EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2021/22
“Theory and Practice of Allegorical Exegesis in Medieval Jewish, Islamic, and Christian Philosophy”
Organisers: David LEMLER (Sorbonne Université), Racheli HALIVA (Hamburg University)
28th February 2002 / May 31st-June 1st, 2022 / Paris
This three-day conference aimed at investigating into the place of the allegorical exegesis proposed by Medieval Jewish philosophy in the wider spectrum of the history of allegorical interpretation. A one-day meeting was held in February dedicated mainly to allegorical exegesis in Medieval Christian and Islamic exegesis and a two-day workshop took place in May/June in which texts by Medieval Jewish philosophers, mainly from the 13th and 14th century Spanish and Provençal Maimonidean tradition, were discussed.
Due to the health crisis, the conference had to be split into two separate events. A one-day conference was held in Feb. 28, dedicated mainly to papers on allegorical interpretation in Medieval Christianity and Islam, with the exception of one presentation on Maimonides. A two-day workshop took place in May 31-June 1st, through a series of discussions on texts written by Jewish philosophers, pertaining to their theory and practice of allegorical interpretation. Each speaker was invited to choose a passage or several passages whose reference, reflecting the Biblical interpretation or rabbinic texts, was transmitted in advance to all the participants.
Allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and aggadot were introduced in rabbinic Judaism in the Middle Ages by rationalist thinkers. This was a major change in the Jewish exegetical tradition. It is often argued that Christianity and rabbinic Judaism departed precisely because of their opposing ways of approaching Scriptures: while the Christian way is to read the Hebrew Bible in allegorical/figurative/spiritual, the rabbinic Judaism focuses on the midrashic interpretation.
By introducing an allegorization of Biblical texts and midrashim, philosophers have emphasized that these interpretations belonged to a new era of Jewish tradition, characterized by a new episteme.
Many questions raise within this context: what is at stake in this shift within the Jewish hermeneutical tradition? Is allegorization only a way to preserve authoritative texts while obliquely “criticizing” them (as Scholem would argue)? Or does this hermeneutical practice reflect a genuine specific way of philosophizing within a religious tradition in which ideas should always seek a support in authoritative texts? What are the sources of this method of interpretation? Did a tradition of allegorical interpretations develop in time among Medieval Jewish philosophers (or at least some trend among them) so that a certain interpretation of a certain text would become their common ground?
It is tempting to see a circulation of the allegorical method of interpretation from the Stoicism to Alexandrian Jews and from them to the Church Fathers, who may have had an influence on the method of ta’wīl in Islam, which was eventually imported by rabbinic Jews. Documenting this chain of transmission requires further research.
Detailed overview of sections and papers
Feb 28th: Allegorical interpretation in Medieval Christianity, Islam and Judaism
This one-day conference gathered French scholars working mainly on Medieval Christian and Islamic exegesis. In the opening words, David Lemler (Sorbonne Université) recalled the main question that the conference aimed at raising: the specific place of Medieval Jewish philosophical allegorical interpretation in a global history of allegorical interpretation. He also justified the order in which the terms Christianity, Islam and Judaism feature in the title of the conference: the allegorical type of interpretation was somehow imported into the Jewish exegetical tradition through the influence of Islam, which in turn was influenced on this point by the Church Fathers.
The morning session was dedicated to Medieval Christian exegesis, opening with a paper by one of the leading scholars of the field, Gilbert Dahan (EPHE-CNRS), who already authored numerous studies on the subject: including the edited volume Allégorie des poètes, allégorie des philosophes: études sur la poétique et l’herméneutique de l’allégorie de l’Antiquité à la Réforme (Paris: Vrin, 2005). In his paper, Dahan argued for a definition of allegory as the “essence of Christian exegesis.” He recalled that, while allegory has been a recurring subject in his long career of research on Medieval Christian exegesis, he still fails to produce a global definition of this method that would encapsulate its use in the whole Christian exegetical tradition. Notably, “allegory” is sometimes used as a synonym for “spiritual” meaning, that is the three non-literal meanings (figurative/typological, tropological, anagogical) and sometimes it is used to refer specifically to the second layer of meaning. Stéphane Loiseau (Centre Sèvres) proposed a reflection on the use of the categories of “allegory” and “metaphor” in the exegetical oeuvre of Thomas Aquinas. He highlighted Thomas’ original position according to which allegory is somehow part of the literal meaning. He also elaborated on the distinction between allegorical interpretations whose targeted meaning has to do with the “event Jesus Christ” (Jesus’ life and teaching) and those whose targeted meaning has to do with the Church and its history. Annie Noblesse-Rocher (University of Strasbourg) raised the issue of the transformation of the exegetical category of “allegorical meaning” in the context of Reformation through the study of 16th century exegetes, among whom it competed with new Scriptural meanings promoted by Reformers, such as the literal/historical meaning. She elaborated on the relationship between spiritual meaning in Patristic and Medieval Christian exegesis and the type of “actualizing” exegesis found among 16th century Reformers who read the Bible as if it was referring to their own communal life (something that is rather close to the monastic type of readings of the Bible).
The afternoon session was dedicated mainly to Islamic exegesis, with the exception of one paper on Maimonides. Meryem Sebti (CNRS) presented Avicenna’s method of philosophical exegesis of specific passages of the Quran, notably the famous Verse of Light (Q 24:35). Ibn Sina offered a reading of these Quranic passages in light of his own modal ontological categories. While Ibn Sina is usually not envisaged as a “religious” thinker and an exegete, Sebti raised the question of the status of such exegetical texts (which she recently edited) in the Avicenian oeuvre – suggesting it is actually more than just a concession to traditional religion. Interestingly, Avicenna’s way of philosophical interpretation echoes that of Maimonides and more generally of Medieval Jewish philosophers. Géraldine Roux (Institut Rachi, Troyes) discussed the influence Maimonides’ exegetical method of Biblical parables as presented in the Introduction of the Guide of the Perplexed on Meister Eckhart’s own exegetical treatises, notably in his Liber Parabolarum Genesis (Book of the Parables of Genesis). Pierre Lory (EPHE) proposed an overview of the allegorical methods used by Sufi exegetes, through the specific example of the Quranic description of Abraham’s Ascension (VI, 75). He showed notably how this passage was read as an allegory for the access to true knowledge through the refutation of false, relative sciences, culminating with the attainment of faith. Finally, Leili Anvar (INALCO) discussed the nature of Jalāl al-dīn Rūmi’s Persian mystical poem, Masnavi. This text refers to itself with words usually reserved to the Quran, it is filled with Quranic references, translations and paraphrases, so that it could somehow be construed a mystical rewriting of the Quran or envisaged as an allegorical commentary of the Sacred Book of Islam.
Throughout the day, some structuring questions and aspects of the issue of allegorical interpretation emerged. First the difficulty to produce a precise definition of allegory, as opposed to metaphor on the one hand and to symbol on the other. The strict difference that scholars of mysticism such as G. Scholem and H. Corbin posited between the allegorical interpretation of philosophers and the symbolic interpretation of mystics seems to have to be nuanced: it is often difficult to argue that only the philosophers and not the mystics brutalize the text by imposing on it notions that obviously do not feature in it. The idea of the philosophers “criticizing” through their exegesis the worldview of the commented text and using it in a totally arbitrary way (in order to access to truth, they could dispense with a revealed text) should also be nuanced. In Medieval Jewish philosophy at least, exegesis is a fully-fledged part of the philosophers’ literary activities. Other striking elements emerged such as the presence at different chronological stages of the idea of four layers of meaning of the Sacred Text in the three monotheistic traditions, that would deserve further specific investigations.
May 31-June 1st: Workshop on Medieval Jewish texts on philosophical allegorical interpretation
In this second part of the event, each participant proposed upfront a series of texts by specific authors in the corpus of Medieval Jewish philosophy, mainly in the Maimonidean 13th and 14th century tradition in Provence and Spain. All the participants received these texts approximately two weeks before the workshop and were able to read them before May 31, which favored precise and informed discussions. Each paper consisted in a 30-minute presentation followed by a 30-minute discussion.
Yehuda Halper (Bar Ilan University) inscribed his discussion of exegetical texts by Jacob Anatoli (Malmad ha-Talmidim) and Moses Ibn Tibbon (Com. on Shir ha-Shirim) within the general framework of his current research on logic in Medieval Jewish philosophy. He argued that, for authors such as Anatoli and M. Ibn Tibbon, the Tanakh consisted in rhetorical, dialectical and poetical discourses. This might explain why in their activity as translators, both thinkers, did not include Aristotle’s treatises relative to these kind of discourses (Rhetoric, Topics, Sophistical Refutations, Poetics…): they could be directly dealt with through Biblical exegesis and not philosophical translation. Rebecca Kneller (Jerusalem College) investigated, with much details, into Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s interpretation of the Merkavah (Divine Chariot), in his commentary on three specific Biblical passages, found mainly in his Ma’amar Yiqqawu ha-Mayim: Gen 28: Jacob’s dream, Is 6, and Ez 1. She showed how these three passages proposed, according to him, three different prophetic ways to translate one and the same reality: the upper part of the cosmos (the supra-lunary world, composed of the spheres and intellects). She also highlighted how Ibn Tibbon expressed disagreements with Maimonides on matters of exegesis (such as the presence or the absence of God in Ezechiel’s vision) and doctrine, while at the same time affirming Maimonides’ position as one possible alternative to his own. Amira Eran (Levinsky College) presented Abraham Ibn Daud’s and his anonymous commentator’s exegesis of Ps 139. She argued for an analogy with al-Ghazālī interpretation of the Verse of Light (Quran 24:35) and a possible influence of the latter on both Jewish authors, even though al-Ghazālī’s reception among Jews in 12th century Spain remains a debated issue. David Lemler proposed an overview of diverse interpretations of one specific aggadah: Rabbi Bena’ah marking tombs and visiting the Patriarch’s cave, me‘arat ha-makhpelah (TB Baba Batra 58a). In Sefer Pe’ah, Moses Ibn Tibbon proposed a “realistic” interpretation of this highly far-fetched Talmudic tale in order – Lemler argued – to defend the credibility of Ḥazal against Christian critiques. In Livyat Ḥen on the other hand, Levi ben Abraham of Villefranche, offered a radical allegorization of the same story: Abraham and Sarah, representing respectively the Aristotelian categories of form and matter. This hyllemorphic interpretation was criticized during the wave of the Maimondean controversy leading to Rashba’s 1305 ban on the study of philosophy before the age of 25. The phrase “Abraham and Sarah as matter and form” became a slogan to denounce the excesses of the philosophers. Baba Batra’s aggadah was then discussed by Yedayah ha-Penini, in his Apologetical letter, and it was later offered a moderate allegorical interpretation by Shem Tov Ibn Shaprut, in his Pardes Rimonim. This specific case helps recasting the main issues at stake in the debate over allegorization. Among others: what are the limits of an acceptable allegorical interpretation that would not endanger the literal meaning of the Biblical text? Resiane Fontaine (Amsterdam University) presented Judah ha-Cohen’s interpretation of the Book of Proverbs in his early 13th century philosophical encyclopedia Midrash ha-Ḥokhmah (a treatise she is currently partly editing). In his exegesis, Judah ha-Cohen adopts a polemical stance against Maimonides’ allegorical way, he judges excessive, by considering philosophy as only a subservient science with regard to the true “divine science”, that is “tradition” (qabbalah).
On Wednesday June 1st, Haim Kreisel (Ben Gurion University) dedicated his presentation to Abraham Ibn Ezra’s cryptic interpretation of the Talmudic saying: “the world exists for six thousand years” (TB Sanhedrin 97a). He explored the diverse interpretations that were given to Ibn Ezra’s words by his main super-commentators in the 13th and 14th century. These are more or less radical and generally understand Ibn Ezra’s referring in a veiled way to astrological doctrines. Racheli Haliva (Hamburg University) presented the evolution of Joseph Ibn Kaspi’s position on allegorical interpretation. Ibn Kaspi, often considered a radical Averroistic Maimonidean author, appears as a rather moderate allegorical interpreter insisting on the necessity to preserve the historical meaning of the Biblical narrative, in particular concerning the story of the Patriarchs and the origin of Israel as a people. Yair Lorberbaum (Bar-Ilan University) approached the question of allegory through the unexpected angle of Maimonides’ interpretation of the commandments. One of the main critiques of the opponents to allegorical interpretation in Judaism consisted precisely in their fear that allegory would lead to a negation of the binding force of the law. Lorberbaum elaborated on Maimonides’ own reluctance to apply allegorical interpretation to the commandments according to his words in the Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, while offering rather historical-sociological reasons for the Biblical commandments in Guide, book 3. Lorberbaum holds Maimonides’ preference may be explained by the ability of such an explanation to account for the details of the commandments, while allegory is efficient only to explain the principles of the law (even though Maimonides does use allegory to explain some commandments in the Mishneh Torah). Shira Weiss (Yeshiva University) turned to Josef Albo’s interpretation of the story of Job in Sefer ha-‘Iqqarim. She presented his original position in the long tradition of philosophical interpretations of the book opened by Saadia Gaon, followed notably by Maimonides and Gersonides, each of whom interpreted each of the characters of the Biblical dialogue as representing a different position on the question of Providence. In Albo’s perspective, the issue of the book is rather the respective place of determinism and free-will. A discussion on the question whether Albo’s interpretation of Job can be phrased “allegorical” followed. In the final paper of the workshop, Zeev Harvey (Hebrew University) presented a passage of Rabbi Nissim of Girona’s derashot, in his derashah on the pericope Be-reshit, in which he criticizes Maimonides’ assimilation of the Account of the Beginning (Ma‘aseh Be-reshit) with (Aristotelian) physics and the Description of the Chariot (Ma‘aseh Merkavah) with metaphysics. Paradoxically, Harvey holds this critique opens the door to a free scientific investigation, since accordingly the Aristotelian sciences are outside the scope of the Mishnaic prohibition on the teaching of Ma‘aseh Be-reshit and Ma‘aseh Merkavah (Mishnah, Hagigah 2:1).
Summary of the most significant and productive threads in papers and discussions
The format chosen for the workshop: long time slots for each presentation and the reading upfront of all the discussed texts by the participants allowed for fruitful discussions. Consistently with what emerged from the February meeting, the necessity to work on a strict definition of allegory – as a mode of exegesis that postulate two separate layers of meaning, one literal, manifest and superficial, and the other hidden, subtle and profound – as well as to pay attention to the exegetical terminology used by the authors (egg. peshat, mashal, hemshel, melitzah, shir, tsiyyur…) was highlighted.
Statement about planned outcomes and outputs
Papers from the February meeting pertaining to Christianity will be gathered by their authors in an issue of an academic journal. The two-day workshop of May and June, on allegorical interpretation in Medieval Jewish philosophy, will be the basis of a publication in an issue of an academic journal: with both the papers and the discussed texts with an English translation (after reworking and peer-reviewing).