Modern Jewish Philosophy

Jewish thought in modern times has been shaped by radically new political realities.

Print this page Print this page

Modern Jewish thought is rooted in the 18th and 19th-century European Jewish Enlightenment. Many of the issues that arose at this time continued to be relevant when the center of Jewish life moved from Europe to Israel and America. Below is a general introduction to modern European Jewish thought and brief reviews of the more specific issues faced by Jewish philosophers in Israel and America. The material on the emergence of modern Jewish philosophy, Europe, and Israel is written by Mendes-Flohr; the final section on American Jewish philosophy is written by Breslauer. Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The Paradox of Modern Jewish Philosophy

Jewish religious thought since the eighteenth century is characterized by a grand paradox. Whereas the Jews' entry into the modern world has witnessed their increasing secularization, they have at the same time been preoccupied with theological questions. Indeed the preeminent task assumed by modern Jewish religious thought has been to re‑articulate and even radically re‑evaluate the theological presuppositions of Judaism in the light of the modern secular experience.

Beginning with the proud, defiant humanism of the Renaissance and gaining dramatic momentum with the "new" science and cosmology heralded by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, the modalities of thought we now consider "modern" began to crystallize. The emergence of this bent of mind marked a radical shift in the regnant assumptions of western civilization regarding the nature of reality and the sources of authentic knowledge.

The biblical teachings of creation, revelation, and miracles were virtually excluded from this picture of the world.

The modern mind and sensibility are thus founded on a fundamentally new "image of knowledge," that is, the assumptions regarding what constitutes true knowledge‑‑its sources, purpose, and principles of verification. Asserting the preeminence of reason and autonomous judgment and the dignity of a this‑worldly happiness, the modern image of knowledge is said to be inherently antagonistic to the biblical image of knowledge grounded as it is in the concepts of revealed truth, sacred scriptures, and an eschatological vision of human destiny.

Heir to the biblical image of knowledge, modern Jewish thought seeks to come to terms with modern conceptions of truth and meaning. In this respect, of course, it is basically similar to modern religious thought in general.

Jewish Philosophy and Jews in Modern Europe

There are, however, specifics of the Jewish experience in modern Europe that determine the agenda and peculiar inflections of modern Jewish thought. It should, therefore, be recalled that Jews first encountered the modern world during the protracted struggle in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe to attain political emancipation. This struggle was not merely a legal process but engaged Europe in an intense and wide‑ranging debate assessing Judaism's eligibility to participate in the modern world.

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

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr

Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr is a Professor of Modern Jewish Thought in the Divinity School and the University of Chicago. He is also in the Committee on Jewish Studies and an Associate Faculty in the Department of History.