Modern Jewish Philosophy

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

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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?

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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.