chapter  6
9 Pages

At the methodological crossroad: the dispute with Eliezer Ashkenazi


In Maharal’s writings there is a certain ambiguity towards human knowledge. This ambiguity is not only presented theoretically, but it actually erupts vehemently on the occasion of a dispute with a contemporary Jewish scholar. Like the dispute with Azariah de’ Rossi, which centred on the relationship between the Torah and the sciences, the problem of human knowledge is discussed in a way no less passionate than the aforementioned discussion with Azariah. Originally this question was, without doubt, treated by Maharal in a non-polemical context; but as soon as it became part of a controversy, it was taken up by him in an extremely passionate way, which reveals some of his innermost thoughts. There is nothing more fascinating than the violent and passionate way exhibited by Maharal in this controversy, which gives us an insight into his vivid spirit, his curiosity and his fiery temperament. We are lead on the path of his oeuvre, which was a product of the last years of a long life and consequently based on a well-meditated methodological structure that was about to penetrate all of his works, of which he exposed a detailed master plan. On his working table piled up numerous manuscripts and writings, all of which had to be integrated within his own organic work, among them some new books and publications which could not be neglected in order to render his writings relevant und updated. We can well imagine Maharal’s joy when coming across something that seemed to corroborate his own ideas, and we can also imagine the challenge he felt and sometimes his anger when confronting other competing ideas, which were running contrary to his own. In the latter case the obstacle first had to be removed before continuing with renewed vigour on the chosen path. Maharal’s courage and sincerity can only be admired. He never refuses to

take up the polemical challenge, even if it means that his own oeuvre as meticulously presented in his master plan might be severely delayed or even risk remaining unfinished, as was actually the case. Azariah de’ Rossi was unaware of Maharal’s thought, which was barely

formulated at the time the Italian scholar published his works. When attacking Azariah’s thought, Maharal wages an ideological non-personal fight against ideas which he regards as fundamentally erroneous. This is not the case regarding the dispute on the nature of human knowledge. Maharal’s rival

in the dispute lives in Poland, within Maharal’s own and well-known cultural and intellectual world. True, Maharal is not at all mentioned in the work of his opponent; but he knows that its author had previously attacked his preface to Gevurot Hashem and boasted to have demonstrated the errors of the Rabbi of Prague. Furthermore, some of the passages in his book seem to include responses and polemics against Maharal’s thought, though the latter is not mentioned by name.1 Though Maharal’s tone as used against Eliezer Ashkenazi is less violent than the one he uses against Azariah de’ Rossi, it is more despising: it is out of pure necessity that he sees himself obliged to dedicate a number of pages to the silly and boastful criticism of ‘that person’ who is not even worth being mentioned by name, but is rather termed ‘a certain man from Poland’. This dispute is thus quite personal and has without any doubt something to

do with Maharal’s unfortunate experiences in Poznan. The opponents of Maharal’s projected reforms in the domain of religious education were predisposed for diatribes against the very premises of his philosophical oeuvre. The main protagonist among these opponents was a person not to be neglected and perfectly suited to mount an intrigue of his own against Maharal. He was quite experienced in this field, as it was not the first time he was involved in vehement disputes among the foremost Jewish sages of his time. This ‘certain man from Poland’ was actually a Sephardic Jew who some-

how got to Poland towards the end of his life. Eliezer Ashkenazi, the son of Eli the physician, was born in 1513 in Little Asia and served from 1540 to 1560 on a rabbinical post in Egypt. A series of adventures brought him to Famagusta (Cyprus), then to Venice, than back to Famagusta and again to Venice and Cremona. During his wanderings he ventured also briefly to Prague, but it was not until 1576 that he had definitely left the Mediterranean and settled in Poland, where he lived successively in Poznan, Gnesen and, finally, in Cracow, where he died in 1586. In all of these places, Eliezer Ashkenazi held rabbinical positions which were evidently not too elevated but important enough to secure him a solid reputation as a Talmudic scholar. Among the Sephardic scholars, he was appreciated by his teacher Joseph Taitazak and consulted by the famous Joseph Karo, one of whose codes he comments upon. Among the Ashkenazim, Moses Isserles and Salomon Luria held him in high esteem, and the foremost religious authorities of Poznan treated him as equal. Eliezer Ashkenazi can thus be counted among the great Talmudic scholars of his time. Although he is not as involved in European humanism as are, for example, his contemporaries Azariah de’ Rossi, Eli Levita or Leon Ebreo – his principal domains are not libraries, but rather the traditional yeshiva – he is nevertheless well acquainted with the main libraries of his time. He speaks 12 languages and is well versed in philosophy, poetics and general culture. His main works are not his halakhic responsa, but rather his well-styled commentary on the Book of Esther (Yosef Lekah, Cremona, 1576) and his monumental study on the narrative passages of the Torah (Ma’ase Hashem, Venice, 1583), which bears some similarities to the work of

Azariah de’ Rossi, and in which Ashkenazi’s humanistic knowledge comes to the fore. Is it this taste of secular knowledge which made Eliezer Ashkenazi –

though a widely acknowledged Talmudic authority – feel uncomfortable in Poland, which made him provoke controversies everywhere he turned up and which made him change rabbinic positions so often? It seems that these cannot be the only reasons: there must also be some reasons rooted in Ashkenazi’s personality and his character traits, as his stance in the Sephardic world was not more stable than his positions amongst Ashkenasic Jewry, though the intellectual atmosphere in the former was certainly more open and tolerant than in Prague, Poznan and Cracow. In any case, the clash between Eliezer Ashkenazi and Maharal can be

explained easily; even without knowing all the anecdotic details surrounding it, we can evaluate its intellectual and spiritual implications. Let’s start with the fact that from 1576 on the fates of these two men were intertwined and that they both occupied, at different but not too remote times, the rabbinical position in Poznan. Another fact is that they both set out at the same time to compose a work which bears very similar traits, being of aggadic character and touching upon ethics and philosophy, both of them being well versed not only in the realm of the Torah but also in the realm of secular sciences. These two men were thus quite similar not only in terms of their communal involvement, but also in their literary works and even more so in their original way of thinking. Each of them seems to be an outsider bringing new ideas to the fore. Each of them fought vigorously and without compromise for his cause and they both experienced disappointment and failure. ‘No one in Poland got really to know Eliezer Ashkenazi’ voiced sadly one of his pupils after Ashkenazi’s death. Maharal, too, complained about his spiritual isolation. It might well be that precisely these similarities between the two men made them clash so violently, provoking Eliezer Ashkenazi’s vehement opposition to Maharal’s reforms. The controversy came to the fore at the very occasion of the nearly simultaneous appearance of their major works. In 1582 Maharal published his Gevurot Hashem; one year later, Ashkenazi’s Ma’ase Hashem appeared. These two works are quite similar in their exegetical approach. Both of them include an extended commentary on the Pessah Haggada. Both confront and further develop major issues which were already raised in the Talmudic Aggada, as well as in Biblical and rabbinical literature. In some of these issues we discover central themes of Maharal’s controversy with Azariah de’ Rossi. Like Azariah, Ashkenazi evokes a famous passage in the Zohar in order to re-vindicate the historical, concrete and living character of the Biblical account.2 Like him he suggests – even though he doesn’t exert himself to present evidence for this claim – that the tradition of the Midrashic material was affected by grave alterations in the text so that the Talmudic Aggada itself has a ‘history’ which requires a work of restitution to be exacted by proper scientific means. These characteristics of Ashkenazi’s work which earned Azariah Maharal’s vehement response would have been an appropriate

subject to start a controversy with Ashkenazi, too. But Maharal passes over these negligible aspects of Ashkenazi’s work as he aims further and deeper. He knows that Eliezer’s publicly stated opposition to Maharal’s book does not stem from his exegesis or from his historical approach. They clash over something rooted much deeper in their personalities, and Maharal articulates this problem in an admirable manner on one page of his Derekh Hayim, a work which appeared only in 1589, after Ashkenazi’s death (1586).3