Saturday, May 5, 2012

Abravanel by Benzion Netanyahu

I thought I would investigate the scholarship of Israel's Prime Minister's father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu by reading his contribution on Don Yitzchak Abravanel.

After a brief overview and summary of Abravanel's life, the author evaluates Abravanel's thought as it manifests itself politically, historically and religiously.  He concludes that Abravanel fits really as a Medievalist than a man of the Renaissance.

Abravanel's life was filled with tragedy: he flees his birthplace of Portugal because of a purge - he is accused of disloyalty, a claim that he vigorously denies even after there is no fear of retribution.  His service to King Ferdinand and Isabella is well received, however, Abravanel is unaware that the monarchy has been percolating to expel the Jewish people.  With masterful tact and diplomacy, Abravanel's appeal to cancel the decree of expulsion is unsuccessful.  For Don Yitzchak conversion is not an option, he decides to leave the realm with his family and brethren.  He goes to Naples and services the royal court but also has to leave and after of few other places he finally settles in Venice.

The salient features of Abravanel's scholarship was his anti-rational approach - he disagreed with Maimonides although he held Rav Saadia Gaon in very high esteem.  He generally adopted a mystical approach to history.  He developed a messianism that affected the generations that came after him. He did not believe in civil disobedience even if one suffered from an evil tyrant.  He advocated prayer, asking for the Almighty to remove the tyrant because everything comes from Gd.

Prof. Netanyahu believes that most of the conversos were not secret cryptic Jews; they willingly convert due to great persuasive tactics of the church through public sermons and public disputations.  The author sees Abravanel well versed in all the secular works of his age and places him squarely as a Medievalist and not on the verge of Modernity that brought on severe materialism and secularism.  Prof. Netanyahu does not evaluate Abravanel within the context of Jewish scholarship.   In Yeshivah circles, for example, Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinovitz sees Abravanel's scholarly independence of the Sages as problematic.

I found this volume a fine critical analysis of one of Spanish Jewry great leaders at a very dark time of Jewish History.

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