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Ramon Llull and the conversion of the Jews

The missionary aim of Ramon Llull’s Art inevitably situated his relationship to the Jewish communities in the terrain of religious polemic. In Llull’s lifetime the order of the Friars Preachers or Dominicans had specialised in the task of converting Jews (as well as Muslims). The order made intense preparations for its missionary activity in the Crown of Aragon: there they founded various schools devoted to studying the Hebrew language and the Bible with the purpose of discovering the ‘errors’ of interpretation the Jewish tradition had committed with regard to the sacred texts. Ramon Martí, following the directives of those brothers of his order, Ramon of Penyafort and Thomas Aquinas, was the supreme representative of anti-Jewish apologetics in the 13th century. In fact, from 1250 onwards he wrote polemical treatises (Capistrum judaeorumPugio fidei), contributed towards the instruction of the novitiate and tried, without success, to convert the Sultan of Tunis. The Dominican method was based upon discussion concerning the meaning of biblical texts. Llull’s Art was conceived as a pragmatic alternative to the debate upon textual authorities, since this latter led to insoluble, sterile confrontations: such was the outcome of the public disputes between Jewish and Christian masters in Paris (1240) and Barcelona (1263). By means of ‘necessary reasons’, on the other hand, Llull wished to prove the truths of Christianity (the Trinity, the Incarnation), in a clearly economical and rational manner. The strength of the evidence adduced should have automatically produced the conversion of Jews (and of infidels in general).

See: Anthony Bonner, “L’Apologètica de Ramon Martí i Ramon Llull davant de l’Islam i del judaisme”, El debat intercultural als segles XIII i XIV. Actes de les I Jornades de Filosofia Catalana (Girona, 1988) = Estudi General, 9, 1989, pp. 171-185; Harvey Hames, The Art of Conversion. Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century (Leiden, Brill, 2000).

The Book of the Gentile shows a wise Jew expounding the principles of Mosaic law in the highly singular context of a religious polemic: Ramon shows himself to have an adequate knowledge of the features of the Judaic faith. His presentation of this particular faith in the Doctrina pueril, however, is less respectful. Later on Llull wrote a Liber de praedicatione contra judaeos, and in 1299 he obtained special licence from James II of Aragon to preach in all the synagogues within his domains.

With regard to the influence of Jewish philosophy and mysticism upon the thought of Ramon Llull, one must bear in mind the impact of the Kabbalistic theory of the sacred letters upon the designation of the divine dignities in the Art specifically by means of letters. Moshe Idel has proposed a possible point of contact with a commentary from the first half of the 13th century written by Moses ben Nahman or Nahmanides, a scholar from the Jewish community of Gerona, upon the Sefer Yetzirah, a fundamental work on Kabbalah.

See: Moshe Idel, “Dignitates and Kavod: two Theological Concepts in Catalan mysticism”, Studia Lulliana, 36 (1996), pp. 69-78.

As for the impact of the Art upon Jewish communities, one should remember that there is documentation regarding translations of Llull’s works, such as the Ars brevis, into Hebrew.

See: Hames, Harvey, “Jewish Magic with a Christian Text: A Hebrew Translation of Ramon Llull’s Ars Brevis”, Traditio 54 (1999), pp. 283-300.