Jewish Thinkers & Thought 101

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Religion is often thought of as a belief system or worldview, a philosophical framework through which reality is perceived.

But this conception of religion doesn’t necessarily fit well with Judaism (and, scholars of religion would point out, doesn’t do justice to most of the world’s religions, which include behaviors, rituals, and ceremonies in addition to beliefs). In Jewish tradition and life, belief has often taken a back seat to practice. Historically, Jews have been more concerned with halakhah, the Jewish legal tradition governing Jewish practice, than makhshavah, the discipline of Jewish thought.

thinkers and thoughtIn addition, it is difficult to speak of a single or official Jewish worldview, theology, or philosophy. Instead, we must speak of Jewish theologies and philosophies: the various and varied religious worldviews articulated during Judaism’s long history.

Jewish Thought

Neither the Bible nor foundational rabbinic literature–the Talmud and works of midrash–systematically analyzes Judaism. Theological ideas–the nature of God, creation, the afterlife–can be deduced from these writings, but oftentimes the information gleaned is contradictory, and rarely is it comprehensive.

thinkers & thought quizEventually, Jewish theology and philosophy did emerge as a unique discipline, reaching a place of particular prominence in Spain in the Middle Ages. Medieval Jewish thinkers articulated conceptual frameworks that tried to reconcile revelation and reason. Mystical theologies also gained prominence in the Middle Ages. The kabbalistic conception of God as a series of ten attributes–sefirot in Hebrew–is, to this day, one of the most studied and invoked Jewish theological concepts.

In the modern era, Jewish thinkers have confronted the new conditions of Jewish life: an increasingly secular world, the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the birth of the State of Israel.

Throughout history, Jewish thinkers have developed their theologies in dialogue with the cultures around them. From Philo‘s integration of Platonism and Judaism in the first century to Martin Buber‘s twentieth-century Jewish existentialism, Jewish thinkers have been influenced by trends in Christian, Muslim, and secular philosophy.

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