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Judah Ibn Tibbon’s Ethical Will

On Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, Dr. S.J. Pearce, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, where her teaching and research focus on the intellectual history and literature of Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain, guest-lectured in Yeshiva College’s Spiritual Autobiographies course, which is being taught in collaboration with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.

The lecture, hosted by Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and Dr. David Lavinsky, associate professor of English, focused on the Jewish 12th-century translator and physician Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon and his ethical will to his son, Samuel, who became well known for his translation of Maimonides’ works.

Dr. Pearce began the lecture by focusing on the tone of the will. The work was written throughout Judah’s life, and he amended it as Samuel grew older. Therefore, the harsh style at the start fits with the timeline, as Judah was trying to educate his rowdy teenage son. As the child grows older and matures, Judah’s tone becomes more caring and fatherly. He is no longer speaking to a child, but a man.


The Ethical Will The Ethical Will


Dr. Pearce then contextualized the work with the past class readings. Unlike most autobiographies, which are written for a more general audience, this ethical will was written specifically by Judah for his son. However, she also pointed to the more general advice Judah gives about education and community, arguing that Judah hoped this work would reach a more general audience despite the harsh language toward his son and the embarrassment it would bring him.

Dr. Pearce asked students to compare the will to other autobiographical texts they have explored this semester, such as the Life of Josephus and Augustine’s Confessions. The students explored how Judah’s ethical will illuminates the era’s broader social and religious contexts while also providing an intimate portrait of his family’s place in the 12th-century Mediterranean and North African Jewish community. The class also looked at a letter written to Samuel by Maimonides while the former was translating The Guide for the Perplexed.

The lecture concluded with a discussion about the sense of urgency that can be felt in the will. Since they are in exile, cast out of their former Andalusi homeland (the Iberian peninsula of Spain) and its unique mix of religious devotion and philosophical inquiry, Judah wants to ensure that his son continues this tradition. He sees himself as his child’s sole educator, the link to the past, his main teacher of Arabic and the intellectual treasures of Andalusian Jewry. He instructs him on matters both big and small, begging him to continue his Torah and scientific studies while also giving him recommendations for what curtains and vegetables to buy.

In the coming weeks, the Spiritual Autobiographies class will look at the works of Shlomo Halevi/Paul of Burgos, Don Isaac Abrabanel and St. Teresa of Avila. The class is also scheduled to visit Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik’s synagogue Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.