Were The Tosafists Philosophers?

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by R. Gil Student

The initial response to the question of Tosafist interest in philosophy has to be negative. Much like contemporary rabbis, their focus lay Talmud and Jewish law, where texts abound and directly impact religious life. Certainly they were also interested in Bible and wrote commentaries, some on the level of derash but some, most notably but not exclusively Rashbam, on the level of peshat. Rabbenu Tam even wrote a commentary on the highly philosophical book Iyov.

Yet their approach generally lacks engagement with the philosophical literature. They deal with the standard questions of life–providence, evil, etc. However, they seem to do so independently, without reference to Western (or Islamic) philosophy.


However, one interesting exception is found at the beginning of R. Moshe of Coucy’s Semag, followed by R. Yitzchak of Corbeil’s Semak. Both list belief in God’s unity as the second positive commandment and both quote R. Sa’adia Gaon’s arguments in his Emunos Ve-Dei’os (2:2). R. Sa’adia Gaon argues against multiplicity of deity based on competition. If two gods could create the world then each is lacking power; neither is sufficiently powerful to do it on his own. If one wanted to create something and the other not, the creature would eternally alternate between existence and non-existence, an untenable situation. Therefore, there can only be a single, all-powerful Creator.

Two unusual things are going on here. First, these Tosafists are listing a philosophical premise as a mitzvah. Additionally, they are citing a classic philosophical treatise–albeit by a great rabbi–not only as precedent but for his philosophical arguments. Indeed, these arguments of R. Sa’adia Gaon originate in the Kalam, the fundamentalist Muslim philosophy with which R. Sa’adia Gaon is generally associated. Perhaps this demonstrates that these Tosafists engaged in classical philosophy.

Where Is Rambam?

However, something else is occurring that undermines this example. Two Tosafists in particular championed the Rambam and spread his writings among Ashkenazim–R. Moshe of Coucy in his Semag and R. Meir Ben Yekusiel in his Hagahos Maimoniyos. Certainly R. Moshe of Coucy should have been aware that Rambam rejects these arguments of R. Sa’adia Gaon (albeit without quoting him by name) in Moreh Nevukhim (1:75, 5th way)? If he was truly interested in philosophy, R. Moshe of Coucy would have been aware of this debate. Even if he felt that Semag was not the proper venue for a philosophical debate, he could have omitted R. Sa’adia Gaon’s arguments or briefly mentioned that Rambam disagreed. Even years later, both R. Yitzchak of Corbeil and his student and glossator, Rabbenu Peretz, omit mention of Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim on this issue. Perhaps their citation of Emunos Ve-Dei’os was due to a non-philosophical concern.

In 1240, rabbis in Paris, the primary home of the Tosafists, were forced to debate priests about Christianity and Judaism. Prior to the debate, over twenty cart-loads of Talmudic manuscripts were confiscated and held hostage. In the days before the printing press, this represented a potential massive loss of Torah study, which eventually occurred and which we still commemorate on Tisha B’Av. Among the disputants were R. Moshe of Coucy and R. Yechiel of Paris. The former later wrote the Semag and the latter’s son-in-law, R. Yitzchak of Corbeil, wrote the Semak.

The reports we have of the 1240 Paris disputation do not indicate any philosophical arguments about Christianity. Discussion generally revolved around the Talmud. However, perhaps one repercussion of this confrontation between Christianity and Judaism was the ignition of a counter-missionary impulse. I suggest that it is not a coincidence that the Semag and Semak quote philosophy specifically where it argues against Christianity. Nor is it a coincidence that they count belief in God’s unity as a commandment.

Commandments and Philosophy

R. Yitzchak Abarbanel (Rosh Amanah, ch. 7) points out that many commentators, among them Semag and Semak, do not list belief in God as an independent mitzvah. They specifically word the commandment more broadly, about belief in providence (Semak) or the heavenly origin of Torah (Semag). Belief in God, on its own as Medieval philosophers saw it, is an abstract philosophical proposition, a matter of metaphysical proof. Belief in the Torah or God’s providence is directly related to life, a matter of religious experience. (Of course God is part of religious experience but that is beyond any requirement to believe.)

Similarly, their description of the commandment to love God revolves around action, how to live a life full of love for God. In contrast, Rambam uses those two commandments as a Torah requirement to philosophize. Interestingly, Semak uses the mitzvah to believe in providence as an opportunity to lash out at philosophers. Jews must believe in God’s providence, unlike those philosophers who believe in chance.

Philosophy and Polemic

Yet both Semag and Semak treat the commandment to belive in God’s unity in a remarkably philosophical fashion. It seems reasonable to suggest that these two leading rabbis took the opportunity to strengthen the faith of a nation under attack. They utilized the commandment to believe in God’s unity as a polemic against Christianity, citing philosophy as a tool. If they maintained a sustained interest in philosophy, they would surely have cited philosophical works more often. Rather, they used R. Sa’adia Gaon’s arguments specifically due to the communal importance of holding tight to the Jewish concept of monotheism.

I am not suggesting that they considered R. Sa’adia Gaon’s arguments to be flawed but used them anyway. More likely, they had only a passing interest in the subject and were unaware of Rambam’s counter-arguments. There is no greater Jewish defender of monotheism than the Rambam. If R. Moshe of Coucy and R. Yitzchak of Corbeil wanted philosophical arguments against Christianity, they could have mined Moreh Nevukhim for all its powerful insights. But that requires extensive engagement with philosophy, in which it seems these Tosafists were not particularly interested. If they were, we would see much more frequent Tosafist citation of R. Sa’adia Gaon, Moreh Nevukhim and other Jewish philosophical texts.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. I’m not sure that your assumption that R’ Moshe de Coucy and other Ashkenazim could have read the Moreh is correct. Though it is true that Ibn Tibon’s translation was completed some years before the composition of the Smag, it seems that the translation was not available in northern France to even the best collectors; see here. Although they had a translation of Emunot v’Dei’ot it was not Ibn Tibon’s translation but an earlier edition; see here. It is possible that R’ Moshe de Coucy saw the book during his travels around Spain but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that he did and had time to read it. Moreover, even R’ Moshe Taku who explicitly debates Rambam writes that Rambam’s views are not even his own but are taken from Emunot v’Dei’ot; obviously he hadn’t actually read the Moreh; see here.

    Your point is still well taken that the absence of other philosophical quotations among the Ashkenazim besides the above cited example might have been prompted by the particular circumstances the authors of Smag and Smak found themselves. However, before concluding so we should look at the chapter Kanerfogel has about this in his newest book The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz.

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