A Heretic from a Good Family? (AJS Review 41)

“A Heretic from a Good Family? A New Look at Why Levi b. Abraham b. Ḥayim Was Hounded,” AJS Review 41.1 (2017), 175-201.

Abstract. Levi b. Abraham b. Ḥayim, a popularizer of rationalist philosophy active around 1300 in Occitania, was identified as a transgressor by proponents of a ban on the study of philosophy. The nature of Levi’s transgressive activities and the reasons why he was targeted have remained elusive, though a consensus view suggests that his socioeconomic standing and genuinely radical ideas contributed to his being singled out. In fact, a careful reassessment of the extant sources demonstrates that Levi, as an established member of the elite class, was an inadvertent target, identified in the course of a misunderstanding between Solomon Ibn Adret and his confidant in Perpignan, Crescas Vidal. No more radical than others and one of many popularizers of rationalism, Levi became a convenient exemplar and test case for ban proponents. They struggled to define the nature of Levi’s potentially dangerous effects on his students, however, and Levi remained an equivocal figure even to his detractors. Though vilified and forced out of the home of his patron, Levi was accorded basic respect and often defended; he was never subject to excommunication, censure, or any type of halakhic prosecution.

Image: René Magritte, La Lecture Defanse (l’Usage de la Parole) [Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word)], 1936.