What Medieval Rabbis Learned from Muslim Mystics

Nov. 22 2022

While the influence of Islamic philosophy, science, poetry, and linguistics on the Jewish thought of the Middle Ages is well known, less attention has been given to the influence of the less rationalist strains of Islamic thought. The best example of this is Abraham Maimonides—son of the famous rabbi and philosopher and his successor as the leader of Egyptian Jewry—who believed that both the ideas of and practices of the Muslim mystics known as Sufis could be adapted to fit Judaism. Another example, writes Rachel Goldberg, is the Spanish sage and rabbinic judge Baḥya ibn Paquda (ca. 1050-1120), whose work Duties of the Heart remains popular in yeshivas today.

Duties of the Heart is organized into a series of “gates” that lead the reader along a spiritual path at the end of which he will discover, as the tenth gate states, “true love for God may He be exalted.” The structure is analogous to Sufi doctrine, which posits stations whose purpose is to bring the believer gradually to the exact same point. Originally written in Judeo-Arabic, the book uses Islamic and non-Jewish expressions to describe God.

In addition to the Islamic phrases, Ibn Paquda quotes Islamic sources as validation for his own words. For example, he quotes the Egyptian Muslim mystic Dhul-Nun al-Misri (d. 859) in a chapter dedicated to proving God’s presence in the world: “He who knows God best is the most humble in relation to Him.”

The [reason this work has proved more popular than that of Abraham Maimonides] is that, while Abraham Maimonides wrote with the goal of educating his immediate community, Ibn Paquda wrote for a more generalized audience of Jews, regardless of their existing spiritual knowledge or understanding.

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More about: Jewish Thought, Jewish-Muslim Relations, Middle Ages, Sufis

 

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship