Winning Friends in High Places
Just how hard should Jews work to build relationships for a rainy day? A little-known work of the Ralbag may hold a clue to the answer.
Many of us have heard the stories about the ethical response of a Jewish leader to a non-Jew and the dividends it brought years later. We know about the Nodah Bi-Yehudah and the baker’s son, and how it saved Prague’s Jews from a plot to destroy them; we’ve read about R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky and his instructions to return the extra postage to the postmaster, and how he became mayor years later and saved Jews under Nazi rule. We have digested many similar stories. Part of their charm is that the response was spontaneous and uncalculated. The Torah figure acted as he did because he was suffused with integrity, not because he anticipated some future gain.
In more recent times, Jewish leaders have sometimes deliberately pursued warm relationships with non-Jews in high places specifically for the purpose of investing in the future. There is nothing ignoble or unethical about this, as the parties on the other side of the relationship are also looking out for their own future benefit. The expectation is symbiotic gain. Along the way, real friendships are created, because the people who involve themselves in this kind of lobbying are often those who genuinely like other people, no matter how diverse.
Is there precedent for this in Jewish history? We think of Esther parlaying her position into salvation for her people. Esther, though, had no real choice in the matter. Is bridge-building part of the Jewish political agenda? This author in particular would like to know, since he spends a good chunk of the week warming up to potential friends outside the Jewish community on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. An incident in the life of the Ralbag may shed some light on the matter.
The Ralbag is know to most of us for his well-accepted and utilitzed commentary to the Bible, especially the portions beyond the Five Books. Those who have a taste for philosophy know his Milchamos Hashem, and some of his controversial positions about human free-will. He was also an accomplished mathematician, and in 1342, he published a work on trigonometry entitled De Sinibus, Chordis et Arcubus. It was one of several works on mathematics he would publish. He dedicated it to Pope Clement VI. Why?
Clement was one of the Avignon popes, who was not exceptionally given to piety, liked the accoutrements of the well to-do, but seems to have been a good human being. His most obvious intersection with Jewish life came during the Black Death, which some historians believe killed between one third and two thirds of those in the affected areas. As usual, Jews became the scapegoats, and pogroms broke out with devastating consequences to Jewish communities. Clement issued two papal bulls condemning these attacks. He claimed that those who blamed the Jews were “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” He urged clergy to protect Jews, but the orders were of little avail.
The facile explanation for the Ralbag’s dedication is that it was in recognition of what the Pope had done for his coreligionists. The only problem is that his book was published six years before the papal bulls!
So why did he do it? Might it have something to do with the fact that his brother was the pope’s physician, or that he seems to have visited Avignon at some point, or that he was held in high esteem by figures in the Church who valued his mathematics? Or did he see an opportunity to create warmer feelings towards Jews, which might be valuable one day? Whatever his reasoning, did his gesture (and others we do not know about) succeed in ingratiating himself and his people with the pope, so that he acted differently than he might have?
Perhaps readers with a better grasp of history can shed some light on this episode. My personal – and likely biased – guess is that we need to do more bridge-building, just as all other interest groups do, while never failing to remember that our most important survival tool is tefilah (prayer).
Meanwhile, I’m enjoying it!