Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Menahem Meiri was a Talmudist and religious thinker of Perpignan in southern France (1249-1316). Meiri is chiefly renowned for commentaries to the tractates of the Talmud, the majority of which were in manuscript until the twentieth century.
Meiri has an attractive style and methodology which are all his own. For each individual tractate he first presents the framework and then comments on the tractate section by section, providing a resume of the views of all earlier teachers of note, together with his own original observations.
For contemporary students of the Talmud, Meiri is second only to Rashi as a Talmudic commentator and is even superior to Rashi in comprehensiveness.
Meiri is a religious rationalist, explaining away and occasionally ignoring completely apparently superstitious Talmudic passages such as those referring to demons. Meiri also compiled a large work on repentance, moved, he remarks, by the accusation by a Christian friend that Judaism is weak in its treatment of sin.
A Tolerant Stance
Particularly important is his treatment of Christianity. As a devout Jew he was convinced that Christianity is false in its basic beliefs but he refused to treat Christians as pagans, calling Christians and Muslims, ‘people whose lives are governed by religion.’
Typical of both Meiri’s rationalism and his tolerance is his explanation of the Talmudic saying that astrological forces have no effect on Israel. A human being has been given free will and thus endowed can escape planetary influences. Since Christians and Muslims are encouraged by their religion to exercise their free will in order to live worthy lives, they, too, are immune to the fatalistic influences of the stars and for this purpose are embraced by the term ‘Israel’!
In effect Meiri goes beyond the Talmudic division of human beings into Israelites and idolaters, creating a third category of his own in which ‘peoples whose lives are governed by religion’ occupy a position midway between Jews and pagans.