Biblical and Rabbinic Ideas

Neither the Bible nor rabbinic literature are explicitly philosophical, but they nonetheless contain precedents invoked by later Jewish thinkers.

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Reprinted with permission from Every Person's Guide to Jewish Philosophy and Philosophers, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.

Both the Bible and rabbinic literature contain explicit views about God, man, and the world. These views, however, are not presented in any formal systematic way, and thus it is more common to speak of biblical and rabbinic theology rather than philosophy. Nevertheless, Jewish philosophers throughout the ages often use and quote biblical and rabbinic sources in support of their various philosophic views.

Table 1‑1 is a sampling of biblical verses concerning God and human nature that are often cited by Jewish philosophers in their works. Each verse is accompanied by its central message.

Biblical Theology

Table 1‑1.

Biblical Verses Concerning God and Human Nature

Message

1. The One incomparable God [to which Israel should be loyal]

Verse

Hear O Israel, the Lord our

God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

2. God creates and acts in the world

God said: Let there be light and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

3. God is imageless

You saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. (Deuteronomy 4:15)

4. Israel is God's chosen people

If you will listen to Me and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples. (Exodus 19:4)

5. God has attributes

The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness and truth… (Exodus 34:6)

6. Moses' prophecy was superior [to the prophecy of all other prophets]

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom God singled out, face to face… (Deuteronomy 34:10)

7. God punishes wayward behavior

Be careful, lest your heart be deceived and you turn aside and worship other gods. And the anger of God be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven. (Deuteronomy 11:16‑17)

8. The heavens and the earth are finite

…from one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth. (Deuteronomy 13:8)

9. God is omnipotent

I know that you canst do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)

10. Man possesses freedom of choice

I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…therefore, choose life… (Deuteronomy 30:15‑19)

11. Man's essential nature is reason [one of many interpretations of this verse].

Let us make man in our image. (Genesis 1:26)

12. Man's final goal is love of God    

Love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul… (Deuteronomy 6:5)

13. Man should be modest in his conduct

Righteous eat to the satisfying of his desire… (Proverbs 13:25)

Rabbinic Literature

While the rabbis had some familiarity with Greek philosophic ideas because Greek philosophy had appeared by the time of the Talmud, research has shown that for the most part the rabbis were not familiar with formal philosophy. The names of the major philosophers are absent from the rabbinic writings, and the only philosophers mentioned by name are Epicurus and the obscure second‑century Oenomaus of Gadara.

In rabbinic literature, the term epicurean (apikoros) is used, but it usually refers to a heretic rather than to someone who embraces Epicurus' doctrines. Jewish philosophers were prone to cite rabbinic sayings in their writings as they did biblical quotations, for support of their views. Table 1‑2 is a brief listing of rabbinic quotations and the philosophic ideas that they represented.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.