Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Reason in a Religious Age

The philosophers of the Middle Ages believed they were unearthing existing wisdom, not creating new ideas.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Philosophy Reader, edited by Daniel H. Frank, Oliver Leaman, and Charles Harry Manekin, published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group (2000).

The story of medieval Jewish philosophy as it is commonly told, goes something like this:

At some point during the tenth century, Jews living in Muslim lands started to write systematic treatises of philosophy, mostly in imitation of treatises written by Muslim philosophers. Before that time, Jews had a lot to say about philosophical matters, but since they didn't write about them in the way that the Greeks had written about them, it hardly counted as "philosophy."

(Of course, there were Jews who wrote philosophy in the Hellenistic period, but those Jews were outside of the dominant tradition of rabbinic Judaism, as were the Karaite Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages. This shouldn't have made a difference, but to many of the story‑tellers it did.)

Jewish philosophy reached its peak with Maimonides, the story continues, but his synthesis of reason and religion, though initially popular among a few intellectuals, caused a reaction among the traditionalists, who finally got the upper hand around the end of the fifteenth century. With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the growth in the study of kabbalah, philosophy, which had always been a marginal intellectual activity for the Jews, entered a period of decline.

Jewish philosophers after the seventeenth century tended to be more attuned to the zeitgeist [i.e. the spirit of their times] than their medieval counterparts, and increasingly more secular.

How Medieval Jewish Thinkers Saw Themselves

The story told above has a kernel of truth in it, along with more than a few inaccuracies and distortions. But what is important to emphasize is that the story is a recent one. It assumes the periodization employed by the nineteenth‑century scholars who unearthed many of the works of medieval Jewish philosophy, as well as their historical sense, intellectual worldview and religious perspective.

Listen to the medieval Jewish philosophers themselves, however, and you will hear a different story about the origins and development of what we call "medieval Jewish philosophy" and what they often simply called "wisdom" (hokhmah). They will tell you that God gave wisdom to Moses (or to Adam or to Abraham) and to the Prophets. This wisdom was encoded within the Law [i.e. Torah] and the dicta of the Rabbis as secret doctrines, so that the wise and only the wise would be able to fathom it. The great teachers of each age passed it down to one or two individuals, Jews and non‑Jews, which is how this wisdom came to the Greeks.

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