Judaism has a long and glorious history of spinoffs - various intellectual and spiritual movements that have ‘spun off’ from the main body and formed sub-currents within the main stream of the religion. In fact, there are so many of these offshoots that it has become a little difficult to identify what the original ‘mainstream’ was. Some would say, for instance, that the Mishna, the Talmud, and the Midrash were all sub-currents of the main body of the Torah and the Tanakh. Of course, so might go back even further and say that the Tanakh is a sub-current of the Chumash.
Around the year 1000 the first signs began to emerge of lines of ideas that were semi-independent of the original text of the Torah and auxiliary texts of the Oral Law. There were two primary streams in this long process of transformation. Both had actually been around for centuries, perhaps going back over 1000 years. One was the esoteric wisdom of mysticism, an area that we shall be delving into extensively in another section. For now, however, we must let it remain a mystery. The other stream was the more familiar but considerably less popular branch of wisdom known as philosophy.
Many Jews express surprise when they hear about Jewish philosophers. They associate philosophy with ancient Greeks, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Or maybe they have read a little of the more recent philosophers like Descartes, Hume, Locke, or Kant. Philosophy, they believe, deals with arcane fields like epistemology, metaphysics, or existentialism. They consider philosophy and philosophers to be about as Jewish as ham sandwiches or drag racing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Jews have been involved in philosophy since the Hellenist era (the period after Alexander the Great conquered much of the ancient world during the late 4th century BCE), as a result of their extensive interaction with the Greeks. The best known product of this Jewish-Greek interaction was the Alexandrian Jew Philo. While Philo had tremendous influence on Christian philosophy and theology, he is hardly a household word among Jews. What probably happened was that philosophy and all things Greek acquired an extremely bad name among Jews following the destruction of the second temple and the rise of Christianity. Any philosophical leanings were submerged into the growing corpus of Talmudic and midrashic thought, until the whole field was almost forgotten by Jews.
Such was the state of things until around the year 900. One of rabbinic leaders of the Babylonian academies, Saadia ibn (son of) Yosef, commonly known as Saadia Gaon, wrote a groundbreaking work that attempted to synthesize Judaism and philosophy. Following Saadia, there were scores of scholars, mostly located in Muslim Spain, who wrote extensively about Jewish philosophy. The Spanish Jews (Sefaradim in Hebrew) were not just armchair philosophers. They were statesmen and doctors, poets and linguists. Among the more prominent names are Shmuel Hanassi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bachya ibn Pakuda, and Yehudah HaLevi. The period reached its apogee with the most illustrious Jewish philosopher of them all – Maimonides.
Maimonides lived during much of the 12th century. Although he had to leave Spain before his major works were written, he has forever been enshrined as the epitome of what a Sefaradi scholar should be. He was a philosopher par excellence, indeed, one of history’s leading Aristotelian scholars. But he also played a pivotal role in establishing Jewish law and custom on firm footing with his monumental work on this subject. It is because of this dual role that Maimonides has the unique status of having not one, but two topics in this lofty list of ideas.
What were these philosophers really after? By and large they had two goals – to reconcile the Torah with what was then considered ‘rational’ thought, and to use that reconciliation to explain the workings of the world. A good deal of the latter had already been adequately explained by the Greek philosophers, chief among them being Aristotle. Aristotle’s word was largely recognized by the medieval philosophers as gospel truth. To go against him then was similar to going against science today. Keep in mind that the subject of philosophy up until the late Renaissance (16th century) included both the physical (called natural philosophy) and the metaphysical (beyond physical – God, angels, the soul, free will, ethics, etc. – matters that were intricately connected with religion). Aristotle was the barometer of truth that any philosophical theory had to measure up to. The problems arose when one compared his ideas to scripture.
These problems included the nature and mechanism of creation, the eternity of the universe, the nature of the soul and free will, the validity of miracles, the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the nature of prophecy, good and evil, divine justice and ultimate reward and punishment. The Biblical position of many of these issues went directly against Aristotelian philosophy. It was the task of the Jewish philosopher to get them to agree, either by taking the daring route of rejecting Aristotle or by the heretical risk of reinterpreting scripture or rabbinic thought. The guiding principle of philosophy was that the world could be explained rationally, meaning that it made sense to the human mind. Those elements of Jewish tradition that didn’t fit into rational thought had to be dealt with, either by redefining rational thought or twisting Judaism to fit. It was not an easy task.
Among the pitfalls of such a method was the somewhat arbitrary standard of rational. Was something rational just because it made sense at the time, or was there some higher standard that had to be met? Take for example the pseudoscience of astrology. During medieval times, almost everyone believed in astrology. Jewish philosophers, by and large, accepted it as legitimate (a noted exception was Maimonides). At the time this was entirely rational. Not the slightest thing was known about the origin and workings of the stars, so it made good sense to believe that they could somehow have some influence on our lives. Today, most so-called ‘rational’ people no longer accept astrology as a rational study. Almost all scientists consider it to be nonsense. So was it truly rational or not? If it was rational then, why isn’t it rational now?
The same problem existed with the nature of God, who was ‘rationally’ defined as being all-knowing, though this was not at all obvious from either scripture or rabbinic texts. This definition, however, produced a problem with the reality of human free will. If God knows everything, even what is to happen in the future, then how can we human beings truly posses free will. If God knows what our choices will be then we cannot choose otherwise and do not really have the ability to make a choice. If we truly make a choice then God cannot have known about it in advance. Maimonides and other philosophers dealt with this question and others like it, attempting to resolve the logical problems while remaining faithful to both rational thought and to Jewish tradition. Their answers, though deep and ingenious, invariably left some people unsatisfied.
Following Maimonides, philosophy entered into a downward trend among Jewish scholars from which it never really recovered. True, there were Jewish philosophers after Maimonides, including some of the most important, but the subject never regained the privileged status that it enjoyed both before and during his time. Jews in both Spain and the France/Germany area increasingly turned towards mysticism to answer their most pressing intellectual and spiritual problems. From around the mid-13th century, Judaism has seen the bulk of its most prolific scholars concentrate on the areas of Talmud study and the various law codes associated with it, and on the ever-developing arena of Kabbalah, the popular term for Jewish mysticism.
What happened? In all likelihood, philosophy was never a mainstream way of life among Jews. Even during its heyday it was really an ivory tower affair that only a small percentage of Jews, the Jewish intellectual elite, really explored. The masses never had much interest or understanding of the questions or the solutions that philosophy presented. In all fairness, the same can be said about the two competing Jewish intellectual pursuits of Talmud and mysticism – until the last 200 years they were the exclusive domain of a small minority, even among the devout. Like philosophy, they were too deep and too removed from daily life to be of any major concern for the average Jew whose mind was monopolized by making it to the next day.
But this only explains its lack of popularity with the common Jew. What about the scholars? Why did they by and large abandon philosophy in favor of mysticism? Perhaps philosophy had reached too far away from traditional Judaism in it efforts of reconciliation. Perhaps these scholars saw where it all must lead – to the gradual abandonment of cherished principles, rejection of rabbinic thought, or even questioning of scripture itself. With 20/20 hindsight, one can see the long road that led from rational philosophy to the early developments of scientific method to the mechanistic universe that works by eternal natural laws to atheism. Once the door to reinterpretation of scripture and putting rabbinic thought under scrutiny was opened, there could only be one conclusion.
Additionally, philosophical answers probably did not satisfy the need for practical benefits from Judaism. It gave little of the reassurance that came from reading Psalms or understanding and following the law. Perhaps more importantly, it lacked that crucial element of the ‘non-rational’ found both in the Talmud and the Kabbalah. Mysticism, in particular, emphasized this element, using it to explain the injustices and inconsistencies of life. As long as things were relatively good for the Jews, as they were for many centuries in Muslim Spain, philosophy was adequate. Once things got tougher, as when the Christians began to dominate Spain and impose their religion on the Jews, other solutions were needed.
So it has remained until today. Despite brief flare-ups of rational movements (Reform and Mussar in the 19th century, Conservative and modern Orthodox in the 20th) it never regained the solid moorings that it once held in medieval Spain. In a sense this is a pity. The rationality of philosophy added an intellectual anchor to Judaism at a time when it was undergoing major changes to meet the challenge of interacting with other cultures. Even today, the rational worldview is the primary impetus to fit Judaism in with modern science. But that path may be narrowing as science gradually makes all competing worldviews irrelevant, and religion reacts by rejecting any science that cannot fit in with dogma. Today if one were to ask the question ‘Whither Jewish philosophy?’, in most Jewish circles it probably would be met by a resounding ‘Who cares?’
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Topics to show. Add a Topic to start a specefic discussion
There are no Comments to show. Comment and start the discussion.