Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Reason in a Religious Age

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

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Philosophy Reader, edited by Daniel H. Frank, Oliver Leaman, and Charles Harry Manekin, published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group (2000).

The story of medieval Jewish philosophy as it is commonly told, goes something like this:

At some point during the tenth century, Jews living in Muslim lands started to write systematic treatises of philosophy, mostly in imitation of treatises written by Muslim philosophers. Before that time, Jews had a lot to say about philosophical matters, but since they didn’t write about them in the way that the Greeks had written about them, it hardly counted as "philosophy."

(Of course, there were Jews who wrote philosophy in the Hellenistic period, but those Jews were outside of the dominant tradition of rabbinic Judaism, as were the Karaite Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages. This shouldn’t have made a difference, but to many of the story‑tellers it did.)

Jewish philosophy reached its peak with Maimonides, the story continues, but his synthesis of reason and religion, though initially popular among a few intellectuals, caused a reaction among the traditionalists, who finally got the upper hand around the end of the fifteenth century. With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the growth in the study of kabbalah, philosophy, which had always been a marginal intellectual activity for the Jews, entered a period of decline.

Jewish philosophers after the seventeenth century tended to be more attuned to the zeitgeist [i.e. the spirit of their times] than their medieval counterparts, and increasingly more secular.

How Medieval Jewish Thinkers Saw Themselves

The story told above has a kernel of truth in it, along with more than a few inaccuracies and distortions. But what is important to emphasize is that the story is a recent one. It assumes the periodization employed by the nineteenth‑century scholars who unearthed many of the works of medieval Jewish philosophy, as well as their historical sense, intellectual worldview and religious perspective.

Listen to the medieval Jewish philosophers themselves, however, and you will hear a different story about the origins and development of what we call "medieval Jewish philosophy" and what they often simply called "wisdom" (hokhmah). They will tell you that God gave wisdom to Moses (or to Adam or to Abraham) and to the Prophets. This wisdom was encoded within the Law [i.e. Torah] and the dicta of the Rabbis as secret doctrines, so that the wise and only the wise would be able to fathom it. The great teachers of each age passed it down to one or two individuals, Jews and non‑Jews, which is how this wisdom came to the Greeks.

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.

The Esotericism of Jewish Thought

Next, the elitism of the Jewish philosophers, who believed that the pursuit of wisdom is best left to the wise. Such an unegalitarian approach is not easily understood by modern readers, although it was a commonplace for ancients and medievals. Many Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, felt not only that the untrained and unworthy will fail to comprehend wisdom, but also that they may be harmed by their misunderstanding.

There is a tension in the texts of medieval Jewish philosophy, especially those written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, between the desire to reveal philosophical secrets, and the need to conceal them. Philosophers often looked to the precedent of the Law itself, for guidance. On the one hand, the Law was given to all Israel; on the other hand, it contained secrets that were to be kept from the multitude.

Maimonides felt an obligation to teach everyone the true meaning of the Law, but only according to his or her ability to comprehend it. Since the Law was given to Moses not only to regulate behavior but to teach truths, it was the task of the teacher to communicate those truths in ways that would be understood. Although the study of philosophy was always an occupation for the elite (as was, in their own ways, the study of kabbalah and the study of Talmud), philosophical doctrines were sometimes disseminated to the people, especially through the vehicle of sermons.

Truth is Non-discriminatory

Finally, the universal character of wisdom. Both philosophers and kabbalists thought that only a handful of worthy students should receive the secrets of the Law. Both believed in the ultimate unity of the Law and wisdom, and both thought that wisdom was granted to the ancient Hebrews. But they differed over the content of that wisdom, and hence over the value and importance of studying non‑Jewish sources.

Ultimately, it did not matter to the philosophers whether Socrates or Aristotle had studied with Jewish prophets or not: what mattered was whether they attained the truth or not, and that truth was attainable for the most part through unaided reason.

Maimonides’ dictum "Accept the truth from whoever says it" became the watchword for Jewish philosophers of all stripes, from the most radical to the most conservative. (Isaac Abrabanel praised the faith and piety of Christian philosophers as superior to that of his Jewish brethren. Isaac Arama dealt harshly with the Jewish Aristotelians but enjoyed the sermons of Christian prelates.)

Still, Jewish philosophers cite their non-Jewish sources only when they feel that an appeal to authority will help clinch an argument (or when they assume that their readers will be familiar with the doctrines espoused).

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