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  • On the Shoulders of Giants: The Debate between Moderns and Ancients in Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Thought. ('Al kitfei 'anaqim: Toldot ha-pulmus bein aharonim lerishonim bahagut ha-yehudit biyemei ha-beinayim uvreishit ha-'et ha-hadashah)
  • Arthur M. Lesley
Abraham Melamed . On the Shoulders of Giants: The Debate between Moderns and Ancients in Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Thought. ('Al kitfei 'anaqim: Toldot ha-pulmus bein aharonim lerishonim bahagut ha-yehudit biyemei ha-beinayim uvreishit ha-'et ha-hadashah). Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2003. 336 pp. index. bibl. $39. ISBN: 965-226- 216-1.

Abraham Melamed here traces the contrast of ancients with moderns among Jewish scholars, through numerous disputes in the disciplines of philosophy, law, medicine, geography, and historiography, from the tenth to the eighteenth century. The rhetorical device of contrasting ancients and moderns through the metaphor in the title generally appeared in book prefaces, to adjust readers' respect [End Page 1267] for texts and authors. The general configuration of the arguments and the historical evolution of their literary form constantly recall European history of the topic, but Melamed helpfully assembles a large range of authors and texts that have rarely been treated together.

The numerous confrontations between authorities and dissenters during this long period produced various structures of argument and many different metaphors. Some contrasted ancients with moderns to claim absolute superiority for the ancients, as in the Talmudic statement, "The fingernail of the earlier generations is better than the whole body of the later generations." (Yoma, 9b) Other writers exaggerated their inferiority to the ancients as a polite concession before going on to justify their innovations. After defining the problem and its terms in Jewish scholarly life, starting from the book of Ecclesiastes and the Talmud, Melamed deals in the second chapter with Jewish scholars before Maimonides (1135-1204). The third and longest chapter considers Maimonides' direct confrontation of the problem of authority, which his influential legal and philosophical writings provoked. Instead of deferring to the most ancient authorities, Maimonides disqualified consideration of any writer's religious, national, and historical identity and endorsed the statement, "Accept truth from whoever says it."

The fourth chapter accounts for philosophers after Maimonides, such as Gersonides, Falaquera, Jewish Averroists, and Isaac Abravanel. The fifth chapter examines the spread of the problem and its formulations in legal discussion. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani the elder, a legal codifier from the thirteenth century, introduced among Jewish thinkers a new metaphor for ancients and moderns. To justify preferring the truth of a statement to the authority of the ancient speaker, Isaiah cites a story "from the greatest of the philosophers among the nations, whom we can recognize to have been John of Salisbury, crediting Bernard of Chartres: 'The ancients were wiser and knew more than we, but we justifiably contradict their words in many places. How is this possible? . . . Who sees farther, the dwarf or the giant? Obviously the giant, whose eyes are higher than the eyes of the dwarf. But if you seat the dwarf on the neck of the giant, who now sees farther? . . . Thus we are dwarves sitting on the necks of giants, because we see their wisdom and add to it; from their wisdom we have learned everything we say, not because we are greater than they.'" Later Hebrew writers turned the dwarf into a child or monkey, the neck became the shoulder or back, and the contribution of the moderns became, not adding to the ancients, but studying more profoundly.

The final chapter, "The Renaissance," connects Jewish writers of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries in the disciplines of Bible commentary, geography, Kabbalah, and philosophy to the reformulation found in Chirurgia Magna (1363) of the French physician, Guy de Chauliac: John of Salisbury's dwarves have turned into children, who have climbed from the giant's shoulders to his neck. Melamed attributes the importance of Chauliac's book to its "popularity," in our colloquial sense, but Jewish writers probably knew it because so many of them were physicians.

Defending the ancients against moderns became less important among Jews, [End Page 1268] as among others in Europe, when the areas of conflict changed to empirical topics. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0236
Print ISSN
0034-4338
Pages
pp. 1267-1269
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-27
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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