Joseph ibn Kaspi's Gevia Kesef
A Study in Medieval Jewish Philosophic Bible Commentary
By Basil Herring
Ktav Publishing House, 1982, 303 pages in English, 45 in Hebrew
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 27, 2010
Basil Herring makes a significant contribution to the rational understanding of the Bible by in his extensive introduction to the thoughts of Joseph ibn Kaspi and his English translation of one of his writings.
Joseph ibn Kaspi was born in Provence, France, in 1297, ninety-three years after the death of his role model the great rationalist Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). He died at the age forty-three, in 1340.
Kaspi loved and respected the rational philosophy of Maimonides and referred to him frequently in his writings. He relates in his Ethical Will that he spent five months traveling to and from Egypt just to see Maimonides' descendants. He saw the fourth and fifth generation of the great sage, but returned disappointed. "All of them were righteous, but none of them was devoted to science."
But Kaspi was no Maimonides. Where his mentor praised the originality of the thinking of the Greek philosopher Aristotle and drew most of his ideas from Aristotle's writings without concern that the origin of the ideas were not Jewish, Kaspi accepted the curious xenophobic fiction of many fundamentalists who claimed that Aristotle derived his philosophy from Jewish teachers and that on his deathbed Aristotle recanted every idea that was counter to the traditional understandings of Judaism.
Maimonides and ibn Kaspi's work have many things in common, such as the following:
1. Both incorporated Greek culture into Judaism.
2. They insisted that the world functions through the laws of nature. God is not involved. When the Torah states that God did something, the passage should be understood figuratively. God is the ultimate cause of the laws of nature but not the direct cause of the episode discussed in the particular Bible verse. The Torah assigns the deed to God only because God created the laws of nature.
3. God does not need or even want sacrifices.
4. God is not corporeal.
5. The biblical term angel should be understood as natural forces.
6. In fact, all of Scripture should be interpreted in a natural manner.
7. The Bible is filled with prophecies, but virtually none ever occurred. Thus, for example, King Josiah and King Zedekiah are prophesied long life, but both are killed before they were old. A prophet does not foretell what will be, but what ought to be.
8. Prayers do not persuade God to grant requests, but they help people. Prayer can be a time of reflection when one can think about how to improve.
9. Heaven and hell are not Jewish concepts, and there is no reward and punishment.
In summary, Basil Herring has introduced us to a rational individual who, like Maimonides, did not think like the average people. Herring does so in an easy to read very informative fashion.