Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/messer-leon-judah-c-1425-c-1495/v-1
Messer Leon was a philosopher, physician, jurist, communal leader, poet and orator. Ordained as a rabbi by 1450, Messer Leon was qualified to adjudicate legal cases among Jews and head an academy (yeshivah) for advanced studies in Jewish law. He also came close to embodying the Renaissance ideal of uomo universale. His learning was formally recognized in 1469, when Emperor Frederick III awarded him a doctorate in medicine and philosophy and granted him the unusual privilege of conferring doctoral degrees in those subjects on Jewish students.
Messer Leon’s contribution to Jewish philosophy was in the field of logic, the art considered by him to be the key to the proper harmonization of religion and philosophy. He regarded scholastic logic to be superior to Arabic logic and wrote supercommentaries on Averroes’ logical works as well as an encyclopedia of logic, Mikhlal Yofi (Purest Beauty), in an attempt to shift Jewish philosophical education from the Judaeo-Arabic logical tradition to scholastic logic. Although his encyclopedia became a popular textbook, Messer Leon failed to mould the culture of Italian Jewry as he had intended. In particular, he could not curb the spread of Kabbalah, a tradition which he vehemently opposed because of its underlying Platonic metaphysics.
Most importantly, Messer Leon composed the first manual of Hebrew rhetoric, entitled Nofet Tzufim (The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow). Printed in 1476, this Jewish response to Latin humanism combines the Averroist-Aristotelianism tradition and the Ciceronian-Quintilian one. The appropriation of humanistic rhetoric was given a Jewish meaning when Messer Leon claimed that the Torah, rather than the writings of the pagan, classical orators, exemplified perfect speech because it was a revelation of perfect divine wisdom. By analysing Scripture from the perspective of classical rhetoric, Messer Leon legitimized the study of ancient pagan and Christian orators even as he argued for the supremacy of biblical rhetoric over all merely human eloquence.
Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. Messer Leon, Judah (c.1425–c.1495), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/messer-leon-judah-c-1425-c-1495/v-1.
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