A 13th-century illustration of Isaac Israeli from a Latin translation of his “Book of Fevers”
Itzhak ben Shlomo (c. 832-932) was born to a religious Jewish family in Egypt. He became renowned as the greatest physician in the country, and in 904 was hired by Prince Ziyadat Allah III. Several years later, he became court physician to Caliph Al-Mahdi Billah of the Fatimid Dynasty, based in Kairouan, Tunisia. Recognizing his immense wisdom, the Caliph made Itzhak (known in Arabic as “Abu Yaqub Ishaq ibn Suleiman al-Israili”, and in Europe as “Isaac Judaeus”) his leading advisor and tutor. Itzhak wrote numerous medical, astronomical, and mathematical treatises which transformed the scientific knowledge of the day. For instance, he is the first person in history to mention performing a tracheostomy. His works were widely distributed for centuries afterwards, and made up much of the medical curriculum of the Middle Ages. Itzhak was also a great philosopher, kabbalist, and mystic. He fused together Greek Neoplatonism with traditional Jewish mysticism, paving the way for the forthcoming explosion of Kabbalistic texts and Jewish mystical circles. His main disciple, Dunash ibn Tamim, wrote a profound commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. In addition to inspiring many rabbis, he was studied and quoted by great non-Jewish scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Among his many other writings is a deeply philosophical commentary on Genesis. In his day, Isaac Judaeus was the world’s leading sage, doctor, and scientist, and Arabic texts of the time refer to him as “master of the seven sciences” and “more valuable than gems”.
We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon science will be developed further and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned and the well-respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded.
– Rav Kook, First Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel
Giuseppe Mustacchi (1934-2013) was born in Alexandria, Egypt to a family of Greek Jews of Romaniote Jewish heritage. His parents were well-educated bookstore owners who had a love for languages. They spoke Italian at home and Arabic outside, and put their kids in a French school. Inspired by his favourite French authors and thinkers, like Sartre and Camus, a 17-year old Mustacchi decided to move to Paris. He worked as a door-to-door book salesman and, to make some more money, started to sing and play piano at night clubs. He soon met popular French singer and poet Georges Brassens, who opened the door for Mustacchi to formally enter the music industry. In gratitude, Mustacchi changed his first name to “Georges” (also stylizing his last name “Moustaki”). He once played before Édith Piaf—France’s “national singer”—who soon fell in love with him, and took him on as a songwriter. Moustaki wrote many of her hits, including the globally chart-topping “Milord”. Moustaki also wrote for other great European artists like Dalida, Yves Montand, and Tino Rossi. In the 1960s, he launched his own singing career. Songs like “Ma Liberté” are said to have inspired an entire generation. His “Le Métèque”, meanwhile, was about the difficult experiences of Mediterranean immigrants (in which he referred to himself in the lyrics as a “wandering Jew” and “Greek shepherd”). No record company wanted to produce it, so he produced it himself and it was #1 on the French charts for six weeks. Moustaki gave his last performance in Barcelona in 2009, at the age of 75. All in all, he wrote 300 songs (in seven different languages!), produced some 30 albums of his own, and also appeared in film and on TV. He is considered one of France’s biggest music stars of all time.
I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable… Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. – Nikolai Berdyaev
The First Jewish Philosopher and Torah Commentator
A 16th-century illustration of Philo Judaeus
Yedidya “Philo Judaeus” HaKohen (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) was born to a wealthy Jewish family of kohanim in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire and had one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. His father had earned Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar, and his nephew was a Roman prefect and military commander. Philo received an extensive education in Judaism, as well as the wisdom of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He became a well-known philosopher and scholar, and a leader of Alexandria’s Jewish community. Around 37 CE, he led a diplomatic mission to the emperor Caligula to seek the end of the oppression of Jews in Alexandria and to reaffirm Jewish civil rights. He also convinced Caligula not to put a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, for that would surely instigate a war, and explained why the Jews could not accept him as a deity or worship him in any way. Philo is most famous for his written works, producing what may very well be the first commentary on the Torah. He also wrote several texts to explain Judaism to the non-Jewish world, and a number of detailed works about the Roman Empire—now a gold mine for historians. He was also the first to synthesize Greek wisdom with Jewish wisdom (and in this regard, predated the great Maimonides by more than a millennium), and demonstrated how many fundamentals of Greek philosophy had already been laid out in the Torah long before. Philo advocated for a democratic government with the Torah serving as the constitution. Because of his numerous easy-to-understand Greek explanations for the Torah, Philo’s works ironically became more popular among Christians, and mostly forgotten in Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, he was a noted defender of Judaism at a difficult time of persecution, an important scholar and advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, and an inspiring philosopher and political figure. Interestingly, he is the first to mention the custom of staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah and recite holy hymns, in his description of a group of Jews associated with the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the Five Books of Moses and the Bible as a whole.
– Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the Big Bang