The Rabbi Who Tried to Cancel Maimonides—and Then Repented

February 1, 2023 | Tamar Marvin
About the author:

The author of a much-studied, psychologically penetrating exposition on repentance, as well as important talmudic commentaries, Jonah ben Abraham of Girona (ca. 1200–1263) is known to posterity as Rabbeinu Yonah—not simply Rabbi Jonah, but our teacher Jonah. Tamar Marvin describes his legacy:

Rabbeinu Yonah is known for two seemingly contradictory habits of mind: the zeal of his public activity and the sincerity of his piety⁠. Often fêted with the appellation he-ḥasid, “the pious,” generally reserved in his period for the rare ascetic, mystic, or other such spiritually disciplined individual, Rabbeinu Yonah reversed his own highly public criticisms of Moses Maimonides with great humility. At the same time, he was an advocate of involvement in public affairs, exhorting householders to greater religious observance and railing against rampant sexual impropriety.

[As a young man], Yonah pursued a unique course of education. Despite his proud Sephardi lineage, a tradition in which he would largely work halachically, Rabbeinu Yonah sought his education in France. . . . While in Provence, Rabbeinu Yonah seems to have become involved in the currents of Kabbalah washing through the region. . . . The cross-pollination of tosafistic [i.e., of the French talmudic dialecticians of the school of Rashi] and kabbalistic modes of learning with Rabbeinu Yonah’s Sephardi background apparently encouraged his [own] creativity.

[Later in his life], Yonah was impelled to enter the contentious debate over Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed at the behest of his teacher Rabbi Solomon of Montpellier. Often portrayed as a reactionary, Rabbi Solomon was in actuality, like most Provençal Jews, a moderate who displays great respect for Maimonides generally. Rabbeinu Yonah [proved] a worthy opponent for the Maimonidean loyalists.

This controversy over Maimonidean rationalism and Judaism’s proper relationship with Islamic and Greek philosophy would embroil much of Provençal (and Spanish) Jewry during the 13th century. According to some contemporary sources, Jonah would later regret his harsh condemnations of the Maimonideans, an experience that led him to produce his monumental study of repentance.

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