Jewish philosophy

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

1. The nature of Jewish philosophy

Students of Jewish philosophy, especially those who aspire to contribute a window or a wing to the edifice, must learn many languages, to read and listen to voices very different from their own. Just as the writers of the Genesis narratives or of the Pentateuch had to recast and reinvent the ancient creation myths and the ancient Babylonian laws to express the distinctively universal ethical demands and aesthetic standards of their God, and just as the Deuteronomist had to rediscover the ethical core in the original Mosaic legislation, hearing God’s commands now as urgent reminders through the very human voice of Moses, so in every generation new interpreters are needed, to rediscover what is essential and living in the tradition. Such interpreters have always needed to negotiate the rapids of historical change – not just with regard to idiom but also with regard to content, refocusing and restructuring the living tradition, sculpting it philosophically with their own moieties of reason. Such thinkers have worked always with a view to the continuity of the tradition; that is, to the faithfulness of its future to its past, but also to the vitality and vivacity of what they found timeless in the tradition and therefore capable of acquiring new meanings and new spheres of application in the present.

The confidence of the practitioners of Jewish philosophy in the conceptual vitality and continually renewed moral and spiritual relevance of the tradition is typically the reflex of an existential commitment to that tradition and to the people who are its bearers. That confidence, and its repeated vindication by the richness of the tradition itself, is also a wellspring of renewal and encouragement for the commitment that energizes it – even, and especially, in times of historical crisis and external pressures, which have rarely confined themselves to sheerly intellectual challenges. Symptomatic of that commitment is the prominence and recurrence of the philosophy of Judaism among the concerns of Jewish philosophy. However, the two should not be confused. The philosophy of Judaism is inquiry into the nature and meaning of Jewish existence. Its questions address the sense to be given to the idea of a covenant between the universal God and the people of Israel, the meaning of that people’s mission, their chosenness, their distinctive laws, customs and rituals and the relation of those norms to the more widely recognized norms of humanity, of which the Prophets of Israel were early and insistent messengers.

The philosophy of Judaism wants to understand Zionism, the Holocaust, the Jewish Diaspora and the historical vicissitudes that gave shape to Jewish experience over the millennia, from the age of the biblical patriarchs to the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, to the exile of the Jewish people and the return of many, after a hundred generations, to the land they had been promised and in which they had prospered, a land which some had never left but which most, for centuries, had pictured only through the sublimating lenses of sacred history, apocalypse and philosophy. The philosophy of Judaism wants to understand the ancient Jewish liturgy, the exegetical practices and hermeneutical standards of the Jewish exegetes. Like Freud, it wants to understand Jewish humour. Like Pico della Mirandola, it wants to understand Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and like Buber, it wants to understand Hasidism. The concerns of the philosophy of Judaism touch every aspect of Jewish experience, just as the concerns of philosophy at large touch every aspect of experience in general. But the concerns of Jewish philosophy, like those of general philosophy, do not confine themselves to Jewish experience. They are, in fact, the same concerns as those of general philosophy, rendered distinctively Jewish by their steady recourse to the resources of the tradition, and sustained as philosophical by an insistence on critical receptivity, responsible but creative appropriation of ideas and values that withstand the scrutiny of reason and indeed grow and give fruit in its light.

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

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