, did the conversion of Catholicism of 50,000 Jews indicate a spiritual weakness brought on by the study of the philosophy of the day?
In Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (2002), Professor Norman Roth of the University of Wisconsin, argues that there is no record at all of any Jew studying philosophy in Spain abandoning Judaism because of the attempt to reconcile Judaism with philosophy. While rabbis and their disciples did convert to Christianity, “not one single philosopher is known to have ever converted.” This sharp disagreement with Baer’s thesis forces us to reevaluate our understanding of both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds. Is it really true that Baer’s Rhineland Jews were dedicated and pious believers whose dedication to a “folk religion” represented the ultimate in faith as compared to the acculturated elite in Spain that was vulnerable to apostasy because their study of philosophy weakened their faith and dedication to Jewish life?
While martyrdom was idealized in Ashkenazi culture and memory, there were obviously those Jews along the Rhine River who did not martyr themselves and converted to Christianity. Later, the Christian authorities allowed them to return to their Jewish faith. If all Jews in 1096 in Ashkenaz had killed themselves and their children to sanctify the Name of God, there would have been no Jews left to be inspired by the martyrdom of some Jews. As we know, the Rhineland communities were able to recover after the persecution by the Crusaders. And there is no doubt that Ashkenazi ritual, theology and way of life must have been influenced in some ways by the Christian world that surrounded them. Baer’s myth of Ashkenazi “folk piety” versus the pampered and acculturated Sephardi elite is based in historical reality in some ways but, otherwise, is a caricature. The reality of 100,000 Jews leaving Spain in 1492 rather than converting to Catholicism—especially after a century of a sustained Christian missionary efforts to convert Jews to Christianity—undermines Baer’s dichotomy between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds and worldviews. In fact, the Jewish encounter with philosophy has strengthened Judaism and the Jews. Whether Philo, Saadya, Maimonides, Mendelssohn, Nahman Krochmal or Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish encounter with the philosophy of the day—whether Aristotelianism or Existentialism—challenges the believer to ask questions and confront the issues of the day.