Menahem ben Jacob Shalem also known as Menahem Agler (and sometimes referred to, incorrectly, as “Menahem Kara”) was an important Jewish Aristotelian philosopher in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Prague. He wrote the most sophisticated Hebrew philosophical texts in Central Europe during this period. Unlike his colleagues in Prague, Yom-Tov Lipmann Mühlhausen and Avigdor Kara, he rejected Kabbalah and considered Maimonidean philosophy the most authoritative Jewish intellectual tradition. His works paved the way for other Jewish philosophers in Central and Eastern Europe in the late middle and early modern ages.
KeywordsActive Intellect Christian Doctrine Philosophical Text Aristotelian Philosopher Impending Danger
The dates and places of Shalem’s birth and death are unknown. In 1413 he was a member of the rabbinic court of justice (beit din) of Prague together with Yom-Tov Lipmann Mühlhausen and Avigdor Kara. Presumably, he composed his extant works in Prague. It has been suggested that he traveled to Jerusalem once and then he adopted the Hebrew name “Shalem,” which may be understood as “the Jerusalemite” (Reiner 1984; Yuval 1989; Davis 1993). He is referred to as Menahem Agler in a correspondence he had with Abraham Klausner, an important rabbinic authority in late fourteenth-century Vienna. The name “Agler” may indicate that he originated from Aquileia (in German, Aglar) in northern eastern Italy (Kupfer 1973).
Menahem Shalem and his colleague, Avigdor Kara, referred to each other as “my brother” in their writings. This phrase indicates a close relationship, but it is not to be taken literally: in fact, the two had different fathers and there is no reason to believe that they were related in any way. Nevertheless, misled by this phrase, some modern historians refer to Shalem as “Menahem Kara” despite the fact that the latter name is not attested in any primary sources.
In one of his writings, Shalem refers to hallucinations he experienced while he was imprisoned by Christians. Unfortunately, nothing more is known about this incident (see Kupfer 1973).
Works and Thought
Menahem Shalem left behind four major writings: (1) a philosophical compendium treating some of the classical themes of medieval Hebrew Aristotelian literature, such as intellectual perfection, prophetic visions, and proofs for the existence of God; (2) a series of glosses to Moses Narboni’s (cc. 1300–1362) commentary on Maimonides’ (1137/8–1204) Guide for the Perplexed; (3) a letter to Abraham Klausner, rabbi of Vienna, about philosophical and theological matters; and (4) a polemic fragment against the Christian doctrine of trinity (see Kupfer 1973; Talmage 1980; Shmeruk 1981; for some other, minor works, see Talmage 1983).
Much of Shalem’s thought revolved around astral powers interfering with the sublunar world. On the one hand, Shalem held that the movement of the celestial bodies generated astral influences in a mechanic way; on the other hand, he believed that astral spirits had sympathy for human beings, especially for philosophers, and they warned them of impending dangers through dreams and visions (Visi 2009).
Shalem believed that conjunction of human mind to the active intellect was possible, and such conjunction, once realized, protected human beings from harmful astral influences. Thus, pursuing intellectual perfection one could save himself/herself from the fate determined by celestial movements. Following the Maimonidean tradition, Shalem argued that studying philosophical texts could bring about the redemptive perfection of the intellect; on the other hand, unlike Mühlhausen and Kara, he held the study of Kabbalah worthless. Shalem also argued that the Messiah and the prophet Elijah, mentioned in traditional Jewish religious texts as precursor to the Messiah, had allegorical meanings. The former signified allegorically the redemptive conjunction of the human mind to the active intellect and latter alluded to the spiritual-intellectual development preceding it (Visi 2011).
Most of Shalem’s works remain in manuscripts until today. A single scribe copied most of the relevant manuscripts during the second half of the fifteenth century in Lesser Poland (Beit-Arieh 1981). Shalem is cited in a rabbinic debate about the possibility of the transmigration of the soul in 1466 in Candia, Crete (Kupfer 1973; on the debate itself, see Ogren 2009). Whether his works influenced sixteenth-century Jewish thinkers or whether one can speak about a continuous tradition of Jewish rationalism among late medieval and early modern Ashkenazi Jews is a debated question (see Kupfer 1973; Davis 1993; Fishman 1997; Reiner 1997; Visi 2011).
- Talmage, Frank. 1980. Vikuah anti-Notsri be-Mizrah Eiropa be-signon ha-pulmus bi-Sefarad – ketav-yad yahid (An Anti-Christian Polemic in Eastern Europe in the Style of Sephardic Polemics – A Unique Manuscript). Kiryath Sefer 56(1980): 369–372.Google Scholar
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