Jewish philosophy

We define as Jewish philosophy the philosophical ideas of those authors who lived in various geographical regions (in the Near and Middle East, in Europe and northern Africa) after the 1st century AD, who used different languages as a means of expression but who were united by two common characteristics: their Jewish ethnicity and their more or less formal adherence to Judaism – two aspects which, in the traditional view of the history of the Jewish people, would essentially coincide. Often, but not always, the various means of linguistic expression of this philosophy coincided with the most important languages of the areas wherein it operated. During the 1st century, Jewish philosophers wrote in Greek, the academic language of the Near East at the time.

During the 9th-12th centuries, when they were primarily active in northern Africa and Muslim Spain, they wrote in Arabic (or more precisely, in the Jewish version of this language, Judeo-Arabic), and Jewish thinkers continued to write in this language for the following period (13th-16th century) in some Islamic countries south of the Mediterranean.

Between the 13th and 18th centuries, Jewish philosophers who worked in western European countries created their own literary language, medieval Hebrew, which emulated and counterposed first the medieval and renaissance Latin of the contemporary Christian Scholasticism, and then the languages who had started to spread in the gentile European culture of the time.

Finally, in the 19th-20th centuries, and more specifically after 1850, with the rise of the Wissenschaft des Judentums («science of Judaism») and the progressive assimilation of Jewish people within European societies, there was a linguistic fragmentation: Jewish philosophers expressed themselves in the literary language of the place where they lived (English, French, German, Italian); only in eastern European countries, where there was still a neat separation between Jewish communities and the local nationalities, Jewish thinkers still expressed themselves in Hebrew, or at the very least they adopted as a means of expression the language spoken by their communities: Yiddish. In general, not only from a linguistic standpoint but more importantly in regards to the methods and even a good portion of the contents, Jewish philosophy seemed characterized by a notable ability to adapt and absorb the various cultures among which it existed, both Islamic and Christian, thus creating a Jewish version of the most important gentile philosophical and theological schools it was in contact with.

Connections to Greek and Arabic philosophies

The first version of ‘Jewish Platonism’ can be found around 40 AD, in Egypt; its representative was Philo of Alexandria. He published in a series of works, all initially redacted into Greek, his substantial adhesion to various philosophical doctrines of Plato and of the platonic school of his times, attempting to applying them to his interpretation of the Old Testament; in doing so, he focused mostly on the allegorical-philosophical reading of the first chapter of the genesis, dedicated to the creation of the world. Nonetheless, Philo’s case remained essentially isolated. It was only a few centuries later that a wider return of an interest in Greek philosophy occurred for Jewish thinkers: an interest that was now mediated by the linguistic and conceptual interpretation carried out by the medieval Arab-Islamic philosophy. To jumpstart this interest was the rise of the ‘Jewish kalām’, an apologetic theology towards Judaism in its two then prevalent versions (Rabbinic and Karaite), inspired, in some aspects of its contents and form, to the contemporary Islamic apologetic theology.

The most renowned representative of this school of thought, Saadia Gaon (882-942), active in Egypt and Mesopotamia, introduced some elements of the Neoplatonism of the Arab-Islamic philosopher al-Kindī, and in general some methods and doctrines of Islamic theology, in his main work, the Kitāb al-amānāt wa-l-i’tiqādāt («Book of Beliefs and Opinions»). However, it was with his contemporary and compatriot Isaac Israeli (850-950) that a true Jewish philosophy in Arabic was born, which systematically reproduced the structures and a good portion of the contents of al-Kindī’s philosophy and the works connected to it (the Ūtūlūğīyā «Theology» of the pseudo-Aristotle and the Kalām fī mahd al-khā‛ir «Liber de causis»), adapting them, where necessary, to the doctrinal needs of Judaism.

Jewish philosophy in Muslim Spain. This Jewish Neoplatonism found an ulterior and wider development in the Muslim Spain of the 11th-12th centuries. Between 1040 and 1080 ca., in this area, the works of two authors with opposing ideas were composed: Shelomoh Ibn Gabirol (1020-1070 ca.) and Bahyā Ibn Pāqūdā (second half of the 11th century). The former, in his metaphysical work Yanbū‛ al-hayāt («The source of life»), offered for the first time an original interpretation of the Arab-Islamic Neoplatonism; the latter, in his mystic-ascetic work Farā’id al-qulūb («The duties of the hearts»), attempted to conform the structures and the contents of Islamic mysticism to the needs of Judaism, thus achieving a sort of ‘Jewish Sufism.’

An even bigger development of Jewish Neoplatonism in Spain can be found between 1120 and 1140: in this time, in the Iberic peninsula, the most important works of the Judeo-Arabic authors belonging to this school of thought were written, such as the Maqāla al-hadīqa («The treatise of the garden») by Mosheh Ibn ‛Ezrā (1055-1138 ca.), the Kitāb al-‛ālam al-saġīr («Book of the microcosm») by Yosef Ibn Zaddiq (died in 1149), and the Kitāb al-Khazarī («Book of the Kuzari») by Yĕhūdāh ha-Lēwī (1075 ca. – 1141). These three works had in common their focus on treating philosophical and theological questions by taking inspiration from Arab-Islamic authors who belonged not only to Neoplatonism (the Rasā’il Ikhwān al-safā’, «Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of purity») but also to Aristotelianism (al-Fārābī, Avicenna, Ibn Bāggia). This Jewish Neo-Platonism, open to a confrontation with some aspects of Aristotelianism, continued even after 1150 in other geographical areas (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt), and especially in Yemen; in this last region a sort of ‘Jewish Ismailism’ developed in the 12th-16th centuries, which shared with true Ismailism the interest for the theological-philosophical doctrines of Avicenna, adapting it to its own religious needs.

Jewish Aristotelianism

In the second half of the 12th century, on the other hand, the important phenomenon of Jewish Aristotelianism arose, autonomous from Neoplatonism and in contrast to some aspects of it. It was represented by two Arabic-speaking Jewish authors: Abraham Ibn Dawūd (also known as Johannes Avendaut), active in Toledo as a philosopher of Avicennan orientation and a probable collaborator of the philosophical translation from Arabic to Latin of writings by Avicenna, and especially Mōsheh Ibn Maymūn, known as Maimonides and active in Cairo as a doctor, jurist, and philosopher. The latter, certainly the best-known representative of Jewish philosophy, offered in his greatest work, the Dalālat al-hā’irīn (The guide of the perplexed), an Aristotelian interpretation, based mainly on the works of al-Fārābī and Ibn Bāggia, of the main elements of the Jewish religious tradition, in an effort to rationally explain the contents of the latter. At the same time as Ibn Dā’ūd and Maimonides, a Jewish philosophy developed in Spain and Western Europe during the 12th century in a language that was no longer Arabic, but Hebrew. Its founders were Abraham bar Ḥiyyā (c. 1065-1136), an Aragonese Jew interested in Greek science and philosophy and in contact with both the Muslim and Christian worlds, and Abraham Ibn ‛Ezra (1089-1164), a Spanish-Jewish eclectic writer, active as an astronomer and exegete of the Bible in Italy, France and England after 1140.

Writing for readers who were unfamiliar with the Arabic language, these authors had to create the Hebrew language that was new in many aspects, capable of expressing the fundamental concepts of Arabic philosophical and scientific thought: medieval Hebrew. After them, many other Jewish authors who wrote philosophical works in Hebrew were active in Spain, Provence, and Italy between 1200 and 1500. These works, still under study today, reflected Jewish interpretations and adaptations of different aspects of Arab-Islamic thought first (at least until 1350), and of Latin scholasticism later (especially from the 14th century). It is possible, for some of them, to speak of ‘Jewish Averroism’: risen from an attempt to match Maimonides’ thought with that of Averroes, this Averroism was developed by several authors in the geographical areas and periods mentioned above, and found its most famous and brilliant expression, not without innovative aspects, in the Provençal Jewish philosopher and scientist Lēwī ben Gērĕshōn, known as Gersonides (1288-1344). Two other phenomena were present alongside this: a ‘Jewish Avicennism’, which developed in the Spanish and Provençal area between about 1250 and 1400; and a sort of ‘Jewish scholasticism’, which developed in Italy around the beginning of the 14th century and was revived there and in Aragon in the second half of the 15th century. The latter was born from the attempt to interpret and adapt to Jewish tradition the main aspects of different schools of Latin Christian thought of the time: Thomism, Scotism, Nominalism.

Jewish enlightenment

The line drawn by medieval Hebrew philosophy continued in Europe, along lines that still had to be clarified in the followed method and content, after 1500, assimilating aspects of the non-Jewish thought of the 16th-18th centuries: its last original manifestation was the Haskalah, known as ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ and developed in the Dutch and German areas after 1750. However, in the second half of the 19th century, with the assimilation of a large part of European Jews into non-Jewish European society, Jewish philosophy fragmented not only from a linguistic point of view but also from a religious point of view, maintaining only a generic cultural and national identity. In this case, it is still difficult to speak of a truly unified Jewish philosophy: one can perhaps speak of different authors of Jewish culture, each of whom is part of one or another different aspect of contemporary European philosophy.

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