David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
Featured Post

Parshat Lech Lecha – Beliefs to die for

How committed to upholding truth are you? Bruno, Abraham, and Maimonides faced death for their convictions (Lech Lecha)
Statue of Giordano Bruno in in Campo dei Fiori, Rome. (CC BY-SA, Francesca Soria/ Wikimedia Commons)
Statue of Giordano Bruno in in Campo dei Fiori, Rome. (CC BY-SA, Francesca Soria/ Wikimedia Commons)

As he heard the roar of the crowd, felt the heat of the flames and smelled his own flesh burning, Giordano Bruno had only a short time to reflect on his life, and how he, a former Dominican priest, had come to be burned alive by the Inquisition for heresy.

The truth is that he had been a free thinker since his youth, and recklessly unafraid to voice opinions that contradicted prevailing beliefs. If reason led him to certain conclusions, not only did he never reject reason in favor of dogma, but he would publish these ideas, putting him firmly at odds with the Catholic Church.

Which was ironic, since he had entered the Dominican Order at the age of 17, and in 1572, aged 24, was ordained as a priest.

However, even as a novice monk, he was often embroiled in controversy. Bruno later testified that he was investigated twice by the Inquisition during the 11 years he was in the monastic system — once for throwing away images of saints and later for recommending heretical texts to others.

This did not deter him and he continued reading, investigating and thinking, often reaching conclusions that put him at odds with the church.

Drawing of Giordano Bruno from 1578. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Things came to a head after Bruno was denounced for defending the Arian heresy and after a banned copy of Erasmus was discovered in the bathroom with Bruno’s notes in the margins.

Bruno fled before he could be tried, abandoning Naples and the priesthood. He traveled from one place to another before eventually finding temporary refuge in Venice.

By 1579, he was in Geneva and in May he enrolled in the university there. But in August he published an attack on the distinguished professor, Antoine de la Faye. Both he and the printer were arrested but Bruno refused to apologize.

He left Geneva for France where he moved from Lyon to Toulouse and finally to Paris. In the couple of years he spent there, he managed to complete a doctorate and gave lectures.

While there, he became famous for his incredible memory, which he insisted was due to mnemonic techniques, but many accused him of witchcraft. French King Henry III summoned him to investigate his memory and was convinced that Bruno was not using occult powers.

This gave him the protection of the king and several noblemen, which Bruno used to publish many books on mnemonics as well as, bizarrely, a comedy summarizing his philosophical views.

Statue of George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury in Guildford High Street. (CC BY-SA, David Dixon/

In 1583, he went to England, initially as the guest of the French ambassador. Bruno lectured in Oxford, but was not offered a permanent position there. He was ridiculed by George Abbot, future archbishop of Canterbury, for agreeing with Copernicus that the earth orbited the sun.

While in England, Bruno published at least half a dozen books. These too were deemed heretical and he also managed to offend many of his patrons

In 1585, he returned to France and a year later moved to Germany, where he lectured in Wittenberg for two years. He was forced to leave as the intellectual climate changed there and he moved to Prague where he published several more books.

Then, in 1591, he was invited back to Venice. Thinking that the power of the Inquisition had weakened, he returned to Italy, which proved to be a fatal mistake. While there, he tried (unsuccessfully) to get the chair of mathematics in Padua (in 1592, the position was given to Galileo).

On May 22, 1592, Bruno was arrested by the inquisitors on charges of blasphemy and heresy. Among the crimes he was charged with was believing in multiple worlds and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

On January 27, 1593, he was transferred from Venice to Rome, where he was imprisoned and tried. The trial lasted seven years, but Bruno refused to recant his ideas. On February 8, 1600, he was read the death sentence, and soon afterward was executed in the Campo de’ Fiori.

Campo de’ Fiori. (CC BY-SA, Benjamin Dahlhoff/ Wikimedia Commons)

Some, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, view him as a martyr for science, as he agreed with Copernicus’s theory of heliocentricity and believed in other planets and extraterrestrial life. However, it seems more likely that he was killed for his religious beliefs, rather than in the name of science.

Bruno had gone into exile for his beliefs and eventually died for them. Though his ideas caused him trouble wherever he went, he refused to retract them or change his mind. He followed his reasoning literally to the point of death.

In this week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we read about Abraham. The opening words are God’s command to the patriarch to leave his home and go to Israel. But the Torah tells us almost nothing about what led to his exile from Ur Kasdim.

Maimonides, (Laws of Idolatry 1:3) fills in the background, describing Abraham as a philosopher who questioned everything and followed his logic even to the point of death.

From the time he was weaned, he began developing his mind… and to think day and night. He would wonder, ‘How is it possible for the sphere to revolve constantly without a director, and who turns it, for it is impossible that it turns by itself.

He had no teacher or anyone to inform him, but was entrenched in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His mother, father and all the people worshipped idols, and he would worship with them, but his heart kept searching, until he discovered the truth and understood the path of righteousness, through his correct intellect. He knew there was one God who directed the sphere, and that He created everything and there was no other god but Him.

And he knew that all the people were mistaken… Once he realized and knew, he began challenging the people of Ur Kasdim and debating with them, telling them the path they were following was not the path of truth. He smashed the idols and told the people that it was only appropriate to worship god…

When he convinced them with his proofs, the king wanted to kill him. He was saved miraculously and fled to Haran.

Abraham followed his intellect, despite the fact that it pitted him against everyone else. He remained firm in his belief even as he was sentenced to death. And miraculously he was saved and became the founder of the religion.

A bronze statue of Maimonides, located in Cordoba, Spain. (CC BY-SA, David Baron/ WIkimedia Commons)

Maimonides here partially projects his own views onto Abraham. The medieval sage believed in the power of reason and logic even when it appeared to contradict traditional Jewish beliefs. He was prepared to reinterpret the words of the Talmud and of the Bible to fit in with what reason told him must be true.

And the irony is that Maimonides’s books were banned by many of his contemporaries and later rabbis for containing heresy. Putting rational intellect over sacred texts and long-held traditions was considered heretical.

Even today, there are some who will not learn or teach certain books of Maimonides, despite the fact that his book of Jewish law became the basis of almost every book that came afterwards.

Bruno was tried and killed by the inquisition for following his philosophy and ignoring the tenets of the church. Abraham was sentenced to death for his iconoclastic logic that led him to monotheism. And Maimonides’s books were banned because of his near-total reliance on reason. Yet all are held up as heroes for their commitment to sensibility and their bravery in defying commonly-held beliefs.

For some, religion is an excuse to abandon reason and accept beliefs unquestioningly. For Bruno, Abraham, and Maimonides, that would have been unthinkable.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
Related Topics
Related Posts