Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Reason in a Religious Age

The philosophers of the Middle Ages believed they were unearthing existing wisdom, not creating new ideas.

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But because of a combination of factors, primarily the difficult and the esoteric nature of wisdom, and the persecutions and tribulations of the Jews, the key that unlocks the secrets of the Law (hence the secrets of existence) was lost. But hope remained. For since wisdom had passed to the Greeks, and since much of it was attainable through human reason (for God is Supreme Reason), it would be possible to unlock once again the secrets of the Law, to decode its inner message, through reading the Greek philosophers and employing reason.

In fact, since the Jews are commanded to know God and to understand the Law, the study of Greek wisdom itself became a religious obligation.

One Wisdom: Torah and Philosophy

From this latter account there emerge several features of medieval Jewish philosophy worth emphasizing. (Some of these features are shared by other medieval intellectual traditions, such as kabbalah, and Christian and Muslim philosophies.)

First, the unity of the Law and wisdom. Jews in the Middle Ages accepted the Law and other prophetic writings of their tradition as the word of God, and hence, as absolutely true. Those Jewish sages who accepted Greek wisdom had to find room for it within the Law, not only because truth does not conflict with truth, but because the Law is the repository of all truth. They resorted often to non-literal methods of interpretation such as allegory, justifying their practice by appeals to the ancient rabbis, who themselves had used forms of non‑literal exegesis of Scripture.

Some of the biggest battles between Jewish philosophers and their traditionalist critics centered on the nature and extent of allegory; what parts of Scripture may or should be read as allegories and what "secret doctrines" should be uncovered. Almost everyone accepted that some non‑literal type of exegesis was appropriate.

This loose interpretative approach to scripture is one of the two biggest stumbling­ blocks for the reader of medieval Jewish philosophy today. (The other is that the texts are difficult and arcane.) It seems as if the philosophers are always reading Aristotle into the text.

Did they genuinely believe that the Bible, properly understood, taught physics and metaphysics? The answer is, yes, they did, because of their belief in the unity of wisdom and the Law.

Nor were they alone.

Kabbalists and Christians believed in something similar, although their understanding of the hidden content of the Law differed from that of the philosophers. (In fact, the belief that Scripture includes all wisdom persisted in Europe until the rise and spread of biblical criticism.) This is not to say that there were no interpretative constraints on Jewish philosophers, or that they felt that all Scripture could be harmonized with philosophy; some held that portions of the Law could not be reconciled with philosophical wisdom and that these were designed for the welfare of the multitude, and should not be taken as philosophically true.

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