Ibn Verga, Solomon
Solomon Ibn Verga lived in Spain when the Jews were expelled in 1492, and lived apparently until around 1530. His only work, entitled in Hebrew Shevet Yehudah – variously rendered as “The Staff of Judah,” “The Scourge of Judah,” or “The tribe of Judah” – deals with the history of the Jews, especially in the late medieval period. The author provides specific historical data, but also brings dubious information, following the model employed in one of his works by the Spanish court preacher, Antonio de Guevara (c. 1480–1545). The work also features fictional dialogues and epistles. As such, it reflects the influence of Renaissance modes of writing and at the same time paves the way to Modern Hebrew literature. Ibn Verga develops a comprehensive doctrine of tolerance, disparages both Christian and Jewish popular beliefs, as well as learned theological concepts in the two religious traditions, in which he sees flights of fancy: religions, he contends, “do not exist but with the imagination.” Having lived in Spain when the Inquisition was founded, he wishes Christians to become open to religious difference. He also thinks that some Jewish rites and beliefs inevitably foster hostility, and calls on Jews to abandon or transform them. He ponders the respective roles of providential and natural causes in history, and some of his ideas have been compared to those of Giambattista Vico (1668–1744).
Our information on Solomon Ibn Verga’s life is scant. We know for sure that he served in different functions in the Jewish community in Castile in the years immediately preceding the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. He was in Portugal in 1506, when a riot broke out in Lisbon against the Jews that had been forcibly converted 9 years earlier. A Hebrew document seems to indicate that he departed the following year for Flanders, but died on the way. Internal evidence in his (only) book, on the other side, manifests the strong influence of a work of the Spanish court preacher, Antonio de Guevara (c. 1480–1545), which was published only in 1529. It is likely that Ibn Verga lived until the 1530s, in circumstances unknown to us, and completed his Shevet Yehudah in his later years. His son, Yossef ibn Verga (died c. 1559), published the book, with some additions of his own, in Adrianople (Edirne) in 1554.
Legacy and Rupture with the Tradition
The Hebrew term shevet has different meanings, and the title of Ibn Verga’s book, Shevet Yehudah, may be translated in a number of ways: “The Staff of Judah,” “The Scourge of Judah,” “The Tribe of Judah” (thus alluding, in this last case, to Spanish Jewry, which boasted of hailing from the royal tribe of Judah in Biblical Israel). These diverse renditions of the title point to the various goals that Ibn Verga pursued. He wanted, first of all, to provide information on the history of the Jews after the loss of their state in Antiquity. His focus is on the circumstances of episodes of persecution and the reasons for the increasing hatred against the Jews in the Late Middle Ages. Although he built on some earlier lists of massacres and banishments, including one apparently drafted by one of his relatives, Ibn Verga evinces a kind of historical interest that, in the context of traditional Jewish culture, is quite new. Secondly, since he does not endorse the view that ascribed exile and persecution to the chastisement of an unfaithful people by divine providence, he seeks to find out the historical and sociological reasons why Jews were hated and sets forth a series of recommendations on how to defuse anti-Jewish sentiments. This line of thought led him to propound views, on a more general theological-philosophical level, that aimed at elucidating how “providence” and “nature” combined in the shaping of history. Finally, Ibn Verga presents his ideas in the garb of fictional dialogues and epistles: he emulates Renaissance secular modes of writing and has rightly been hailed as the founder of Modern Hebrew literature. He was not entirely successful in the integration of the materials respectively corresponding to his historical, literary, and philosophical purposes, and this may account for what seems to be the unfinished character of the work.
Innovative and Original Aspects
Ibn Verga made use of some of the characteristic notions and motifs of Jewish medieval thought, interlaced them with contemporary queries, as these last were discussed on the broader European intellectual scene, and thus bestowed a new significance on inherited questionings and assumptions. There is a “skeptical” moment in Moses Maimonides (c. 1138–1204), as to the possibility of certain knowledge about the “things in the heavens.” A number of Jewish philosophers had compared, in a perspective close to that represented by Averroism, the central beliefs and doctrines of the three monotheistic religions, seen as basically similar, and the teachings of Aristotle. Ibn Verga leveraged these various themes to put forward a comprehensive doctrine of tolerance. He emphasizes the common core of the three religions by offering a version of the tale of the three rings, that he borrowed, directly or indirectly, from Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) or one of the Italian parallel sources (and not, as some have suggested, from a text of inner Jewish provenance). He castigated both Christian and Jewish popular beliefs, but also learned theological concepts in the two religious traditions, in which he saw flights of fancy: religions, he said, “do not exist but with the imagination.” Having lived in Spain when the Inquisition was founded, he wanted Christians to become open to religious difference. He also thought that some Jewish rites and beliefs inevitably fostered hostility and called on Jews to abandon or transform them.
In likewise manner, Ibn Verga was familiar with the ideas of Maimonides, or some of the Jewish philosophers who saw themselves as being his disciples, as evidenced by his treatment of the historical reasons for the disappearance of the ancient Jewish state. Ibn Verga interlaced them with a new understanding of historical causation that he seems to have borrowed from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Moreover, he tried to evaluate the respective roles of providential and natural causes, and some have compared his views to those of Vico.
In his assessment of the hostility towards Jews, Ibn Verga does not view all non-Jews as equally anti-Jewish, and stated a sociologically differentiated view of the exposure to anti-Jewish sentiments. This is to a certain extent new, but at the same time his major distinction, between elites that are well-wishing and lower classes among which animosity towards Jews is particularly pronounced echoes a commonly held view among medieval Jews. It must be emphasized that Ibn Verga was not overconfident in the backing of those holding political power: he warned that in times of crisis authorities may not be willing to run the risk of being denounced as “accomplices” of the Jews if they take action to protect them against physical attacks. Ultimately, Jews have to secure the goodwill of the entire body politic of a given country and cannot content themselves with the aid and support of the rulers.
Impact and Legacy
Ibn Verga was widely read among Jews in the early modern period. Some Jewish thinkers or communal leaders paid attention to his message on the shaping of the relations between Jews and non-Jews or on the natural reading of history. His work was translated into Yiddish for the benefit of those in the Jewish communities who had no Hebrew education, and in such a way that the more traditional features of Ibn Verga’s thought and sensitivity were emphasized. It was also translated into Spanish and Latin. Early modern Christian writers on Jews borrow rather extensively from the Shevet Yehudah. The overall importance of Ibn Verga’s book is that it constitutes a major link between two movements of “Jewish Enlightenment,” the first in the medieval period and the second in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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