Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe

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Almost a quarter-century ago Benjamin Nelson published his famous plea for what he called a “differential” and “comparative historical sociology of ‘science' in civilizational perspective.” 1 Like Max Weber, Robert Merton, and Joseph Needham, Nelson believed that the growth of western science could be better understood when compared to the ways “science” fared in other cultures with other intellectual and institutional and economic sensibilities and structures. A particularly propitious case study for such a differential and comparative historical study of science, as Hillel Levine observed in his 1983 essay about Jewish reactions to heliocentrism, are the Jews of early modern Europe, who constituted “a society geographically and culturally contiguous with those who framed and advanced occidental ‘science.'” 2 Since about the time of Nelson's plea, David B. Ruderman has been writing the history of Jewish attitudes towards, and engagements with, science during the period in which modern western science was constituting itself. It is no exaggeration to say that he established this as a field of study, producing a steady stream of historical studies, initially of Italian Jews who read and wrote about nature and its study, but continually expanding his compass. 3 The field [End Page 719] Ruderman established and the studies he produced have been “repercussive” (to borrow his own adjective) in many directions—shedding light on Jewish-Christian relations, on early-modern Jewish intellectual history, on the deployments of Kabbalah and magic in early modern times, and so on. One of Ruderman's achievements—perhaps not the most important in his view (for he considers himself a historian of Jewish thought and culture and not a historian of science) but of great importance nonetheless—has been to begin to lay the groundwork for a comparative history of Jewish and Christian attitudes towards and participation in the “new sciences.” Ruderman's newest book is a big step towards Nelson's desideratum, using Jewish attitudes as the comparative case. It is a collection of twelve linked essays (five of which have appeared elsewhere in one form or another) framed by a synthetic introduction and epilogue. The essays are individual or group portraits of Jews who evinced interest in natural philosophy or medicine, in a variety of settings and for a variety of reasons, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Ruderman describes his subject as “three distinct but interrelated groups among early modern Jews”: (1) “converso physicians and other university-trained intellectuals who fled Spain and Portugal in the seventeenth century and settled in Holland, Italy, Germany, England, and even eastern Europe, serving as doctors and purveyors of scientific learning throughout the Jewish communities of Europe, while yielding considerable political and economic power,” (2) “certain circles of Jewish scholars in central and eastern Europe [who] pursued scientific learning, especially astronomy, in more informal settings as a desirable supplement to rabbinic study,” and (3) “the hundreds of Jews who attended Italian medical schools, primarily the University of Padua, from the late sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.” 4 In fact Ruderman covers even more ground than this. As background, he includes a brief essay on the attitudes of tenth- to fifteenth-century Jews towards nature and its study, surely the best survey of the sort available. Of the thirty or so early modern Jews that he describes in the remainder of the book, about twenty fit in at least one of the three camps upon which he focuses. 5 Nine [End Page 720] emerged from different circumstances (though these too were often highly influenced by one or more of the focus populations). This fact does nothing to impugn Ruderman's typology—the groups he described were, in fact, of particular importance, and his identification of them as the principle populations contemplating and promulgating natural philosophy among Jews is in itself an advance of some moment. But the fact that a third of the cases Ruderman described do not fit into his own typology is testimony both to the complexity of his subject, and to his agility in addressing it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)719-727
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the History of Ideas
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1997


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