The Influence of Non-Jewish Thinking on Jewish Thought

Jewish thinkers have both embraced and directly reacted to foreign ideas and philosophies.

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Jewish thought has evolved in dialogue with the thinking of other cultures and religions. In each era, Jewish writers, philosophers, and mystics have been influenced by (and sometimes influenced) the intellectual trends of the non-Jewish world. 

 

Early Confrontations

This relationship stretches all the way back to the Bible. Ancient Near Eastern religious concepts can be detected in biblical theology, and according to many scholars, Ecclesiastes echoes early Greek philosophy in its tragic and pessimistic themes. religious texts

In the realm of strict philosophy, Philo (d. 50 CE) was the first significant Jewish thinker to self-consciously confront and embrace non-Jewish thought. A learned Hellenistic Alexandrian, Philo attempted to reconcile the Platonism prevalent in his day with the teachings of the Bible. To do this, he often employed allegorical readings of Scripture. For instance, Philo interprets Sarah's demand that Abraham banish his second wife Hagar as the good man being called by his intellect to banish the lure of bodily passions.

The Middle Ages: Confronting Greek and Islamic Thought

The symbiotic relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish thought was never more obvious than in the Middle Ages.

Much of medieval Jewish philosophy was dedicated to reconciling the truths of the Torah's revelation with rational thought as conceived by the Greeks. For the most part, however, Jewish thinkers encountered Greek thought through its Islamic manifestations. The first major Jewish philosopher, Saadia Gaon, was particularly influenced by the Mutazilite school of the Kalam--Islamic speculative theology.

In Saadia's major work Emunot Ve'Deot (Beliefs and Opinions), he adheres to the first of the Mutazilite's five defining principles: the unity of God. He borrows from their proofs for this principle and follows their lead in understanding the attributes of God as intrinsic elements of God's essence, not independent properties. Saadia also adheres to the Mutazilite view of the non-eternity of the universe, believing that it was created at a fixed point in time. The proofs he brings for this are taken directly from Mutazalite literature.

In contrast to Saadia, Maimonides dedicated many sections in his Guide For the Perplexed to dismantling the Mutazalite proofs of God's existence, unity, and non-physicality. He also rejects their doctrine of creation, objecting that their method brought proofs based on categories of the imagination rather than categories of reason.

These concerns with correct categorization and argumentation reveal Maimonides' allegiance to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Following the Islamic Aristotelians of his time, such as Al-Farabi and Averroes, Maimonides accepted the Aristotelian system of physics and metaphysics as the paradigm of rational thought.

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Elie Jesner

Elie Jesner lives and writes in London. He has studied Talmud, Jewish Thought, and General Philosophy at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Cambridge University, and the University of Warwick.