AVERROISM, JEWISH—a direction present in Jewish thought from around the mid-thirteenth century to the time of the Renaissance, referring to Averroes’s works, especially in its explanation of the relation between religion and philosophy, between religious truths and truths recognized on the basis of a syllogistic demonstration whose premises are theses that are certain and beyond doubt.
Jewish Averroism is characterized by its connection of the interpretation of the works of Averroes with the views of Jewish philosophers: Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra. The major issues considered by Jewish Averroists were the the problem of reconciling the theory that the world was created ex nihilo (the description in the Book of Genesis) with the Aristotelian view that the world was eternal, the explanation of divine providence, the explanation of God’s immanence (in the context of the Aristotelian transcendence of God), and problems concerning miracles and prophetic texts.
Beginning in the thirteenth century, many of Averroes’ works were translated into the Hebrew language. The work Fasl al-maqal (Final treatise on harmony between religion and philosophy), written in a language accessible to persons without philosophical education, had the greatest influence on Jewish thought, especially on the arguments of Jewish philosophers concerning the merits of philosophy and religion. Averroes was regarded as the greatest commentator on the greatest philosopher, Aristotle (Gersonides, Hasdai Crescas, and Abravanel drew abundantly from Averroes’ commentaries).
Isaac Albalag (later thirteenth century) was the first representative of this direction. He translated into Hebrew Al-Gazali’s The ends of the philosophers) (he regarded the views contained in the work as the author’s original views). He agreed with the work and held that religion has its own principles and truths that must be accepted, such as punishment or reward in the life after death, the immortality of the soul, and truths concerning providence. He thought that there are different degrees of happiness. The highest degree of happiness is accessible for those with greater intellectual talents. Simple people do not reach this level of happiness. In his discussion of how to understand prophetic texts he argued that if it is difficult to reconcile a prophetic passage with the philosophical study of the text, we must accept both the literal interpretation and the philosophical interpretation. In such a case we should accept that the literal text would be intelligible if it could be interpreted from the position of the prophet who created the passage, and we could recognize that its literal meaning is not in agreement with the philosophical interpretation of the text. For example, we may accept on faith that the world is created, yet at the same time recognize for philosophical reasons that the world is eternal. Both interpretations are in agreement, even if we do not know how. We may arrive at one truth by two different paths. Both paths are rationally justified, since both have proper and binding sources of knowledge: reason and tradition.
Joseph ibn Caspi (b. 1279 in Provence) was the second important representative of this philosophical direction. In his work he was influenced by the views of Averroes, Maimonides, and Abraham ibn Ezra. He criticized Maimonides’ teaching and used the arguments of Averroes. He stated that miracles may in principle be explained as natural phenomena. To understand miracles we must understand the exact context in which the facts described as a miracle have occurred. Ibn Caspi emphasized the differences between religious truths and philosophical theses. Religious truths are not descriptive and have significance only for practical life. The prophets (and miraculous events) may inspire people to right conduct. The (theoretical) truths in their proclamation have a secondary significance. Scientific and prophetic statements, in view of their completely different characters, are often in disagreement with each other, yet if it were possible to return (in space and time) to the original meaning of a biblical text, it would turn out that they are coherent.
Moses Narboni (around 1300–1362) was one of the most consistent representatives of Jewish Averroism. Besides his own independent works, he also wrote various commentaries on Averroes’ writings. He developed Averroes’ theory of the agent intellect and reconciled it with Jewish thought. According to Narboni, man’s cognitive faculty is actualized in the process of abstraction from the material of imagination. As it grows, it gradually becomes more distant from “matter” and approaches the agent Intellect until it unites with it. With this theory, Narboni explained prophecies and miraculous events. A prophet has a perfectly developed ability of thought and acts upon the “material” world. The material result of his ability is the transmission of knowledge by language in such a way that it encourages the community to act and with the help of mental images makes them able to understand what they know intellectually. Applying this theory to explain the relation between theoretical principles and action, one may say that doctrines have their effects in a certain kind of practice.
The views of Elijah Delmedi (around 1460–1493), the last Jewish Averroist, had the greatest influence on Jewish in the time of the Renaissance. He wrote in Latin and Hebrew works that referred to the works of Averroes. The most important of these is Behinat ha-Dat (The Study of Religion) based on Averroes’ Fasl al-maqal. He presented the problem of the relation between religious statements and the assertions of philosophy. Dalmedi did not agree with the attempt to reconcile them. He thought that the ways of faith and reason are so different that we could expect that religious truths could be translated into the language of philosophy, or vice versa.
In the Renaissance, the interest of Jewish thinkers in the views of Averroes diminished since there was less interest in the philosophy of Aristotle himself.
G. Vajda, À propos de l&Averroïsm juive, Sefarad 12 (1952), 3–29; M. Golb, The Hebrew Translation of Averroes’ “Fasl al-Maqal”, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 25 (1956), 91–113; 26 (1957), 41–64; G. Vajda, Isaac Albalag—Averroist juif, traducteur et commentateur d’al-Ghazali, P 1960; D. Lasker, Averroist Trends in Jewish Christian Polemics in the Late Middle Ages, Speculum 55 (1980), 294–304; K. Blabd, The Epistle on the Possibility of Conjunction with the Active Intellect by Ibn Rushd with the Commentary of Moses Narboni, T 1986; O. Leaman, Averroes and His Philosophy, Ox 1988; ide, Jewish Averrosim, in: History of Islamic Philosophy, Lo 1996, 769–780.