“The Libraries of Rabbi Samuel ibn Nagrela ha-Nagid and Professor Robert Aumann”
One might picture Rabbi Samuel ibn Nagrela ha-Nagid, vizier of Muslim Granada, eagerly anticipating his return home after being away for months while commanding the forces of the Granadan Muslim army against those of Arab Seville. After such activities, Rabbi Samuel would have longed to spend hours basking in the serenity of his personal library. No other Jewish library of the mid-eleventh century matched his collection of Hebrew and Arabic language manuscripts — documents which would have provided someone of his intellectual curiosity with continual inspiration.
A scholar-statesman, Rabbi Samuel authored a legal masterpiece, Sefer Hilkheta Gavrata (The Book of Major Jewish Laws). One might imagine R. Samuel, after hours of study and writing, pausing to compose an elegant Hebrew-verse letter to his poetic protégé, Solomon ibn Gabirol. It was likely difficult for R. Samuel to abstain from composing poetry for any significant period of time. Even during a military campaign, at a battle near the Sengil River, he formulated a ten-line Hebrew poem entitled “See Me in My Distress Today,” which petitioned for divine assistance in the heat of battle. Exempt during battle from the obligation to recite the afternoon prayers, he offered this hastily authored — yet skillfully structured — poem in its place.
See my distress today; listen to my prayer, and answer it. Remember Your promise to Your servant; do not disappoint my hope. Can any hand do me violence, when You are my hand and my shelter? You once made me a pledge and sent me good tidings with Your angels. Now I am passing through deep waters — lift me out of my terrors. I am walking through searing fire — snatch me from the flames. If I have sinned — what am I, what are my sins? I am in danger, and cannot pray at length. Give me my heart’s desire; oh, hasten to my aid. If I am not deserving in Your eyes — do it for the sake of my son and my sacred learning.
The study of rabbinic literature flourished in the Jewish community of Muslim Spain. Hebrew poets had “burst forth in song,” and a synthesis of classical Hebrew literature and works in Arabic on poetry, to say nothing of the entire scope of liberal arts and sciences, was well on its way to fruition. At peace in the sanctuary of his athenaeum, one can see R. Samuel completing his letter to ibn Gabirol and contemplatively gazing at the volumes surrounding him on all sides. Examining his library, he may have wondered what directions these holdings provided for future creativity and innovation, for productive synthesis … or for potential conflict?
Such musings would certainly have echoed those of ibn Nagrela’s predecessors and presaged those of future rabbis and prominent Jewish thinkers. This scholastic posture — typified by the constant investigation of the points of convergence and departure between the Jewish and secular worlds — characterized the Jewish intellectual tradition for centuries to come. The most respected of the Jewish community’s thinkers, philosophers and leaders would perpetually engage the liminality of their existence as Jews living in predominantly non-Jewish societies.
The most respected of the Jewish community’s thinkers, philosophers and leaders would perpetually engage the liminality of their existence as Jews living in predominantly non-Jewish societies.
A thousand years later, Dr. Robert Aumann, the 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics, might be walking to his office library at the Center for the Study of Rationality. The library was located at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Dr. Aumann served as Professor of Mathematics. One might picture Professor Aumann eager to prepare for a colloquium scheduled at the Center; his recent essay on “Risk Aversion in the Talmud,” published in the Journal of Economic Theory, would be discussed by distinguished representatives of the numerous academic disciplines that interacted within the multi-disciplinary framework of the Center in a pioneering effort to apply the tools of game theory in explanation of the rational basis of decision-making.
Rising from his desk, Professor Aumann could select handsomely bound copies of Talmudic tractates from a bookcase adorned with gold-embossed titles of rabbinic literature. From other shelves, he could choose any number of volumes from his extensive collection of research materials concerning the application of game theory tools to real-life situations. Settled in front of his computer monitor, he could pause for a moment to reflect upon the fact that — evidenced by the volumes juxtaposed on his desk — the literary traditions that had first fascinated him more than half a century earlier at Manhattan’s Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, where he studied, and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, still remained fountains of wisdom and sources of inspiration to the present day. What novel dimensions of knowledge were yet to be revealed through the lens of these classic works?
Rabbi Samuel and Dr. Aumann were separated not just by a millennium in time, but by gigabytes in technology. Nevertheless, their accomplishments were part of the same great literary tradition. Each of their works combined extensive use of a library with both an enormous respect for the accomplishments of prior generations of scholars, as well as a sense of creativity that allowed them to overstep the bounds of what might have seemed possible. Samuel ibn Nagrela ha-Nagid, a medieval scholar immersed in the traditional thought of an ancient religion, was able to successfully combine the best of that tradition with literary, philosophical and intellectual input from the multi-dimensional culture of medieval Spain to produce remarkable works of not only jurisprudence but also poetry. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable because he combined them with an active political and military career.
Professor Robert Aumann certainly owed his accomplishments to an inherited cultural tradition. Understanding the role of game theory in economic decision-making required a unique blend of mathematics, psychology, economics and political theory. Although game theory was initially developed by others, like John Nash (the character portrayed in “A Beautiful Mind”), Aumann extended this approach both theoretically and practically to the common case, in which individuals make repeated game theory choices (i.e., when they are faced with the same situation over and over again).
At first blush, it would seem improbable that an ancient religious tradition that appears to be rigid with an unyielding philosophy could have catalyzed or even co-existed with the remarkable creative advances of Rabbi Samuel ha-Nagid and Dr. Robert Aumann. However, that superficial characterization of the literary Jewish Intellectual Tradition would betray a misunderstanding about what makes that heritage unique. The Jewish Intellectual Tradition encompasses an almost reverential respect for precedent while concurrently encouraging individual creativity. It cultivates a precise, albeit unique, logical system among its students and amplifies the value of human accomplishment. It venerates written works and elevates intellectual achievement to enormous heights, valuing intellectual attainment as a commandment and as a precept for a meaningful life in a way that encourages achievement. What else could explain the unusual intellectual accomplishments of its members in both the past and in the current generation?
Alan Kadish, MD, is President of Touro College and University System, the largest Jewish-sponsored educational institution in the United States. Before succeeding Dr. Bernard Lander as Touro’s second president in March 2010, Dr. Kadish distinguished himself as a prominent cardiologist, dedicated teacher and researcher, and experienced administrator. A graduate of Columbia College, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, Dr. Kadish received postdoctoral training at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He has published over 280 peer-reviewed papers, received numerous grants, including from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and contributed to several textbooks. Dr. Kadish has published articles on the nexus between science and religion.
Rabbi Dr. Michael A. Shmidman is Dean and Victor J. Selmanowitz Professor of Jewish History at Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies and Editor of Touro University Press. He received his PhD from Harvard University and his MA from Hebrew University, and has published and lectured extensively in the areas of medieval Jewish history and Maimonidean studies. Dr. Shmidman also served as Rabbi of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey and as Editor of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought.
Dr. Simcha Fishbane is a Professor of Jewish Studies in the Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Touro College, New York. He has published extensively on Jewish subjects and texts. Dr. Fishbane’s publications include Deviancy in Early Rabbinic Literature (2007), The Boldness of an Halakhist (2008), The Shtiebelization of Modern Jewry (2011), The Impact of Culture and Cultures Upon Jewish Customs and Rituals (2016), and The Rabbinic Discussion about Bat Mitzvah Celebrations (2017).