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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The Esotericism of Jewish Thought

Next, the elitism of the Jewish philosophers, who believed that the pursuit of wisdom is best left to the wise. Such an unegalitarian approach is not easily understood by modern readers, although it was a commonplace for ancients and medievals. Many Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, felt not only that the untrained and unworthy will fail to comprehend wisdom, but also that they may be harmed by their misunderstanding.

There is a tension in the texts of medieval Jewish philosophy, especially those written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, between the desire to reveal philosophical secrets, and the need to conceal them. Philosophers often looked to the precedent of the Law itself, for guidance. On the one hand, the Law was given to all Israel; on the other hand, it contained secrets that were to be kept from the multitude.

Maimonides felt an obligation to teach everyone the true meaning of the Law, but only according to his or her ability to comprehend it. Since the Law was given to Moses not only to regulate behavior but to teach truths, it was the task of the teacher to communicate those truths in ways that would be understood. Although the study of philosophy was always an occupation for the elite (as was, in their own ways, the study of kabbalah and the study of Talmud), philosophical doctrines were sometimes disseminated to the people, especially through the vehicle of sermons.

Truth is Non-discriminatory

Finally, the universal character of wisdom. Both philosophers and kabbalists thought that only a handful of worthy students should receive the secrets of the Law. Both believed in the ultimate unity of the Law and wisdom, and both thought that wisdom was granted to the ancient Hebrews. But they differed over the content of that wisdom, and hence over the value and importance of studying non‑Jewish sources.

Ultimately, it did not matter to the philosophers whether Socrates or Aristotle had studied with Jewish prophets or not: what mattered was whether they attained the truth or not, and that truth was attainable for the most part through unaided reason.

Maimonides' dictum "Accept the truth from whoever says it" became the watchword for Jewish philosophers of all stripes, from the most radical to the most conservative. (Isaac Abrabanel praised the faith and piety of Christian philosophers as superior to that of his Jewish brethren. Isaac Arama dealt harshly with the Jewish Aristotelians but enjoyed the sermons of Christian prelates.)

Still, Jewish philosophers cite their non-Jewish sources only when they feel that an appeal to authority will help clinch an argument (or when they assume that their readers will be familiar with the doctrines espoused).

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