Symposium on Yitzhak Melamed’s “Salomon Maimon and the Failure of Modern Jewish Philosophy” (April 7-13)

Salomon Maimon

The symposium on Yitzhak Melamed’s “Salomon Maimon and the Failure of Modern Jewish Philosophy” is now underway, and will continue through April 13!  Please feel free to join the symposium by posting comments below.

Yitzhak Melamed (Johns Hopkins University), Michah Gottlieb (New York University), and Abraham Socher (Oberlin College) will be responding to comments throughout the week.

Click here to read Yitzhak Melamed’s paper.

Click here to read Michah Gottlieb’s comments*.

Click here to read Abraham Socher’s comments.

Click here to read Yitzhak Melamed’s reply.

*revised 04/04

 

24 Comments
  1. Phillip Stambovsky

    This interesting paper is, as Yitzhak Melamed declares, “bold” in its claims. Not all of them are requisitely nuanced, however, particularly given its pretentions as an authoritative diagnosis of the “failure of modern Jewish philosophy.” While I certainly agree that it is inexcusable to omit at least debating whether Maimon qualifies as a seminal modern Jewish philosopher, Melamed’s discussion is open to question on a number of heads (as Michah Gottlieb’s comments suggest). I limit myself to just a few scattered issues.

    Yitzhak Melamed treats the term “Jewish philosopher” as synonymous “a scholar of Jewish philosophy” (p. 3). Certainly, Professor Melamed would agree that the vast majority of those who publish on Jewish philosophy are scholars of Jewish philosophy but not themselves authors of rigorously systematic and philosophically (i.e., extra-devotionally) argued doctrines of the Jewish religious orientation—its onto-epistemological values and its approaches to meaning.

    Surely, as Melamed maintains, Spinoza ought not to be classed as a Jewish philosopher (at least in any strict sense) and Levinas, though all the rage in certain quarters, is over-rated as such. (For a definitive philosophical refutation of Levinas’s principal position on transcendence, see Lorenz Puntel, “Being and God” [Northwestern University Press, 2011], chap. 4.1.)

    It is simply an error to identify the Christian notion of “grace” merely with Protestant divine command morality. Aquinas, for example, famously asserted that grace perfects nature. A leading authority on Aquinas elegantly summarizes Thomas’s position this way: “the gifts of grace are not added to nature so as to destroy nature but rather so as to perfect it. If this be so, the light of faith which is given to us as a grace does not destroy the light of natural reason.” At a later period, and in opposition to Aquinas, Meister Eckhart (another reader of Rambam’s Guide; albeit, like Aquinas, no friend to the Jews) taught that “grace saves primarily insofar as it activates the intellect to become aware of itself as imago dei.” As someone who studied and taught at the University of Toronto, Emil Fackenheim was familiar with these Catholic doctrines and would have sharply repudiated the author’s implication in note 15.

    On p. 16, Yitzhak Melamed refers to “the modern Jewish philosophical project.” It is one thing to propose a definition of “Jewish philosophy” (as he does on p. 3); it is something else again to talk of a single modern Jewish philosophical project. As he is doubtless aware, modern Jewish philosophical projects are as varied as the thinkers who, for better or worse, have undertaken to articulate them. What, then, are we to take as the “subject matter, X,” of the modern Jewish philosophical project?

    Finally, under the putative guise of what Harold Bloom would term a “strong misreading,” the parenthetical question, on p. 18, construes the metonymic “Jerusalem” in the famous formulation (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) as a literal referent. This is simply tendentious..

    1. Itzik Melamed

      Quick response.
      “Grace” is not an invention of Protestantism (and I fail to see how my note 15 implies this), but Protestantism has well-established relation to Augustinianism and its stress on Grace. Regardless of all this, “Grace” is not particularly Jewish term, and to claim “*in Judaism* [human dignity] is the gift of divine Grace” is to apply Christian categories to Jewish texts, the vast majority of which belie this claim.

  2. Josh Weinstein

    Melamed’s claims, as Gottlieb points out, point to the curious conclusion that there actually is NO modern Jewish philosophy.
    If it is true that only Maimon is (i) a serious philosopher while also being (ii) deeply informed about the Talmud, and yet that even he does not (iii) combine these into producing a philosophical account of Judaism, then it seems inescapable that our cupboard is left rather bare indeed.

    Though there are endless grounds to doubt this conclusion, I think it’s important to consider the degree to which it might actually be true.

    Let’s not niggle about just how much steigen it takes to qualify as having knowledge of the X which is Judaism (though personally I think that the aggadic and midrashic materials are a lot more important here than the “davar katan” of Abbaye and Rava).

    Still, can our “we’re-o-so-smart” people show ANY modern thinker who is deeply informed (in any sense) while commanding a serious philosophical presence? Our most serious philosophers — Husserl and Wittgenstein — knew basically nothing; the converse seems to be close to true as well.

    Maybe I’m just unaware. Please enlighten me.
    Or maybe share what it feels like to admit that we ain’t got nuffin’.

  3. Dani Rabinowitz

    Many thanks to Yitzhak, Micah, and Abraham for an interesting discussion. Here are a few quick thoughts:

    1) I do not think that being Jewish is a necessary condition for writing excellent philosophy of Judaism. Michah’s final comment about Maimon’s conversion is therefore somewhat of an unnecessary ‘low blow.’ This leads me to my next comment.

    2) I agree with Yitzhak that having a knowledge of x is a necessary condition for writing good philosophy on x. (This principle has an analogue in current epistemology in the knowledge norm of assertion.) But it proves helpful, in the context of our discussion, to narrow the scope of the x to make that a defensible principle; that is, I do not think it is true that one needs an intimate knowledge of “all of the Talmud” to write good philosophy on the relationship between atonement and repentance in Judaism. The laws of primary (av) and secondary (toldah) categories in the laws of shabbat or impurity hardly seem relevant.

    3) As someone who is not familiar with Maimon’s writings, I am intrigued by Michah’s comment that Maimon “never provided a ‘well-argued and informed account of Jewish religious and cultural beliefs and practices.’ In a word, Maimon had no philosophy of Judaism.” If that is correct, I do find it hard to believe that he can be held up as the ‘prototype’ of a modern philosopher of Judaism.

    4) I have recently been thinking about Menachem Kellner’s claim in his Decline of the Generations (pg 17-8) that “the Rabbis were not systematic thinkers.” This has left me wondering about the foundations of any philosophy based on debates in the Talmud. This is a very inchoate thought and I would appreciate hearing the thoughts of others.

    1. Josh Weinstein

      Dani–
      I would love to be able to join you in “narrowing the scope” of intimate Talmudic knowledge prerequisite to philosophizing. But that might not be doable, precisely due to the lack of systematicity on which you quote Kellner.

      An example of this is in your own text. I haven’t looked at the sugya in years, but isn’t the distinction of av and toleda in shabbat connected *precisely* to the question of the sin-offering(s) one must bring for shabbat violations? In other words, couldn’t one make the case a really good account of atonement and repentance requires *precisely* an account of the self-awareness of one’s actions and errors as these can be articulated in av-toledah terms?

      You might think that this is just a cute drash — and maybe it is. But it hints at the possibility that any Talmudic Y that we might want to set aside as not philosophically crucial is, in at least some circumstances, essential for a knowledge of the relevant Jewish X. If it is true that any Talmudic sugya can be made somehow relevant to any philosophical issue, then aren’t we hoist by the non-systematic nature of the Talmud into either (i) demanding of ourselves encyclopedic Talmudic knowledge for philosophy or else (ii) finding some more nuanced version of “the need to know X” before you provide a philosophy of X?

  4. Itzik Melamed

    I owe Michah a debt re Maimon’s “philosophy of Judaism” so I’ll address this issue now. First, let me note that to my mind Maimon’s wiliness to convert is hardly relevant to the question of whether he had a serious philosophy of Judaism. From my point of view, were Edith Stein familiar wit Rabbinic lit, she could be a perfect Jewish philosopher. Philosophers should follow their arguments no matter wherever it leads one. I do not accept a concept of Jewish philosophy based on tribal affiliation, nor do I believe in philosophy that can appeal only to Jews. Philosophy by its nature is universal. The main current task I see for Jewish philosophy is simply refuting the variety of Christian claims for universalism. However, if one’s argument leads him to the church, he should follow it (though the antecedent of this conditional seems to me just nareshkeit).

    According to Michah, Maimon “did not have a philosophy of Judaism.” This claim can be understood in a variety of ways. One path (which I very much doubt Michah follows) is to claim like Eli Schweid that Maimon had only an “empirical aposteriori conception of Judaism”. I admit of having hard time making sense of the claim. Judaism is a historical phenomenon/phenomena. Thus, an apriori notion of Judaism seems to me just like an apriori notion of the French Revolution or the Reformation. The alternative to this “apriori” conception of Judaism is an attempt to provide a detailed, deeply informed account and critique of Jewish culture as it unfolds in history. Maimon’s 1792/3 Lebensgeschichte provides the most detailed account and analysis of Maimonides’ Guide available for contemporary German readers, the most informed account of Kabbalah and Hasidism available for contemporary German readers (including comparison with contemporary philosophical systems, such as Spinoza’s), a detailed account of the political structure of Rabbinic society, a detailed and critical account of Halacha and Jewish custom. Why is this not “philosophy of Judaism”? Because it does not tell us what is the “essence of Judaism”? Perhaps Judaism has no essence/dogma?

    1. Mark Kaplowitz

      I don’t think that the question regarding Maimon’s Jewish philosophy revolves around whether Maimon describes Jewish phenomena (literature, history, sociology). Plainly, he does. The question (at least to my Cohen influenced eyes) is whether he addresses any “ought” of Judaism. Although many attempts to identify an essence of Judaism claim to be descriptive and merely highlighting aspects of a Judaism that is given, I would posit that there is also a prescriptive function to descriptions of the essence of Judaism. What should Judaism become to be the best possible Judaism?
      Clearly, in the case of Maimon, he found much to criticize among the mores of both his Eastern European brethren and the enlightened Berlin Jews he encountered (with the exception, of course, of Mendelssohn.) None of this, though, quite speaks to the question (as I see it) posed in Gottlieb’s argument, namely, what does Maimon argue that Judaism should become? What kind of Judaism would Maimon consider to be both true to itself and worth sustaining?
      My first instinct is to say that the Givat Hamoreh might offer a partial answer: Judaism needs to dispense with Aristotelian scientific paradigms and should accept the findings of more modern science and philosophy. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had the chance to look through the GH, but I don’t recall much more to Maimon’s argument than that. I hope that I am mistaken and that Melamed can give us some new insight into Maimon’s vision for Judaism. However, just claiming that Judaism is too complex to improve doesn’t quite do it for me.

      1. Itzik Melamed

        I think this is an important point, both you and Michah are making. But, first, is it an essential condition for doing to Jewish philosophy to say what Jews OUGHT to do? I don’t see why. “Ought” is a lot of time mere politics, and it is true that Maimon was no head of any camp. He was not a “thought-leader” as Klausner would say, but again, cultural politics/ideology is one thing, philosophy another.
        If you look at the Lebensgeschichte you’ll find there an intruiging debate between Maimon, on the one hand, and the Berlin Jewish bourgoisie, on the other hand, about which texts should be translated in order to propogate enlightenment. Maimon’s choice is books of math and science, while Mendelssohn’s friends insist on Enlightenment propoganda books. This is actually a debate about “What is Enlightenment?”. Unfortunately, Maimon lost. As I said he was not an ideologue, but philosopher.

        1. Mark Kaplowitz

          I am not comfortable with your characterization of engagement with questions of what Judaism ought to be as “ideology.” Clearly some who speak in such language are closer to ideologues than philosophers, but your claim paints with too broad a brush. Hermann Cohen is more ideologue than philosopher, really? I wonder if perhaps it might be more meaningful in this context to draw a distinction between philosophers and theologians, although I’m still not sure how much that will help us here.
          At any rate, to return to your question, “is it an essential condition for doing to Jewish philosophy to say what Jews OUGHT to do?” I am not sure that I would say that Jewish philosophy is about what Jews ought to do–for that we have the sources of Jewish law, which one can either work with or work against–but, rather, I would return to the well worn claims that Jewish philosophy is in large measure a philosophy of Judaism, and thus it is an necessary (but not sufficient) condition for doing Jewish philosophy to say, in some, perhaps even entirely oblique, way, how Judaism OUGHT to be understood going forward.
          Consequently, as long as we accept that someone who studies the history of philosophy must be a philosopher to understand what they are studying, then Harry Wolfson (to take one example) writes extensively about Jewish phenomena, is a philosopher, and is well educated in Talmud (by the Bnei Brak standard), but we usually do not include Harry Wolfson among the great Jewish philosophers (nor among the theologians or the ideologues). Perhaps an historian of philosophy is a bad example. But I would venture to claim counterfactually, that if we had a more developed idealistic account of Judaism by Maimon, he would occupy as central a place in the canon of modern Jewish philosophy as Spinoza or Mendelssohn.

          1. Itzik Melamed

            Mark, I’m not sure we disagree. I claimed that “*a lot of times*” OUGHT claims are presented in a non-philosophical context. You claim that OUGHT questions are necessary but not sufficient condition for doing philosophy of Judaism. Thus, we agree that involving “ought” questions is not a definition precise enough for Jewish philosophy.
            As to Wolfson, I am not sure I would disqualify him so quickly. I don’t think he was a particularily original philosopher, but he had an interesting (wrong, to my mind) reading of the history of western philosophy (his so-called, “Philonic philosophy”). Personally, I very much appreciate his motives, i.e., the attempt to provide an alternative to Hegel’s – Christian – grand narrative of philosophy. I personally aspire to do the same, release the history of philosophy from Christocentric ideology, though instead of providing counter grand-narrative (which fits purely the facts), I think we should work bottom-up (sticking to the texts) and try to avoid the temptation of ideology.

  5. Michah Gottlieb

    Thanks to all the commentators and participants so far.

    There are a lot of loose threads from the discussion, which hope to return to. I’ll limit myself to one point right now.

    A couple of people have reproached me for bringing up the fact that Maimon proposed conversion to Protestantism and for my allegedly disqualifying Maimon as a Jewish philosopher on account of this.

    This was not my intention. I took Itzik to be claiming that German-Jewish philosophers are inauthentic because their mold Judaism in a Protestant image. I was simply noting the paradox that in contrast to almost all the “Protestant” Jewish philosophers, the only “authentic” Jewish philosopher (on Itzik’s account) is the one who actually sought to convert to Protestantism.

    Again, my point was not to disqualify Maimon as a Jewish philosopher on this account. Rather, it was to upset the rigid categories of “Jewish” and “Protestant.” “Protestant” Jewish philosophers like Mendelssohn and Cohen rigidly defend Judaism, reject conversion and assert the superiority of Judaism to Protestant Christianity, while an “authentic” Jewish philosopher like Maimon seeks to convert to Protestantism.

    As James Joyce put it in *Ulysses* “Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet.”

  6. Aaron Segal

    While I share Itzik’s desire to see Jewish philosophy done in a way that draws on the full range of traditional Jewish texts (including, of course, the Talmud), I think there is an unresolved tension in how he sees the task of Jewish philosophy. On the one hand, he repeatedly eschews “essentialism” about Judaism – if I understand what the claim of essentialism in this context amounts to (and I’m never quite sure that I do), then it at least implies that there is no such thing as Judaism, simpliciter, but only things like Biblical Judaism, Talmudic Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, American Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, etc. (and maybe even these categories are too “essentialized”). But if that’s so, then it seems to present a problem for Itzik’s thesis: part of his definition of ‘Jewish philosophy’ is that it is an attempt to give an “informed account of Jewish religious and cultural beliefs and practices.” But if there is no such thing as Judaism simpliciter, then I don’t see how there can be any such thing as Jewish (simpliciter) religious and cultural beliefs and practices. And so Itzik’s proposed definiens is ill-formed. More concretely, what on an anti-essentialist view makes the bulk of modern Jewish philosophy – which might well be a well-informed account of Biblical Judaism or (as Michah suggests) 19th century folk Judaism – any less worthy of the title “Jewish philosophy” than philosophy of Talmudic Judaism?

    Perhaps then Itzik should take essentialism on board. (There is some evidence that Itzik would like that; in his reply, he restates the central premise of his argument as follows: “In order to point out the essence of X, one must have a comprehensive knowledge of X” (p. 3). This seems to assume that Judaism has an essence, I would think.) But this would run into two problems: (1) in order to successfully show that the bulk of modern Jewish philosophy has been a failure, Itzik would need to show that the stuff of which modern Jewish philosophers were ignorant (YA’AL KEGAM being the tip of the Talmudic iceberg) are indeed part of the essence of Judaism, and that would require just engaging in a lot more “first-order philosophizing”, and (2) it would not be in keeping with what most contemporary scholars of Jewish philosophy take for granted. (This latter point does not of course mean essentialism isn’t true, or even that it’s unlikely to be true, especially given the fact that “essentialism” is thrown around so much that I’m unsure whether we even know what we’re affirming or denying when we speak of Judaism or whatnot having an essence. But it does make it less likely that Itzik’s thesis will convince anyone else.)
    I was thinking that this tension could be avoided if Jewish philosophy is conceived in normative/prescriptive terms, rather than descriptive ones. Roughly, Jewish philosophy is not after what Judaism (either simpliciter or in its varieties) is, but how Jews (or self-identifying Jews) ought to understand themselves, what they do and believe, and their place in the world. (As an aside, I’d say that if it is conceived in descriptive terms, then I can’t really see what substantive question hangs on whether something is or is not Jewish philosophy.) But in response to Mark Kaplowitz’s comment, Itzik has made clear that this is not how he thinks of Jewish philosophy and its task, since then Maimon would fail as a Jewish philosopher as well. So I am left wondering, what, according to Itzik, is Jewish philosophy and its task?

    On a smaller note, it seems tendentious to put “informed account” in the very definition of Jewish philosophy. Why should that be a condition for something being Jewish philosophy? Suppose a woefully uninformed philosophers happens to hit on a well-argued account of Jewish religious and cultural beliefs and practices – why would it matter to whether the product is Jewish philosophy that the one who proffered it is uninformed? (Of course, I don’t deny that being informed makes it much easier and more likely to give a well argued account of Jewish religious etc., but I don’t see why it should be a necessary condition.)

  7. Itzik Melamed

    Thanks for raising the issue.
    1. I think that Judaism has no *dogmatic* essence that one can explicate, i.e., no necessary and sufficient cluster of principles of faith. This is an old and very un-innovative claim. Hence, the attempt to tell the “Wesen des Judentums” assumes basic ignorance of the vast variety of Jewish beliefs.

    2. I do believe that till not so long ago, Jewish culture had a *textual* essence. The center of this culture was Talmud and rabbinic lit. Now, qua any historical phenomena Jewish culture can change. The question is of course what changes X can undergo and still remain X. Over the past century Jewish culture underwent trememendous changes (geographically, politically, and otherwise). At this point one may wonder whether Jewish culture may change from literary culture centered around Talmud cum Rabbinics to a culture centered around the Bible. I somewhat doubt it. If Jews complete their transformation into Protestants, it is quite likely to my mind that they will be absorbed – in one way or another – in Protestantism. Is such a conversion bad? Depends on how one evaluates Protestantism. I have little sympathy and appreciation for fundamentalist “solo scriptura”. But others may well like it.

  8. Itzik Melamed

    Aaron writes: “Why should that be a condition for something being Jewish philosophy? Suppose a woefully uninformed philosophers happens to hit on a well-argued account of Jewish religious and cultural beliefs and practices – why would it matter to whether the product is Jewish philosophy that the one who proffered it is uninformed?” As we learned from Gettier, having a “justified true belief” is not a criterion good enough for knowledge.
    This being said, I’d stress that it is *possible* that a good philosopher who knows only basic arithmetic has an occasional insight about the nature of math. Still, it is not very likely, and usually we would ask a philosopher of X to know quite a bit on X, and if a philosopher attempts to tell us the *essence* of X, we should require even more substantial knowledge.
    Finally, well-argued accounts usually rely on sound knowledge.

    1. Dani Rabinowitz

      I am intrigued by your invocation of Gettier and would like to hear more on how you understanding the relationship between knowledge (i.e. not rational belief) and being a Jewish philosopher. I am concerned, now that I think about it more, that knowledge may too strong a requirement. Off the top of my head, for example, suppose we think for any proposition p, p is either true or false (bivalence about truth values). Suppose further that it is false that in the context of Jewish law a proposition and its negation can be both be true (a radical misunderstanding of the eilu ve’eilu phrase). Then it follows that supposed experts in the field of rabbinic literature take themselves to know p when they do not. But writing Jewish philosophy on the basis of their rational belief that p hardly seems an inappropriate basis on which to assert p. If this result holds, then Aaron is correct in saying that even a woefully “uninformed philosopher” can “hit on a well-argued account of Jewish religious and cultural beliefs and practices.”

      1. Itzik Melamed

        Dani,
        Let me make clear that I think Aaron right in saying that one can hit upon true claims by accident, but I would not call such belief ‘knowledge’. Similarily, if Leibniz thought that time is relative while not being aware of the upper limit of velocity, I would deny that Leibniz *knew* that time is relative (I develop the last claim and tie it to Gettier in a forthcoming paper on the methodology of the history of philosophy, available here:
        http://www.academia.edu/2046830/Charitable_Interpretations_and_the_Political_Domestication_of_Spinoza_or_Benedict_in_the_Land_of_the_Secular_Imagination

        As to your example, I need more information on the setting, but if I understood your example correctly (which I’m not sure) it hangs on how you understand the “elu ve-elu” phrase. I do not take it as a claim that both p and not p are true/right (but rather that both claims should be appreciated as genuine endevours to explicate the torah). But even if you interpret the phrase as claiming that p and not p are both true, we then have to consider our position on bivalence. I, for one, never thought seriously about hence, hesitate to say much. But perhaps I misunderstood your example?

        1. Dani Rabinowitz

          Itzik, I’m well aware of the post-Gettier literature on knowledge as non-accidentally true belief. What I still can’t seem to understand is why you insist on knowledge and not rational belief as a necessary condition for writing good philosophy of Judaism (where rational beliefs can be true yet accidentally true e.g. the agent’s belief in fake barn country).

        2. Dani Rabinowitz

          As for eilu ve’eilu, all I meant by invoking that principle is that if we maintain bivalence and retain commitment to the interpretation thereof you mention, then a good many don’t write from the basis of knowledge since a good deal of the material we find in the Talmud will be false given the systematic disagreement found therein.

          1. Itzik Melamed

            Hi Dany,
            I do not insist, but I didn’t wish to enter the issue of “rational belief” due to its vagueness. So tell me what *precisely* you mean by RB, and I’m likely to accept it. Many weaker standards than knowledge would work (as long as they exclude almost complete ignorance, which arguably is the proper description of Rosenzweig, Strauss, etc. acquaintence with Talmudic lit.
            As to “elu ve-elu” – again we need to scrutinize the example. To know that “X holds p” and “Y holds not p” is not to hold “P and not P”, even if we grant that what either X and Y hold are “divrei eloqim hayim.”

  9. Igor H de Souza

    Itzik M’s paper raises many interesting questions. With respect to the “failure” of modern Jewish philosophy, or Maimon’s place in it, I can only speculate. With respect to the claim that “Jewish philosophy is the attempt to provide a well-argued and informed account of Jewish religious and cultural beliefs and practices,” I think if this is accepted, much of medieval Jewish philosophy would not be considered “Jewish.” It remains, of course, an open question with which one could agree or disagree.

    However, it is not an open question that the Bible has been a central concern in the history of Jewish philosophy and Jewish education. Thus I’d like to offer a responde to the claim on page 7: “Traditionally, it was quite rare for Jews to study the Bible . . . traditionally, most Jews have hardly ever read biblical books like Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemia, and Daniel. One could easily be a Talmid Chochom without knowing the order of the Kings, Priests, or even Prophets of Israel.”

    I am not sure how this statement applies to the history of medieval Jewish philosophy (if we can take “traditionally” to stretch back to Saadia Gaon or earlier). It might be true of the Ashkenazi world–and even then, there were exceptions. But it is certainly not true of [pre-expulsion] Sephardi and Near Eastern cultural zones. If we look at the cultural production of those medieval Jews we can see that there was a strong biblicist strain. Biblical commentary became codified with Saadia Gaon (Commentary on Job), who himself borrowed the form from Karaite writings–and there, of course, the only philosophical concern was with Scripture. From Saadia to Maimonides, Jewish philosophers did not primarily concern themselves with Talmud, but rather with Scripture, under the influence of the cultural status of the Qur’an in Arabic society. That is not to say that they were indifferent to rabbinic literature, but in terms of philosophical commentary at least, the Bible was far more studied than the Talmud. Study of Scripture manifested itself in a variety of genres: grammatical works, poetry, commentary, literary criticism (Moses ibn Ezra) and the abundance of proofverses cited in the “classical” philosophical treatises (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, the Kuzari, Duties of the Heart, for example), compared to the paucity of rabbinical sources cited. Nor should we assume that this was a phenomenon restricted to works written in Judeo-Arabic, since the first philosopher to write in Hebrew, Abraham bar Hiya (or Hayya), cites Scripture dramatically more often than Talmud or any other rabbinical works (e.g. Meditation of the Sad Soul).

    Maimonides somewhat bucks the biblicist trend with his Commentary on the Mishnah and the Mishneh Torah (inter alia). But even there, the focus was on systematization and codification (although Isadore Twersky would perhaps disagree with this). And I think in as far as it is an exegetical work, it’s beyond dispute that the Guide concerns itself primarily with the explanation of Scripture, without excluding, of course, the interpretation of some midrashim. Nonetheless, Maimonides explicitly writes that he gave up a plan to write a commentary on Midrash (Pines 9).

    Between Maimonides and Spinoza we do see the rise of a tradition of philosophical commentary (or philosophical approaches to) Talmud and rabbinical literature. This strain of Jewish thought has received increasing attention–see for example the studies by Gregg Stern or Moshe Halbertal (Between Torah and Wisdom). We also have some examples of commentary on Aggadah in Samuel Sarsa (Mikhlol Yofi) and Solomon Astruc of Barcelona (Midrashei ha-Torah). But it remains that at least with respect to two philosophical strains — Maimonidean and Italian — the larger focus was on Bible rather than Talmud, when the focus was on religious texts at all. Here, again, we have a proliferation of commentary on Bible (such as our “classical” commentaries by Ralbag, Ramban, Radak), on works of Jewish philosophy (on the Guide, on the Kuzari, on Ibn Ezra’s Bible commentaries) and on works of Arabic philosophy (on Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, ibn Tufayil). But to my (limited) knowledge, no significant systematic philosophical commentary on the Talmud was written (it is possible, of course, that one is yet to be discovered). Judah ibn Tibbon’s ethical will to Samuel ibn Tibbon exhorts his son to spend time studying the Bible, not the Talmud. The intellectual heirs of Samuel ibn Tibbon, among which were philosophical commentators on the Guide in the 13th and 14th centuries, all composed commentaries on biblical books, but none on Talmud (with the exception of Moses of Salerno, who did not comment on Bible, and Shem Tov ibn Falaquera, whose commentary on Midrash has been lost).

    The biblical strain in Jewish thought comes to the fore in the environment where Spinoza originated, and this is true for the Portuguese-Jewish diaspora in general: the first work of Jewish historiography written in Portuguese, Samuel Usque’s Consolação às Tribulações de Israel, retells Jewish history from the Bible to the Inquisition, but omits the rabbinical period entirely. It was published in Italy in 1553 and reprinted in Amsterdam. There, at the Talmud Tora school, only the two highest out of seven grades studied Talmud at all (in what was called the jesiba). Instruction began with the weekly parashah with Rashi’s commentary, and students were taught to translate the Bible into Spanish. Historical reality and the works that emerged from the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam evince a far greater concern with studying the Bible, where it was widely printed and read in both Hebrew and Spanish, rather than Talmud. There was no tradition analogous to the place of pilpul in Ashkenazi society among Portuguese Jews, and the authority of halakhah was openly questioned (e.g. Uriel da Costa) and defended (Samuel da Silva, Isaac Aboab). In place of direct study of Talmud, Portuguese Jews seem to have preferred to study practical manuals of observance and halakhic codes, such as the Mishneh Torah or the Shulḥan Arukh. And finally, I think it’s beyond dispute that Spinoza’s Political-Theological Treatise has far more to say about the Bible than the Talmud. The Talmud was simply not at the center of this culture.

    In light of these remarks, I can only partially agree with Itzik M’s response to one of the comments here: “I do believe that till not so long ago, Jewish culture had a *textual* essence. The center of this culture was Talmud and rabbinic lit.”

    I don’t think he is entirely off the mark, however. Concern with Talmud–philosophical or otherwise–is certainly one strain of Jewish philosophy. But among Sephardim, Portuguese and others, study of the Bible was far from rare. In Ladino-speaking communities, for example, the Me’am Loez commentary on the Tanakh was immensely if not the most popular religious work.

    Thus with respect to modern Jewish philosophy, which is admittedly not my field, it seems to me that biblicism may turn out to be only one trend among others, one of several contemporary Jewish philosophies. From a historical perspective at least, the biblicist trend is certainly not new to Jewish philosophy, and so I don’t think it amounts to a “revolution” (p.7). Itzik M’s examples of “R. Yoel Teitelbaum, R. Welwale Soloveitchik, R. Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dewinsk, the Steipeler, R. Aharon Kotler, and R. Shimon Shkop” are evidence that it is not the only one. A comprehensive treatment of modern Jewish thought that takes its many strains into account is therefore yet to be written. Itzik M’s paper is an encouraging step in that direction.

    (full disclosure: I was once Itzik M’s graduate student and took a qualifying exam with him).

    References: Colette Sirat, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages
    Abraham bar Ḥayya, The Meditation of the Sad Soul
    Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines
    Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)
    Gregg Stern, Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Interpretation and Controversy in Medieval Languedoc
    Moshe Habertal, Between Torah and Wisdom: Menachem ha-Meiri and the Maimonidean Halakhists in Provence (Hebrew)
    Samuel Usque, Consolação às Tribulações de Israel
    Daniel Swetchinski, Reluctant Cosmopolitans: the Portuguese Jews of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam
    Isaac Aboab, Nomologia o discursos legales
    Samuel da Silva, Tratado da Imortalidade da Alma
    Uriel da Costa, Exame das Tradições Farisaicas
    Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise

  10. Itzik Melamed

    Hi Igor,
    You raise a couple of important issues and I’ll address your objection that my definition of philosophy of Judaism would exclude most medieval Jewish philosopher in a separate post, but let me first address the issue of whether Talmud was the center of Jewish learning even outside of Ashkenaz or not.
    I am not aware of Jewish institutes of higher learning in which the Bible, rather than Talmud, was the main subject of learning. Perhaps there were such, but please let’s see where and how much. As far as I know, most Yeshivot in Qairuan, Baghdad, and Spain concentrated on the study of Babylonian Talmud (or RIF). I am aware of a few medieval Spanish Yeshivot where philosophy was studied, but the question is what proportion of the curriculum was philosophy and what Talmud. However, if you have examples of major Yeshivot where Bible was the center of study, please point them out (and sources). [We can talk about the case of 17th century Amsterdam, but arguably this was NOT the norm (as we know from the accounts of visitors to Amsterdam who were astonished by the study of bible and Hebrew Grammar in the Talmud Torah. I am not sure what was the state in their Yeshiva].
    Regards, Itzik

  11. Michah Gottlieb

    Itzik wrote:

    “I personally aspire to do the same, release the history of philosophy from Christocentric ideology, though instead of providing counter grand-narrative (which fits purely the facts), I think we should work bottom-up (sticking to the texts) and try to avoid the temptation of ideology.”

    I greatly appreciate this. Itzik is absolutely correct that people often fail to realize how deeply entrenched is the “Christocentric” model of thinking about philosophy and ideas. A great example of this is Charles Taylor’s *A Secular Age* which traces modernity entirely from a Christian perspective taking no account of the ways in which Judaism upsets his narrative (I say this as someone who was a student of Taylor’s a have great admiration for many elements of his work).

    That said I think that Jewish readings of the Bible can be part of disrupting the Christiocentric model. Jewish readings of the Bible not only involve midrash but also anti-Christological interpretations, emphasis on law rather than salvation etc…

    The Bible need not be conceded to Christianity.

    1. Itzik Melamed

      Michah wrote:
      “That said I think that Jewish readings of the Bible can be part of disrupting the Christiocentric model.” I agree, though I would stress again that “solo scriptura” is highly likely to collaborate with, rather than disrupt, Christian intellectual colonialism.
      “Jewish readings of the Bible not only involve midrash but also anti-Christological interpretations, emphasis on law rather than salvation etc…” Perhaps. But accepting the identification of Judaism with “the law” is, to my mind, to accept uncritically and wrongly a Christian conception.

      Many thanks Michah. Shabes is in twenty minutes and we need to read the Sidra.

  12. Itzik Melamed

    Before dusk, let me add one last word. My impression was, and still is, that a considerable part of modern Jewish philosophy was an apologetic attempt to show that “we too are human beings” and that just like Christians we discuss “Grace”, “Revelation” etc. I can understand the historical context which pressed people in that direction. I do not appreciate it, but can understand it. After WWII, I see no reason to keep playing this game. In fact, for me the major philosophical contribution Jewish philosophy may have is by pointing out to our Christian friends (and I am all for sincere Jewish-Christian reconciliation) that many of their assumption are based on false pretense for universality. In this sense, it is precisely our disagreements with Christian schema that make our contribution innovative and valuable.
    Git shabes, Itzik

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