The Influence of Non-Jewish Thinking on Jewish Thought

Jewish thinkers have both embraced and directly reacted to foreign ideas and philosophies.

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Maimonides' Aristotelianism shaped both the foundations of his philosophy and the manner by which he reasoned from these foundations to his philosophical conclusions. In the Guide's section on creation, for example, Maimonides lists twenty-five Aristotelian axioms. From these he deduces what is literal and metaphoric in biblical accounts of creation.

Maimonides also embraced Aristotle's idea of human perfection, believing that humans perfect themselves by intellectually and morally imitating God. Revelation provides laws that help us in this task, but individuals must constantly strive to develop intellectually.

The philosophers were not the only medieval Jewish thinkers influenced by non-Jewish thought. Some kabbalistic ideas show signs of Neoplatonic influence. For example, the kabbalistic account of creation--which envisions the sefirot, the divine attributes, emanating from the Ein Sof, God's ineffable self--borrows from the Neoplatonic one, which also posits a series of emanations from an ultimate source.

The Modern Era: Rapid Developments and Reactions

The modern period initiated new confrontations between Jewish and non-Jewish thought.

Moses Mendelssohn, often thought of as the first modern Jewish philosopher, embraced many classical Enlightenment beliefs--the emphasis on reason, the notion that man is endowed with eternally valid ideas of goodness and truth, the equality of all mankind, the belief that philosophy should be ethically motivated--and developed a universal religion of reason, harmonious with traditional Jewish sources.

Whereas Mendelssohn was influenced by thinkers such as Leibniz, Locke, and Spinoza, it was his contemporary and friend, Immanuel Kant, who was the next major influence on both general and Jewish philosophy. Hermann Cohen was a major figure in both of these areas. Early in his career, Cohen established the Marburg school of Neo-Kantianism--a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism (experience-based theories of knowledge) that omitted Kant's idea of a noumenal realm, a realm where things exist in their essential form.

Later, Cohen became increasingly interested in Jewish thought. He suggested that religion has a privileged, autonomous role that is denied by the Kantain triad of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics that he had thus far adhered to. For Cohen, religion deals with categories of sin, repentance, and salvation, elements that do not have places in Kant's system. Eventually, Cohen's thought became more God-oriented, and, in some ways, reinstated Kant's noumenal, thing-in-itself, idea as the Godly source of all existence and cognition. Cohen's influence--and thus Kant's--extended to Jewish philosophers such as Franz Rosenzweig and Joseph Soloveitchik.

G.W.F. Hegel heralded another major tide of philosophy, although it was probably through his Jewish offshoot, Karl Marx, that he most affected Jewish thought. Marx's thinking, and the various forms of socialism that derived from it, fuelled many early Zionist thinkers, such as A.D. Gordon and Zev Jabotinsky.

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Elie Jesner

Elie Jesner lives and writes in London. He has studied Talmud, Jewish Thought, and General Philosophy at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Cambridge University, and the University of Warwick.