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Aleph: Historical Studies in Science & Judaism

Published in Isis: International Journal for the History of Science 94 (2003), pp. 117-118.

Freudenthal, Gad (Editor). Aleph: Historical Studies in Science & Judaism, No. I. 351 pp., tables. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001. (Paper.)

Studies of Jews in science have often provoked adverse reactions. The idea of distinguishing between Jewish and non-Jewish scientists puts quite a few people ill at ease. Some recall anti-Semitic German writings that tried to prove, in the sinister context of severe disenfranchisement and, later, of mass massacre of Jews in mid-twentieth century, that “Jewish science” was essentially different from “Aryan science”. Others feel threatened by attention to their Jewish origins, the attention, however benign, that they tend to associate with anti-Semitism. Leaders of Israeli science also felt that the issue of Jewishness was irrelevant, and even prejudicial, in their search for universal recognition. While research of Jews in science began outside Israel, there are now several Israeli scholars active in this field. This is why the establishment of the new journal is a welcome addition to the field of cultural studies of science and a sign of maturity on the part of the Israeli community of historians of science who constitute the majority of the editorial board.

The first issue of the new journal comprises articles of diverse nature. The main emphasis is put on Jewish scholars in the Islamic realm that reflects the older scholarly tradition, which had existed for a long time before the first studies of Jews in modern science appeared on the scene. Bernard Goldstein and Shlomo Sela offer two richly documented analyses of the place and functions of astronomy among Jews in early Islam. Both studies suggest that Jews assimilated the Islamic scientific tradition and, by the twelfth century distinguished between astronomy and astrology. Sarah Stroumsa devotes her attention to the distinction made by Maimonides between science and pseudo-science, while Resianne Fontaine discusses the reception of Aristotle in Jewish writings in the thirteenth century. Dov Schwartz sheds lights on magical justifications of sacrifices in early Kabbalah, Ruth Glasner analyses a Hebrew translation of Averroes, and Tony Lévy looks at mathematics of Ibn Ezra. Leaving the Islamic realm, Mauro Zonta presents a study of comments on Aristotle’s Physics made by an Italian Jewish scholar in the fifteenth century. These articles would be particularly appreciated by specialists in the respective periods.

The study of Jews in German science in Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic by Shulamit Volkov stands alone in this volume in at least three respects. Firstly, it deals with a period several centuries apart from the studies mentioned above. Secondly, it consists of two articles (previously published in German), one earlier and one later, the latter one challenging the interpretation offered in the former. Thirdly, the nature of the article is one of social history of science rather than that of textual analysis used in most other articles in the volume. She concludes that Jewish scientists succeeded not only in making the best of the discrimination that pushed them into disciplinary niches particularly conducive to creativity but that they were careful to remain within the socio-cultural parameters of the German scientific community.

Tzvi Langermann concludes the volume with a moving obituary that sheds light on the relationship between Judaism and science. The Yemenite scholar Rav Yosef Kafah (at whose weekly classes in Jerusalem Tzvi and I originally met) embodied the traditional Judaic respect for contemporary science that one rarely finds in today’s rabbinical circles traumatized by the experience of European assimilation. At the same time Rav Kafah displayed a consistently historical approach to scientific knowledge contained in the Talmud and other authoritative texts and refused to revere and actualise this old science.

Yakov M Rabkin

University of Montreal


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