The Great Medieval Rabbi Who Synthesized the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Traditions

By the 13th century, three distinct strands of rabbinic thought and scholarship had emerged: a Spanish and North African school, influenced by Arabic science and philosophy, that focused on grammar, theology, and using the Talmud to establish practical legal rulings; the school of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, or German pietists, centered in the Rhineland, that focused on meticulous observance, asceticism, moral perfection, and a unique variety of mysticism; and the school of the Tosafists (centered in northeastern France), who focused on sophisticated analysis of talmudic dialectics. Rabbi Asher ben Yeḥiel (ca. 1250–1327)—known as “the Rosh”—would bring these three strands together, as Tamar Marvin explains:

[Asher’s] father and first teacher was a student of Rabbi Judah the Pious, among the most famed of German pietists. He then seems to have spent some time learning in Tsarfat (northern France) before settling in Cologne (Köln), with which he is often associated. However, Asher made his way to Worms, becoming a leading student of the great Meir of Rothenburg. Meir, one of the last great Tosafists, passed to Asher the wealth of his scholarship.

Sadly, the situation in Germany began to deteriorate not long after Asher’s birth, compounded by the interregnum, when authority over German lands was in contest. (Periods of transition of power, and especially political uncertainty, generally spelled trouble for premodern people, and especially minorities such as Jews.) When Meir attempted to flee to safety, he was arrested. Into the fray, Asher was ineluctably thrust. His attempts to secure the release of his teacher, including a substantial pledge of his own money, show him to have been a wealthy and influential member of the [Jewish] elite.

Rabbi Asher learned well the lessons of Meir’s political entanglements . . . [and] made the very understandable decision to get out of Dodge. [Eventually], he made his way to Toledo, where at least one of his sons had already settled. There, in Castile, fumbling in Arabic and ostensibly the local vernacular, the Rosh rebuilt his life.

Rabbi Asher did much to introduce Spanish Jews to the methods of study of their French and German coreligionists, and the talmudic scholarship he produced in Spain became one of the cornerstones of future Sephardi and Ashkenazi jurisprudence.

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Ashkenazi Jewry, Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, Middle Ages, Sephardim, Talmud


Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy