An Analysis of "Duties of the Heart" in Light of the Historiography of Alchemy
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In his foundational work Duties of the Heart, R. Bachya ibn Paquda makes a comparison that is startling to the minds of modern readers. In the Shaar HaBitachon, “Gate of Trust,” R. Bachya sets up a juxtaposition between the man who trusts in G-d and the alchemist, detailing the ways the man who trusts in G-d is better off than even the alchemist, who produces gold and thus is the source of his own wealth. In order to understand R. Bachya’s stance on alchemy, it is crucial to explore the general perception of alchemy in the Middle Ages among both Jews and non-Jews and understand its historiography. Today alchemy is largely regarded as a pursuit of the occult, disconnected to science, which is the legitimate way to explore the nature of matter. But in truth, alchemy was the forerunner of modern chemistry, and operated using scientific means of investigation. While it incorporated spirituality and mysticism, all sciences and studies of natural philosophy did too, because in those times religion was inextricably linked to all other fields of study. It is with this background that various explanations for R. Bachya’s authorial choice are offered. This paper argues that R. Bachya’s goal is to make comparative theological points and he draws upon the accepted science of his time in this pedagogical purpose. This is argued in opposition to the view that R. Bachya doesn’t believe in the efficacy of alchemy at all. Interpreting R. Bachya’s comment provides new insight into the continuing historical debate over alchemy’s origins and its perception through the centuries by opening a window into the medieval Jewish perspective. I.
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