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!

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7 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    What would the reaction to such a dedication be today?

    Some interesting insights on this question may be found on an audio where R’ Lamm explains his decision to honor the Cardinals’ request to visit the YU Beit Medrash.

    I would expand your final thought to say our most important survival tool is our relationship with HKB”H (of which prayer is an important part). In fact according to R’ JB Soloveitchik ZT”l one primary purpose of prayer is to help us realize for ourselves that we have HKB”H alone to rely on.


  2. Barry Simon says:

    Interestingly enough, the Ralbag appears in the definitive web mathematical history (no, not the Wikipedia although Ralbag is there – – as Gersonides – with the mathemtical content clearly, er, borrowed from St. Andrews) – namely, the MacTutor History ( See

    Even more interesting, the biography doesn’t mention he was Jewish nor the acronym Ralbag although it does say “His other work was philosophical and he wrote complex Biblical commentaries”!!!

    While on the subject of the biographies of mathematicians, I might add that the Gra (Vilna Gaon) does not appear in MacTudor despite the widespread rumors in certain frum circles that he invented Cramer’s rule (although the true inventor of that rule does as


  3. Bob Miller says:

    It’s bad enough when the Cardinals visit Shea Stadium!

  4. mb says:

    Sir Moses Montefiore’s close relationship with Queen Victoria did no harm as he was able to wield the might of Victorian diplomacy on his many trips abroad on missions to save the plight of beleagured Jews. Interestingly at a time when highly placed Jews in England were doing much to shed their jewishness, Sir Moses Zt’l, from not particularly observant beginnings developed a life of religious piety.
    My hero.

  5. lawrence kaplan says:

    BTW, it wasn’t the Ralbag’s position on free will that was controversial but his position on Divine knowledge.

  6. Toby Katz says:

    “We know about the Nodah Bi-Yehudah and the baker’s son”

    Actually I don’t know — maybe that story isn’t as famous as you think?

  7. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Professor Kaplan is correct, of course. But that was precisely what I meant. Like many others, I was first exposed to the unusual position of Ralbag about Divine knowledge (i.e., that it does not apply to human volitional actions) in the context of his discussion of how people could have freedom of will if G-d knows exactly what choices they will make.

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