The Last Great Medieval Jewish Philosopher’s Reflections on the Meaning of Passover

March 30, 2021 | Roslyn Weiss
About the author:

Around the year 1400, Rabbi Ḥasdai Crescas, the chief rabbi of Aragon, delivered a Passover sermon in which he outlined the principles that would form the basis, about a decade later, of his major theological treatise, The Light of the Lord. Roslyn Weiss comments on the work and its historical context:

This book, which is often described as the last great work of medieval Jewish philosophy, was an attempt to illuminate that ground by refuting Moses Maimonides’ Aristotelian reconstruction of Judaism and restoring what he saw as authentic Jewish tradition. In his brilliant critique of Maimonides, Crescas replaced the self-intellecting intellect that was Aristotle’s God with the God of Israel, whose essential nature, he argued, was one of unbounded and unfailing love.

Although Crescas’s arguments in Light of the Lord were the intricate work of a philosophical master craftsman, his conclusions spoke to the urgent needs of an imperiled Jewish community. In 1391, the Jews of Barcelona fell victim to horrific anti-Jewish riots, which quickly spread, leaving thousands of Jews dead, including Crescas’s only son. Approximately 150,000 Jews converted to Christianity, most by force or out of fear.

In the Passover sermon, Crescas expounds on the nature of Jewish faith, based on his conclusion that

we cannot will ourselves to believe, but we do choose how we believe—we may be joyful or resentful; we may diligently seek to understand what we believe, or we may want nothing to do with. . . . We are not rewarded for faith itself but for the delight we take in it and our industriousness in pursuing its truth. This [fact] also reveals the special importance of Passover and the centrality of the exodus to Jewish experience. . . . Passover reenacts the joy the Israelites felt after the exodus. Passover takes us back to the thrill of the first stirrings of our love of God and to the joy we therefore feel in the observance of His commandments.

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