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Isaac Abarbanel's Stance Toward Tradition

Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue

Eric Lawee

Publication Year: 2001

Explores the thought of Isaac Abarbanel, courtier-financier and important Jewish thinker at the turn of the sixteenth century, from the perspective of his negotiation with Jewish tradition. Financier and courtier to the kings of Portugal, Spain, and Italy and Spanish Jewry’s foremost representative at court at the time of its 1492 expulsion, Isaac Abarbanel was also Judaism’s leading scholar at the turn of the sixteenth century. His work has had a profound influence on both his contemporaries and later thinkers, Jewish and Christian. Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition is the first full-length study of Abarbanel in half a century. The book considers a wide range of Abarbanel’s writings, focusing for the first time on the dominant exegetical side of his intellectual achievements as reflected in biblical commentaries and messianic writings. Author Eric Lawee approaches Abarbanel’s work from the perspective of his negotiations with texts and teachings bequeathed to him from the Jewish past. The work provides insight into the important spiritual and intellectual developments in late medieval and early modern Judaism while offering a portrait of a complex scholar whose stance before tradition combined conservatism with creativity and reverence with daring.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Front matter

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book reflects many debts of gratitude that I am eager to repay publicly. Aid from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Studies made possible the doctoral dissertation out of which the book grew. ...

Bibliographic Notes / Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xiii

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pp. 1-8

For one thing, the life of this celebrated courtier-financier and scholar, who passed the majority of his years in Portugal but wrote nearly all of his works in Spain and Italy, intersected some of the most important and influential intellectual, religious, historical, political, and technological trends and transitions ...

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Chapter 1 Life and Contexts

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pp. 9-26

This personal retrospective, stark even after allowances are made for its imprecision and an autobiographical topos that it reflects,2 alludes to major foci of Abarbanel’s life. He engaged in large-scale commercial and financial endeavors. He held positions at three leading European courts. He was a broad scholar ...

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Chapter 2 Works and Traditions

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pp. 27-58

Though Abarbanel wrote most of his works in Italy, he passed the greater part of his life in Iberia. In describing the concentric circles within which his religious posture and scholarly interests developed, then, one must begin with what was formatively decisive: the celebrated Hispano-Jewish intellectual and literary ...

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Chapter 3 “To The Help of the Lord Against the Mighty”: ‘Aṭeret zeqenim

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pp. 59-82

Abarbanel drew the title for his first work, completed in Lisbon sometime in the late 1460s,1 from a verse in Proverbs: “Children’s children are the crown of elders (‘aṭeret zeqenim / And the glory of children are their ancestors” (Prov. 17:6). His choice reflected the work’s initial impetus: to restore the reputation ...

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Chapter 4 Rabbinic Legacy: Background and Parameters

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pp. 83-92

While Saul Hakohen saw in ‘Aṭeret zeqenim an attempt to “return the crown” to figures of biblical antiquity, Elijah Hayyim of Genazzano saw in it an egregiously public and brazen affront to midrashic authority. The fury of Elijah’s assault notwithstanding, Abarbanel evinces little sense that his dissent from ...

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Chapter 5 The Rabbinic Hermeneutic: Midrash in the Biblical Commentaries

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pp. 93-126

Abarbanel stresses, in statements of exegetical purpose scattered throughout his biblical commentaries, his fundamental preoccupation with explication of Scripture’s contextual meaning—peshuṭo shel miqra’.1 Yet, like many of his predecessors, he combines in his biblical exegesis a quest for contextual sense ...

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Chapter 6 In Search of Classical Jewish Eschatology: Yeshu‘ot meshiḥo

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pp. 127-168

If, in the biblical commentaries, Abarbanel engaged midrash regularly, he made nonlegal rabbinic discourse his exclusive focus in the central tome of his messianic trilogy, Yeshu‘ot meshiḥo1 In this work, Abarbanel affirmed his intention to interpret rabbinic eschatological sayings “according to their roots and ...

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Chapter 7 Historical Thinking, Critical Reading, and the Study of Classical Jewish Texts

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pp. 169-202

Though he has been characterized as “the last spokesman of the Jewish Middle Ages,”1 Abarbanel was also a man of the Renaissance in important respects, and no wonder: he grew up and spent most of his life in Portugal and Spain at a time when new intellectual winds were blowing, and he composed most of his works ...

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Chapter 8 Abarbanel and Tradition: Six Trends

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pp. 203-216

The foregoing has sought to show how vital features of Isaac Abarbanel’s religious outlook, intellectual cast, and mind at work come into view when his teachings and writings are regarded from the perspective of his defenses of, dissents from, and dialogues with Jewish tradition. It is time now to put the question ...


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pp. 217-286


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pp. 287-312


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pp. 313-320

E-ISBN-13: 9780791489888
E-ISBN-10: 0791489884
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791451250
Print-ISBN-10: 0791451259

Page Count: 334
Publication Year: 2001