Maimonides’ Learned and Acerbic Provençal Critic

Jan. 23 2023

Best remembered today for his commentary on Moses Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières (ca. 1125–1198)—known to posterity by the acronym Ra’avad—was one of the great talmudists of his day. Much of his extensive oeuvre appears to have been lost to the ravages of time, and several of his extant works remain little-studied, but he nonetheless left an enduring mark on the development of Jewish law. Tamar Marvin tells his story:

Ra’avad was both shaped by medieval Provençal Jewish culture and a major influence on its trajectory. What Jews have traditionally called “Provence” refers to the whole swathe of land between the Pyrenees and Italy, approximately the southern third of present-day France, which in the Middle Ages was distinguished linguistically [from the neighboring regions]. It sits at the crossroads of Europe and has its own unique culture infused with both Ashkenazi and Sephardi ideas. For example, in the 12th century, when Ra’avad lived, Jewish Provence was a hotbed of kabbalistic thought even as it was nurturing the beginnings of what would become a proud rationalist philosophical traditionall the while steeped in distinctive traditions of Torah scholarship made famous in the academies of Narbonne, Lunel, and Béziers.

Since the first publication of Ra’avad’s hasagot [critical glosses] to the Mishneh Torah in the 16th century, they have been a frequent accompaniment to Maimonides’ code and the source of Ra’avad’s reputation as a fiery traditionalist. Take for example the gloss on Hilkhot Talmud Torah 6:14: . . . “On my life and mind! There is no great analysis here.” In another gloss, he says of Maimonides: “This comes out of the mess he made of these things, confusing these and those and likening in his mind matters that are discrete and entirely distinct.” His independence of mind is notable, but so too is the respect he gave to his younger contemporary by anticipating the magnitude of his impact and deciding to comment on his work.

Though Rabbi Abraham himself wrote no kabbalistic works, he was clearly at the center of early centers of Kabbalah that bubbled up prominently in Provence, in interesting and creative ways, in the 12th century. Both of his sons, Rabbi David and especially Rabbi Isaac the Blind, were renowned Kabbalists whose thought and traditions were transmitted across the Pyrenees . . . in the following century.

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Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: French Jewry, Halakhah, Jewish history, Moses Maimonides

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy