(Also known as Levi ben Gerson, Gershuni, and Ralbag) Provençal philosopher.
An Aristotelian philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor, Gersonides is best known as the author of Sefer Milhamot Ha-Shem (1329; The Wars of the Lord), which attempts to resolve a number of philosophical problems through a synthesis of Aristotelianism and Judaism. The most prolific of Medieval Jewish authors, Gersonides wrote on a wide range of scientific and philosophical subjects, including astronomy, prophecy, zoology, divine knowledge, mathematics, and creation. His exegetical works on the Torah are widely respected even to this day. Although many of his beliefs were radical and contentious, his influence in both scientific and religious circles has been considerable.
Very little is known of Gersonides besides what he reveals in his writings, in which he discusses his philosophy rather than his life. Levi ben Gerson was born in Provence, probably in the town of Bagnols, a district of Orange, in 1288; his father is thought to have been Gershom ben Salomon de Beziers. It is not known where he received his education. He spoke Provençal, wrote in Hebrew, and perhaps had a working knowledge of Latin and Arabic. Except for occasional trips to Avignon, he seldom left Orange, where he was a moneylender and possibly a part-time physician. Gersonides was greatly influenced by the works of Aristotle, which he learned through the commentaries of Averroes, a twelfth-century Spanish Muslim philosopher, and through the works of Moses Maimonides, a notable Jewish philosopher.
All of Gersonides's works are written in Hebrew. His first significant work is Sefer Ha-heqesh Ha-yashar (1319; On Valid Syllogisms), which deals with aspects of Aristotle's modal reasoning. Sefer Ma'aseh Hoshev (1321; The Work of a Counter) is a mathematical treatise that treats proofs for various Euclidean axioms and their practical applications as well as discussion of fractions, permutations, and mathematical induction. The Wars of the Lord is undisputedly Gersonides's masterwork. It is a massive and complicated work, some twelve years in the making, organized along six separate philosophical problems dealing with the immortality of the soul, prophecy, God's knowledge of particulars, providence, the nature of the heavens, and the beginning of the universe. The Wars of the Lord includes 136 chapters devoted to astronomy; the finest study of trigonometry available in Western Europe at the time it was written; and a vast range of philosophical and theological content including large sections on creation and divine cognition. Many of Gersonides's other philosophical works are commentaries on Averroes's commentaries on Aristotle. Gersonides's biblical commentaries are often organized into three sections: in the first part he explains what particular words mean, in the second he interprets the meaning of the entire book in question, and lastly he presents lessons that can be drawn from the book. The most popular of his commentaries is Perush ‘al Sefer Iyob (1325; Commentary on Job), which is considered a classic. Additionally, he wrote commentaries on the biblical Canticles, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Samuel, Proverbs, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemia, and Chronicles. Gersonides held that Ezra, Nehemia, and Chronicles were all the work of the same author.
Considered by many contemporaries to be a radical, even a heretic, Gersonides was vilified for his philosophical works from the start. His original solutions to the problems of creation and divine knowledge angered conservatives into vicious and sometimes unfair attacks. Seymour Feldman, among others, has pointed out that there was also another side to Gersonides, “expressed in his willingness to defend traditional theological doctrines against current philosophical dogmas if he thought that the latter were philosophically unpersuasive.” Modern critics praise his courage in arguing for his beliefs, even when they ran counter to those of Aristotle, Maimonides, or Averroes. Gersonides's biblical commentaries were always well received, however, and accepted into the corpus of Jewish theology. Much current Gersonides scholarship is centered on explaining his philosophy, arguments, and their implications. His thoughts on creation are examined by Jacob J. Staub, T. M. Rudavsky, and by Seymour Feldman, who also analyzes the influence of Plato on Gersonides. J. David Bleich studies the influence of Maimonides, as does Menachem Marc Kellner. Critics almost uniformly assess Gersonides's writing style as unexciting, although Amos Funkenstein attempts to justify his analytical style by explaining that it reflects Gersonides's aversion to mystery and obscurity.
Sefer Ha-heqesh Ha-yashar [On Valid Syllogisms] (philosophy) 1319
Sefer Ma'aseh Hoshev [The Work of a Counter] (mathematical treatise) 1321
Perush ‘al Sefer Iyob [Commentary on Job] (commentary) 1325
Sefer Milhamot Ha-Shem [The Wars of the Lord] (philosophy) 1329
Perush ‘al Sefer Ha-Torah [Commentary on the Pentateuch] (commentary) 1329-38
The Commentary of Levi ben Gerson on the Book of Job (translated by Abraham L. Lassen) 1946
Providence and the Philosophy of Gersonides (translated by David Bleich) 1973
Gersonides's “The Wars of the Lord”: Treatise Three—On God's Knowledge (translated by Norbert M. Samuelson) 1977
The Creation of the World according to Gersonides (translated by Jacob Staub) 1982
The Wars of the Lord. 3 vols. (translated by Seymour Feldman) 1984-98
The Astronomy of Levi ben Gerson (1288-1344): A Critical Edition of Chapters 1-20 (translated by Bernard R. Goldstein) 1985
The Logic of Gersonides: A Translation of “Sefer Ha-heqqesh Ha-yashar” (“The Book of the Correct Syllogism”) (translated by Charles H. Manekin) 1992
Commentary on Song of Songs. 2 vols. (translated by Menachem...
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SOURCE: Adlerblum, Nima H. “Gersonides—His Life and Works,” “Gersonides as a Scholastic,” “Gersonides in His Proper Perspective Setting.” In A Study of Gersonides in His Proper Perspective, pp. 22-126. New York: Columbia University Press, 1926.
[In the following excerpt, Adlerblum examines what little is known of Gersonides's life; explains his interest in astronomy, philosophy, and metaphysics; analyzes his writing style; summarizes the arguments of his opponents; and attempts to describe the historical setting in which his work was created.]
HIS LIFE AND WORKS
Of all Jewish philosophers, Gersonides is the one in whom scholasticism reached its highest articulation. We are here treating of Gersonides only in so far as a study of him would illustrate our chief contentions. Even with scholasticism at its best, a reversing of the historical method is bound to yield more fruitful results. It is therefore our aim to seek for the Jewish element underneath the scholastic garb, rather than for scholasticism in itself. An account of Gersonides' life and work will make us better understand his mental and emotional struggles. The gist of his metaphysics contained in Chapter III of this monograph, will reproduce to us the scholastic world with which he had to grapple. Into his Jewish world we can enter only indirectly, since the Jewish marks are not on the surface, and...
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SOURCE: Feldman, Seymour. “Gersonides's Proofs for the Creation of the Universe.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 35 (1967): 113-37.
[In the following essay, Feldman analyzes Gersonides's ideas regarding time, motion, and the creation of the universe.]
One of the more lively speculative issues in medieval thought was the question of the creation of the universe. Once Aristotle's physics had become part of the intellectual heritage of the medieval world, a philosopher committed to a Biblical conception of the universe had to cope with Aristotle's claim that the universe is eternal. Although the majority of medieval philosophers rejected this claim, there were several different ways in which the creation theory was defended. Prior to Maimonides it was widely believed that the creation theory was philosophically provable. The Kalam, for example, developed several different arguments in behalf of this thesis.1 Maimonides, however, put a damper on this enterprise, for he held that neither the eternity nor the creation hypothesis was provable; or at any rate that no proof for either thesis was available.2 This scepticism had a deep impact upon Thomas Aquinas who also held that neither hypothesis was demonstrable.3 Ironically, however, some of Maimonides' Jewish successors did not follow him in this regard. Gersonides and Crescas, each in his own way,...
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SOURCE: Bleich, J. David. “Life and Works,” “Gersonides's Discussion of Providence.” In Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides, pp. 9-17, 30-43. New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1973.
[In the following excerpt, Bleich compares Gersonides's writings on providence with those of Maimonides.]
Gersonides, a leading personality of the medieval period, was certainly one of the most significant figures to arise in Jewish philosophic thought after the death of Maimonides and may be described as the greatest of the post-Maimonidean Aristotelians. Although known to us primarily as a philosopher his written works reflect broad scholarly interests. Gersonides was somewhat of a polymath and indeed is famous not only as a philosopher, but received renown as well for his contributions in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, philology, Biblical exegesis, and as an author of Talmudic novellae and Halakhic responsa. In addition, he was well versed in the natural sciences and apparently earned his livelihood through the practice of medicine.
Levi ben Gershon,1 known variously in rabbinic literature as Gershuni or RaLBaG. (compounded from the initial letters of Rabenu Levi ben Gershon), cited in the Latin translations of his works as Leo de Balneolis, and referred to as Leo Hebraeus or Maestro Leon de Bagnols by Latin and French writers,2 was born in the Provence in the...
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SOURCE: Feldman, Seymour. “Platonic Themes in Gersonides's Cosmology.” In Salo Wittmayer Baron: Jubilee Volume, On the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, English Section, Vol. 1, pp. 383-405. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.
[In the following essay, Feldman analyzes Gersonides's argument against the ex nihilo doctrine of creation and his defense of the idea of the incorruptibility of the universe.]
In his opening presentation of the controversy concerning creation Maimonides cites three distinct cosmological theories, the second of which he attributes to Plato and some other Greek philosophers.1 The chief characteristic that differentiates this theory from the Biblical and Aristotelian doctrines is that it asserts the creation of the universe from some eternal matter.2 Since the Platonic theory, as understood by the medievals, asserted creation of some kind, it was more acceptable to the medieval world than the eternity hypothesis of Aristotle. But the Platonic notion of eternal matter bothered them; for it was not clear whether this part of the Platonic cosmology was compatible with the Bible.
Indeed, the dominant view in the three major philosophical-religious traditions (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) was that God created the universe ex nihilo. Quite early in the development of Jewish theology the latter doctrine was advanced as the...
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SOURCE: Kellner, Menachem Marc. “Maimonides and Gersonides on Mosaic Prophecy.” Speculum 52, no. 1 (January 1977): 62-79.
[In the following essay, Kellner compares Gersonides's understanding of the nature of the prophecies of Moses with Maimonides's interpretation of them.]
Gersonides1 and Maimonides2 shared many ideas concerning the possibility and nature of prophecy. This is hardly surprising; not only were they both Jewish Aristotelians, but Gersonides clearly implies that the problems he raises in his major philosophic work, Milhamot Hashem, are those problems and only those problems to which Maimonides failed to provide adequate solutions.3 In this essay I want to examine Gersonides' understanding of prophecy in general and his conception of Mosaic prophecy in particular. This issue is of considerable importance. By examining Maimonides' and Gersonides' opinions concerning the prophecy of Moses, we can better understand their opinions concerning the immutability of the Torah and the Election of Israel. The case of Gersonides is particularly interesting since his novel approach to the question of Mosaic prophecy, I will suggest, is an important key to understanding his atypical and forward-looking world view. To provide background and context for this discussion, I will first describe Maimonides' views on this subject.
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SOURCE: Rudavsky, T. M. “Individuals and the Doctrine of Individuation in Gersonides.” New Scholasticism 56, no. 1 (winter 1982): 30-50.
[In the following essay, Rudavsky explores the nature of individuals and of prime matter as posited by Gersonides and his contemporary Johns Duns Scotus.]
The attention in 14th century philosophical writings accorded to the status of individuals developed for several reasons. For many scholastics, the problem of individuals arose out of specific theological considerations surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as out of more ontological and logical issues resulting from commentaries on Porphyry's Isagoge.1 However for Gersonides, a Jewish philosopher writing in 14th century southern France, considerations of a more epistemological nature prompted his interest: more specifically, the question of whether God knows future contingents raised a number of questions concerning the nature of particulars, the distinction between individuals and particulars, and problems associated with individuation.2
Having posited in Milhamot Hashem that divine knowledge and human knowledge are univocal (in the sense that both God and persons can be said to ‘know’ in the same way), Gersonides must explain how God can be said to have knowledge of particulars. He rejects two standard solutions to the problem, that of Aristotle...
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SOURCE: Feldman, Seymour. “Composition and Style of The Wars of the Lord.” In The Wars of the Lord, Book One: Immortality of the Soul, by Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides), translated by Seymour Feldman, pp. 55-60. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Feldman summarizes the literary history of The Wars of the Lord and defends Gersonides's monotonous style by explaining that he sought clarity, not literary flourish.]
CHRONOLOGY OF THE WARS OF THE LORD
Even a superficial reading of The Wars of the Lord could give the impression that this work was written at the height of Gersonides' intellectual powers, perhaps in the latest period of his intellectual development and philosophical career. But such an impression would be mistaken. In fact, the final version of Levi's magnum opus was completed at the end of what one could call his “middle period”—1329. But philosophical books do not spring forth spontaneously from their creator's head. Twelve years earlier Levi had already begun to conceive of and compose a philosophical-theological essay on the problem of the creation of the universe.1 This issue had vexed Jewish philosophers since Philo; and it seemed to Gersonides that his predecessors, even the illustrious Maimonides, had not successfully solved the problem. A fresh examination, he...
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SOURCE: Rudavsky, T. M. “Creation, Time, and Infinity in Gersonides.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26, no. 1 (January 1988): 25-44.
[In the following essay, Rudavsky explains Gersonides's approach to problems involving infinite divisibility and the continuum.]
In this paper I should like to examine Gersonides' theory of time and the infinite as developed against the backdrop of his views on creation. Two questions are of paramount importance: the creation of the universe, and the notion of the continuum. Before proceeding to an examination of these two issues, let me first say something about their importance in Gersonides' work.
Gersonides was a Jewish philosopher writing in fourteenth-century France (Avignon, 1288-1344). He spent several years in the papal court in Avignon, and may at that time have come into contact with the views of Ockham and other fourteenth-century scholastics.1 His major work Milhamot Hashem is a sustained examination of the major philosophical issues of the day: theory of knowledge, divine omniscience and free will, providence and the creation of the universe. In this work Gersonides tries to reconcile traditional Jewish beliefs with what he feels are the strongest points in Aristotle; although a synthesis of these systems is his ultimate goal, the strictures of philosophy often win out at...
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SOURCE: Manekin, Charles H. “Logic, Science, and Philosophy in Gersonides.” In Studies on Gersonides, edited by Gad Freudenthal, pp. 285-303. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1992.
[In the following essay, Manekin explains Gersonides's views on logic, particularly those ideas which run counter to Aristotle's understanding of the subject.]
I. INTRODUCTION: GERSONIDES’ LOGICAL WRITINGS
The contributions of Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) to the fields of science and philosophy are well-known, but his logical writings, though of some influence in the Middle Ages, have only begun to be studied. To these writings belong two major works: the Commentary on Logic (1322-1323), which is a supercommentary on the Middle Commentary of Averroes on the Aristotelian Organon,1 and the Book of the Correct Syllogism (1319), an independent treatise on inference and modal logic.2 With the exception of the first book of the Commentary on Logic, all these writings are extant in Hebrew only in manuscript.3 The first three books of the Commentary on Logic, and all of the Correct Syllogism, were translated into Latin, the former being available in the Venice edition of Averroes' commentaries on Aristotle (1562-1577),4 and the latter in manuscript.5
The Correct Syllogism...
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SOURCE: Funkenstein, Amos. “Gersonides's Biblical Commentary: Science, History, and Providence (or: The Importance of Being Boring).” In Studies on Gersonides, edited by Gad Freudenthal, pp. 305-15. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1992.
[In the following essay, Funkenstein contends that Gersonides's undramatic style properly reflects his scholastic, logical nature.]
1. Gersonides' biblical commentary does little to ingratiate itself to its readers—be they medieval or modern. It has nothing of Rashi's charm, his unique blend of correct grammatical readings with pedagogically instructive homilies.1 It lacks the grammatical acumen of Ibn-Ezra, who taught us how always to interpret the biblical vocabulary and imagery in context.2 It also lacks Ibn-Ezra's attractive speculative enigmas. It avoids two dimensions of exegesis which made Naḥmanides' commentary dear to its readers—the typological-historical hunt for prefigurations and their fulfillment (remez) and the allusions to kabbalistic-mystical symbolism (sod; derekh ha-emet la-amito).3 Nor was Gersonides endowed with Ibn Kaspi's keen sense for anachronisms, his capacity to place biblical customs and institutions in the context of bygone historical circumstances.4 His is rather a dry, schematic, repetitive and dogmatic exercise. It is, of course, of some use for the reconstruction of...
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SOURCE: Eisen, Robert. “Conclusions.” In Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People: A Study in Medieval Jewish Philosophy and Biblical Commentary, pp. 169-83. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Eisen analyzes Gersonides's arguments concerning providence and his thoughts about whether the covenant between God and the Jewish people is conditional or unconditional.]
In my introduction, I set out a number of reasons for exploring the theme of the Chosen People in Gersonides' thought. First and foremost, this doctrine is one of Judaism's cardinal principles and is therefore a key issue in any comprehensive philosophy of Judaism. An examination of Gersonides' views on this subject would therefore undoubtedly enrich our understanding of this major medieval Jewish thinker.
I also argued that the question of Jewish chosenness was of particular significance in the study of Gersonides. For one, the concept of the Chosen People is one of the more formidable philosophical challenges that classical Judaism presents for Gersonides on account of the highly Aristotelian character of his thought-system. The notion that there is an ongoing, covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people throughout history is not easily harmonized with Gersonides' conception of an impersonal God. Second, an analysis of Gersonides' position on the...
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SOURCE: Kellner, Menachem. “Translator's Introduction.” In Commentary on “Song of Songs,” by Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides), translated by Menachem Kellner, pp. xv-xxxi. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Kellner contends that Gersonides addressed his biblical commentaries to amateurs in philosophy and notes that, since the so-called secrets of the Torah had already been revealed, he had no reason to avoid discussing them in his works.]
In June or July 1325, at the age of thirty-seven, Levi ben Gershom wrote his commentary on Song of Songs. He had already written a large number of works, beginning with his Wars of the Lord (parts of which were completed in 1317), continuing through independent works on logic, mathematics, and astronomy, and culminating in a long series of supercommentaries on many of the commentaries of Averroës on Aristotle.1 In 1325, Gersonides completed his first biblical commentary, on the book of Job.2 Hereafter, biblical commentaries became a regular part of his work; the second, on Song of Songs, appeared only six months after the first.3 Indeed, if in his first thirty-seven years Gersonides published almost exclusively what we today would call philosophical and scientific works, the last nineteen years of his life were devoted almost exclusively to what can be called more narrowly Jewish works. With...
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Kellner, Menachem Marc. “R. Levi ben Gerson: A Bibliographical Essay.” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 12 (1979): 13-23.
Brief descriptions of many of Gersonides's works. Includes extensive recommendations of other essays for further study.
Freudenthal, Gad, ed. Studies on Gersonides: A Fourteenth-Century Jewish Philosopher-Scientist. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1992, 422p.
Includes essays on Gersonides's work in astronomy and mathematics and discusses the relation of his philosophy and theology; selections from this book are included above.
Goldstein, Bernard R. Introduction to The Astronomy of Levi ben Gerson (1288-1344), edited by Bernard R. Goldstein, pp. 1-15. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1985.
Reviews the contributions to astronomy of Gersonides's predecessors and examines his influence on subsequent astronomers.
Harvey, Warren Zev. “The Philosopher and Politics: Gersonides and Crescas.” In Scholars and Scholarship: The Interaction between Judaism and Other Cultures, edited by Leo Landman, pp. 53-65. New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1990.
Contrasts the attitudes toward political involvement held by Gersonides and the medieval philosopher Rabbi Hasdai Crescas.
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