Gersonides and the preaching of his times

By Colette Sirat and Olga Weijers

Gersonides, Levi ben Gershom (1288- 1344) lived in Languedoc, Avignon 
and Orange. He is considered as the greatest Jewish philosopher after 
Maimonides ; he was also a biblical exegete, talmudist and man of 
science. He wrote all his works in Hebrew but knew some Arabic and 
some Latin and his maternal language was Provençal. In his 
introduction to the astronomical tables of his Treatise of astronomy, 
he declares that they were composed "at the request of many great and 
noble Christian personages". Moreover, the chapters on trigonometry 
and the Baculus Jacob (a treatise describing an instrument which 
allows to measure the angular distance between two stars or two 
planets and which was used in navigation for several centuries) were 
translated into Latin in his days.

Although no quotation from a Christian text has been found in his 
works, Gersonides' methods of reasoning are those of scholastics, as 
we hope to have shown in a recent book  (cf. Les méthodes de travail 
de Gersonide et le maniement du savoir chez les scolastiques, ed. 
C.Sirat, S. Klein-Braslavy et O. Weijers, Paris, 2003).

For Gersonides, the Bible aims to guide men towards their ultimate 
felicity. In order to achieve this aim, both for the masses and for 
the few individuals who will attain it, it gives:
-  the most perfect political laws, those which incite men to 
progress in the direction of true felicity, i. e. the intellectual 
knowledge of God and His works.
- guidance towards moral perfection, which is a necessary stage on 
the road towards  true felicity,
- an inkling of philosophy, the science of the existents.
The Torah did not strive to teach these things perfectly, because 
this is not the objective of a prophet, but gives, about
-theoretical matters
-political and ethical subjects
-historical facts
a number of general notions which guide towards the ultimate 
knowledge. They are called to'aliot or to'alot meaning utilitates, 
Their number differs greatly in accordance with the kind of biblical 
book: the Song of Songs has none, because all its metaphors reveal 
metaphysical truths. Some Torah pericopes may have dozens. All in 
all, there are hundreds of them which were even published separately.

It looks to us that this kind of utilitates may have been used in 
Christian popular sermons at the time and place of Gersonides: South 
of France and Avignon, first half of the fourteenth century.

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