Jewish Philosophy

From New World Encyclopedia

Jewish philosophy refers to philosophical inquiry informed or inspired by the texts, traditions and experience of the Jewish people. Judaism is not only a religion, but an agglomeration of cultural and historical traditions which in some cases date back thousands of years. It draws from the ancient Biblical texts of Genesis and the Pentateuch, the books of the Prophets, the midrash and dialectics of the Rabbis, and the works and discourses of medieval and modern Jewish philosophers, poets and writers.

Jewish philosophy can be considered to take two directions; the use of philosophical inquiry to search for a deeper understanding of Judaism and the Jewish experience, and the contribution to philosophy in general of insights gained from the study of Judaism or the experience of being a Jew.

Jewish philosophers played a crucial role in the transmission of the concepts and ideas of ancient Greek philosophers to early Christian thinkers, thus influencing the development of Christian doctrine and theology. They were also instrumental in introducing and developing humanism in Europe, and ultimately separating philosophical inquiry from religious practice altogether.

Religion and Philosophy

The debate over whether philosophical inquiry is compatible at all with revealed religious truth has existed in Judaism, Christianity and Islam almost since the beginning of Jewish religious philosophy. The works of one of the earliest Jewish philosophers, Philo Judaeus, were ignored by his Jewish contemporaries in the first century because they simply saw no connection between their faith and philosophy. The twelfth-century Jewish poet-philosopher Yehuda Halevi argued against philosophy, contending that knowledge arrived at by human reason is false and illusory and that real knowledge is that instilled by God in the human soul.

Any attempt to synthesize religion and philosophy is difficult because classical philosophers start with no concept of the conclusions they will arrive at through their investigations; while classical religious believers have a set of religious principles of faith which they already believe to be true. Some hold that one cannot simultaneously be a philosopher and a true adherent of a revealed religion, and that all attempts at synthesis ultimately fail. For example, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic mystic, viewed all philosophy as untrue and heretical. From the opposite point of view, Baruch Spinoza, a pantheist, viewed revealed religion as inferior to philosophy, and thus saw traditional Jewish philosophy as an intellectual failure.

One type of synthesis is accomplished by using philosophical arguments to prove that religious principles are true, a method found in the philosophical writings of many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is not generally accepted as true philosophy by philosophers. One example of this approach is found in the writings of Lawrence Kelemen, in Permission to Believe, (Feldheim 1990).

Another approach is to abstain from holding as true any religious principles, unless they can be independently arrived at through a philosophical analysis. An example of this can be found in the works of Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (twentieth century). This approach is generally unsatisfactory to serious adherents of that religion.

Philosophy of Judaism

The earliest Jewish philosophers were those who applied philosophical inquiry to the tenets of their own faith, in order to provide a logical and intellectual explanation of the truth. Early Jewish scholars, well-acquainted with the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras, identified Moses as the teacher of the ancient Greek philosophers. Philo Judaeus, (20 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.), one of the earliest Jewish philosophers and a founder of religious philosophy, attempted a synthesis of Judaism with Hellenistic philosophy and developed concepts, such as Logos, which became the foundation of Christian theology. (Jewish tradition was uninterested in philosophy at that time and did not preserve Philo’s thought; the Christian church preserved his writings because they mistakenly believed him to be a Christian.) Philo did not use philosophical reasoning to question Jewish truths, which he regarded as fixed and determinate, but to uphold them, and he discarded those aspects of Greek philosophy which did not conform to the Jewish faith, such as the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity and indestructibility of the world. He reconciled biblical texts with philosophical truths by resorting to allegory, maintaining that a text could have several meanings according to the way in which it was read.

Among other Jewish thinkers who used philosophical inquiry to support and explain their beliefs were Saadia Gaon (882 – 942), the first systematic Jewish philosopher; Gersonides (1288 – 1344), who promoted the idea of the soul’s immortality as part of a universal Active Intellect and believed that reason could answer any philosophical question; and Abraham Ibn Daud (1110 – 1180), who borrowed from the works of Islamic philosophers to demonstrate how philosophical truth could be synthesized with religious faith.

Religious philosophers used philosophical inquiry to seek answers to 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 true adherent of our religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of philosophy with religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of science with religion?

More modern Jewish thinkers have used philosophical inquiry to re-examine and revitalize their faith, and to seek answers to new questions, such as whether faith in God is still possible after historical catastrophes such as the Holocaust (holocaust theology). Other questions confronting modern Jewish philosophers are whether Jews, as a people who have a special covenant with God, have a particular social or spiritual mission to fulfill; and the problem of how to maintain a unique identity when Jews are quickly assimilating into the cultures of the many modern nations in which they live. One response to the last question has been the development of Zionism, the belief that Judaism must have a central nation, Israel, or a spiritual center on earth, in order to continue their mandate from God.

Early Jewish Philosophy

Early Jewish philosophy drew heavily from Plato, Aristotle and Islamic philosophy. Early medieval Jewish philosophers (from the eighth century to end of the ninth century) were especially influenced by the Islamic Mutazilite philosophers; they denied any limitations that might be imposed by assigning attributes to God and were champions of God's unity and justice.

Saadia Gaon

Saadia Gaon (892-942) is considered one of the greatest of the early Jewish philosophers. His Emunoth ve-Deoth (originally called Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat, the "Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma"), completed in 933, was the first systematic presentation of a philosophic foundation for the dogmas of Judaism. Saadia Gaon supported the rationality of the Jewish faith, with the restriction that reason must capitulate wherever it contradicts tradition. Jewish doctrines such as creation “ex nihilo” and the immortality of the individual soul therefore took precedence over Aristotle’s teachings that the world had existed for eternity, and that logical reasoning could only prove the existence of a general, not an individual, immortality.

Saadia closely followed the rules of the Mutazilites (the rationalistic dogmatists of Islam, to whom he owed in part also his thesis and arguments), adhering most frequently to the Mutazilite school of Al-Jubbai and borrowing the structure of the Mutazilite Kalam.

Medieval Jewish Philosophers

Historical role of Jewish philosophers

Medieval Jewish scholars had early access to Arabic manuscripts on philosophy, mathematics and science, and to Arabic translations of the works of Greek philosophers. Thus they took an important role in formulating monotheistic concepts and transmitting Aristotelian thought to scholastic philosophers and theologians in Western Europe. Gersonides, Ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and Crescas preserved the continuity of philosophical thought from the Hellenistic thinkers and the Arabic philosophers, physicians, and poets to the Latin-Christian world of medieval Europe.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol

The Jewish poet-philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, also known as Avicebron (d. about 1070 C.E.) was one of the first teachers of Neoplatonism in Europe. In response to Aristotle’s objection that the Platonic theory of ideas lacked an intermediary, or third being, between God and the universe, between form and matter, Ibn Gabirol proposed the divine will. His classic work on philosophy was Mekor Chayim ("The Source of Life"), and he wrote a work on ethics entitled Tikkun Middot HaNefesh ("Correcting the Qualities of the Soul"). As in the case of Philo Judaeus a thousand years earlier, Ibn Gabirol’s philosophical works were largely ignored by contemporary Jews and later Jewish philosophers, but made a profound impression on medieval Christian scholastics, including Albertus Magnus and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas. Among the Jews, Ibn Gabirol’s greatest impact was in the area of the Jewish liturgy. His work was quoted by Moses ibn Ezra and Abraham ibn Ezra.

Bahya ibn Paquda's Duties of the Heart

Bahya ibn Paquda (Spain, first half of the eleventh century) was the author of the first Jewish system of ethics, written in Arabic in 1040 under the title Al Hidayah ila Faraid al-hulub ("Guide to the Duties of the Heart"), and translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon in 1161-1180 under the title Chovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart.) Though he frequently quoted the works of Saadia Gaon, he was an adherent of Neoplatonic mysticism and often followed the method of the Arabian encyclopedists known as "the Brothers of Purity." Inclined to contemplative mysticism and asceticism, Bahya eliminated from his system every element that he felt might obscure monotheism, or might interfere with Jewish law. He wanted to present a religious system at once lofty and pure and in full accord with reason.

Yehuda Halevi and the Kuzari

The Jewish poet-philosopher Yehuda Halevi (twelfth century) in his polemical work Kuzari, made strenuous arguments against philosophy, contending that knowledge arrived at by human reason is false and illusory; inward illumination based on truths instilled by God in the human soul is to be considered paramount. The Kuzari describes representatives of different religions and of philosophy disputing, before the king of the Khazars, the respective merits of the systems they stand for, with the victory being ultimately awarded to Judaism.


Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135 - 1204), רבי משה בן מיימון, known commonly by his Greek name Maimonides, was a Jewish scholastic, respected by Christian and Islamic contemporaries, whose Guide for the Perplexed and philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna exerted an important influence on the Scholastic philosophers. Maimonides believed the fundamental tenet of Scholasticism, that there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy, by which he understood the science and philosophy of Aristotle. On some important points, however, he departed from the teachings of Aristotle, supporting the Jewish doctrine of creation ex nihilo,` and rejecting the Aristotelian doctrine that God's provident care extends only to humanity in general, and not to the individual.

Maimonides was led by his admiration for the neo-Platonic commentators to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept. He was an adherent of "negative theology," maintaining that no positive attributes can be predicated to God, because referring to multiple attributes would compromise the unity of God. 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 similarity of essence, only of words (homonymy) ("Guide," I 35, 56). Therefore nothing can be known concerning the true being of God; of God it can only be said that He is, not what He is.

Maimonides set out 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 with prophecy and the Divine Origin of the Torah; and the last four deal with Reward, Punishment and the ultimate redemption.


Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides, or the Ralbag, (1288- 1345) is best known for his work Milhamot HaShem (or Milchamot, "Wars of the Lord"). Gersonides placed reason above tradition. The Milhamot HaShem is modeled after the Guide for the Perplexed of Maimonides, and 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

Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410) is best known for Or Hashem ("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 (influenced by 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 Hashem, comprised 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

Joseph Albo, a Spanish rabbi and theologian of the fifteenth century, is known chiefly as the author of a work on the Jewish principles of faith, 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 criticized the opinions of his predecessors, but allowed a remarkable latitude of interpretation that would accommodate even the most theologically liberal Jews. Albo rejected the assumption that creation ex nihilo was an essential implication of the belief in God. Albo freely criticized Maimonides' thirteen principles of belief and Crescas' six principles.

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), reverted, as in his Etz Hayyim (Hebrew, "Tree of Life") to the views of Aristotle.

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.

Enlightenment Jewish Philosophers

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) received a Talmudic education but was excommunicated from the synagogue in 1656 because of his radical views. Influenced by Descartes, he developed a pantheistic worldview in which the single substance of God was manifested as infinitely many attributes, and events were determined by necessity, not by Providence. The full scope and importance of Spinoza's work was not realized until years after his death and the publication of Opera Posthuma. He is now recognized as having laid the groundwork for the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and as a founder of modern biblical criticism.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729 - 1786), a German philosopher of the Jewish Enlightenment, strove to support and sustain the Jewish faith while advancing the cause of reason. His most important contribution to philosophy was to refine and strengthen the philosophical proofs for the existence of God, providence and immortality, though in his later life he became less confident that metaphysical precepts could be subjected to rational proof. His German translation of the Pentateuch anchored the Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah. In 1783, Mendelssohn published Jerusalem, a forcible plea for freedom of conscience, maintaining that the state has no right to interfere with the religion of its citizens, and suggesting that different religious truths might be appropriate for different cultures.

Post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers

  • Samuel Hirsch (belonging to Reform Judaism)
  • Salomon Formstecher

Hasidic philosophy

Hasidic philosophy is the underlying teachings of the Hasidic movement founded by the mystic Baal Shem Tov (1698 – 1760) in eastern Europe during the mid-eighteenth century, one of the most significant developments of Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic philosophy sees profound meaning in the most mundane of daily events, and considers even the smallest occurrence as an act of Divine Providence, without which the universe cannot be complete and perfect. The divine and human form a single all-encompassing unity, and are linked through acts of Jewish piety. Ignoring the presence of God in every aspect of every life is considered to be a spiritual loss. Hasidism has four goals: revival of Jewish faith and spirituality; piety; refinement of one’s own personal nature through internalization of Hasidic teachings, and the demystification of esoteric knowledge.

Modern Jewish philosophy

One of the major trends in modern Jewish philosophy was the attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism. One proponent of Jewish existentialism was Franz Rosenzweig (1886 – 1929), who, while researching his doctoral dissertation on the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, reacted against Hegel's idealism. Rosenzweig, considered conversion to Christianity, but in 1913, he turned to Jewish philosophy and became a student of Hermann Cohen. Rozensweig's major work, Star of Redemption, portrayed the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are connected by creation, revelation and redemption. Later Jewish existentialists include Conservative rabbis Neil Gillman and Elliot N. Dorff.

At the same time, Haredi Orthodox Judaism has seen a resurgence of a systematic philosophical format for its beliefs. The founder of this system was Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, a student of the Kelm mussar yeshiva and later Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) of Ponevezh yeshiva. Although he never formally organized his ideas for publication, after his death in 1953 his students compiled his numerous manuscripts in a five-volume work titled "Michtav Ma'Eliyahu," later translated into English and published as "Strive for Truth." His ideas have been popularized and promulgated by many Haredi educators, including Dessler’s student Rabbi Aryeh Carmel (main redactor of "Michtav Ma'Eliyahu") and Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz (author of many works and a well known lecturer and activist in the kiruv (outreach) movement).

Religious naturalism

Perhaps the most controversial form of Jewish philosophy that developed in the early twentieth century was the religious naturalism of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881 – 1983). His theology was a variant of John Dewey's philosophy. Dewey's naturalism combined atheist beliefs with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion. In agreement with the classical medieval Jewish thinkers, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan's theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled. Kaplan wrote that "to believe in God means to take for granted that it is man's destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society."

Process philosophy

One of the more recent trends has been a reframing of Jewish theology through the lens of process philosophy, and more specifically process theology. Process philosophy suggests that fundamental elements of the universe are occasions of experience. According to this notion, what people commonly think of as concrete objects are actually successions of these occasions of experience. Occasions of experience can be collected into groupings; something complex such as a human being is thus a grouping of many smaller occasions of experience. In this view, everything in the universe is characterized by experience (which is not to be confused with consciousness); there is no mind-body duality under this system, because "mind" is simply seen as a very developed kind of experiencing.

Inherent to this worldview is the notion that all experiences are influenced by prior experiences, and will influence all future experiences. This process of influencing is never deterministic; an occasion of experience consists of a process of prehending other experiences, and then a reaction to it. This is the process in process philosophy. Process philosophy gives God a special place in the universe of occasions of experience. God encompasses all the other occasions of experience but also transcends them; thus process philosophy is a form of panentheism.

The original ideas of process theology were developed by Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), and influenced a number of Jewish theologians, including British philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), and Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, Harry Slominsky and to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today some rabbis who advocate some form of process theology include Donald B. Rossoff, William E. Kaufman, Harold Kushner, Anton Laytner, Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Lawrence Troster and Nahum Ward.

Hermann Cohen and neo-Kantianism

Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918), a systematizer of ethical monotheism, was probably the most important Jewish philosopher of the nineteenth century. His three major works, which advanced the basic ideas of Immanuel Kant and slowly developed his own system of Neo-Kantianism, Logik der Reinen Erkenntnis (The Logic of Pure Perception), Ethik des Reinen Willens (The Ethics of the Pure Will), and Ä sthetik des Reinen Gefühls (The Esthetics of Pure Feeling), were purely secular. He introduced a philosophical concept of God as the inevitable and ultimate ideal coincidence of what “is” with what “ought to be” and developed the idea that human history was a steady progress toward that ideal.

Cohen viewed Judaism as a religion of reason that provided a model for all religions and all societies, centering on the interdependence of the idea of God and the idea of human beings. This role, however, was only a transitory phase in the development of mankind towards a universal religion. Cohen maintained that no one can be rationally content until social justice exists for all people in the world. His ideas on ethical socialism influenced German social democracy. His work, Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism) (1919) which is widely credited with inspiring a renewal of Jewish religious philosophy in twentieth-century Europe.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), a Jewish - American political theorist who fled Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe, drew profound insights from her experiences. Her books, on themes such as the nature of freedom and authority, totalitarianism, revolution, the faculties of 'thinking' and 'judging,' the history of political thought, and the interpretation of politics and human activity, influenced the development of modern political theory. Rejecting Western philosophical tradition, she maintained that political theory and philosophy had inhibited a correct understanding of political activity, and emphasized the active life as the apex of human achievement.

Modern Jewish philosophers

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

  • Shalom Carmy
  • Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler
  • Samson Raphael Hirsch
  • Yitzchok Hutner
  • Menachem Kellner
  • Steven T. Katz
  • Abraham Isaac Kook
  • Norman Lamm
  • Avigdor Miller
  • Menachem Mendel Schneerson
  • Joseph Soloveitchik

Conservative Judaism philosophers

  • Bradley Shavit Artson
  • Elliot N. Dorff
  • Neil Gillman
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • William E. Kaufman
  • Harold Kushner

Reform Judaism philosophers

  • Emil Fackenheim

Reconstructionist Judaism philosophers

  • Mordecai Kaplan


Philosophers informed by their Jewish background

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blau, Joseph L. 1962. The story of Jewish philosophy. New York: Random House. ISBN 0870681745
  • Fackenheim, Emil L., and Michael L. Morgan. 1996. Jewish philosophers and Jewish philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253330629
  • Frank, Daniel H., Oliver Leaman, and Charles Harry Manekin. 2000. The Jewish philosophy reader. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415168597
  • Frank, Daniel H., and Oliver Leaman. 2003. The Cambridge companion to medieval Jewish philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521652073
  • Kajon, Irene. 2006. Contemporary Jewish philosophy: an introduction. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415341639

External links

All links retrieved July 31, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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