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Zamość, Yisra’el ben Mosheh ha-Levi

(also Segal; ca. 1700–1772), early maskil who promoted the study of science and wrote commentaries on three classics of medieval Jewish thought. Yisra’el ben Mosheh was born in Bóbrka (near mod. L’viv) to an undistinguished family and studied in Zamość, which is why he is generally known as Yisra’el Zamość. The scientific knowledge he acquired in Zamość was astonishingly broad but outdated, drawn only from Hebrew books, almost all medieval (one exception was Yosef Delmedigo’s Sefer elim [1629], on which Yisra’el wrote a commentary, now lost). His authorities were Aristotle and Ptolemy (his unpublished astronomical treatise, “Arubot ha-shamayim” [The Windows of Heaven], takes a geocentric approach). The exceptional availability of books, many in manuscript, reflected the high level of learning in Zamość, a town with a presence of Sephardic Jews deliberately brought there by its founder, Jan Zamoyski (1541–1605). In Zamość, Yisra’el had followers and allies; the town became a center of early Haskalah a generation later.

Yisra’el first gained fame with his Netsaḥ Yisra’el (The Eternity of Israel; ca. 1737); it takes the form of a traditional text discussing topics addressed in the Talmud, but innovates by interpreting numerous passages from a scientific viewpoint. Influenced by Maimonides, he gave reason priority in interpreting tradition and argued that the seemingly “odd” statements of the early sages of the Talmud were all consistent with scientific truth. By contrast, Yisra’el boldly took to task venerated authorities who believed, for example, that the earth was flat. Conservatives rightly identified his text as subversive and dubbed it Retsaḥ Yisra’el (The Assassination of Israel). Yisra’el was more conventional in his respect for the Kabbalah.

After the publication of Netsaḥ Yisra’el in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1741, Yisra’el settled in Berlin, where he lived in poverty. There he taught Hebrew, science, and Jewish philosophy to Aharon Zalman Gumpertz (1723–1769) and Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), thus exerting a formative influence on two important figures of the early Berlin Haskalah.

In Berlin, Yisra’el quickly acquainted himself with early modern (Wolffian) science, which he sought to diffuse in his (commissioned) commentary on Ruaḥ ḥen (A Spirit of Grace; 1744), a thirteenth-century popular introduction to philosophy. Yisra’el “comments” on the Aristotelian principles in the medieval text by exposing totally incompatible findings of recent science. His work is a subversive commentary: a venerated, authoritative text was used to legitimate the introduction of new ideas into a conservative community. This new literary genre was to be employed by later maskilim.

Clear in his commentary is Yisra’el’s enthusiasm at discovering unsuspected new horizons. The “small animals” observable through a microscope in a droplet of semen elicit his exclamation, “How awe-inspiring is this statement, which our forefathers did not fathom.” The new knowledge grounded in experience refuted entrenched (Aristotelian) beliefs and thus undermined traditional authority. As a result, Yisra’el’s commitment to Maimonides’ philosophy and to reason and science weakened. At the same time, Yisra’el failed to grasp mathematical physics and to accommodate contemporary “gentile” philosophy. Left without firm ground under his feet, his views became more conservative and fideist than they had been in Zamość. The commentary on Ruaḥ ḥen paradoxically both exposes recent science and signals its author’s conservative turn.

The third, conservative, period of Yisra’el’s life, spent between Berlin and Brody, is thus in continuity with the second. Yisra’el wrote Otsar neḥmad, a commentary on Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levi, and Tuv ha-Levanon, a commentary on Ḥovot ha-levavot by Baḥya ben Yosef ibn Pakuda. Both were published posthumously. While Yisra’el replaced certain outdated medieval scientific ideas with facts from modern science, he held that belief and revelation are superior to reason and science. His commentaries now accompany the traditional editions of the two medieval classics. In 1764 Yisra’el contacted Ya‘akov Emden (1697–1776) on matters of halakhah.

Yisra’el also wrote Nezed ha-dema‘ (published posthumously), a bitter and pessimistic work of social criticism written in rhymed prose. Its obscure style and intertextual allusions have led to a dispute over the target of its attack: while some scholars see in it a polemic against early Hasidism, others think it is a general critique of contemporary traditional society.

Yisra’el, whose tone often oscillated between melancholic discouragement and elation, was a self-conscious reformer of the spiritual cum social state of contemporary Jews: he was not only enlightened, but also sought to enlighten his audience. In his last years, he was venerated as an erudite maskil in Brody, where he died on 20 April 1772. Later maskilim and secular historians gave him a place of pride in the history of the Haskalah. At the same time, Orthodox circles have hailed him as the author of two classic commentaries on standard works of Jewish thought.

Suggested Reading

Gad Freudenthal, “Hebrew Medieval Science in Zamość ca. 1730: The Early Years of Rabbi Israel ben Moses Halevy of Zamość,” in Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Learning and Eighteenth-Century Enlightened Jewish Discourse, ed. Resianne Fontaine, Andrea Schatz, and Irene Zwiep (Amsterdam, 2005); Gad Freudenthal, “R. Israel Zamość’s Encounter with Early Modern Science (Berlin, 1744): The Subversive Commentary on Ruaḥ Ḥen and the Birth of a New Conservative,” in Thinking Impossibilities: The Legacy of Amos Funkenstein, ed. Robert S. Westman and David Biale (Toronto, forthcoming); David B. Ruderman, Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (New Haven, 1995), pp. 332ff.