The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Who Was Rabbi Yosef Ibn Haviva? The Politics of Hermeneutics in Fourteenth-Century Spain

Often seen as an epigone, whose commentaries were written under the anxiety of influence of his teacher Rabbi Nissim of Gerona, the intellectual biography of Rabbi Yosef ibn Haviva (c.1340-c.1420) presents a case study with which to better understand the shifting trends of Jewish culture during the second half of the 14th Century. A period of general crisis following the Plague, that included rapid political, economic, and social transformation for the Iberian Peninsula at large, for Iberian Jews it was also a time of intense religious persecution and reinvention. In reading his oeuvre in context, I believe we can rediscover a forgotten yet original thinker and thereby further our understanding of the period.

Part of the circle of the RaN and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, whose rich lives and philosophies have been written about extensively, ibn Haviva bracketed a period of upheaval, and his activities and creative output were directed towards restoring Jewish communal life. Against the backdrop of his intellectual biography, a political culture emerges that includes both Jew and Christian.

With a particular focus on the manner in which he used biblical and talmudic interpretation to express a politics that was at once a critique of the Jewish community while also forming an empowering religious philosophy, my paper will show the interwoven stories of his life and that of the Jewish community more broadly. Additionally, I will present further evidence to suggest that he was indeed the author of a philosophic biblical commentary, which allows us to expand our understanding of his weltanschauung and there-in late medieval Iberian culture.