Developing a philosophy of Judaism: the fortunes of an enterprise

Jewish Identity
by Ben Elton
Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) famously remarked that the Jewish Middle Ages did not come to an end until the French Revolution. He was making the important point that a state or religion does not become modern simply because it is exists in modern times. To be modern it must engage with modernity. The French Revolution facilitated that engagement by setting in train events that would lead to the tearing down of the ghetto walls, and with them the intellectual walls that some hoped would keep modernity at bay.
Those intellectual walls did crumble, and in the nineteenth century the Enlightenment came flooding in. Surfing the wave were the disciples of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). They took their master’s teachings and disseminated them across the Jewish world. Mendelssohn was a philosopher and in his magnum opus Jerusalem and elsewhere he presented an interpretation of Judaism that made it compatible with the insistence on reason that dominated Enlightenment thought. In other words, Mendelssohn set out a philosophy of Judaism suited to the modern mind.
A contemporary observer might have predicted that Mendelssohn’s approach would come to dominate the intellectual life of those Jews who sought to engage with modernity, that modern Judaism would have a strong philosophical component, that Jewish scholars would devote serious attention to philosophy and that there would be an outpouring of Jewish philosophical works. It is interesting that this did not happen.
In fact, the greatest Jewish scholars of the last two hundred years, working in a modern vein, were not philosophers. Zunz himself was a founder of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, which was essentially a text based enterprise. He and his followers were historians and philologists, not philosophers. The great seminaries of Europe and America were filled with such scholars, including Zacharias Frankel, Heinrich Graetz, Abraham Geiger, Esriel Hildesheimer, David Hoffman, Adolph Buchler, Solomon Schechter, Samuel Luzzatto and Saul Lieberman. These men studied texts, published critical editions and wrote biographies and histories. They may have described how certain Medieval philosophical schools developed, but they did not engage in original philosophical work. 
There were those who vociferously opposed Wissenschaft, led by Samson Raphael Hirsch, but they were not philosophers either. Hirsch constructed an impressive and often beautiful vision of Judaism. It was by no means traditional, but rather modern Midrash and certainly not rigorous philosophy. Even when Wissenschaft lost its appeal, the Hirschian interpretation of Judaism has retained a passionate following. An aspect of Hirsch’s approach that has survived less well is his enthusiastic attachment to Western culture, which was horribly discredited when fellow adherents of that culture perpetrated the Shoah.
The philosophical enterprise fared much less well than both Wissenschaft and Hirschian Judaism. After Mendelssohn philosophical work fell into abeyance. The reasons for this were several. First, the apostasy of most of Mendelssohn’s children and many of his disciples discredited the philosophical project. It that is where it led those with a commitment to the future of Judaism felt they were better off without it. Secondly, unlike the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth century the dominant intellectual mode was textual-historical. That was the focus of work in the great European universities. The German school of historians turned their attention to the preservation and publication of the great works of their history and produced the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Jewish scholars wanted to do the same for their heritage.
Thirdly, Mendelssohn’s disciples became busy with other projects, primarily transforming the educational methods used in Jewish communities. The work to reform the heder and introduce secular studies into the yeshivot, in order to implement the practical aspect of Mendelssohn’s programme distracted from further philosophical activity. Fourthly, as a result of this activity there was huge resentment in traditionalist circles towards Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment, and ‘maskil’ remains a dirty word in many circles. Philosophy was seen as the enemy. Fifthly, from the turn of the twentieth century, non-rational elements of Judaism attracted more attention in those Jewish streams that might have engaged in philosophy. Buber, Rozensweig and Scholem all turned their attention to Kabbalah and Hasidut, sometimes simply as scholars, but sometimes to enliven their personal religion and influence others.
There were certainly exceptions. The Immanuel Kant found a great following among some sections of Judaism. Isaac Breuer, grandson of Hirsch, was a dedicated Kantian. The leaders of American Reform Judaism crafted their declaration of principles, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, under strong Kantian influence. The greatest neo-Kantian philosopher was Hermann Cohen, who did develop a thorough-going philosophy of Judaism based on Kant’s principles. And it is through Cohen that philosophy re-entered the Jewish mainstream.
The man who reintroduced philosophical inquiry to Judaism began his Western intellectual life as a student of Hermann Cohen, that man was Joseph Soloveitchik. Soloveitchik wrote his PhD on Cohen and continued to try to reconcile autonomous Kantian ethics with a heteronymous halakha. Soloveitchik also engaged deeply with Kirkegaard and existentialism. Although he did not produce formal and systematic philosophical treatises, his major works, especially Halakhic Mind and some of his collected addresses are rich with philosophy. The study and analysis of Solovietchik’s work among his many followers has made philosophy part of the Jewish mainstream once more.
It is striking, then, that modern Judaism which began when traditional Jewish thought engaged with philosophy turned away from it decisively for a century and a half, has now moved back towards it. Wissenschaft no longer appeals, Western culture cannot be so warmly embraced in a post-Holocaust world. It seems that the ghost of Mendelssohn has been laid to rest, and the Jewish philosophical moment has returned.
  1. Anonymous

    Benjamin writes, "…the Jewish philosophical moment has returned."

    A very welcomed era. At what point does the use of general labels,
    such as Western culture, become a disadvantage to advancing
    the philosophy of Judaism (POJ)? For example, Western culture is not
    considered monolithic but entails many areas which overlap with other
    cultures, such as penal systems seen in Eastern Asian cultures. Would these
    inexact labels prevent mathematical sets (e.g. behaviors, beliefs,
    institutions, etc.) from being put forward? Or, is such precision
    reasonably beyond the scope of POJ? I guess the question is what
    is the endgame or what should the final form of POJ look like?

    Dallas Bell

  2. Sam Lebens

    Wonderful blog Ben. I accept that wiesenshaft never really took off in religious circles in the way that some Berliners once hoped, but the project still seems, though largely outside of religious orthodoxy, to be a going concern – albeit, one that doesn't interest me all that much!

    But a question I'd like people to think about is this: there is no doubt that R. Soloveitchik was a world class philosopher and a talmid chacham par excellance. But, one wonders whether his legacy is sufficient to usher in a new age of Jewish philosophy, especially, if we take to heart your statement that 'To be modern it [i.e., Jewish philosophy] must engage with modernity.'

    The strident and impressive epistemology of R. Soloveitchik is overtly coloured by the philosophical Neo-Kantian millieu in which he was educated.

    Ideas are not false merely because they are old fashioned, but one wonders, will there ever be a generation of Jewish philosophers who really engage with the philosophy that is, in English speaking countries at least, generally practiced in our times – namely, analytic philosophy?

    Will we ever move past the great shadow that Kant and Hegel cast upon the Jewish mind, and bring our tradition into conversation with the Russells, the Wittgensteins, the Quines, the Lewises and the Davidsons that so captivate contemporary philosophers?

    If you're right that 'The study and analysis of Solovietchik’s work among his many followers has made philosophy part of the Jewish mainstream once more,' does the fact that this new philosophical era was initiated by the study and analysis of R. Soloveitchik's work, condemn the enterprise from the outset to a slight degree of irrelevance, from the point of view of the contemporary analytic philosopher? Which, once again, doesn't necessarily make it false or in any sense wrongheaded – that's an open question.

    But, there does seem to be something to mourn for if Jewish philosophy has a renaisance without coming into conversation with the philosophical community of many of the world's greatest universities, who have long since moved beyond Neo-Kantian and Neo-Hegelian modes of thought.

  3. Ben Elton

    Sam, I think you are right, at least for the moment.

    R Soloveitchik so dominated Modern Orthodox intellectual and religious life that all areas he touched, including philosophy, lomdus and communal policy, are very much in his shadow. Debate is circumscribed by the boundaries he created. If we look at communal policy, for example, every innovation is either defended or attacked through an appeal to the Rav.

    The good news might be that now/once philosophy has become respectable, it might be possible to move to areas outside those Rav Soloveitchik explored, just as now we are beginning to see respectful critiques of the Rav's thought from within the Modern Orthodox community.

    I want to clarify one phrase in my post. When I said R Soloveitchik began his Western intellectual life 'as a student of Hermann Cohen' I did not mean that he sat at his feet, merely that he studied Cohen's works.

  4. Aaron Segal


    Because this comment is long I’ll divide it into two parts.
    The late Rabbi Walter Wurzburger joked that some Jews stay away from philosophy because they misread a verse. The Torah says, “mekhashefah lo tehayyeh” (Shemot 22:17). They read the pasuk, though, as “mahashavah lo tehayyeh.”
    In arguing that things are now more sanguine, Ben I think has put his finger on something .
    I want to play out some thoughts on the topic by elaborating upon academia and academicians. There’s much greater interest and activity now in academia in creative Jewish philosophy, or philosophy of Judaism, and I have a few half baked theories as to why, Bear in mind as you read this that analytic philosophy is the dominant modus operandi in philosophy. Hence my highlighting it. (For those who are wondering, I’m speaking as someone who, like others, “did” analytic philosophy before moving into Jewish philosophy.)
    Note that there are two distinct questions—
    (1) Why many people who have chosen a career in philosophy do JEWISH philosophy
    (2) Why some academicians do Jewish PHILOSOPHY as opposed to, say, Jewish history or Bible.
    I’m really addressing the first, whereas Ben’s post I think relates more to the second. But if our question is why today there is more philosophizing about Judaism, a reply to the first question contributes to an explanation of the overall phenomenon even though we need to look at the second as well.
    One explanation is that in philosophy generally (not just Jewish philosophy,) history of philosophy has moved from being, well, the history of philosophy– good expositions and contextualizations of ideas without much critical engagement—to a sustained, serious attempt to find philosophical ore in places where 50-60 years ago it would have seemed almost laughable to seek it. I’m not minimizing the sort of work you’ll find in the older, indeed decades-old, Doubleday series of critical essays on Aristotle, Kant, etc. But somehow , I sense things are really bustling now. Who would have thought that the pre-Socratics could get volumes devoted to them in a distinguished Routledge series on “The Arguments of the Philosophers”? Or that The Philosophical Review, a top, top journal, would be so interested in historical figures? The aim now is to address philosophical issues via the discipline’s history. Furthermore, it’s become respectable in academia to find good philosophy in places that aren’t labeled as philosophy (novels, pop culture, etc., ) . So why not in traditional Jewish texts? Once history of philosophy becomes a respectable enterprise in analytically-oriented philo departments, there’s no shame in Jewishly committed philosophy professors who started their careers in other areas taking on creative, tradition-rooted Jewish philosophy as a later-in-life specialty and doing it in an analytic vein. There’s no rigid line now between “studying” philosophy and “doing” philosophy. Compare Isaac Huzik’s and Julius Guttmann’s old surveys of Jewish philosophy with my colleague Daniel Rynhold’s (Yeshiva University) issue- oriented, critical Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, which I warmly recommend to all and could easily be in that series on “The Arguments of the Philosophers.” (BTW, the Routledge site says—I’m serious—that you can get the whole Routledge series for $10,725.00! So line up.)

  5. Aaron Segal


    A second factor is the influence of Christian philosophers (Alvin Plantinga, for starters) who have made philosophy of religion highly respectable. Relatedly, we may be profiting from an ecumenical spirit in the culture. Already fifteen years ago Faith and Philosophy—published by the Society for Christian Philosophers!—published a special issue on Jewish philosophy, edited by Eleonore Stump, a distinguished Christian analytic philosopher who had become exposed to Jewish tradition through conferences of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Some philosophers feel that “Jewish philosophy” is still not as issues-oriented as Christian philosophy, but certainly there are many Jewish works that compare favorably to Christian ones in this respect.
    Third, we benefit from a pluralist environment. Textbooks on philosophy represent multiple cultures, which exposes professors and students to those cultures—Jewish thought among them. Rambam and Ralbag find their way into a textbook called Classics of Western Philosophy that is now heading into its eighth edition. Compare also old and recent encyclopedias of philosophy, or the titles and entries in various Handbooks and Companions, which have become a cottage industry, or simply the proliferation of academic books in Jewish philosophy (again, with analytically-oriented approaches) , history, Bible etc. Here too, Jewish philosophy is benefiting from wider trends.
    Fourth is what I perceive as more friendly exchange in what was once the great divide—more exactly, war zone: Continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. A fair number of academic philosophers do both. This is significant because much Jewish philosophy is rooted in Continental thought.

  6. Aaron Segal


    Fifth, credit groups and institutions. Hilary Putnam was a regular at annual philosophy conferences of the Hartman Institute, and the list of other prominent philosophers who are at those conferences is simply unreal. (Funny how that word is an insult in philosophy but a huge compliment in the wider culture.) Putnam is one of the most famous analytic philosophers of the 20th century, but he published on e. g., Maimonides, Rosenzweig, and Levinas. The Academy for Jewish Philosophy (founded by Norbert Samuelson) has produced highly valuable stuff. The Association for Jewish Studies was founded in 1969, and in over forty years has grown tremendously. With the growth of Jewish Studies programs, many more professors are writing in all Judaica fields, and Jewish philosophy reflects this wider trend. (I’m curious, though, what percentage of AJS’s annual conference submissions is philosophy. I assume fields like history and Bible dominate.)
    Ben brings up Rabbi Soloveitchik. Initially it looks difficult to relate him to analytic philosophy because his emphasis is phenomenological and mostly anti-metaphysics. But in analytic philosophers you have much now on emotions, the meaning of life, and other phenomenological issues. No less eminent a figure than Harry Frankfurt (retired from Princeton) writes extensively on love and caring. It could be the Rav will have relevance to analytic philosophers as a result. Likewise Rav Kook. We’re not at the stage where The Journal of Philosophy will publish a piece on Hermann Cohen, but there are changes. (Those interested in the differences between Rabbi Soloveitchik and philosophers who do metaphysics should look at Mark Steiner’s introduction to his remarkable translation of the Yiddish (!) philosophical work by Rabbi Reuven Aguschewitz, Faith and Heresy, mentioned on this site, I think. It’s a fascinating book whose chapter on free will got a “haskamah” (=blurb) from Frankfurt, who forty plus years ago catapulted free will to a high nitch in the agenda of analytic philosophy. )
    I have more explanations, plus thoughts about accessibility and relevance, but I’ve gone long enough.
    Yasher koah, Sam, Dani, and Aaron for creating this blog. It’s a counterexample to those who think Jewish philosophy is moribund, or that blogs are necessarily uncivil, and one that I hope will grow.
    David Shatz

  7. Dani Rabinowitz

    Professor Shatz

    Thank you for these insightful and encouraging comments. You have certainly brought into play factors of which I was unaware. Your historical perspective provides much hope for the enterprise undertaken here. I look forward to your contributions to the discussions on this site in the future.


  8. Dani Rabinowitz

    Professor Shatz, I would be most interested to hear what factors have, in your opinion,for the shunning of philosophy by the religious communities. It is my impression that this disdain for philosophy is not merely a phenomenon related to modern-day chareidi and chassidic communities; its roots seem to go much deeper and further back in time. If I recall correctly, we find, for example, Rashba forbidding the study of philosophy (and science) before a certain age. My rather naive impression of Christianity is that its adherents, unlike Orthodox Jews, embraced the study of philosophy. How are we to account for this divergence?



  9. Sam Lebens

    Dani, I think we have to be careful with comparisons to Christian philosophy for two reasons, though I'm keen to hear Professor Shatz's opinion on this.

    Christian philosophy is more advanced in that it is more common for great contemporary Christians to be accomplished philosophers and for great philosophers to be Christian. But, there's a sense in which their achievements haven't been all that impressive. I'll try and sum up my reasons for saying that as follows: religion is under attack by dogmatic athiests who take religious belief to be a bog-standard sort of belief open to the same sorts of epistemic evaluation as other forms of belief; and who take religious language to be no different, in terms of how it works and what it seeks to achieve, from normal language. The great Christian philosophers of this age generally accept the assumption of the athiests that our bliefs and our language are normal cases of belief and language, and use considerable philosophical sophistication to demonstrate that our claims and our beliefs are compatible with science, and with reason. But I think this is to defend the straw man that the athiests have made of religion.

    First we have to ask, what is religious belief and what is religious language. What, for instance, are Rabbis saying when they say that the temple was destroyed for reasons x, y, and z (to borrow your example from another thread)? Who's to say that they mean what a coarse and stubborn literalist would take them to mean?

    I think Wittgenstein was on the right track, in that he sought to take these questions on. I don't know enough about his answers, and might not accept them, but I think he was asking the right questions.

    For that reason, I think that we have reason to hope for much more sophisticated philosophy of religion in future. Before we start defending religion against its detractors, lets be good philosophers and try to understand what it actually is!

    Secondly, Christian philosophy will be almost exclusively devoted to religion. But Jewish philosophy is potentially much broader with interests in the ontology of halakha, the nature of Jewish nationhood (or nationhood per se), approaches to logic and language in the Talmud and more. That's because Christianity is first and foremost a religion, and the Jewish people are also a nation with a national culture.

    So for two reasons, we shouldn't be too eager to follow in the footsteps of the Christian philosophers (though we surely have a lot to learn from them):

    1) Too often, they've defended a straw man without going deep enough into what makes religious beliefs and religious language unique.
    2) Their interests are inherently narrower.

    I imagine you'll disagree, Dani. I look forward to more discussion!

  10. David Shatz

    ( This is responding to Dani. Sam, I hadn’t seen your comment when I wrote this one.) Yes– the phenomenon goes back very far. A great way to get a historical handle is to read the historically-arranged essays by Professors Gerald Blidstein, David Berger, and Shnayer Leiman, and finally the general essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, in Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?, ed. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter. Among much else, the historical articles point to what I think you (Dani) were looking for– specific factors that could account for why some Jewish societies were attracted to their surrounding culture but others were repelled by theirs. See e. g. Berger, 63-64, on the difference between Ashkenaz and Sepharad in the Middle Ages. The historical analyses gave me a better understanding of what I’m doing as a philosopher. (The essays of course don’t deal only with philosophy and in fact not even for the most part.)

    On the question of a contrast with Christianity– there were already opposing approaches among the Church Fathers and there were some very strong Christian opponents of philosophy. But in the case of Judaism there are additional pressures having to do with retaining distinctiveness as a people (which may necessitate keeping out foreign intrusions) and with the fact that the surrounding environment was so physically threatening to Jews that it was disdained and feared at the cultural level too. But historians can tell that story better than I can.

    David Shatz

  11. Dani Rabinowitz

    Professor Shatz,
    Thanks for those references, they will certainly provide a more fleshed out context to the issue under discussion.

    You raise some very fundamental questions. The more we engage on different topics the more I realize how differently we think. I haven't given enough thought to religious language. But it strikes me that Christian philosophers have done amazing work on some fundamental issues in religion. I have in mind the metaphysics of divine attributes in particular. I realize that this work rests on certain assumptions about religious language. But even so it strikes me to be of the highest quality. I also admire the manner in which Christian philosophers have developed the metaphysical claims of Christianity with the tools of modern philosophy e.g. Swinburne's work on the trinity and the atonement. I have felt a sense of jealousy to be quite honest. For instance there is, as far as I know, no philosophically developed treatment of the foreknowledge and free will problem by a contemporary Jewish philosopher working within the framework of philosophy of religion. Leftow and Swinburne have done great work on this problem. We have nothing. I know that those who find non-literal positions on religious language appealing will find my comments entirely off the mark. But I just cannot get my head around non-literal language.

  12. Sam Lebens

    Yes Dani, it seems that you and I are poles apart on a number of issues! But the fact that we are two analytic philosophers with interests in the philosophical analysis of the Jewish tradition still puts us on the same team!

    I agree that some of the work of Christian philosophers has been astounding, and of the highest quality. But I do think that issues of religious language have to be dealt with first – not just language about God, though that is surely a central issue.

    I think that Rav Soloveitchik's Halakhic Mind has an interesting approach to the freewill problem tucked within it. Perhaps I'll blog about that, as the final part of my freewill rant online.

    And I don't think that its as simple as literalists versus non-literalists. I think that the truth about religious language is much more complicated than that. But, you're right, that your inability to get your head round non-literal approaches leads you to venerate the work of contemporary Christians such as Swinburne more than I do.

    Having said that, I can see that they are great philosophers, and can understand why one would envy that. Why aren't there more Jews interested in doing systematic, rigorous, constructive Jewish philosophy?

    But I still think that, inspired by the undoubted successes of the Christians, we might want Jewish philosophy to tread a different path, once it gathers some pace – for the reasons that I outlined above.

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