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Jewish Philosophy


Jewish philosophy may be described as the explication of Jewish beliefs and practices by means of general philosophical concepts and moral norms. It must thus be seen in a twofold manner: as an outgrowth of the Biblical-rabbinic tradition on which Judaism rests and as a part of the history of philosophy at large. Whereas the Biblical and rabbinic writings developed within the Jewish community, Jewish philosophy flourished whenever Jewish thinkers participated in the philosophical speculations of an outside culture. And though significant differences, both religious and philosophical, distinguish ancient and medieval from much of modern Jewish thought, the subject matter of Jewish philosophy may generally be divided into three parts. As interpretation of Jewish tradition, Jewish philosophy concentrates on topics such as the election of Israel, the prophecy of Moses, the Law (Torah) and its eternity, and Jewish conceptions of the Messiah and the afterlife. As religious philosophy, it investigates those philosophical notions common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, such as the existence of God, the divine attributes, creation, prophecy, the human soul, and the principles of human conduct. Finally, as philosophy, it studies notions that are primarily of philosophical interest, such as the structure of logical arguments, the constitution of the world, and the divisions of being.

Chronologically, Jewish philosophy may be divided into three phases: (1) its early development in the Diaspora community of the Hellenistic world, (2) its flourishing in both Islamic and Christian lands in the Middle Ages, and (3) its modern period, which began in the 18th century and has continued to today. The remainder of this article sketches the details of this chronology.

Early Development. Jewish philosophy developed in the Hellenistic world, where, from 200 b.c. to a.d. 100, Jewish thinkers of the diaspora produced a Jewish philosophical literature in Greek.

Of the Hellenistic writers, philo judaeus is the only one the majority of whose works are extant. Writing largely in the form of commentaries on the Pentateuch, Philo proposed to show that Biblical thought, allegorically interpreted, is identical with Greek philosophical teachings. For Philo, God is one, self-sufficient, incorporeal, and possessed of infinite power and goodness. He created the world out of a preexistent matter by means of the ideas and patterns contained in an intermediate being, the logos, also created by God. According to other Philonic usages, logos may refer also to the ideas existing in the mind of God and the ideas embodied in the world.

Man, in Philo's view, is composed of a body rooted in the world of sense and a soul directed toward the world of spirit. He attains his ultimate happiness through control of his desires and through contemplation, particularly the contemplation of God. Philosophical speculation finds its culmination in the mystical intuition of God.

Whereas Philo influenced Fathers of the Christian Church, he had no direct successor among the Jews. Thus Jewish philosophy lay dormant until the Middle Ages.

Medieval Period. The first contribution of the medieval phase, which was part of a cultural revival in the Islamic East, was that of saadia ben joseph, head of the rabbinical academy at Sura (near Baghdad). Influenced by the mutazilites, a branch of the Mutakallimūn (Muslim rational theologians), and making use of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic notions, Saadia set out to formulate a Jewish kalĀm.

Kalām. He wrote his major work, Kitāb al-Amanāt wal-Itiqadāt (Beliefs and Opinions), to resolve the doubts of his contemporaries and to turn them from belief on the basis of religious authority alone to belief confirmed by rational speculation. In the true kalām fashion, he begins his demonstrations with proofs for the creation of the world, which, in turn, lead to the demonstration of the existence of God, the creator. Affirming that the world was created in time, out of nothing, and by a creator distinct from it, Saadia refutes 12 cosmogonic theories that he considers incorrect. He establishes the unity of God by philosophical arguments and polemicizes against dualists and Trinitarians. He appears to hold that God is known through negative predication, teaching that multiple attributes are ascribed to God because of the shortcomings of human language, not because of any multiplicity in Him.

God communicates with men through prophets whose mission is attested by miraculous occurrences. Prophecy is productive of the Law. Following kalām distinctions, Saadia divides the Law into rational laws, which are also discoverable by human reason, and traditional laws, which are the result of God's will.

Human freedom is the central doctrine of Saadia's philosophy of man. Though God is omnipotent and omniscient, man possesses freedom of choice, as is shown by sense experience and confirmed by doctrines of human responsibility. Hence God is just in rewarding and punishing man.

Neoplatonism. Although kalām teachings did influence later Jewish philosophers, Saadia remained the major representative of this school. Already in his day, however, Jewish philosophy had begun to turn in a Neo-platonic direction. Influenced by Neoplatonic works such as the Theology of Aristotle, Jewish Neoplatonists inquired how the world emanated from God and how man

may return to Him. Their solutions emphasized the voluntary nature of emanation and the fact that, in his return to God, man can never become united with the godhead.

isaac israeli, author also of medical treatises, is best known as a philosopher for his Book of Definitions and Book of Elements, which have been preserved in Hebrew and Latin translations. According to Isaac, the world emanated from God through His power and will, with primary matter and first form preceding intellect, the souls, and the world. Human life has as its goal union with supernal wisdom, a union that is preceded by the purification and illumination of the soul.

By far the most important Jewish Neoplatonist was Solomon ibn Gabirol, known in the Latin world as avice bron or Avicebrol, with whom the setting of Jewish philosophy shifted from the Islamic East to Spain and the Islamic West. Known among his people for his magnificent Hebrew poemsamong them his cosmogonic poem, The Royal CrownGabirol achieved fame in the Christian world through the Latin translation of his major philosophical work, Fons vitae (Fountain of Life).

Metaphysical in nature, without Biblical and rabbinic citations, the Fountain of Life is primarily an exposition of Gabirol's doctrine of matter and form. Beginning with an account of emanation, Gabirol holds that the world proceeded from the First Essence, God. The first emanation is the Divine Will, which emphasizes the voluntary, as opposed to the necessary, emanation of the world from God. From Divine Will emanates primary matter and first form; these, according to Gabirol, are the constituent principles of all created beings, the intelligences included. Gabirol's notion that even intelligences are composed of matter and form became the subject for an extensive debate among Christian philosophers of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The 11th and 12th centuries saw two philosophers who, virtually unknown outside Judaism, greatly influenced their own people. Bayā ibn Pāqūdā (fl. 108090; Enciclopedia filosofica, 1:562) wrote a much-read ethical treatise, Duties of the Heart, in which he describes ten spiritual qualitiesthe highest being the love of Godand gives practical directions for attaining them.

The Kuzari (c. 1140) of Judah Ben Samuel Ha-Levi was another widely read work. Using as his framework the story of the conversion of the King of the Khazars to Judaism, ha-Levi sets down his apologia for the Jewish religion in the form of a dialogue. Rejecting the philosophical conception of God as the first cause, ha-Levi describes Him as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals Himself in historical events. The author devotes a special portion of his book to the election of Israel, which he understands as the result of a special divine emanation and which culminates in prophecy. In spite of the generally anti-rationalistic tenor of his viewsin which he parallels the Muslim algazelha-Levi, at times, uses kalām and other philosophical arguments.

The first Jewish philosopher to write in Hebrew was Abraham bar iyya, a younger contemporary of ha-Levi. Neoplatonic in orientation, he is noteworthy for his attempt to develop a philosophy of history.

Aristotelianism. By the middle of the 12th century Jewish philosophy was ready to begin its next phase. Under the influence of alfarabi, avicenna, and avempace, it turned in an Aristotelian direction. Abraham ben David ha-Levi, otherwise known as Ibn Daud (c. 111080), discussed a number of problems in Aristotelian physics and metaphysics and their application to religious teachings in his Exalted Faith, which also contains an extensive critique of Ibn Gabirol.

Jewish Aristotelianism reached its climax, however, with Moses maimonides, the Rabbi Moses of the Latins. The towering figure of medieval Jewish thought, Maimonides discussed some philosophical issues in his legal writings, but the full and technical exposition of his views is found in his Guide of the Perplexed.

Addressing students of philosophy who had become vexed by literal interpretations of certain scriptural passages, Maimonides devoted his Guide to explaining the inner meaning of the Law. To provide a correct conception of God is the first part of this task. Beginning with the interpretation of Biblical anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms applied to God, Maimonides shows that such terms must be understood either as attributes of action or as negative attributes. He rejects the use of positive attributes in describing God. Before setting down his proofs for existence, unity, and incorporeality of God, Maimonides undertakes an extensive critique of the views of the Mutakallimūn, judging their proofs of these same attributes incorrect since based on faulty philosophical methods. Besides demonstrating the existence of God as the prime mover and the first cause, Maimonides uses the notions of necessary and contingent being to show that God is a being necessary through Himself. Maimonides maintains that human reason alone cannot prove whether the world had a beginning in time or is eternal. He accepts creation because the arguments for it are more convincing and because it is the teaching of Scripture. Prophecy occupies a central position in Maimonides's thought. A prophet must possess physical, moral, and intellectual perfection as well as a well-developed imagination. In prophecy an emanation proceeding from God through the intermediacy of the Active Intellect affects the rational and imaginative faculties of the prophet. In his political function the prophet, particularly Moses, is the bearer of the Law. The final purpose of the Law is to produce correct opinions about God in all believers and to instill those moral norms that are prerequisites to understanding. Many Biblical commandments, according to Maimonides, serve to eradicate idolatrous practices.

After Maimonides, the setting of Jewish philosophy shifted to Christian landsChristian Spain, southern France, and Italyand its language became Hebrew. Under the influence of averroËs, most of whose commentaries on Aristotle had been translated into Hebrew, Jewish philosophy turned in a more strictly Aristotelian direction. Shem Tob Falqera (d. 1290), Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-c. 1340), and Moses of Narbonne (d. after 1362) wrote commentaries on Maimonides's Guide as well as a variety of general philosophical works, including super-commentaries on Averroës.

Among 13th-century philosophers, Hillel ben Samuel of Verona defended individual immortality against Averroës's doctrine of the unity of the intellect, whereas Isaac Albalag developed a doctrine of the double truth (see intellect, unity of; double truth, theory of).

By far the most important post-Maimonidean was levi ben gerson (also known as Gersonides), astronomer, Biblical exegete, and commentator on Averroës. In his major work, the Wars of the Lord, Gersonides investigated, in true scholastic fashion, problems that he considered had been treated insufficiently or solved unsatisfactorily by Maimonides. Showing an affinity to Averroës, Gersonides described God in Aristotle's phrase as "Thought Thinking Itself" rather than as the ineffable Neoplatonic One. Similarly, holding that analytic distinctions do not introduce real distinctions in the things to which they are applied, Gersonides held that positive attributes may be predicated of God. Differing again from Maimonides, Gersonides affirmed that the creation of the world can be philosophically demonstrated. The world was created by God out of an unformed, eternally existing matter and is not, as the Neoplatonists thought, the result of emanation. In line with his more Aristotelian views, Gersonides held that God knows and guides the world only insofar as it is subject to general laws.

Reaction. The reaction to Jewish Aristotelianism came with Hasdai ben Abraham crescas, who, in his Light of the Lord, undertook a critique of certain of Aristotle's physical and metaphysical views. Affirming, against Aristotle, that the existence of an actual infinite (in particular, infinite space) is possible, Crescas rejected the Aristotelian proofs for the existence of God as the first mover and the first cause, but retained the proof for God as a necessary being. For Crescas, goodness is the primary attribute of God, who created the world by His will and out of love. Crescas saw the goal of human life as the love of God rather than the contemplation of God. The precepts of the Law, for him, become means of loving God. Unlike other Jewish philosophers, however, Crescas denies the freedom of the human will.

Medieval Jewish philosophy drew to a close with such writers as Simon ben ema Duran (13611444); Joseph albo, author of the Book of Principles; and Isaacabrabanel.

Modern Period. Modern Jewish thought differs from ancient and medieval in that many modern Jewish thinkers brought a liberal interpretation of Judaism to their investigations. In addition, reflecting modern philosophical movements, they developed their thought along rationalist, idealist, neo-Kantian, pragmatic, and existentialist lines.

Historians of philosophy sometimes consider Baruch spinoza the first Jewish philosopher in the modern world. However, although it is true that Spinoza was influenced by medieval Jewish philosophers, particularly Maimonides and Crescas, he can hardly be placed within the mainstream of the Jewish philosophical tradition. When he undertakes to separate philosophy from religion in his Theologico-Political Treatise, he attempts in the process to invalidate the claims of Scripture as understood by Jewish tradition. Moreover, the pantheistic system developed in his Ethics, with its identity of God and nature, cannot be said to be in harmony with Jewish beliefs.

The first modern Jewish philosopher was Moses Mendelssohn (172986). A true philosopher of the Enlightenment, he relegated speculation about God, the world, and man to philosophy and considered Judaism largely as revealed legislation (see enlightenment, phi losophy of).

Of the more recent philosophers, Hermann Cohen (18421918) is worthy of note. Basing himself on Kantian thought, Cohen saw in Judaism, with its emphasis on the unity of God, moral law, and Messianic expectations, the ideal embodiment of the Religion of Reason. In his later years Cohen emphasized the more personal elements of religion, such as man's awareness of his transgressions and the need for reconciliation with God. (see kantianism.)

With Franz Rosenzweig (18861929) and Martin buber (18781965), Jewish philosophy entered its existentialist phase. Rejecting the categories of speculative philosophy, Buber makes the more personal aspects of human life the subject of his investigations. Developing his dialogical philosophy, Buber describes two types of relations: "I-It," the relation between man and objects; "I-Thou," the relation between man and man. A special relation is that between the "I" and the "Eternal Thou," God. Man, according to Buber, can establish an "I-Thou" relation even with objects. The community rather than the isolated life of the individual is the proper setting for human life. In his writings, Buber draws heavily on Scripture and the Hasidic literature. The present mood of Jewish philosophy appears to be existentialist to a large extent. (see existentialism, 6.)

See Also: arabian philosophy; scholasticism, 1.

Bibliography: Texts in translation. Three Jewish Philosophers (Meridian Bks.; New York 1960), contains Philo: Selections, ed. h. lewy; Saadya: Selections from Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, ed. a. altmann; Jehuda Halevi: Selections from Kuzari, ed. i. heinemann. Philo, tr. f. h. colson and g. h. whitaker, 10 v. (Loeb Classical Library ; 192962). s. ibn gabirol, Fountain of Life [Fons vitae, ] tr. from Lat. text of c. baeumker by h. e. wedeck (New York 1962). i. israeli, Works, tr. with comments and an outline of his philosophy, a. altmann and s. m. stern (Oxford 1958). saadia gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, tr. s. rosenblatt (Yale Judaica Ser 1; New Haven 1948). bahya ben joseph ibn pakuda, Duties of the Heart, tr. m. hyamson, 2 v. (2d ed. New York 1962). judah ha-levi, The Kuzari, tr. h. hirschfeld (New York 1964). m. maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, tr. with introd. and nn. s. pines, introd. essay l. strauss (Chicago 1963). h. a. wolfson, Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (Cambridge, MA 1929). j. albo, Sefer ha-Ikkarim (Book of Principles), ed. and tr. i. huslk, 4 v. in 5 (Philadelphia 192930), Hebrew and English m. i. buber, I and Thou (2d ed. New York 1958). Studies. g. vajda, Jüdische Philosophie (Bern 1950), 2 bibliog; "Les Études de philosophie juive du moyen âge 19501960," Die Metaphysik im Mittelalter, ed. p. wilpert (Miscellanea Mediaevalia 2; Berlin 1963) 126135. j. guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig, tr. d.w. silverman (New York 1964). h. a. wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 2 v. (Cambridge, MA 1947). i. husik, A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2d ed. New York 1930; pa. 1958). s. h. bergman, Faith and Reason: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, tr. and ed. a. jospe (Washington 1961). j. b. agus, Modern Philosophies of Judaism (New York 1941). l. strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL 1952); Philosophie und Gesetz (Berlin 1935).

[a. hyman]

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