The Alham­bra Palace in Grana­da. Some his­to­ri­ans have sug­gest­ed that the palace was built by the son of Samuel ha-Nagid, Yehosef. (Image cour­tesy of the author)

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 Tra­di­tionA 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).