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History of Jewish Philosophy

Ralph Blumenau considers the long and distinguished history of Jewish Philosophy.

This massive book, consisting of contributions from 35 scholars, is obviously a valuable and learned resource for anyone interested in Jewish philosophy, and it contains an immense amount of illuminating material. However, that it is “accessible to general readers as well as to scholars”, as one of the blurbs on the back cover claims, is true of only a few of its 39 chapters. The bulk of the book is certainly unsuitable for anyone who isn’t already very familiar with philosophy in general and technical philosophical vocabulary in particular, or who hasn’t a good knowledge of Judaism. A knowledge of Arabic philosophical terms is sometimes taken for granted. One chapter even assumes that the reader knows of “the infamous meeting” between Heidegger and Cassirer in Davos in 1929 (p.794): there is no explanation here or elsewhere of what this meeting was about. In no way is this book comparable in approach and style with books written for the general public, such as Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (or, for that matter, my own Philosophy and Living). Indeed, the style of writing can sometimes only be described as constipated.

Of course it is difficult (though not impossible) to write lucidly for the general public about medieval philosophy. The medieval chapters account for some 400 of the 900-odd pages of the book; and very tedious they are, as philosophers debate over and over again such questions as whether the world was created ex nihilo or not, whether God has attributes or not (some thinkers considering attributes a derogation to God’s unity), and how Free Will can be reconciled with God’s foreknowledge.

The trouble is the relationship between Philosophy and Theology. Aquinas differentiated between, on the one hand, ‘Revealed Theology’, which starts with Revelation about God as an indisputable given and as the basis of Faith from which Reason then makes certain deductions, and, on the other, ‘Natural Theology’, which starts with the experience of nature or created things and uses Reason to argue from that experience – a process which, for Aquinas, aims at – and, rightly used, must lead to – an intellectual knowledge of God. Many medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers took the same line. Philosophy and Theology will part company when philosophers not only do not accept (as most medieval philosophers did) that the knowledge of God is the aim of philosophy, but actually use Reason to challenge the truth of revealed knowledge, including in extreme cases, the truth of the existence of God. Until that happens, however, it is not always easy to tell whether a certain argument is theological or philosophical.

The book under review raises this difficulty on occasions, but is then prepared to discuss as philosophy some positions which, to me at least, cannot be called philosophical at all. The most outstanding of these is the mysticism of the Kabbalah, the subject of a particularly obscure chapter (chapter 19) in the book. It is a legitimate philosophical position to argue that certain parts of the Torah lend themselves to metaphorical interpretation so that they can correspond with Reason; likewise there is a legitimate philosophical case to be made that we need to allow for mystical experiences which are not subject to Reason. But to go beyond that and to describe as philosophical an exegesis of Biblical texts which depends on numbers or on letters to which numerical values are given is, to say the least, a distortion of the rational procedures which philosophy requires. And indeed the author of a later chapter does say that the Kabbalah dissolved the medieval synthesis between religion and philosophy (p.549).

Likewise I have some problem about describing either the angry and abusive reactions of orthodox rabbis to the Reform movement in Germany (chapter 30), the arguments for Zionism (chapter 32), or those for the feminist attack on the male-oriented theology and practice of orthodox Judaism (chapter 38) as strictly speaking philosophical: the latter two seem to me essentially political or social.

Just as several of the authors raise but do not effectively deal with the distinction between philosophy and theology, so several others raise, without resolving, the question of what it means to describe any philosophy as specifically Jewish. It is most obviously Jewish when it concerns itself with matters that are peculiar to Judaism, such as the nature of God’s Covenant with Israel. It is less uniquely Jewish when it applies the same philosophical concepts to Jewish sources (the Jewish Bible, the Talmud etc.) as Islamic philosophers apply to the Koran, the hadiths and the sharia. And what if the author is known to have been a Jew, irrespective of any specifically Jewish content in his philosophy? The medieval Spanish philosopher Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron) made no reference to the Bible or the Talmud; his neo-Platonic text, translated from Arabic into Latin, was for many centuries used by Christians; and it was only in 1846 that he was rediscovered to have been a Jew. Then there is Spinoza, excommunicated by his synagogue, consequently (as the chapter on him shows) evincing bitterness and hostility to Judaism, and developing a philosophy which has nothing to do with Judaism.

Spinoza arguably draws less on the thinkers of other traditions than any of the other philosophers mentioned in the book. I would argue that he is one of the four Jewish-born thinkers whose originality has massively influenced European civilization. (The other three, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, are not included in this book, presumably because they are not considered philosophers.) What the book brings out very strongly is how all the other major post-biblical Jewish thinkers were influenced by the non-Jewish environment in which they lived and so by the thought of non-Jewish philosophers. It traces the influence of Hellenism on Philo of Alexandria; of the Islamic Aristotelianism of Al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroës on Maimonides and the Maimonideans; of the Enlightenment on Moses Mendelssohn; of Hegelianism on the Wissenschaft des Judentums; of Kant on Samuel Rafael Hirsch and Hermann Cohen; of Herder and nationalism on Zionism. Only Maimonides, though himself influenced by Arabic philosophy, in turn exercised an appreciable influence over Thomist Christianity; and Spinoza, as I have already said, was central in shaping the Radical Enlightenment. Spinoza could do this because in Holland the Jews were emancipated. Likewise there was briefly some relaxation of persecution in Renaissance Italy, in which context the Jewish Kabbalah was taken up by Pico della Mirandola and led to the development of a Christian Cabbalah. But these were exception between the time of Maimonides and that of Mendelssohn. During that period hardly any intellectual interaction between Jews and non-Jews took place. It was during that period that the Jews in most European countries were ghettoized and to some extent also ghettoized themselves intellectually, in that the rabbis at the time welcomed and reinforced this isolation. Although the ghettoes still existed in the time of Mendelssohn, he was himself accepted by the philosophers of the German Enlightenment; and once the ghettoes were abolished by the French Revolution, the fruitful interplay between Jewish and non-Jewish thought could again resume.

© Ralph Blumenau 2005

Ralph Blumenau is the author of Philosophy and Living, published by Imprint Academic, and teaches the History of Philosophy and the History of the Jews at the University of the Third Age in London.

History of Jewish Philosophy edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, Routledge 2003 pb, 934 pp., £35/$60.95 ISBN 0415324696.

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