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Jewish philosophy

Jewish philosophy is the attempt to fuse the fields of philosophy with the religious teachings of Judaism.

As with any fusion of religion and philosophy, the attempt is difficult because classical philosophers start with no preconditions for which conclusions they must reach in their investigation, while classical religious believers have a set of religious principles of faith that they hold one must believe. Indeed, due to these divergent goals and views, some hold that one cannot simultaneously be a philosopher and a true adherent of a revealed religion. In this view, all attempts at synthesis ultimately fail.

Others hold that a synthesis between the two is possible. One way to find a synthesis is to use philosophical arguments to prove that one's preset religious principles are true. This is a common technqiue found in the writings of many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but this is not generally accepted as true philosophy by philosophers. Another way to find a synthesis is to abstain from holding as true any religious principles of one's faith at all, unless one independently comes to those conclusions from a philosophical analysis. However, this is not generally accepted as being faithful to one's religion by adherents of that religion. A third, rarer and more difficult path is to apply analytical philosophy to one's own religion. In this case a religious person would also be a philosopher, by asking questions such as:

  • What is the nature of God? How do we know that God exists?
  • What is the nature of revelation? How do we know that God reveals his will to mankind?
  • Which of our religious traditions must be interpreted literally?
  • Which of our religious traditions must be interpreted allegorically?
  • What must one actually believe to be considered a try adherent of our religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of philosophy with religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of science with religion?

This is the task of Jewish philosophy.


Early Jewish philosophy

Early Jewish philosophy was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and Islamic philosophy. Many early medieval Jewish philosophers (from the 8th century to end of the 9th century) were especially influenced by the Islamic Motazilites; they denied all limiting attributes of God and were champions of God's unity and justice.

Over time Aristotle came to be thought of as the philosopher par excellence among Jewish thinkers. This tendency was no less marked in the Islamic, the Christian Byzantine and the Latin-Christian schools of thought.

Philo of Alexandria

Avicebron, Solomon ibn Gabirol

The Jewish poet-philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol is also known as Avicebron. He died about 1070 CE. He was influenced by Plato. His classic work on philosophy was Mekor Chayim, "The Source of Life". His work on thics is entitled Tikkun Middot HaNefesh, "Correcting the Qualities of the Soul".

In Gabirol's work Plato is the only philosopher referred to by name. Characteristic of the philosophy of both is the conception of a Middle Being between God and the world, between species and individual. Aristotle had already formulated the objection to the Platonic theory of ideas, that it lacked an intermediary or third being between God and the universe, between form and matter. This "third man," this link between incorporeal substances (ideas) and idealess bodies (matter), is, with Philo, the "Logos"; with Gabirol it is the divine will. Philo gives the problem an intellectual aspect; while Gabirol conceives it as a matter of volition, approximating thus to such modern thinkers as Schopenhauer and Wundt.

Gabirol's philosophy made little impression on later Jewish philosophers. His greatest impact is in the area of the Jewish liturgy. His work is quoted by Moses ibn Ezra and Abraham ibn Ezra. Christian scholastics, including Albertus Magnus and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, defer to him frequently and gratefully.

Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah

A separate entry exists for Kabbalah. A fundamental difference between the Kabbalists and exponents of philosophy is due to their different views of the power of human reason. Kabbalists reject the conclusions of reason, and rely upon tradition, inspiration, and intuition. Philosophers, on the other hand, hold that reason is a prior requisite for all perception and knowledge.

Saadia Gaon

Saadia Gaon (892-942) in his Emunoth ve-Deoth ("Principles of Faith and Knowledge") posits the rationality of the Jewish faith, with the restriction that reason must capitulate wherever it contradicts tradition. Dogma must take precedence of reason. Thus in the question concerning the eternity of the world, reason teaches since Aristotle, that the world is without beginning; that it was not created; in contrast, Jewish dogma asserts a creation out of nothing. Since the time of Aristotle it was held that logical reasoning could only prove the existence of a general form of immortality, and that no form of individual immortality could exist. Mainstream Jewish dogma, in contrast, maintained the immortality of the individual. Reason, therefore, must give way in Saadia's view.

Karaite philosophy

A sect which rejects the Rabbinical Works, Karaism, developed its own form of philosophy, a Jewish version of the Islamic Kalâm. Early Karaites based their philosophy on the Islamic Motazilite Kalâm; some later Karaites, such as Aaron ben Elijah of Nicomedia (fourteenth century), reverts, in his Etz Hayyim (Hebrew, "Tree of Life") to the views of Aristotle.

Yehuda Halevi and the Kuzari

The Jewish poet-philosopher Yehuda Halevi (twelfth century) in his polemical work Kuzari made strenuous arguments against philosophy. He became thus the Jewish Al-gazali, whose Destructio Philosophorum was the model for the Kuzari.

Human reason does not count for much with him; inward illumination, emotional vision, is everything. The Kuzari describes representatives of different religions and of philosophy disputing before the king of the Khazars concerning the respective merits of the systems they stand for, the palm of course being ultimately awarded to Judaism.

The rise of Aristotelian thought

Judah ha-Levi could not bar the progress of Aristotelianism among the Arabic-writing Jews. As among the Arabs, Ibn Sina and Ibn Roshd leaned more and more on Aristotle, so among the Jews did Abraham ibn Daud and Maimonides.

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides, or the Ralbag, (1288-1345) is best known for his work Milhamot Adonai, (Wars of the Lord). Among scholastics, Gersonides was perhaps the most advanced; he placed reason above tradition. The Milhamot Adonai is modelled after the Guide for the Perplexed of Maimonides. It may be seen as an elaborate criticism from a philosophical point of view (mainly Averroistic) of the syncretism of Aristotelianism and Jewish orthodoxy as presented in that work.

Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410) is best known for his Or Adonai (Light of the Lord). Crescas' avowed purpose was to liberate Judaism from what he saw as the bondage of Aristotelianism, which, through Maimonides, influenced by Ibn Sina, and Gersonides (Ralbag), influenced by Ibn Roshd (Averroes) threatened to blur the distinctness of the Jewish faith, reducing the doctrinal contents of Judaism to a surrogate of Aristotelian concepts. His book, Or Adonai, comprises four main divisions ("ma'amar"), subdivided into "kelalim" and chapters ("perakim"): the first treating of the foundation of all belief—the existence of God; the second, of the fundamental doctrines of the faith; the third, of other doctrines which, though not fundamental, are binding on every adherent of Judaism; the fourth, of doctrines which, though traditional, are without obligatory character, and which are open to philosophical construction.

Joseph Albo was a Spanish rabbi, and theologian of the fifteenth century, known chiefly as the author of the work on the Jewish principles of faith, his Ikkarim. Albo limited the fundamental Jewish principles of faith to three: (1) The belief in the existence of God; (2) in revelation; and (3) in divine justice, as related to the idea of immortality. Albo finds opportunity to criticize the opinions of his predecessors, yet he takes pains to avoid heresy hunting. A remarkable latitude of interpretation is allowed; so much so, that it would indeed be difficult under Albo's theories to impugn the orthodoxy of even the most theologically liberal Jews. Albo rejects the assumption that creation ex nihilo is an essential implication of the belief in God. Albo freely criticizes Maimonides' thirteen principles of belief and Crescas' six principles.


Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135 - 1204), רבי משה בן מיימון, known commonly by his Greek name Maimonides, was a Jewish rabbi, physician, and philosopher.

Maimonides held that no positive attributes can be predicated to God. The number of His attributes would seem to prejudice the unity of God. In order to preserve this doctrine undiminished, all anthropomorphic attributes,such as existence, life, power, will, knowledge - the usual positive attributes of God in the Kalâm - must be avoided in speaking of Him. Between the attributes of God and those of man there is no other similarity than one of words (homonymy), no similarity of essence ("Guide," I 35, 56). The negative attributes imply that nothing can be known concerning the true being of God, which is what Maimonides really means. Just as Kant declares the Thing-in-itself to be unknowable, so Maimonides declares that of God it can only be said that He is, not what He is.

Maimonides wrote his thirteen principles of faith, which he stated that all Jews were obligated to believe. The first five deal with knowledge of the Creator. The next four deal with prophecy and the Divine Origin of the Torah. The last four deal with Reward, Punishment and the ultimate redemption.

The principle which inspired all of Maimonides' philosophical activity was identical with the fundamental tenet of Scholasticism: there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy. Moreover, by science and philosophy he understood the science and philosophy of Aristotle. In some important points, however, he departed from the teaching of the Aristotelian text, holding, for instance, that the world is not eternal, as Aristotle taught, but was created ex nihilo, as is taught explicitly in the Bible. Again, he rejected the Aristotelian doctrine that God's provident care extends only to humanity, and not to the individual. But, while in these important points Maimonides forestalled the Scholastics and undoubtedly influenced them, he was led by his admiration for the neo-Platonic commentators and by the bent of his own mind, which was essentially Jewish, to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept.

Position in the history of thought

The scholastics preserved the continuity of philosophical thought. Without the activity of these Arabic-Jewish philosophers, the culture of the Western world could scarcely have taken the direction it has, at least not at the rapid rate which was made possible through the agency of the Humanists and of the Renaissance. The Arabic-Jewish philosophers were the humanists of the Middle Ages. They established and maintained the bond of union between the Arabic philosophers, physicians, and poets on the one hand, and the Latin-Christian world on the other.

Gersonides, Gabirol, Maimonides, and Crescas are considered of eminent importance in the continuity of philosophy, for they not only illumined those giants of Christian scholasticism, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, but their light has penetrated deeply into the philosophy of modern times.

Renaissance philosophers

Classical Judaism saw the development of a brand of Jewish philosophy drawing on the teachings of Torah mysticism derived from the esoteric teachings of the Zohar and the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. This was particularly embodied in the voluminous works of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel known as the Maharal of Prague.

Post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers

Modern Jewish philosophy

The following philosophers have had a substantial impact on the philosophy of modern day Jews who identify as such. They are writers who consciously dealt with philosophical issues from within a Jewish framework.

Orthodox Judaism philosophers

See Orthodox Judaism.

Conservative Judaism philosophers

See Conservative Judaism.

Reform Judaism philosophers

See Reform Judaism.

Reconstructionist Judaism philosophers

See Reconstructionist Judaism.


Philosophers informed by their Jewish Background

See also

External links

Last updated: 08-29-2005 04:39:59
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