Jewish Philosophy and Philosophies of Judaism

It is more accurate to speak of Jewish philosophies than of a single Jewish philosophy.

Print this page Print this page

The new philosophers--Spinoza, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, later the existentialists, and later still the linguistic philosophers, all developed their own original approach, presenting new challenges to traditional Judaism. But in the modern period philosophy was largely pursued by Jews as a discipline independent of religion. It is far less accurate to speak of Jewish philosophers than philosophers who happened to be Jews. Only in the ranks of the comparatively few Jewish theologians were attempts made to work out a Jewish philosophy.

Modern Jewish Philosophies: Different Strokes

The foremost Jewish philosophers of modern times, that is, philosophical theologians who worked more or less within the confines of the Jewish religion, are Moses Mendelssohn [1729-1786], Nahman Krochmal [1785-1840], Samson Raphael Hirsch [1808-1888], Abraham Geiger [1810-1874], Martin Buber [1878-1965], and Franz Rosenzweig [1886-1929].

The majority of the traditionalists preferred to devote their intellectual efforts solely to the study of the traditional sources, Bible, Talmud, and the Kabbalah. But the approach of the Maskilim [the proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment] had as its aim the development of an "enlightened" approach to Judaism and can be considered to be in the Jewish philosophical tradition.

The same applies to the thinkers of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Orthodox Jews also felt themselves obliged to interpret Judaism in a philosophical manner, if only in reaction to Reform. It is better, therefore, from the religious point of view, to speak of various philosophies (in the plural) of Judaism: the philosophy of Reform Judaism, of Conservative Judaism, of Orthodox Judaism, of Zionism, and so forth.

Investigating Philosophies of Jewish Sources

Side by side with these Jewish philosophical trends, scholars have investigated the philosophical ideas contained in the classical sources, so that one can speak of the philosophy of the Bible, of the Talmud, of the Halakhah, of the Zohar. But here it has to be appreciated that the attempt involves imposing on these sources a system basically foreign to their organic nature.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.