welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Brief Lives

Nima Adlerblum (1881-1974)

Brad Rappaport looks at the life of a Jewish philosopher combatting the secular forces of modernism.

“The core of philosophy is in vision,” said Nima Adlerblum, whose own vision of philosophy was of it diverging among different peoples. Being Jewish herself, her particular interest was in Jewish philosophy. This she defined by its relationship to the Torah [the laws within Hebrew Scripture, and rabbinic elaboration upon it], and especially the Torah’s self-authenticating account – including saying that it was given to the Jews by God through Moses; that God chose the Hebrews (later, the Jews) to be His people; and that He gave them the land of Israel. These constituent elements of Judaism are woven together into an organic whole by the continuous practice of the Torah’s code of law from ancient times through to the present day. Adlerblum sticks to the Torah’s account, while at the same time criticizing religion understood as supernatural. This makes for a tension about which she remains strategically silent, as we shall see.

Nima Adlerblum
Nima Adlerblum
Gail Campbell 2023


It has been said that Jews can look upon ourselves either as merely descended from our predecessors, or as their heirs as well. Nima Adlerblum definitely falls into the second category, having been born into a rabbinic family on August 4, 1881 in Jerusalem, and she steadfastly maintained fidelity to that way of life. Her Memoirs of Childhood: An Approach to Jewish Philosophy relates her early environment of immersion in a tightly-knit Jewish community in Jerusalem. Her sense of belonging to the land is strong. On more than one occasion in her writings she refers to the mountains that ‘skipped like rams’ before the Lord (just as the Psalms put it), and the River Jordan that ‘flowed out of reverence for Him’.

Adlerblum’s conviction of the integrity of religion, land, and people, doubtless lay behind her involvement with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, during her years in the United States. Founded in the early twentieth century, the Organization devoted itself chiefly to the development of healthcare in Jewish settlements, while steering clear of any ideology. Adlerblum created and headed its department of cultural and educational programming, and sat on its board from 1922-1935.

During roughly the same time, she published two articles and her doctoral thesis on Jewish philosophy under John Dewey at Columbia University in New York. Indeed, the great American man of letters H.L. Mencken joked impolitely about Dewey teaching ‘Grand Street Platos’ at Columbia – referring to a street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where many immigrant Jews had settled at the turn of the century. Yet there must be an attraction to Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism, as practical, democratic, and universal as it is, for people whose Judaism emphasizes practice over belief, and who were often, in the countries from which they emigrated, excluded undemocratically by governments that took sides against them.

Adlerblum took to Pragmatism with such alacrity as to make herself an advocate of it among intellectuals in Mexico at mid-century. She worked there at a time when U.S. ideals were suspected in some quarters as functioning solely in the service of commerce. By contrast, Adlerblum saw (American) Pragmatism as potentially providing a common moral foundation for the two countries.

Jewish Philosophy

Adlerblum liked to classify medieval Jewish philosophy independently of the medieval Islamic philosophy with which it has traditionally been grouped by academic historians. This matters particularly as she considered the greatest Jewish philosophers to have been, by and large, those of the medieval era. Her paradigm was the poet and thinker Yehuda Halevi (c.1075-1141 CE).

Halevi was Spanish, and medieval Jewish philosophy is typically of the Iberian peninsula or its environs, where Judaism flourished under Muslim rule. But Halevi would emigrate to Jerusalem at the end of his life, and his poetry is often in praise of the land of Israel. His philosophy is in defense of Judaism, and appears in dramatic form in his Kuzari, a fictionalised account of a rabbi’s persuasion of the King of the Khazars to adopt Judaism rather than Christianity, Islam, or a Greek philosophical outlook. Khazaria was a Turkic empire in the Caucasus in the seventh through tenth centuries, whose royalty and nobility, by the majority consensus of scholars today, converted to Judaism.

Halevi’s ultimate rejection of Greek philosophy, which he said “bears beautiful blooms, but no fruit,” is typical of Jewish philosophy as Adlerblum saw it. As I observed at the outset, she regarded philosophy as diverging among peoples; and to her way of thinking, medieval Jewish philosophy can be defined negatively by its being at odds with Greek philosophy, which it appropriated only when opportune. Put more positively, Jewish philosophy promotes the welfare of the Jewish people, to which Greek philosophy is foreign, but for which it might sometimes be useful. Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, 1138-1204 CE) is widely regarded as the greatest Jewish philosopher among the medievals, and Adlerblum suggested that the reason his work proved controversial is because it could be read as combining Judaism and Greek philosophy, which would be anathema. But of Maimonides’ successor, Gersonides, she notes that he used the sciences of his day, descended from Aristotelianism, to ratify the Torah, claiming that the latter would not teach us to believe in falsehoods, so that the results of scientific inquiry and its teachings should correspond. (She also observes gently that, regarding this correspondence, Gersonides assumes what he instead should set out to prove.)

Against Modern Philosophy

Biblical criticism came into its own in the nineteenth century, questioning the self-authenticating account of the Torah, and certainly holding at naught the traditional rabbinic wisdom of its having been written down by Moses at God’s dictation just prior to his death. The modern philosophy with which Biblical criticism was aligned posed a challenge difficult to meet.

It is safe to say that Adlerblum tended to locate Jewish philosophy in the past, before the arrival of Biblical criticism. She considered abstraction away from all objects, such as is typical of modern philosophy, whether Descartes’ Meditations or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, to be analogous to the abstraction of Christianity away from the organic wholeness of Judaism. She sees this as driven by a desire to combine its monotheism with Greek philosophy, or indeed with other cultures. This is at odds with the historic Jewish determination to remain distinct from other cultures, however beneficial their gifts. In keeping with what she sees as the nature and role of Jewish philosophy, her implied criticism is a practical one: that modernity leads Jews away from Judaism, in abstracting away from the defining elements that comprise the whole.

Writing in the 1920s, Adlerblum does single out one contemporary Jewish philosopher who continued on in the tradition of the medievals. As the medievals avoided Greek philosophy, so too does Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) avoid modern abstraction, promoting a Zionism that focused on renewing the spirit of Judaism by tapping into its wellsprings in antiquity. In keeping with her view that Jewish philosophy ‘crystallizes the past into the present’, Adlerblum read the work of medieval Jewish scholastics such as Maimonides and Gersonides as a response to their times (in which scholasticism flourished and challenged Judaism), rather than as a bid for the establishment of eternal truths. So, too, does she see the work of Ahad Ha’am as meeting the challenge of his day – in which the beleaguered Jews of Europe sorely needed a raising of their spirits.


If modern philosophy’s abstraction away from objects is on a par with Christianity’s abstraction away from Judaism, there is nevertheless a difference in kind. Christianity can be held to be a good-faith successor to a Judaism that it accepts as continuing through the present day right alongside it. But the Biblical criticism that emerged as a result of the philosophy of the European Enlightenment challenges the integrity of faith traditions as such. It cuts across all particular traditions, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Adlerblum’s response – along with that of many others who wish to maintain fidelity to their religious tradition without finding themselves totally outside modern culture – is simply to maintain a circumspect silence about the evident contradiction between science and the Torah (and Genesis in particular) in their respective accounts of the origins of all things.


In 1971 Adlerblum returned to Israel, where she spent her last few years. Her desire to maintain the integrity of Jewish tradition in the face of modern challenges to it led her to a kind of conservatism regarding gender roles. She found herself determined to preserve the rights of Jewish women to devote themselves to perpetuating the faith without claiming the prerogatives of men. Nevertheless, the life she led was itself testimony to her belief that there is no intrinsic difference between what men and women can accomplish professionally.

Nima Adlerblum died on July 25, 1974, aged 92, having witnessed the disaster of European Jewry, but with her confidence in the future undiminished.

© Brad Rappaport 2023

Brad Rappaport holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and also studied philosophy at the University of Essex and Vanderbilt University. Further writing can be found at vainphilosophy.com.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X