Minutes of Meeting

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Date: October 16, 2005

Location: Alumni Hall RM 101

Topic: Solomon ibn Gabirol: Christian, Muslim or Jew?

Speaker: Dr. Eric Friedland

Hosts: Debbie Geier and Erika Garfunkel

Dr. Friedland's presentation notes:

As a description of  our association with the Islamic world, since 9/11,we keep hearing the unfortunate blanket phrase, "the clash of civilizations," as if that were all that there is to it. The fact is that productive interfaith conversation involving all the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has been going on steadily for some time in Europe, as in England and Germany. It's really only in the last few years that we in this country are finally catching on to the necessity of expanding our Jewish-Christian dialogue into a trialogue that includes Islam.

Is this recent inclusionary development cause for pride?

Frankly, I'm not so sure. With qualifications, I'm actually more inclined to see us as kind of late bloomers, as it were. Better late than never, I suppose. To be sure, there are understandable reasons for our  reluctance, not to mention the horrible outbreaks of jihadist-based terrorism. But let me tell you why from the historical perspective I think we're pretty laggard when it comes to inclusivity .

It's kind of surprising that even in this day and age so little is spoken of the many in-depth, substantive, illuminating exchanges that went on amongst our three major religions during the height of the Middle Ages, even if the medium was largely through the written word.


All these were unquestioned geniuses in intellect, piety and creativity. How many of us, though, are aware of how indebted the quintessential theologian of the Roman Catholic  Church, St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), "the angelic doctor," was  to the most venerated Jewish religious thinker of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204)? Aquinas drew his famous Five Proofs for the existence of God directly from Maimonides. He also leaned heavily on his Jewish predecessor for his understanding and formulation of the doctrines of Creation, Revelation, Prophecy and the Afterlife. No less unmistakable are the considerable Arabic influences on Maimonides, foremost among them being Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198). Averroes was the prolific, indispensable and universally-respected commentator on Aristotle. What that means, among other things, is that the Catholic Aquinas' familiarity with the Greek Aristotle came to be through the agency of the Jew Maimonides who in turn learned it from the Muslim Averroes. Here interfaith interdependency could not have been more pronounced and more obvious.

Let me turn to another pivotal medieval figure from Spain then under  Islamic domination. He probably deserves to be better and more widely known than he is today. His name is Avicebrol, or Avicebron, of the 11th century, who authored, in Arabic,  the trailblazing work, The Fountain of Life. Not much was known about him; biographical data concerning him were scant. What we did know is that The Fountain of Life was translated less than a century later into Latin under the title Fons Vitae. The translation from the Arabic was the result of a fruitful collaboration between a Catholic dignitary, Dominicus Gundissalinus, and a Jewish scholar, Avendeath (ibn Daud). For the longest time it was assumed Avicebrol was a Muslim. You see, in the entire book there is not as  much as a single citation from the Bible, but the absolute unity of God is unequivocally attested. Furthermore, Avicebrol was credited with being the first one to bring Neoplatonism into Spain. An exposition on Neoplatonism, fascinating as it is, would take another lecture, I'm afraid, so let me put it as briefly as  I can. It follows a rather different model than the familiar Judaeo-Christian view. In Neoplatonism, God is the undifferentiated One, the Absolute Good, the Source of all being. The whole universe, with us humans included, is seen as a series of multiple emanations from the One, a kind of overflow from the essence of God.  And the individual soul yearns unceasingly to return to the One. Avicebrol gave these basic concepts several intriguing new twists, which I'd love to explore with you, but for lack of time right now.

The more Christian scholars probed into Fons Vitae  the more they were willing to entertain the alternative possibility, namely, that Avicebrol was rather a Christian Arab who resorted to heavily philosophical language in venturesome and promising ways. Apparently they were conscious of the fact that nowhere in the entire book is the Qur'an quoted, as would have been taken as a matter of course had the work indeed been written by  a believing Muslim. They further observed that the title, if nothing else, could well have been taken from the Bible, specifically the Psalms:

How precious is Your  steadfast love, O God!

All people may take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.

They feast on the abundance of Your house, and You  give them drink from the river of Your delights.

For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.

(Ps. 36:7-9, NRSV)

So, understandably, uncertainty concerning Avicebrol's religious identity persisted  - that is, until the middle of the 19th century.

SUMMARIZE: Solomon Munk's discovery in the   Bibliothque Nationale in Paris: Shemtov Falaquera's Hebrew synopsis, Meqor Hayyim ( = Fountain of Life). Avicebrol none other than Solomon ibn Gabirol.

It turns out then that Avicebrol was,  after all, a  well-known Jewish philosopher and poet (1021-1058), Solomon ibn Gabirol, who, born in Malaga, Spain, wrote philosophy in Arabic and poetry in his ancestral language, Hebrew.

Few Jews at the time knew of The Fountain of Life, but nearly all were well acquainted with his secular poetry and were often moved by his religious lyric. For good reason a goodly number of Solomon ibn Gabirol's devotional poems ultimately found a home in the liturgy of the Synagogue, chiefly according to the Sephardic rite.

READ (handouts):   Shichartikha and one other.

I suspect much of this would resonate with many of you here this evening, even across barriers of time, culture, language and religious affiliation.

While Solomon ibn Gabirol was certainly at the cutting-edge of philosophical discourse in his day that transcended confessional boundaries, we know from his deeply religious and mystically-tinged poetry he was without question a committed Jew, devoted to the Torah, loyal to his his people and loving God .

What is noteworthy in all of this is that for nearly nine centuries we had a clear case of mistaken religious identity that was due essentially to a climate at the time of mutual  interpenetration and of interdependency of faiths and cultures. And this, ironically, during the violent and highly polemical heyday of the Middle Ages. Isn't it high time in our no-less-contentious age to go beyond the much-discussed "clash of civilizations" - and even beyond learned conversations indirectly through books - and build on this interdependency I have just outlined, to a wholehearted acceptance of our inescapable kinship  as the children of Abraham?


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