Cosmopolitan Scholarship in Provence
Seder Hakabbalah, Menahem ben Solomon Meiri (1249–1306)
The intellectual achievements of the vibrant Jewish communities of medieval Provence—what is today the superlatively lovely Mediterranean coast of France—were largely lost to subsequent Jewish conversation. Situated at the crossroads of Sefarad and Ashkenaz, Provençal Jewry was influenced by northern European currents of thought while absorbing insights from the Judeo-Arabic sphere. The expulsions suffered by European Jews in the late Middle Ages included the dispersal of Provençal communities.
During the flourishing of printing in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, many languishing manuscripts of Provençal works were rediscovered. Today, scholars continue to study this creative corpus of literature. It has much to tell us; not unlike twenty-first American Jews, Provençal Jews were confronted by competing cultural claims and struggled to understand how they might integrate the insights of human reason and science with Jewish modes of thinking and behaving.
Menaḥem Hameiri, an outstanding Provençal thinker, is best known for his commentary on the Talmud, Beit Habehirah, notable for its examination of the Talmud’s structure and methodology in clear, sparkling Hebrew. An approachable example of Hameiri’s thought may be found in his introduction to Pirkei Avot, known as Seder Hakabbalah. He begins by detailing unique aspects of Pirkei Avot: its placement, lack of Gemara, and five-chapter structure, carefully noting texts often appended to it. Hameiri then highlights Avot’s unusual subject matter, apprising the reader not to expect a systemic exposition of Judaism’s ethical basis.
Before providing his own detailed account of the transmission of Jewish tradition, inspired by the opening mishnah of Pirkei Avot, Hameiri writes of this mishnah, “It appears to me that . . . its subject matter includes matters that individual inspection cannot attain on the basis of the sources, nor by means of investigation or rational thought and other such efforts, as is the case with all other Talmudic principles.” Hameiri’s respect for the powers, as well as limitations, of human reasoning evince a key characteristic of Beit Habehirah, and the cultural world from which it came.