Jewish Thought and Philosophy: Premodern Philosophy

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Usually the term medieval designates a historical period falling "between" ancient and modern times. In the history of philosophy, then, the medieval period would occur between the last of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and Descartes. However, following H. A. Wolfson (1947), one may construe "medieval" philosophy as a style of thinking that, although prevalent during the Middle Ages, need not be temporally restricted. It is a style of philosophy that attempts to make use of two radically different sources of information for the establishment of a general worldview and way of life. These sources are human reason, particularly philosophy, and divine revelation, especially some sacred text. A medieval philosopher is someone whose intellectual outlook and language are shaped by both philosophy and prophecy.

Beginnings of Medieval Philosophy

Speaking from a strict historical perspective, one would have to say with Wolfson that the first medieval philosopher was Philo Judaeus (d. 4550 ce). Most of Philo's many books are commentaries on various biblical narratives or legal codes, commentaries in which philosophical, especially Platonic, concepts are used to formulate and explain the text. In reading the Bible in this way, Philo introduced not only a new period in philosophy but also a novel style of philosophy, which we shall henceforth call "medieval." In general, Philo saw no fundamental cleavage between reason and revelation and optimistically sought to make "the sons of Japheth dwell in the tents of Shem." The subsequent story of medieval philosophy is in a sense a long and still ongoing drama on this Philonic theme. Nevertheless, a history of medieval Jewish philosophy cannot begin with Philo, who had little or no influence upon Jewish thought. Instead, it begins nine centuries later with Saʿadyah.

Saʿadyah Gaon

Originally an Egyptian, Saʿadyah ben Yosef (882942), known as Saʿadyah Gaon, became the dean of the rabbinic academy in Baghdad, the most important in the Jewish world. Unlike Philo, Saʿadyah did influence subsequent Jewish thinkers who read his main philosophical work, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. By Saʿadyah's time, the intellectual world had changed: whereas Philo had to contend with a dying paganism and several warring philosophical schools, Saʿadyah confronted the rival monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam, Jewish sectarian movements, and the rejuvenated Greek philosophical traditions, now formulated in Arabic with a Muslim accent. Although The Book of Beliefs and Opinions is clearly a theological polemical treatise designed to vindicate rabbinic Judaism against its opponents, its method and language are philosophical. Saʿadyah makes use of the philosophical sources available to him through the Muslim theological tradition of kalām, the earliest philosophical school in Islam. The mutakallimūn, or Muslim theologians, attempted to defend Islam against its religious and philosophical rivals by using arguments and theories gleaned from Greek philosophy. Although kalām was initially polemical, rather than purely philosophical, in intention and method, it eventually evolved into a distinct philosophical style or school. Saʿadyah was in this sense a representative of Jewish kalām.

Since the only common ground among the various rivals in this religious-philosophical debate was reason, Saʿadyah begins The Book of Beliefs and Opinions with a defense of reason against the skeptics and fundamentalists who would disparage it on either philosophical or religious grounds. For Saʿadyah there are three main sources of truth, of which two belong to man's native powers: intellect and sense perception. In addition to these human capacities there is a prophetic tradition, which includes the original revelation to the prophets and the reliable, continuous transmission of their communications throughout a religious community, in particular the Jewish people. Saʿadyah clearly indicates that although prophetic tradition corroborates the two cognitive sources, it is ultimately based upon the senses and grounded in reason. It is based upon the senses since in a prophetic vision one hears God speaking or sees certain things. It is grounded in reason since the content of the revelation will be for the most part rational, or at least it will not be irrational. This epistemic foundation for revelation has an important practical consequence: a scriptural passage is to be understood according to its literal meaning unless it violates sense perception, reason, reliable tradition, or another passage whose meaning is clear. Thus the cognitive faculties serve as criteria for religious doctrine. A corollary of this "rationalistic bias" is that miraculous deeds performed by someone do not by themselves constitute proof of his prophetic authenticity if what he says violates reason.

Firmly convinced of the potency of reason, Saʿadyah offers his readers a rationalistic reconstruction of the Jewish faith, the goals of which are (1) to clarify the main dogmas of Judaism and to prove them where possible, and (2) to refute the opponents, internal and external, of Judaism. Saʿadyah's philosophical theology has, then, as its main purpose the transformation of our unreflective inherited opinions into rationally grounded beliefs. The "true believer" is thus someone who not only has true beliefs but in addition knows that they are true and why. Those who undertake this kind of inquiry will achieve something important and valuablereligious knowledge. Those who do not, but rather follow reliable tradition, will still merit divine favor so long as they willingly obey God's commandments. Saʿadyah's rationalism is thus not a religion of the intellectual alone.

Having laid these epistemological foundations, Saʿadyah next undertakes to prove basic principles of the Jewish faith, such as creation of the universe, the existence and nature of God, and man's free will. In general his argumentation follows the lines drawn up by the kalām on these topics, although it deviates considerably from the kalām on the subject of freedom. Like his kalām predecessors, Saʿadyah believed that the fundamental dogma of divine religion is creation ex nihilo. Once this principle has been demonstrated, he thought, it is easy to prove God's existence and to discover some information about his nature. Of the four proofs Saʿadyah gives for the creation of the universe, the first and fourth were to have considerable impact upon subsequent Jewish thought. The first argument asserts that if the universe is, as Aristotle admitted, finite in size, then it must have only finite energy. But a body of finite energy must ultimately decay and eventually disintegrate. However, if it disintegrates, then it must have had a beginning; for, as Aristotle argued, everything that is generated is corruptible, and the converse (Aristotle, On the Heavens 1.12). In this argument Saʿadyah cleverly uses Aristotle's physics to show that the Aristotelian claim that the universe is eternal is inconsistent with this physics. The fourth argument claims to show that on the hypothesis of infinite past time there would be an infinite series of moments and events prior to any chosen moment. But such an infinite series, ex hypothesi, can never be traversed such that the chosen moment is ever reached. But if this moment is never reached, then it never comes into being, which is contra hypothesim. Hence, past time is not infinite. A version of this argument appears in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason ("First Antinomy of Reason," B 454).

Convinced that these arguments are valid, Saʿadyah then proceeds to show that creation is out of nothing, which doctrine had become orthodox in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by the tenth century. Of the various arguments in behalf of this dogma, one is especially significant: if there were some eternal matter out of which God fashioned the universe, as Plato had suggested in the Timaeus, this matter would be co -eternal with God and hence independent of him. But an independent entity may very well not want to be fashioned into anything! So God would in this view be beholden to matter if he were to create or not create at all.

Saʿadyah's defense of creation ex nihilo leads him to develop a theology that stresses God's creativity. First, the proof that the world has been created ex nihilo is proof also of God's existence, for a created world needs a creator. Second, Saʿadyah claims that it is the very nature of God to be creative: "In the beginning God created " All the major divine attributespower, wisdom, life, loveare different facets of God's essential creativity. Every other attribute is a corollary of this divine primal productivity. Hence corporeal characteristics cannot be applied to God, for such qualities can be true only of creatures, entities made by God out of nothing. To ascribe such features to God is to transform the creator into a creature. Saʿadyah is so convinced of the complete incorporeality of God that in his Arabic translation of the Bible he "cleanses" scripture of many anthropomorphic expressions. For example, "the hand of God" becomes "God's power." This conception of God also leads him to criticize the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation as contaminations of pure monotheism.

No matter how "pure" this monotheistic God may be, he is still a power that reveals himself to man. All the scriptural religions agree that God speaks to prophets and sends them to communicate God's will to man, usually in the form of divine law. Nevertheless, the question whether the Jewish law is a good and rational law or whether it has been superseded by another divine law revealed to a prophet other than Moses was controversial in Saʿadyah's day, as it is now. Saʿadyah's aim is to show (1) that a good God provides the means for his creatures to find their happiness and to receive divine reward; (2) that Mosaic law is based upon reason; and (3) that this law is still valid and cannot be abrogated.

For Saʿadyah it is rationally obligatory for a person to worship God, the creator, just as it is required that we respect and honor our parents. But it is also reasonable that God give us the means whereby we worship him and thereby obtain human perfection and reward. Unlike Paul and the religious antinomians, Saʿadyah sees divine grace as merited by good works; otherwise, the giving and receiving of grace would be arbitrary and undeserved. The Torah and its many commandments are therefore neither incitements to sin, as Paul claimed, nor a punishment of Israel, as Muammad believed. Just the contrary, they are expressions of God's love. But if this is so, the laws themselves cannot be capricious or irrational; otherwise, God would be a despotic tyrant, not a loving father and king. Accordingly, following the lead of both the earlier rabbis and the kalām, Saʿadyah initially distinguishes between those divine commands that obviously have some reason or purpose and those that do not readily exhibit such a rationale. The former he calls rational commands, the latter revelational commands. As examples of the former he gives the injunctions to abandon the worship of idols and to love our neighbor as ourselves; as examples of the latter he gives the festival laws and the laws concerning incest. Whereas the rational precepts are or can be derived from certain fundamental truths of reason, the revelational commands are neither dictated nor prohibited by reason.

However, as he proceeds to develop his account of law, it is clear that Saʿadyah virtually abandons this distinction and claims that on closer examination even the revelational commands are found to have some reasonable explanation and justification. For example, the selection of the Sabbath and other holy days may seem at first to be arbitrary. After all, neither the Greeks and Romans nor the Muslims have a complete day of rest on one specified day of the week. Yet, Saʿadyah argues, if we remember that "reason requires" (one of his favorite phrases) that we worship God, we have to worship him at some time, in some place, and in a certain way; otherwise, the initial rational precept to worship our creator is empty. Accordingly, our reasonable creator specifies for us through his prophet Moses the time, place, and manner of worship. If there were no uniform code of regulations, people would worship God at diverse times and in different ways. No community could survive such religious anarchy. Moreover, on practical grounds a Sabbath is quite beneficial: it affords not only physical rest but also mental relaxation and the opportunity to study Torah, to reflect, and to converse on spiritual matters. Although Saʿadyah does not, as did Philo, undertake to "rationalize" the whole body of Jewish law, he does suggest in outline how such an enterprise could and should be done. In this sketch he establishes the precedent for future medieval philosophers of Jewish law, such as Maimonides and Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides).

Of greater polemical urgency, however, is Saʿadyah's defense against the twin charges of falsification and abrogation in the Jewish law. The whole Jewish-Muslim-Christian debate in the medieval period turned on these issues. In reply to the Muslim accusation that the Bible in general, and Jewish law in particular, do not represent the pristine and true revelation, Saʿadyah appeals to the notion of reliable tradition, one of the original sources of truth referred to earlier. What is it that makes a religious text and tradition worthy of credence, Saʿadyah asks. Consider a tradition not based upon reliable evidence: it would be full of contradictions and discord. The Jewish tradition, at least as it existed prior to the nineteenth century, is unique in that it contains not only a text that one of its main rivals (i.e., Christianity) accepts as true and correct, but also a body of law that was almost universally accepted by its adherents. Were this tradition unreliable, such unanimity would be inconceivable.

But suppose one were to contend that the Torah is a true revelation but claim that it has been superseded by a more perfect divine law, such as the New Testament or Qurʾān. Saʿadyah counters this argument with several replies, some based upon reason, others on scripture, which, after all, the Christians accept as true. On purely rational grounds, the notion of a divine law being superseded by a totally different and in some cases contrary divine law is inconceivable, for two reasons. First, why would a perfect and immutable God give an imperfect law in the first place and then, only a few centuries later, replace it with a better but very different code? Wouldn't it have been more sensible to have revealed the better code at the outset? Moreover, does God really change his mind, as we do? Second, suppose the New Testament is more perfect than the Torah. But the Muslims claim that the Qurʾān is more perfect than both and hence supersedes them. Yet why stop at this point? Perhaps tomorrow God will reveal another law that abrogates the Qurʾān, and so on ad infinitum. To stop the regress at one point is just bias. So why concede a regress at all? Finallyand this argument is primarily directed against the Christiansthe Torah, which the Christians accept in principle, testifies to its own eternal validity (Jer. 31, Dt. 33). The Christians, Saʿadyah implies, cannot have it both ways: either they should accept the whole Torah, especially if they see it as the basis for the messianic claim and role of Jesus; or they should drop it altogether and admit that their religion has no relationship at all to Judaism.

A rational and perfect law revealed by a reasonable and perfect lawgiver must, Saʿadyah continues, be such that its recipients are able to obey it, and in obeying it receive an appropriate reward. Man has to be a free agent in order to be a subject in the divine commonwealth and must have the conviction that his obedience to the law will have beneficial consequences for him. Otherwise, the lawgiver would be arbitrary and the law unrealizable. At this point in his inquiry, Saʿadyah grapples with one of the more thorny problems in classical theology, the alleged dilemma between divine omnipotence and omniscience and human free will, a problem that was especially vexing to the kalām. Saʿadyah unambiguously defends humanity against any divine encroachments: we are completely free agents, capable of assuming full responsibility for our actions despite God's omnipotence and omniscience. Unlike some Muslim theologians, Saʿadyah does not believe that God's infinite power would be curtailed if man had some power of his own; nor is it the case that whenever we do some deed God is the co-agent, as some other Muslim theologians claim. God is not so niggardly or envious that he would deprive human beings of any power to act from their own will, and the notion of one action with two co-agents is both implausible and unnecessary. To be an agent is ex hypothesi to be able to perform a deed. If I cannot do it myself, then I am not an agent! Nor is God's omniscience an impediment to my free action, as Cicero thought. Although God knows what I shall do tomorrow, he does not cause that action, just as my knowing what day it will be tomorrow does not bring about that day.

Saʿadyah maintains that each human soul is originally a pure and superior substance that is created by God to direct the body in their joint earthly undertaking. The soul needs the body to perform its mission as much as the body requires the soul for its guidance. No Platonic dualism, with its subsequent Christian overlay of original sin, infects Saʿadyah's optimistic religious psychology. The soul and body together act and bear jointly the responsibility for these actions. Upon death, the human soul will be separated from its body because it is a finer substance than the body, and it will reside in some supernal realm until the day of its eventual return to its original body, which will ultimately be resurrected with the soul. Saʿadyah recognizes two stages of resurrection: the first involves the righteous of Israel alone and is associated with the coming of the Messiah in this present world of human history; the second involves the resurrection of all humankind for ultimate judgment and initiates the world to come with its everlasting reward or punishment. These eschatological predictions are admittedly not the teachings of the philosophers but the promises of scripture, which, however, do not violate reason. Indeed, if God is able to create the world ex nihilo, why can he not resurrect the dead, not just once, but twice? With his establishment of these eschatological doctrines on both scriptural and rational grounds, Saʿadyah has completed his philosophical reconstruction and defense of Judaism.

Spanish-Jewish Philosophers

Whereas the beginnings of both Islamic and Jewish philosophy were in the East, the second major phase in Jewish philosophy occurred in Muslim Spain, which became the philosophical-scientific center for the Jews for nearly the remainder of the Middle Ages. In Spain, the philosophical tradition that molded the Jewish mind was the "Neoplatonic" philosophy developed by the Muslim falāsifah al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā as a synthesis of Aristotelian and Plotinian themes. For about two centuries both Muslim and Jewish philosophy developed within the metaphysical framework provided by Aristotle and Plotinus, as interpreted by Porphyry and Proclus. During this period Jewish cultural life in Spain flourished in virtually every domain, but especially in philosophy and poetry. Indeed, two of three leading thinkers in this epoch were poets as well as philosophers: Shelomoh ibn Gabirol and Yehudah ha-Levi.

Shelomoh ibn Gabirol

The philosophical fate of Shelomoh ibn Gabirol (c. 1021c. 1058) is especially interesting. His major philosophical work, The Fountain of Life, was written in Arabic, as were most Jewish philosophical books until the fourteenth century; but the original Arabic text was lost and survives only in a Latin translation as Fons vitae. Its impact upon Jewish thought was minimal, and this is evidenced by the fact that no medieval Hebrew translation of the work was ever made; only a thirteenth-century Hebrew summary survives. The reason for this neglect in Judaism is that Fons vitae contains not one biblical or rabbinic reference. It is a pure philosophical treatise, having no obvious connection with the traditional theological problems that had preoccupied Saʿadyah and other Jewish thinkers. So it was soon forgotten by the Jews, although preserved by the Christians, who believed its author to be a certain Avicebrol, a Muslim, or perhaps a Christian Arab. It was not until 1846 that Solomon Munk proved that the author of Fons vitae, Avicebrol, was the famous Jewish poet Shelomoh ibn Gabirol.

Since Ibn Gabirol's Fountain of Life had no significant influence upon Jewish philosophy, we shall not discuss it here. Instead, we shall examine his poetry, and for two reasons. First, several of his poems are philosophical. Second, his poetry, including some of the philosophical poems, was popular among Spanish Jewry. One work in particular is deserving of study in this context: the forty-stanza philosophical poem The Crown of Royalty (Keter malkhut ). This poem is part of the liturgy of Spanish Jewry and is recited on the holiest of the holy days, Yom Kippur.

Consistent with the hierarchical mode of thinking characteristic of the Middle Ages, and especially of Neoplatonic philosophy, the philosophical schema of The Crown of Royalty begins "on top," with an account of the divine attributes, expressing the apparently contradictory themes of Plotinian divine transcendence and ineffability and the biblical awareness of God in created nature. Then Ibn Gabirol proceeds down the "scale of being" to the mundane world of the four terrestrial elements, the home of man. Finally, he ascends the scale step by step through all the celestial spheres until the divine domain is reached. The terminus a quo turns out to be identical with the terminus ad quem. By beginning with God, Ibn Gabirol is telling us that the whole universe derives from and depends upon God, who is its creator and sustainer. Among all the standard attributes usually applied to God, it is the divine will that is, for Ibn Gabirol, most important, for God's will is responsible for creating the universe ex nihilo. God's will is of course "guided" by wisdom, which is for Ibn Gabirol "the source of life." Creation, then, is the very essence and purpose of reality.

As Ibn Gabirol ascends the ladder of being and reaches the sphere of the angels, or the supernal intellects, he indicates that man's true domicile is not the terrestrial domain of the four basic elements but the world of the intellect. It is here that the human soul has its origin, and it is here that the truly religious person will turn his attention. Committed to a current philosophical theory of immortality according to which man's ultimate reward (to use Alexander Altmann's phrase) consists in intellectual contact with some supernal intellect, Ibn Gabirol interprets the traditional Jewish idea of the world to come in these philosophical terms. The righteous will go beyond their original home of the sphere of the angels, or cosmic intellects, and reach the "seat of glory," a traditional Jewish metaphor referring to the divine domain itself. There the souls of the righteous are "bound up in the bundle of life," for they have reached the "source of life." But, Ibn Gabirol insists, this ascent is accomplished through a life of intellectual and moral discipline, in which philosophy plays a central role. For the soul is in its very nature and origin an intellect, and it is by virtue of intellectual perfection through philosophy that the soul attains immortality.

Baye ibn Paquda

The second representative of the Spanish school of Jewish philosophy was not a poet but a professional judgeBaye ibn Paquda (10801120). Baye's Duties of the Heart is perhaps the most widely read book of medieval Jewish philosophical literature. Not only was it studied and commented upon by scholars, but it has been read by ordinary Jews, who have regarded the book as a guide to religious and moral improvement. Its success lies in the emphasis it gives to the notion of personal piety, focusing upon both the individual's intellectual and emotional development and his progress toward the goal of complete love of God. Showing the external influences of both kalām and Neoplatonism on the philosophical side, and the Islamic mystical school of Sufism on the religious side, Baye wove these elements into the inherited fabric of the Bible and Talmud to produce a remarkably unified book of Jewish philosophical pietism, or "rationalistic mysticism." Contrary to the "duties of the limbs," which are concerned only with our external actions, such as what we eat, where we pray, and so on, the "duties of the heart" demand a specific mode of mental and emotional discipline whose ultimate purpose is to free us from the world of materiality and allow us to devote our whole being to God. This methodos, like Ibn Gabirol's ascent, stresses the primary and prior intellectual duty to reflect upon God and his created world in order to arrive at the most adequate understanding of God available to man. This duty leads Baye to embark upon a rigorous demonstration of God's existence and unity and his creation of the universe. Baye's arguments are an amalgam of kalām and Aristotelian and Plotinian elements, with the last's emphasis upon unity. For Baye, God is virtually identical with the One of Plotinus, so much so that all the traditional biblical and rabbinic divine attributes are regarded as only concessions to the exigencies of human language. The only true attribute of God is unity, which expresses God's essence.

Once it is understood that God is the ultimate One from which everything else is derived, it is clear that we have another "duty of the heart": to devote our whole lives to the worship of this absolute unity upon whose existence everything depends. Most of Baye's treatise lays out a graded manual of emotional discipline whereby the reader is progressively prepared to serve and love his creator. Throughout these "purificatory" chapters concerning such topics as trust in God, humility, and self-examination, Baye proposes a form of asceticism that seems to be borrowed from the Muslim mystics but that is tempered by the Jewish insistence upon the duty to be a co-creator with God. Yet, it is evident that for Baye this world is not only a "vestibule" for the next, as the rabbis had suggested, but a school in which we are continually challenged, tested, and examined so as to prepare us for "real life," which in this case is the life with God. Our mind and emotions have to be cleansed from their corporeal contamination. For this purpose God has graciously given us both the duties of the limbs, which for Jews means the divine commandments of the Torah, and the duties of the heart, revealed to us through reason. Both help and lead us to the attainment of our goal, the love of God.

Yehudah ha-Levi

The third of our trio of Spanish-Jewish philosophers in this period of Neoplatonic philosophy was perhaps the greatest Hebrew poet since the biblical poets. Unlike Ibn Gabirol, Yehudah ha-Levi (10851141) was a philosopher turned against himself, for despite a youthful flirtation with the "wisdom of the Greeks" and his respectful appreciation of its "beautiful flowers," ha-Levi came to reject its "bitter fruits." These fruits contained, he believed, poison, but it was a poison that he himself had tasted. In this respect ha-Levi is like the modern religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard. Ha-Levi presents his critique of philosophy in the form of a "Platonic dialogue," whose main character is not a philosopher but the pagan king of the Khazars, a medieval Asiatic people living near the Black Sea who converted to Judaism in the middle of the eighth century. According to legend, the king decided to abandon paganism and summoned representatives of Judaism, Christianity (Greek and Roman), and Islam to prove in a debate which is the true religion. At the end of the debate the king was convinced by Judaism and hence converted. Ha-Levi uses this legend but modifies it in several ways. First, and most significant, he introduces a philosopher into the debate; indeed, it will turn out that philosophy is for ha-Levi the main intellectual rival of Judaism. Second, initially the king, despising the Jews as an inferior and persecuted people, resists inviting a Jew to the debate. It is only after both the Christian and the Muslim confess that their own religions presuppose the truth of Judaism for their own validity that the king invites a Jew to the discussion. Ha-Levi's book, usually referred to as the Kuzari, has as its complete title The Kuzari, a Book of Proof and Argument: An Apology for a Despised Religion. Like the books previously discussed, it was written in Arabic but soon translated into Hebrew, by Yehudah ibn Tibbon (11201190), the same translator who had rendered Saʿadyah's and Baye's works.

The opening paragraph of the book establishes the ground plan of the whole debate. The king receives a divine communication via an angel in a dream in which he is told that although his religious intentions are good, his pagan behavior is unacceptable to God. He then summons a philosopher to find out what behavior is acceptable to God. It is made quite clear why the philosopher is called first: ha-Levi's philosopher stresses that in his view God is not interested in actions, since God is not cognizant of, nor does he supervise, individual behavior. In expressing this belief the philosopher gives voice to the al-Fārābī-Ibn Sīnā denial of divine cognition of and providence for individuals. This philosopher is primarily concerned with the attainment of immortality through "conjunction" of the intellect with one of the angels, or supernal intellects, or perhaps with God himself. Whether one fasts or observes dietary laws is of no concern to this philosopher. He is dismissed immediately because the king has received a message from God. All the logical arguments adduced by the philosopher are not going to convince the king otherwise; since the philosophers are not noted for receiving prophetic revelations, they are not in the position of disparaging such experiences. The king expresses here his bias: experience is decisive over logic. Once dismissed, the philosopher does not physically return, although his ideas are frequently discussed in his absence.

The king now turns to a Christian theologian and then to a Muslim scholar, both of whom begin their speeches with a recital of theological dogma, supporting these beliefs by appealing to the Israelites and their Torah. Without Judaism there is no Christianity and no Islam. At this point the king realizes that he needs to summon a Jewish scholar, whose opening speech, unlike those of the Christian and the Muslim, is not a theological credo but a recitation of historical facts. Against the king's criticism that such facts have no significance to a non-Jew and hence Judaism is a "particularistic" religion, the Jew replies that the very historical facts are precisely the advantage of Judaism, especially over the philosopher. The last point intrigues the king, for he has already dismissed the philosopher precisely because of the latter's cavalier attitude to the facts. So now the king warms up to the Jewish scholar, who follows with a diatribe against philosophy, not so much for any specific philosophical theory as for its method. Since by definition philosophy is the human search for wisdom through reason, it is necessarily limited and subject to error. The clearest proof of this is the notorious inability of philosophers to agree on anything. This point is especially interesting to the king, who now listens avidly to the Jewish scholar. Later this epistemological skepticism is buttressed by another argument of a quasi-skeptical nature drawn from ethics: a purely philosophical morality, which the philosopher claimed was sufficient for man, is at best no better than a system of prudential maxims that may be broken at any time to suit one's convenience. Such a "morality" is insufficient to bind a society together or even to guide the individual in the complexities of moral action. Divine revelation alone can supply this required information.

And thus we are back to prophecy. Judaism, the scholar insists, rests upon the historical fact that God does speak to man. This belief is accepted by the Christian and the Muslim as well. Against the testimonies of sense experience, even if it is prophetic experience, logic is impotent, especially if the experience in question is attested to by over six hundred thousand people and unanimously reported. Here ha-Levi enunciates a philosophy of religious empiricism that emphasizes the role of experience over reason, prophecy over logic. When the king objects that experience is always subjective and particularistic, no matter how many people may be involved, the rabbi concedes the point but tries to turn it to his own advantage. Yes, prophecy is a special sense faculty that is found only in some people. After all, if everyone were a prophet, who would listen to any prophet? And again, even if prophecy is restricted to Israel, as ha-Levi somewhat excessively and heterodoxly insists, this is not so embarrassing, for again the Christian admits that the Israelites are God's chosen people, and the Muslim concedes that only Moses spoke to God directly. If the philosopher has trouble with this fact, so much the worse for him! After all, ha-Levi reminds us, the philosopher is really tone-deaf to prophecy. So why listen to him?

Convinced of both the irrelevancy of philosophy to his religious search and the derivative status of Christianity and Islam, the king converts to Judaism. The rabbi then instructs him in the basic teachings and practices of Judaism, of which one is especially pertinent to philosophy. Instead of giving the standard rabbinic distinction that Yahveh, God's proper name, expresses the divine attribute of love or mercy, whereas the name Elohim expresses the attribute of justice, ha-Levi distinguishes between two radically different ways of knowing, thinking, and talking about God. A philosopherAristotle, for examplearrives at his conception of the divine through a process of observation and logical inference. The outcome of this ratiocination is a first cause that serves as an explanatory hypothesis or entity. If Aristotle's theory is true, then its theological statements give an accurate description of reality, just as, if his astronomy is true, the astronomical statements correctly describe the heavens. But one does not pray to such a god! Ha-Levi's philosopher in book 1 of the Kuzari is right: the philosopher's god isn't interested in our world. But if this is so, how can we be interested in this god? "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the god of the philosophers!" the rabbi insists. Through philosophy we may reach God; but this power is not the person who spoke to Abraham and Moses. This person is referred to in Hebrew by the tetragrammaton (YHVH ), a name so holy that only the high priest pronounced it. This person is not known indirectly through inference but directly through prophecy. Here ha-Levi anticipates both Pascal's rejection of philosophical theology and Russell's distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. The prophet "sees" and "tastes" the Lord (Ps. 34:9) with whom Moses at least spoke as friend to friend; the philosopher knows God as a hypothesis that, as the French mathematician Pierre La Place once said, may very well be superfluous. The former we may have to die for; the latter we can ignore with impunity.


The next major figure in medieval Jewish philosophy, Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204), was also a native of Spain; but unlike his Spanish predecessors he was heir to a different philosophical tradition, in which Aristotle was "the Philosopher." Maimonides' mastery of this new intellectual outlook altered the whole philosophical scene in the medieval Jewish world. This renascent Aristotle is a "purer," more authentic Aristotle than the one who was encountered in the Neoplatonic-Aristotelian synthesis of Ibn Sīnā or Ibn Gabirol. Henceforth, until Spinoza, Jewish philosophers will have to cope with this Aristotle. Moreover, the power and style of Maimonides' own philosophical personality was such that his successors had to deal with him as well. This overwhelming influence is to be attributed to the character of Maimonides' chief philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Shemu'el ibn Tibbon (11501230).

Maimonides states at the outset that the Guide is no ordinary philosophical book. Although he indicates the goals of the book and his motives for writing it, he warns his readers that besides some stringent intellectual qualifications that they must possess before reading the Guide, they should not expect that the way out of their perplexities will be easily understood, clearly visible, or unambiguously stated. Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of this book that although one of its purposes is to discuss and clarify the various ambiguities in the Bible, and religious language in general, it is itself highly ambiguous, giving rise to all kinds of difficulties to its interpreters, both medieval and modern. Maimonides tells us that philosophical truth, especially in metaphysics, the divine science, cannot by its very nature be divulged and expressed in a public and discursive manner. In the first place, very few are fit to study and appreciate its problems. Second, by its very nature, metaphysical truth is not apprehended in a systematic, discursive, continuous manner; on the contrary, like lightning it comes suddenly, quickly, and discontinuously to those who do attain it. Rarely does a person reach a level of metaphysical knowledge that would enable him to set out its truths in a popularly accessible way. Do not expect, then, Maimonides tells us, that the Guide will be an easy book, since the book that it attempts to decipherthe Biblecontains the highest truths in science and philosophy formulated in language that is perplexing. In short, Moses was the greatest metaphysician, who via prophecy was charged with the assignment of disseminating these truths in a book containing many levels of meaning. Maimonides, on the other hand, set himself the task of uncovering some of these layers to the select few, whose philosophical-religious perplexities had reached such a pitch that a guide was needed.

Two basic methodological principles are laid down at the outset. First, the Bible cannot be read literally; otherwise it would be full of worthless doctrines and downright errors. Second, human reason has limits, especially in metaphysics, where the philosopher, in spite of his keen and deep desire for truth, must recognize the limited scope of his intellectual reach. The first of these rules is familiar, going back to both rabbinic and earlier philosophical sources, such as Philo and Saʿadyah. That the Torah "speaks the language of men" is a well-known Jewish hermeneutical principle. Thus, we must learn how to read the Bible, which for Maimonides is a philosophical book that has to be read philosophically. One consequence of this exegetical method is that we shall have to begin our new study of the Bible by applying a philosophical filter to purify the text of its anthropomorphic dross. Virtually all of part 1 of the Guide is devoted to this task. Maimonides philosophically translates many of the "offending" words and phrases; for example, the expression "face" in "my face shall not be seen" (Ex. 33:23) connotes God's essence, not any physical organ. The core of Maimonides' conception of God is a radical defense of the via negativa : the most accurate and appropriate way to speak of God is to say what he is not. Human language is essentially incapable of describing the nature of God.

In spite of this apparent theological agnosticism, Maimonides still holds that several of the basic beliefs of Judaism can be soundly proved by means of true philosophical principles, which have been established by Aristotle. To this extent a philosophical theology is possible, for we can demonstrate God's existence, unity, incorporeality, and simplicity philosophically. These "theological theorems" are as solid as the theorems of geometry or physics. Thus our "belief in God" is for Maimonides knowledge, not just "blind faith." But we have to remember that there are limits to reason. Some theological questions will remain recalcitrant to human reason: we shall not be able to resolve them decisively. This is essentially so in the issue of creation of the universe, a problem that becomes increasingly vexing with the spread of Aristotle's physics, one of whose "theorems" was the eternity of the universe. This question was regarded as crucial, since if the world is eternal, it would seem that divine providence would be idle or nonexistent, and hence miracles would be impossible. Saadyah believed that he could prove creation ex nihilo ; the Muslim falāsifah claimed that they could prove the eternity of the universe. Here we have one of the earliest appearances of a metaphysical antinomy, two contrary theses with seemingly persuasive arguments. Like Kant seven centuries later, Maimonides attempts to show that none of the arguments pro or con are valid, that the question is not "decidable" for human reason.

Of course, Maimonides has a theological ax to grind: he wants to defend Moses against Aristotle; but he proceeds in manner quite different from the kalām. He first shows that with one exception all the kalām arguments are either invalid or rest upon false premises. The only argument that he finds acceptable is, however, inductive and thus does not constitute a decisive proof against Aristotle, since inductive arguments are falsifiable. Having removed the kalām from consideration, Maimonides then examines the Aristotelian arguments for the eternity hypothesis. These proofs divide into two classes: scientific and metaphysical. The first group rests, he claims, upon the assumption that the laws of physics are unrestrictedly applicable to every moment in the past including the first instant of time, which in the theory of creation begins the history of the world. Given this assumption, Aristotle argues that the hypothesis of a first instant is incompatible with the laws of physics; hence, such a hypothesis must be false (Aristotle, Physics 8.1). Maimonides claims, however, that this assumption is arbitrary, indeed a petitio principii. Must we say that at the very moment when the universe was created the laws of mechanics were true? Since for the creationist there is no history of the universe prior to or at the first instant of time, there is nothing that such laws would be true of. Maimonides believes that these laws are true after there is a universe, but not before or when it comes into being. Nor are the metaphysical arguments for eternity any less arbitrary; for they, too, assume that certain metaphysical principles are true of God such that creation would be precluded. But why say God is subject to such principles? After all, part 1 of the Guide has shown us how different God is from us!

From the inadequacy of the arguments both for creation and for eternity Maimonides infers that the question can be decided only by choosing one or the other hypothesis; neither has been proved true. Believers in the Bible will of course opt for creation, since it is this belief that makes their religion possible. For without creation there would be no miracles, and revelation is a miracle. But Maimonides does not leave the matter just to choice and religious pressure; he believes there is an inductive argument, drawn from the kalām, that renders the creation hypothesis more plausible than the eternity theory. The latter, Maimonides maintains, fails to explain certain specific natural phenomena; for example, why does the planet Venus emit a bluish color whereas Mars looks red, especially since both planets have, Aristotle claims, the same chemical structure? In eluding the reach of Aristotle's physics, these "accidental facts" are evidence for, but do not decisively prove, the creation theory. For in the latter theory these facts are explained by appealing to God's creative will. Finally, although Maimonides offers no philosophical argument for creation ex nihilo, as Saʿadyah did, he dismisses its rival Platonic model of creation from eternal matter as unproved. Accordingly, the way is open to accept the traditional belief in creation ex nihilo.

Since the ultimate purpose of Maimonides' defense of creation is to vindicate the possibility of miracles, Maimonides now proceeds to discuss a phenomenon that the religious believe to be the greatest miracle besides creation itselfprophecy. Given, on the one hand, the competing Islamic claim that Muammad was the last and most authoritative prophet and, on the other hand, the theory of the falāsifah that prophecy is a purely naturalistic phenomenon that requires no supernatural intervention for its occurrence, Maimonides was constrained to defend both the superiority of Moses against Muammad and the role of God in the granting of prophecy. Yet he was too committed to a scientific outlook indebted to Aristotle and al-Fārābī to dismiss altogether their explanation of prophecy as a necessary emanation from God through the Agent Intellect, or angel responsible for human intellection, to a properly prepared and qualified individual, in whom both the intellect and imagination have been perfected. His problem was to find an opening for divine intervention within this deterministic-naturalistic theory of prophecy. He discovered this opening by making two modifications in this theory. First, even though a person has satisfied the requisite conditions for prophecy, God can withhold the emanation. In this sense prophecy is "up to God." Second, in Moses' case the divine emanation reached his intellect free from any admixture of the imagination and without the mediation of the Agent Intellect. Thus, the Bible says of Moses, "he spoke to God face to face" (Nm. 12:8). This too, like creation, occurs outside the normal, natural course of events.

The third part of the Guide is devoted to the solution of several theological problems that were becoming increasingly vexing in the Aristotelian atmosphere surrounding Maimonides. Does God know particular events, especially the deeds of men? Is God's providence concerned with particular humans or just with the human race in general? Finally, are the commandments rational or just the whims of an arbitrary divine despot? The first two questions are treated together since they are different facets of the general question of how God relates himself to man. Contrary to both the philosophers' belief that God is so beyond man that he cannot know individual human deeds, especially their future actions, since such knowledge would mean that God would enter time and the events themselves would be necessitated, Maimonides claimed that the philosophers' fear again rests upon an illicit analogy drawn between divine and human cognition. Just as God's nature eludes our grasp, so too his way of knowing escapes our finite understanding. God does know particular human actions, and he knows them without their being necessitated. "Everything is foreseen; yet freedom is given" (Avot 3.15). The way out from this apparent dilemma lies in the realization that God's knowledge is not subject to the logic that our own knowledge obeys. Once it is admitted that God does know particular events, the question about divine providence is easily answered. If God can know particular men, he exercises his care over them as particulars; for man, unlike any other species, is directly linked to God by possessing reason. This link makes possible divine providence over individual human beings. Since these individuals will differ in their level of intellectual perfection, individual providence will vary; but this is only what one would expect.

The concluding chapters of the Guide focus on the question of the rationality of the divine commandments, which for the Jew are the supreme expression of God's care for man and for Israel in particular. Like Saʿadyah, Maimonides is committed to the general principle that the Mosaic legislation is a body of law based upon reason. God desires that human beings attain moral and intellectual perfection. Obviously, then, the laws must lead to these goals and hence cannot be without sense, as some of the kalām theologians had argued with respect to Muslim law. Unlike Saʿadyah, however, Maimonides proceeds to give a systematic and detailed analysis of Jewish law, showing that there is hardly anything in this whole legal corpus that cannot be understood. Take dietary laws, for example. Some of them are just good hygiene. (Remember that Maimonides was a practicing physician.) Others were designed to prevent assimilation with pagan nations. In general, Jewish law, for Maimonides, is a divinely revealed system of rational laws.

Jewish Averroism and Gersonides

By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Aristotle had overwhelmed the medieval intellectual world. Besides Maimonides, he had another ally, one who was even more influential: he was the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (11261198), known in the West as Averroës. Like Maimonides, Ibn Rushd was born in Cordova, but unlike his Jewish colleague he remained there most of his life. The two never met, and Maimonides knew of Ibn Rushd's writings only after he had written the Guide. Had he known the Muslim's philosophy before the writing of the Guide, a much different book would have been written, for Ibn Rushd represents a less adulterated Aristotle, one virtually stripped of its Plotinian-Avicennian accretions. Nevertheless, this confrontation between Ibn Rushd and Maimonides does take place, but after their death and throughout almost all post-Maimonidean Jewish medieval philosophy. Indeed, the story of Jewish philosophy after Maimonides and prior to Spinoza is a drama whose main protagonists are Aristotle as interpreted by Ibn Rushd and Maimonides, although these roles are played by characters bearing different names.

Through his commentaries on Aristotle as well as by virtue of his own independent treatises, Ibn Rushd exerted an enormous influence upon Jewish thinkers, ultimately resulting in a "school" of philosophers who could be dubbed "Jewish Averroists." This circle included such figures as Yitsaq Albalag of northern Spain or southern France (fl. 12501280), Yosef Kaspi of Provence (12791340), and Mosheh Narboni of Provence (died c. 1360). One immediate consequence of this confluence of Ibn Rushd and Maimonides was that these Jewish Averroists read Maimonides from the perspective of Ibn Rushd's thought and arrived at an interpretation of their Jewish teacher that distinguished the exoteric teaching of the Guide from its esoteric meaning.

One Averroist thesis that is advocated by these three Jewish thinkers as part of Maimonides' esoteric message is the doctrine of eternal creation. This seeming cosmological oxymoron was advocated by Ibn Sīnā and explicitly rejected by Maimonides; but Ibn Rushd had reformulated it in terms of his new reading of Aristotle. In its new garb the theory asserts that the physical universe is a continuous emanation from God, who eternally sustains, and hence "creates," the world, his eternal product. In Narboni the relationship between God and the universe becomes so intimate that it almost results in pantheism. Another important Averroist thesis concerns human "eternity," or immortality, a topic on which the Guide is virtually silent. Ibn Rushd advanced the view that human immortality consists in a special "conjunction," or union, between man's intellect and the Agent Intellect, the cosmic power responsible for human intellection, prophecy, and terrestrial generation. Four features of this theory are especially important. First, immortality is literally intellectual, since it is of the intellect and attained through philosophical perfection. Second, in Ibn Rushd's psychology there is really only one human intellect, which is somehow "shared" by or exemplified in many individuals; this one intellect is, however, identical with the Agent Intellect, although only potentially so. Third, at death, or "decorporealization," a person's mind becomes actualized by being departicularized, that is, by "returning" to the Agent Intellect. Finally, in the Agent Intellect all previously particularized minds are now one and hence no longer individuated. Immortality is then for the Averroist literally impersonal. In this doctrine we have a kind of religiosity that several modern scholars have called "rationalistic mysticism."

Jewish Averroism did not go unchallenged, and its first important critic was thoroughly immersed in the literature of Ibn Rushd. Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides, 12881344) of Provence was an original, versatile, and prolific author whose writings encompass mathematics, astronomy, and biblical exegesis as well as philosophy. Although enamored of both Maimonides and Ibn Rushd, he took a critical stance toward both when he felt they were wrong; and they were wrong, he believed, on several important issues. To the elucidation and solution of these problems, Gersonides wrote in Hebrew The Wars of the Lord, which covers virtually all the main topics in medieval metaphysics, natural philosophy, and psychology, especially as they impinge upon religion. The common theme throughout the book is Gersonides' commitment to the power of human reason. Gersonides rejects ha-Levi's epistemological skepticism and Maimonides' moderate rationalism, and he expresses instead a robust confidence in man's intellectual powers. To use Kant's phrase, we can say that Gersonides attempted to bring "religion within the limits of reason alone."

The first major question discussed in The Wars of the Lord is human immortality, especially the doctrine of conjunction with the Agent Intellect. Although he retains the vocabulary and some of the principles of the psychology employed by the Muslim falāsifah, including Ibn Rushd, Gersonides rejects the possibility of construing human perfection in terms of such a conjunction. First, he criticizes the Averroist thesis that all human intellects are temporary manifestations of the one intellect, which in reality is the Agent Intellect. All of us, Gersonides maintains, have our own intellect, which persists after death and is different from all other human intellects. Its persistence and differentiation result from the cognitive capital that the individual intellect has accumulated throughout life. This knowledge is permanent but varies from person to person. Human immortality is then defined in terms of the knowledge possessed by each individual. The Agent Intellect helps us acquire knowledge but is identical neither with this knowledge nor with our intellects. Like God, the Agent Intellect is a transcendent power that continually influences us but eludes our grasp. No union with it is possible for man.

The next main issue Gersonides grapples with involves him in a struggle with both Maimonides and Ibn Rushd. On the question of whether God can know particulars, both of the earlier thinkers had appealed to the via negativa to solve all the apparent difficulties such a knowledge seemed to entail. Gersonides, however, rejects the via negativa, in general and especially in the case of God's cognition. He maintains that if God's knowledge or any other attribute is radically different from our knowledge, then we can know nothing about God, not even that he exists. After all, how could we justify an inference from our experience to God, if God is so different from any human attribute? Now turning to cognition in particular, Gersonides argues that God's knowledge is admittedly not like ours in every respect, but it is sufficiently like human cognition to apply to it certain basic epistemological and logical conditions. First, since it is required for our cognition of a spatio-temporal fact that we possess sense perception, God cannot know such facts, for since he has no sense organs, he has no sense perception. Second, God's knowing a future event is incompatible with its being contingent and free. Now we are back to the dilemma that Saʿadyah thought he had dissolved. Unlike most Jewish medieval philosophers, Gersonides is prepared to sacrifice God's knowledge of particulars, especially human actions, and to retain human freedom. Accordingly, he redefines divine omniscience as God's knowledge of all that is knowable. Future contingent events, however, are not knowable, as Aristotle pointed out, for if they were, they would not be contingent. Hence it is not an imperfection in God not to know them.

Another equally striking set of conclusions reached by Gersonides concerns his cosmology. Again he differs from both Maimonides and Ibn Rushd, not accepting the former's acceptance of creation ex nihilo and disbelief in a decisive proof on this topic and rejecting the latter's belief in the eternity of the universe. Gersonides shows Maimonides that it is possible to demonstrate the createdness of the world by giving several such proofs. One of these proofs goes like this: anything that exhibits teleological features must be made (for example, light); hence, the universe is made. Another proof, of which there are several varieties, shows that the Aristotelian hypothesis of a universe enduring for infinite time in the past is incompatible with Aristotle's physics and hence is false. For example, Aristotelian physics excludes an actual infinite, a magnitude all of whose infinite parts or members coexist. But if past time is infinite, Gersonides argues, we would have an actual infinite, since the past is in some sense actual insofar as all past events were real and have consequences. Infinite past time would be like a book so chock-full of facts that prior to any given page there are an infinite number of pages. Who could read such a book? Thus the universe is created at a definite moment, the first instant of time.

But how was it created? Saʿadyah, Ibn Gabirol, ha-Levi, and Maimonides all maintain ex nihilo creation, although only Saʿadyah undertook to prove it. Gersonides rejects this by-now orthodox doctrine and defends the Platonic view that the world was fashioned by God out of some formless preexistent matter. Here as before, his arguments are entirely philosophical. For example, if the world were created from nothing, then the matter that now constitutes the world would be preexisted by a vacuum, which it now partly fills. But a vacuum is impossible, as Aristotle had proved. Finally, unlike Saʿadyah but like Maimonides, Gersonides holds that the universe is everlasting. However, whereas Maimonides maintained this position on the basis of his interpretation of several biblical and rabbinic passages, Gersonides attempts to prove philosophically that the universe cannot be destroyed, not even by God. After all, what reason could he have for doing so? Spite, anger, regret, admission of a bad original job? Surely none of these human motives can be attributed to a perfect and immutable craftsman.


Gersonides' thoroughgoing rationalism was to be most controversial; hardly any of his successors accepted its radical conclusions in cosmology or about divine cognition. His critics either reverted to some version of Maimonides' moderate rationalism or rejected completely the whole Aristotelian edifice upon which both Maimonides and Gersonides erected their philosophical reconstructions of Judaism. The best representative of the latter approach is asdai Crescas (13401410) of Spain, whose Or Adonai (Light of the Lord) consists both of a radical critique of Aristotle's natural philosophy and a redefinition of Jewish dogmatics on a different basis. Writing at the beginning of what would be the end of Spanish Judaism, Crescas claims that Maimonides committed a serious and fundamental mistake in attempting to establish Judaism upon Aristotelian foundations. One consequence of this error was Gersonides and the Jewish Averroists. So Crescas starts all over by first showing that Aristotle's natural philosophy is either false or weak, and that the natural theology based upon this "weak reed" is even more shaky. Crescas then proceeds to offer a new system of Jewish belief. The main thrust of his critique is his willingness to admit the twin Aristotelian horrors of the actual infinite and the void. After demonstrating the invalidity of the arguments against both these notions, Crescas seriously entertains the hypothesis that there may be an infinite vacuum surrounding our world, thus allowing for the possibility of a plurality of universes. Crescas was one of the earliest representatives of the modern theory of the "open universe."

The admittance of both an actual infinite and the void undermines, however, the arguments for several important theorems in medieval natural theology, such as the existence and unity of God and, in Gersonides' view, the impossibility of creation ex nihilo. Crescas is not unhappy with this conclusion and proceeds to draw out the theological implications of his new infinitist outlook. He does this by restructuring the Jewish creed, scrapping Maimonides' by-then famous Thirteen Articles and replacing them with his own "axiomatic reconstruction" of Jewish dogma. Arguing that Maimonides' list fails to exhibit the logical relationships among the various dogmas and omits any justification of why some of these articles are essential to Judaism, Crescas rearranges the creed into four categories: (1) the roots of religion, (2) the foundations of the Torah, (3) obligatory beliefs of Judaism, and (4) optional beliefs. Group 1 consists of the basic postulates of any monotheistic religion, such as the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God. Group 2 consists of the logical presuppositions of a revealed law, such as the Torah; among such postulates are divine cognition, prophecy, and omnipotence and human choice. Group 3 contains those beliefs taught in Judaism but not logically entailed by the fact of revelation; these ideas are contingent upon revelation but not essential to it. They include such beliefs as creation of the world, immortality of the soul, and resurrection of the dead. Finally, group 4, optional beliefs, includes opinions about a variety of topics, such as the plurality of universes or the truth of astrology, about which authoritative Judaism takes no definitive stand. On these matters Jews may believe as they wish.

Consider the existence of Goda root belief of any monotheistic religion. Since all the "classical" proofs have been undermined by his critique of their Aristotelian foundations, how does Crescas philosophically justify such a root belief? In the first place, for Crescas religious beliefs in general do not require a philosophical justification; the acceptance of religious authority, rather than the demonstration of logical proof, is decisive. Second, if philosophical argument is introduced into religion, say for explanatory or polemical purposes, it must be sound philosophy. And so Crescas provides a "new" argument for the existence of God, one which does not presuppose Aristotle's rejection of an actually infinite series of essential causes and effects. Crescas's proof purports to show that whether the causal series is infinite or finite, it is a series of contingent causes and effects and hence requires some necessary and eternal substance to bring it forth, for what is contingent is by its very nature a mere possible existent. As to God's unity and incorporeality, however, Crescas is doubtful whether philosophy is competent to prove such root beliefs; hence revelation must be the guide. On this latter point Crescas is close to the Christian Scholastic William of Ockham.

Crescas is most original and even radical in his treatment of the two closely related foundational beliefs of Judaismdivine cognition and human choice. Here he provides a deterministic solution to the classic dilemma between divine omniscience and human freedom. Rejecting Gersonides' equally radical indeterminist denial of divine cognition of future contingencies, Crescas claims that God's knowledge of some future eventsay, Abraham's binding of Isaacdoes fix the truth status of that event before its actual occurrence. True, Abraham's binding of Isaac takes place in time, but in God's "eternal vision" this event is eternally true and thus necessary. Abraham's freedom is, Crescas believes, ensured by virtue of the fact that from an abstract logical perspective, his binding of Isaac is a logically contingent state of affairs: in some other world it is possible that he would not bind Isaac. Here Crescas advances a view that, although novel in Judaism, is virtually identical with the doctrine of Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, but perhaps more pronounced in its deterministic flavor. Crescas's deterministic position is also reflected in his account of human choice. On purely psychological grounds he claims that human decisions, actions, and belief commitments are caused by a variety of factors. But if our choices, acts, and beliefs are all determined, are they free? Yes, so long as we have the correct understanding of what a free act, choice, or belief is. If we have not been compelled by an external cause to choose or act in a certain way and we feel no such compulsion, then we are free. As Hobbes and Hume were to say a few centuries later, as long as I can get up, move my legs, and walk, I am "at liberty" to walk, even though I have been conditioned to walk out of my office every time I hear the lunch bell. All of this, Crescas claims, is consistent with divine or human praise or blame, reward or punishment; for just as smoke naturally follows the kindling of a fire, so, too, does punishment follow the performance of an evil act. There is a divinely ordered moral plan in the universe whereby sins or crimes cause punishments and virtue brings about reward.

Crescas's account of creation is also original. Whereas almost all his predecessors and successors claimed that creation is either a "root" or a "foundation," Crescas contends that, although it is a belief taught by Judaism, it need not have been taught. If the Bible had begun with "From all eternity there was God and the universe," there could still have been a Jewish religion. After disposing of both Maimonides' and Gersonides' criticisms of the eternity cosmology, Crescas offers a "soft" defense of the eternal creation hypothesis, a doctrine that had been rejected by both Maimonides and Gersonides as internally incoherent. Crescas's presentation of this model is "soft" in the sense that he does not definitely commit himself to it. He allows for the view, occasionally expressed in rabbinic literature, that God has successively created a series of finitely enduring worlds, a series that may continue ad infinitum. On either of these models, Crescas claims, the universe is created, eternally or temporally, ex nihilo, since the universe is only a contingent being, whereas God is a necessary being, and as contingent, it depends upon God. This causal-ontological dependency means that it is created ex nihilo.

The Italian Renaissance

Crescas's radical critique of Aristotelianism and his own interpretation of some Jewish beliefs did not satisfy most of his successors in Spanish-Jewish philosophy. His pupil Yosef Albo, for example, rejected his determinism. For the most part, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish-Jewish philosophy reverts to some form of Maimonidean moderate rationalism. The new developments in Jewish philosophy take place on a different soil: Italy. With the emergence of Renaissance Platonism and the new physics of Galileo, different philosophic themes are sounded by several Italian-Jewish philosophical voices. The first of these "newer sounds" is of Spanish origin, Judah Abravanel (Leo Ebreo, c. 14601521), the son of the famous Spanish financier, biblical exegete, and philosopher Isaac Abravanel, who found asylum in Italy after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. In Italy, especially in Florence, a "newer" Plato was discovered, who in many respects is closer to the historical Plato. Reading Plato directly either in the original Greek or from Latin translations of the Greek, Italian philosophers like Marsilio Ficino attempted to strip away the Aristotelian accretions to Plato that had accumulated during the Middle Ages, just as Ibn Rushd had tried to get at the real Aristotle. Judah Abravanel shows signs of this Platonic revival, even in the literary form of his philosophical work Dialoghi d'amore, which is a philosophical dialogue between two characters on the matter of love, both divine and human. This very topic betrays the new Renaissance spirit; for no previous medieval philosophical text, whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, made the Greek notion of erōs its central problem. But for a Platonic academy in Florence this was the problem par excellence : Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus had replaced the Timaeus and Republic.

Abravanel's Dialoghi, written most likely in Italian or perhaps in Spanish, represents an attempt to fit Plato's philosophy of erōs into a Jewish framework, even though there are in it citations drawn from classical mythology and even the New Testament. However, the Judaic orientation is clear. Not only are the Bible and rabbinic literature cited, but Maimonides and Ibn Gabirol are also referred to. Here Platonic erōs is legitimized by redefining it in terms of the Maimonidean motif that man loves God through his devotion to the life of the intellect. But man's intellectual love of God is reciprocated and complemented by God's love for man, indeed for the whole universe, which God creates freely out of love from preexistent matter. (Only Plato is cited on this point, not Gersonides.) Accordingly, the unifying and pervading power in the universe is erōs, redefined as man's intellectual love of God and God's creative love for man.

A very different tone is heard in the philosophical writings of another Italian-Jewish philosopher, Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo (15911659), who, although born in the Venetian colony of Crete, studied in Padua under Galileo and absorbed some of the latter's new ideas in astronomy and physics. He was the first Jewish philosopher or astronomer to adopt the Copernican-Galilean system, rejecting the Aristotelian theory of the celestial spheres with their "separate movers," which were identified with the biblical doctrine of angels. The angels, for Delmedigo, are natural forces or powers, primarily human faculties, an idea that was also suggested by Maimonides. Delmedigo also advocated Crescas's eternal-creation cosmology: after all, a God who is eternally active cannot not create; hence, the universe must be eternal. The denial of the world's eternity would be tantamount to the thesis that God's creative power is finite. This explicit espousal of eternal creation leads him in the direction of pantheism, which, however, he expresses tentatively.

The End of Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Despite Delmedigo's enthusiasm for the new science of Galileo, he still retained some medieval Aristotelian ideas and had an ambivalent attitude toward Jewish mysticism, which he criticized yet occasionally adopted. It is not without significance that he spent a few years in Amsterdam, the locale of the last act in our philosophical drama. Befriended by Menasseh ben Israel, one of the local rabbis, a philosopher and a publisher of Hebrew books, Delmedigo was able to get his major philosophical-scientific work published there shortly before he left for Frankfurt in 1630. Two years later the man who was to reject medieval philosophy completely was born in Amsterdam, and studied in the very same school in which Delmedigo had taught a few years earlierSpinoza (16321676). Several scholars have claimed that the Delmedigo-Spinoza connection is not fortuitous, that features of the latter's formalistic philosophy either exhibit elements of or express explicitly doctrines of the former's more diffuse and ambiguous writings. Whether or not this is so, Spinoza clearly and definitively cuts the tie that linked philosophy with religion and advocates the new science with no reservations or fond reminiscences of Aristotle or Maimonides. Spinoza is the first modern philosopher, the first thinker who no longer sees philosophy either as theology's handmaiden or as fertilized by prophetic seeds. Philosophy is for Spinoza not only autonomous, as Descartes maintained, but self-sufficient as well, a thesis that Descartes was unwilling to admit, at least in public.

Spinoza's emancipation of philosophy from theology, based upon both philosophical and biblical-critical grounds, permits him to erect a naturalistic philosophical system in which metaphysics, logic, psychology, political theory, and moral philosophy are all comprehended. The pantheistic suggestions of Delmedigo are explicitly expressed in Spinoza's equation Deus, sive Natura ("God, or Nature"). No longer is there a hiatus between a transcendent, incorporeal, infinite God and a corporeal, finite universe. As both thought and extension, Spinoza's God is not divorced from man and the universe; as infinite and eternal, the physical world is inseparable from its cause. Crescas's eternal creation model is stripped of its medieval garb and shown for what it really is: a picture of an eternal, dynamic universe displaying infinite divine attributes. Moreover, nature is for Spinoza a thoroughly deterministic system in which scientific law reigns supreme. The laws of nature are for Spinoza God's decrees. Again, Spinoza pushes Crescas a step further: the latter's deterministic psychology becomes the universal rule of all nature. Such a system, however, allows for no miracles, especially divine prophecies. The wardens of the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656 had considerable justification in viewing Spinoza as no longer of the Jewish faith. Indeed, he was no longer a medieval man. Medieval philosophy, and medieval Jewish philosophy in particular, had with Spinoza been terminated, and a new philosophical epoch had begun.



The best general philosophical study of Jewish philosophy is given by Julius Guttmann in his Philosophies of Judaism, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964). Although a comprehensive historical survey beginning with the Bible and ending with Franz Rosenzweig, it contains five perceptive chapters on medieval thinkers. It has an excellent bibliography. Isaac Husik's A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (1916; reprint, New York, 1969) focuses upon individual thinkers. It is more detailed, but less analytical, than Guttmann's treatment. Harry A. Wolfson's Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1947), is the most comprehensive English study on Philo and establishes the conceptual framework adopted in this essay.

Saʿadyah and the Kalām

The most recent and comprehensive study of kalām is Wolfson's The Philosophy of the Kalam (Cambridge, Mass., 1976). The influence of kalām upon Jewish philosophy is discussed by Wolfson in his posthumously published The Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1979). Saʿadyah's The Book of Beliefs and Opinions was translated by Samuel Rosenblatt as the first volume in the now extensive "Yale Judaica Series" (New Haven, 1948). The best biography and general survey of Saʿadyah's literary career is still Henry Malter's Saadia Gaon: His Life and Works (1921; reprint, Philadelphia, 1978).

Jewish Philosophy in Spain: The Neoplatonic Tradition

No complete English translation of Shelomoh ibn Gabirol's Fons vitae has appeared. A few excerpts were translated from the Latin into English by Arthur Hyman in the anthology Philosophy in the Middle Ages, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh (New York, 1967), pp. 347357. The most accessible introduction to the Fons vitae is still Solomon Munk's French translation of Shem ov ibn Falaquera's medieval epitome, which is included in Munk's Mélanges de philosophie juive et arabe (1859; reprint, Paris, 1927). Ibn Gabirol's Crown of Royalty was translated by Israel Zangwill and annotated by Israel Davidson, and is included in Davidson's anthology Selected Religious Poems of Solomon ibn Gabirol (New York, 1973). Baye ibn Paquda's treatise has recently been translated from the Arabic by Menahem Mansoor as The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart (London, 1973). It has a full introduction.

Yehudah ha-Levi has fared better with respect to secondary literature but worse in translation. The only full English translation of the Kuzari, by Hartwig Hirschfeld (1905; reprint, New York, 1964), is inaccurate. Fortunately, the scholarly literature in English is excellent. Wolfson's essays should be consulted, especially the following: "Halevi and Maimonides on Design, Chance and Necessity" and "Halevi and Maimonides on Prophecy," both reprinted in his Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion, edited by Isadore Twersky and George H. Williams, vol. 2 (Cambridge, Mass., 1977).


The most accurate English translation of The Guide of the Perplexed is that of Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963). Besides Pines's own fine introduction it contains a stimulating, although debatable, introductory essay by Leo Strauss. Surprisingly, there is no comprehensive English monograph on Maimonides' philosophy, although studies on separate facets of his thought abound. Leo Strauss's "The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed," reprinted in his Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1973), will introduce the reader into the "esoteric" interpretation of Maimonides. A more traditional but perceptive introduction is Simon Rawidowicz's "Knowledge of God: A Study of Maimonides' Philosophy of Religion," in Studies in Jewish Thought, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (Philadelphia, 1974). Wolfson's more specialized studies have been reprinted in both volumes of his Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion (cited above).

Gersonides and Crescas

A complete English translation of Gersonides' Wars of the Lord was published in three volumes by Seymour Feldman (Philadelphia, 19841999). A superb comprehensive study of Gersonides is Charles Touati's La pensée philosophique et théologique de Gersonide (Paris, 1973). For Jewish Averroism consult Alfred L. Ivry's "Moses of Narbonne's Treatise on the Perfection of the Soul," Jewish Quarterly Review, n.s. 57 (April 1967): 271297.

No complete translation of Crescas's Or Adonai has been made. Wolfson translated most of book 1 in his masterful Crescas ' Critique of Aristotle: Problems of Aristotle 's Physics in Jewish and Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1929). On Crescas's cosmology see Seymour Feldman's "The Theory of Eternal Creation in asdai Crescas and Some of His Predecessors," Viator 11 (1980): 289320.

Jewish Philosophy in the Renaissance: Spinoza

A good descriptive survey of Italian-Jewish intellectual life, including philosophy, is given by Israel Zinberg in volume 4 of his A History of Jewish Literature, translated by Bernard Martin (New York, 1974). He discusses Judah Abravanel in chapter 1 and Yosef Shelomoh del Medigo in chapter 6. Isaac E. Barzilay has provided a good comprehensive study of Delmedigo in his Yoseph Shlomo Delmedigo: His Life, Works and Times (Leiden, 1974). Judah Abravanel's Dialoghi d 'amore was translated into English by F. Friedberg-Seeley and Jean H. Barnes as The Philosophy of Love (London, 1937).

The literature on Spinoza is of course voluminous. A new translation of his Ethics was done by Samuel Shirley and edited by Seymour Feldman, Ethics and Selected Letters (Indianapolis, 1982). His Theological-Political Treatise was translated by R. H. M. Elwes (New York, 1951). Wolfson's The Philosophy of Spinoza, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1934), and Leo Strauss's Spinoza 's Critique of Religion, translated by E. M. Sinclair (1965; New York, 1982), are most helpful in relating Spinoza to the Jewish context.

New Sources

Borgen, Peter. Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time. New York, 1997.

Eisen, Robert. Gersonides of Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People: A Study in Medieval Jewish Philosophy and Biblical Commentary. Albany, 1995.

Fox, Marvin. Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy. Chicago, 1990.

Frank, Daniel H., and Oliver Leaman, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy. New York, 2003.

Goodman, Lenn E. Jewish and Islamic Philosophy: Crosspollinations in the Classic Age. New Brunswick, N.J., 1999.

Hyman, Arthur. Eschatological Themes in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Milwaukee, Wis., 2002.

Kassim, Husain. Aristotle and Aristotelianism in Medieval Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Philosophy. Lanham, Md., 2000.

Leaman, Oliver. Moses Maimonides. New York, 1990.

Runia, David T. Exegesis and Philosophy: Studies on Philo of Alexandria. Brookfield, Vt., 1990.

Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge, and Well-Being. Cincinnati, 2003.

Seymour Feldman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Jewish Thought and Philosophy: Premodern Philosophy

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