The road to Rosenzweig

Jewish Philosophy

May 28, 2004

Once upon a time, people talked of "the philosophy of Judaism"; then it became "the philosophies of Judaism"; and now it is simply "Jewish philosophy". This nomenclature happily circumvents all need for definitions and the only limitation Norbert Samuelson acknowledges is to exclude "Jewish thought", dismissed as no more than mere opinion, and especially so "Jewish religious thought". This seemingly arbitrary exclusion is somewhat at odds with the tentative and self-questioning tone of the book as a whole. No matter, this tension adds a certain flavour.

Samuelson takes his philosophical subject matter from a variety of sources - the Hebrew Bible (with its view of God, and Torah), the God of the early rabbis as perceived in Midrash and the two Talmuds. There follows a series of chapters on "Classical Jewish philosophy" that are dominated by Maimonides, with lesser attention being devoted to Gersonides and Crescas.

Spinoza, depicted as the bridge to the modern with his Ethics and The Tractatus , introduces the new world of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.

Given the limitations inseparable from a one-volume introduction to a history of several millennia, Samuelson's text is a remarkable achievement in opening up the subject for newcomers to the field. He has an enviable knack for rendering complex ideas into assimilable concepts. This book is expressly intended and designed for first-year university students and students in adult education and this pedagogic aim should certainly be achieved. Each chapter is accompanied by a series of questions and a booklist of secondary reading.

The balance and emphasis of the book is quirky and idiosyncratic. I find it difficult to justify the exclusion of the philosophical material contained in the vast body of rabbinic responsa. This is dismissed with a mention of the decline of theoretical speculation in the advanced schools of rabbinic study (the yeshivot ). Samuelson goes further than this when, from Spinoza onwards, he finds "a clear separation between rabbinic leadership of modern Europe and the life of intellect". Where would Mendelssohn fit into this schema?

For all its imbalance, this book excels in its power to expound the sense of many of the changing themes that have engaged Jewish philosophers.

Lionel Kochan is honorary research fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Jewish Philosophy: A Historical Introduction. First edition

Author - Norbert M. Samuelson
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 344
Price - £75.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 8264 6140 9 and 6141 7

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