Jewish philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

3. Movements and important figures

Jewish philosophy has over the course of its history been the source of a number of different types of study based on the philosophically relevant ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic Law (Halakhah), Rabbinic theology and Rabbinic homiletics, exegesis and hermeneutics (midrash) (see Bible, Hebrew; Halakhah; Theology, Rabbinic; Midrash). The anti-Rabbinical, biblicist movement known as Karaism and the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah are examples of differing types of movements which have emerged (see Karaism; Kabbalah), while Jewish voluntarism and Jewish Averroism were fields for the rivalry between intellectualist and less deterministic, more empiricist views of theology as it was played out among Jewish thinkers (see Voluntarism, Jewish; Averroism, Jewish). More modern movements include the Jewish pietist movement founded by Israel Baal Shem Tov and known as Hasidism, the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah, and Zionism, the movement that led to the establishment of the modern State of Israel (see Hasidism; Enlightenment, Jewish; Zionism).

The first exponent of Jewish philosophy was Philo of Alexandria, a major contributor to the synthesis of Stoicism, Middle Platonism and monotheistic ideas that helped forge the tradition of scriptural philosophy in the West. Other early figures include Daud al-Muqammas and Isaac Israeli, two of the first figures of medieval Jewish philosophical theology. Al-Fayyumi Saadiah Gaon (882–942), the first systematic Jewish philosopher, was also a major biblical translator and exegete, a grammarian, lexicographer and authority on Jewish religious law and ritual. The rationalism, pluralism and intellectual honesty evident in his work made it a model of Jewish philosophy for all who came after him. Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1020–c.1057), long known as a Hebrew poet, was discovered in the nineteenth century to have been the author as well of the famous Neoplatonic philosophical work, preserved in Latin as the Fons Vitae. Moses ibn Ezra (c.1055–after 1135) is notable for his poetic and philosophic conributions. Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1089–1164) is likewise noted for his hermeneutical ideas and methods; his forthright approach to the Hebrew Bible was a critical influence on the thinking of Jewish philosophers from the Middle Ages to Spinoza and beyond. A less familiar figure is Abu ’l-Barakat al-Baghdadi (fl. c.1200–50), a brilliant Jewish thinker who converted to Islam late in life. He developed highly independent views about the nature of time, human consciousness, space, matter and motion. His work undercuts the notion that the medieval period was simply an age of faith and static commitment to a faith community.

A polymath of rather different spirit was Abraham bar Hayya in the eleventh century, who wrote on astronomy, mathematics, geography, optics and music as well as philosophy and who collaborated on scientific translations with the Christian scholar Plato of Tivoli, the transmitter of the Ptolemaic system to the Latin world. Bar Hayya’s Meditation of the Sad Soul expresses the forlornness of human life in exile from the world of the divine, a forlornness tinged with the hope of future glory. Joseph ibn Tzaddik (d. 1149) similarly developed Neoplatonic ideas around the theme of the human being as a microcosm.

Bahya ibn Pakuda (early twelfth century) wrote as a pietist philosopher. He placed philosophical understanding and critical thinking at the core of the spiritual devotion called for by the sincerest form of piety. Judah Halevi (before 1075–1141), probably the greatest Hebrew poet after the Psalms, wrote a cogently argued philosophical dialogue best known as the Kuzari, but more formally titled, A Defence and an Argument in behalf of the Abased Religion. Set in the Khazar kingdom, whose king, historically, had converted to Judaism, the work mounts a trenchant critique of the intellectualism of the prevalent philosophical school and the spiritualizing and universalizing ascetic pietism that was its counterpart. Calling for a robust recovery of Jewish life and peoplehood in the Land of Israel, the work is not only a striking anticipation of Zionist ideas but a remarkable expression of the need to reintegrate the spiritual, intellectual, moral and physical dimensions of Jewish life.

Abraham ibn Daud (c.1110–80), a historian as well as a philosopher, used his historiography to argue for the providential continuity of the Jewish intellectual and religious tradition. His philosophical work laid the technical foundations that made possible the philosophical achievement of Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), the greatest of the philosophers committed to the Jewish tradition. Besides his medical writings and his extensive juridical corpus, which includes the authoritative fourteen-volume code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides was the author of the famous Guide to the Perplexed. Written in Arabic and intended for an inquirer puzzled by the apparent discrepancies between traditional Judaism and Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophy, the Guide is a paradigm in the theology of transcendence, addressing questions ranging from the overt anthropomorphism of the scriptural text to the purposes of the Mosaic legislation, to the controversy over the creation or eternity of the world, the problem of evil, and the sense that can be made of the ideas of revelation, providence, divine knowledge and human perfectibility. Like Halevi’s Kuzari and Bahya’s Duties of the Heart, the Guide to the Perplexed continues to be studied to this day by Jews and non-Jews for its philosophical insights.

Abraham ben Moses Maimonides (1186–1237), the son of the great philosopher and jurist, began his scholarly life as a defender of his father’s work against the many critics who feared Maimonidean rationalism. In his mature work he became the exponent of a mystical, pietist and ascetic movement, largely influenced by Sufism. Moses Nahmanides (1194–1270), exegete, theologian and a founding figure of the Kabbalistic theosophy, championed Judaism in the infamous Barcelona Disputation of 1263 and played a leading role in the Maimonidean controversy. He struggled to harmonize his conservative and reactive tendencies with his respect for reason and the unvarnished sense of the biblical text.

Ibn Kammuna (d. 1284) was a pioneer in other areas. Besides his work in the Ishraqi or Illuminationist tradition of theosophy, laid out in commentary on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), he wrote a distinctively dispassionate study of comparative religions, favouring Judaism but fairly and unpolemically presenting the Christian and Muslim alternatives.

Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (c.1225–c.1295) was a warm exponent of Maimonidean rationalism and an ardent believer in the interdependence of faith and reason. His selections in Hebrew from the lost Arabic original of Ibn Gabirol’s magnum opus allowed modern scholars to identify Ibn Gabirol as the Avicebrol of the surviving Latin text, the Fons Vitae.

Hillel ben Samuel of Verona (c.1220–95), physician, translator, Talmudist and philosopher was a Maimonist who introduced numerous scholastic ideas into Hebrew philosophical discourse. Immanuel of Rome (c.1261–before 1336) was a prolific author of philosophical poetry and exegesis, often praising reason and intellectual love. Judah ben Moses of Rome (c.1292–after 1330), known as Judah Romano, was an active bridge person between the Judaeo-Arabic and the scholastic tradition of philosophical theology.

Levi ben Gershom, known as Gersonides (1288–1344), was an important astronomer and mathematician as well as a biblical exegete and philosopher. His Wars of the Lord grappled with the problems of creation, providence, divine knowledge, human freedom and immortality. Aiming to defend his ancestral faith, Gersonides followed courageously where the argument led, often into radical and creative departures from traditional views.

Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410), an ardent defender of Judaism against Christian conversionary pressures, was among the most creative figures of Jewish philosophy, challenging many of the givens of Aristotelianism, including the idea that the cosmos must be finite in extent. Crescas’ student Joseph Albo (c.1360–1444) sought to organize Jewish theology into an axiomatic system, in part to render Jewish thought defensible against hostile critics.

Profiat Duran (d. c. 1414), also known as Efodi, used his extensive understanding of Christian culture to criticize Christianity from a Jewish perspective. Deeply influenced by Moses Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra and by Neoplatonic and astrological ideas, he sought to balance the practical with the intellectual aspects of the Torah. Simeon ben Tzemach Duran (1361–1444) contributed an original approach to the project of Jewish dogmatics and an implicit critical examination of that project.

The Shem Tov family included four thinkers active in fifteenth century Spain (see Shem Tov family). Their works follow the persecution of 1391 and the ensuing mass apostasy of Spanish Jews and seek to rethink the relations of philosophy to Judaism. Shem Tov, the paterfamilias, criticized Maimonides and endorsed Kabbalah, but his sons Joseph, a court physician and auditor of royal accounts at Castile, and Isaac, a popular teacher of Aristotelian philosophy, and Joseph’s son, again named Shem Tov, wrote numerous Peripatetic commentaries. These offspring charted a more moderate course that enabled Jewish intellectuals to cultivate philosophy and the kindred arts and sciences while asserting the ultimate primacy of their revealed faith.

Isaac ben Moses Arama (c.1420–94), like Nahmanides, was critical of Maimonidean and Aristotelian rationalism but did not discard reason, seeing in it a crucial exegetical tool and an avenue toward understanding miracles and providence. Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), leader of the Jews whom Ferdinand and Isabella exiled from Spain in 1492, like Arama criticised Maimonidean rationalism in the interest of traditional Judaism as he saw it, but at the same time put forward a theistic vision of history and strikingly modern views about politics and the state. His son, Judah ben Isaac Abravanel, also known as Leone Ebreo (c.1460–c.1521), wrote the Dialoghi d’amore. Couched in the language of courtly love, the work explores the idea that love is the animating force of the cosmos. The work stands out as a brilliant dialectical exploration of the differences and complementarities of the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to philosophy.

Judah Messer Leon (c.1425–c.1495) was a philosopher, physician, jurist, communal leader, poet and orator. Awarded a doctorate in medicine and philosophy by the Emperor Frederick III, he could confer doctoral degrees in those subjects on the students in his yeshivah. He saw logic as the key to harmonizing religion and philosophy and favored scholastic logic over the Arabic logical works. His encyclopedia became a popular textbook, and his systematic elicitation of Hebrew rhetoric from the biblical text, in The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow, one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, was a masterpiece of cross-cultural humanistic scholarship. But Messer Leon failed to curb the spread of Kabbalah, whose underlying Platonic metaphysics he abhorred and whose appropriation by Christian Platonists he held in deep suspicion. Indeed, his own son turned toward the Kabbalah and sought to combine its teachings with the Aristotelianism favored by his father.

Yohanan ben Isaac Alemanno (1433/4–after 1503/4) brought together in his thinking Averroist, Kabbalistic, Neoplatonic and Renaissance humanist themes. He instructed Pico della Mirandola in Hebrew and in Kabbalah, bringing to birth what became a Christian, syncretic Kabbalism. Elijah Delmedigo (c.1460–93) was an Aristotelian and Averroist. He translated works into Latin for Pico della Mirandola and developed a subtle critique of the kabbalistic ideas that in his time were rivaling and often displacing what he saw as more disciplined philosophical thinking. Abraham Cohen de Herrera (c.1562–c.1635) was a philosophically oriented kabbalist of Spanish origin. His Spanish writings, in Latin translation, were blamed for inspiring Spinoza’s views.

Citing this article:
Goodman, L.E.. Movements and important figures. Jewish philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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