Modern Jewish Philosophy

Jewish thought in modern times has been shaped by radically new political realities.

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Modern Jewish thought is rooted in the 18th and 19th-century European Jewish Enlightenment. Many of the issues that arose at this time continued to be relevant when the center of Jewish life moved from Europe to Israel and America. Below is a general introduction to modern European Jewish thought and brief reviews of the more specific issues faced by Jewish philosophers in Israel and America. The material on the emergence of modern Jewish philosophy, Europe, and Israel is written by Mendes-Flohr; the final section on American Jewish philosophy is written by Breslauer. Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The Paradox of Modern Jewish Philosophy

Jewish religious thought since the eighteenth century is characterized by a grand paradox. Whereas the Jews' entry into the modern world has witnessed their increasing secularization, they have at the same time been preoccupied with theological questions. Indeed the preeminent task assumed by modern Jewish religious thought has been to re‑articulate and even radically re‑evaluate the theological presuppositions of Judaism in the light of the modern secular experience.

Beginning with the proud, defiant humanism of the Renaissance and gaining dramatic momentum with the "new" science and cosmology heralded by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, the modalities of thought we now consider "modern" began to crystallize. The emergence of this bent of mind marked a radical shift in the regnant assumptions of western civilization regarding the nature of reality and the sources of authentic knowledge.

The biblical teachings of creation, revelation, and miracles were virtually excluded from this picture of the world.

The modern mind and sensibility are thus founded on a fundamentally new "image of knowledge," that is, the assumptions regarding what constitutes true knowledge‑‑its sources, purpose, and principles of verification. Asserting the preeminence of reason and autonomous judgment and the dignity of a this‑worldly happiness, the modern image of knowledge is said to be inherently antagonistic to the biblical image of knowledge grounded as it is in the concepts of revealed truth, sacred scriptures, and an eschatological vision of human destiny.

Heir to the biblical image of knowledge, modern Jewish thought seeks to come to terms with modern conceptions of truth and meaning. In this respect, of course, it is basically similar to modern religious thought in general.

Jewish Philosophy and Jews in Modern Europe

There are, however, specifics of the Jewish experience in modern Europe that determine the agenda and peculiar inflections of modern Jewish thought. It should, therefore, be recalled that Jews first encountered the modern world during the protracted struggle in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe to attain political emancipation. This struggle was not merely a legal process but engaged Europe in an intense and wide‑ranging debate assessing Judaism's eligibility to participate in the modern world.

In the course of this two century‑long debate, Jews became, to say the least, exceedingly sensitive to the prevailing conceptions of Judaism in European culture. Not surprisingly, then, modern Jewish thought was often guided by an apologetic motive. Judaism's defensive posture was also prompted by the rise of modern, political and racial anti‑Semitism that, to the dismay of many, was not confined to the mob but gained vocal support from more than a few intellectuals.

The integration of the Jews in the modern nation state and culture that was achieved despite persistent opposition led to a profound restructuring of Jewish life, both organizationally and culturally. The Jews were no longer under the obligatory rule of the rabbis and the Torah as they were in medieval times.

In acquiring the political identity and culture of the "non‑Jewish," secular society in which they lived, the Jews tended to lose much of their own distinctive culture, e.g., knowledge of Hebrew and the sacred texts of the tradition. Moreover, for many, the nation of Israel's covenantal relationship to God as a Chosen People‑‑-presently in exile but piously awaiting God's messiah and restoration to the Promised Land‑‑-was no longer self‑evident and unambiguous.

Rethinking Traditional Concepts

Modern Jewish thought in Europe was thus charged with the task not only of explaining Judaism to non‑Jews and to Jews estranged from the sources of their tradition, but also with re‑thinking some of the fundamental, concepts of the tradition that bear on the nature of the Jews as a people: covenant, election, exile (diaspora), the messiah; and the promise of national redemption in general, [and] the meaning of Jewish community, history, and destiny.

These questions gained a unique urgency in the mid‑twentieth century with the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Whereas medieval Jewish philosophy was primarily concerned with the relatively circumscribed issues of reconciling faith and reason, modern Jewish thought accordingly has a broader and by necessity more protean [i.e. fluctuating] purview, addressing the multiple dilemmas of the Jew in the modern world.

Philosophy in the Context of the Jewish State

The restoration of the Jews to their ancient patrimony in the land of Israel under Zionism raises a host of perhaps intractable theological questions. The foremost concerns the status and significance of a process initiated and carried out by humans that, throughout the ages, the custodians of Jewish faith taught would be realized only through the grace and direct action of God.

In Jewish prayer and doctrine, the return of Israel's exiles to Zion was conceived to be a messianic event, providentially determined by the will of God, at God's appointed hour. Is not the Zionist project rather a usurpation of God's work, a mark of heretical impatience, not to speak of sinful hubris? Or, despite its secular passion and profane achievements, is Zionism to be ultimately regarded as the longed-for redemption?

And with Jewish sovereignty reestablished, another salient question concerns the theological significance of the adjective "Jewish" when applied to a state's affairs conducted according to secular principles and considerations.

Does the holiness of the land remove it from mundane geopolitical considerations? Does not the commandment to honor the land as the locus of the divine promise to the people of Israel supersede all pragmatic, even ethical, approaches to solving the conflict with the Arab residents of the land, who have their own competing national claims to the country? Can sovereignty over the land be shared with non‑Jews?

American Jewish Philosophy

American Jewish philosophy and theology focus on a range of disparate themes. Some of these reflect classical theological problems--for instance, the nature of God, the meaning of revelation, or hopes for salvation‑--or momentous historical events: the Nazi Holocaust and the establishment  of the State of Israel, chief among them.

Other themes respond to challenges facing American Jewry in particular--for instance, the meaning of Jewish rituals in a secular age, ways to balance adaptation to American life with retention of Jewish identity, and strategies for Jewish education in a pluralistic religious setting. Similarly, the specifically America themes of American civil religion, interfaith cooperation, and social problems dominate much of Jewish reflection.

In a recent work Harold Schulweis, a leading rabbi and thinker in America's Conservative Movement, examined this assortment of concerns. His guiding image serves well as a metaphor for the totality of Jewish thinking in America. According to Schulweis, an idea of God serves as a mirror reflecting the several faces of American Jews.

To be a Jewish thinker, accordingly, means to offer images of Judaism to American Jews, so they can discover whom they imagine themselves to be.

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Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr

Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr is a Professor of Modern Jewish Thought in the Divinity School and the University of Chicago. He is also in the Committee on Jewish Studies and an Associate Faculty in the Department of History.