The path of the Israelites

History of Jewish Philosophy
January 30, 1998

It is not generally known that Judaism has a rich philosophical tradition. In the medieval period especially, Jewish scholars under the influence of Islamic theology produced a variety of studies dealing with the central problems of philosophy and theology. Such figures as Saadiah Gaon, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Moses Maimonides, Levi ben Gershom, and Hasdai Crescas made major contributions to the history of Jewish thought. In subsequent centuries other currents of philosophical reflection emerged paralleling current trends in secular philosophical thought.

In recent years several studies of the history of medieval as well as early modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy have appeared. Of particular significance are such works as Isaac Husik's A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy, Colette Sirat's A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, and Julius Guttmann's Philosophies of Judaism. Yet there has been no major survey of the history of Jewish thought from ancient times to the present. This excellent volume written by over 30 distinguished contributors fills an important gap and will be of considerable help for both students and general readers.

Beginning with a discussion of the nature of Jewish philosophy, the first section explores the basic religious assumptions of scripture. Here the authors examine the Bible as a source for philosophical reflection. Turning to Hellenistic Jewish philosophy, the religious ideas found in several biblical books, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and Philo's writings are examined. This section ends with a discussion of the Talmud as a source for philosophical reflection.

Following this introductory material, the next section explores the nature of Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages, the Islamic social and cultural context, the nature of the kalam in medieval Jewish thought, and the development of Jewish Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism. This is followed by a series of chapters dealing with a range of thinkers including Judah Halevi, Moses Maimonides, Levi ben Gershom and Hasdai Crescas. Interspersed within this section are individual chapters dealing with Maimonides and Aquinas, the Maimonidean controversy, and medieval and Renaissance Jewish political thought. Finally, the section concludes with an examination of Jewish mysticism and the nature of Jewish philosophy on the eve of modernity.

The next section starts with an overview of modern Jewish philosophy and continues with an assessment of Benedict de Spinoza's thought, the emergence of the Jewish Enlightenment, the growth of 19th-century German reform, and traditional reactions to Reform Judaism. Included here are individual chapters dealing with Moses Mendelssohn and Samson Raphael Hirsch. The final part of the book includes studies of Zionism, neo-Kantianism, Jewish existentialism, the Shoah, postmodern Jewish philosophy, and Jewish feminist thought. In the concluding chapter, one of the editors, Oliver Leaman, reflects on the future of Jewish philosophy. According to Leaman, Jewish philosophers will need to face complex issues regarding the nature of religious philosophy.

Nonetheless there are, he contends, exciting prospects for Jewish philosophy. On the one hand, pressures of assimilation will lead Jewish writers to reassess their relationship with the Jewish faith. Once Jewish thinkers discuss seriously their own subjective reactions to Judaism, it will be possible to evaluate how to assess the notion of subjectivity as well as differentiate between the variety of emotional and personal attitudes to the tradition. Combined with this debate will be the tradition of Jewish philosophy, as it developed through the ages, which deals with the analyses of the main concepts which arise from a logical approach to the Jewish religion.

This volume is a seminal contribution to this vision of the evolution of Jewish philosophy: it provides a thorough introduction to the history of Jewish thought and a wealth of bibliographical material. Despite being written by a range of scholars across the Jewish religious spectrum, it presents a unified picture of Jewish philosophy through the centuries. The only reservation is cost: retailing at nearly Pounds l00, the book is clearly aimed at a library sale. What is needed is an affordable paperback.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Judaism, University of Wales, Lampeter.

History of Jewish Philosophy: Volume Two

Editor - Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman
ISBN - 0 415 08064 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £95.00
Pages - 934

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