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Jewish Philosophy

Introduction | Ancient Era | Medieval Era | Mystical Jewish Philosophy | Modern Era
Introduction Back to Top

Jewish Philosophy refers to philosophical inquiry informed by the texts, traditions and experiences of Judaism (as opposed to just any philosophical writings which happened to be written by Jews).

Ancient Era Back to Top

Among Jewish philosophers of note in ancient times are:

  • Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. - A.D. 40) was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt. He tried to harmonize the wisdom of the Ancient Greek philosophers with his Jewish religious beliefs, and thereby justify and defend those beliefs. In practice, however, he chose selectively those tenets of the Greeks which served to justify the points he wanted to make, and conveniently ignored the rest.
  • Jesus of Nazareth (c. 7 B.C. - A.D. 26) was a 1st Century Jewish teacher (and sometimes considered a philosopher) from the Galilea area of Palestine (modern day Israel), who is the central figure of Christianity (in which he known as Jesus Christ, meaning "The Anointed One"), a major Islamic prophet and an important figure in several other religions. The main sources of information regarding his life and teachings are the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some of Jesus' most famous teachings come from the Sermon on the Mount (including the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer), and he often employed parables, such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Sower. His teachings encouraged unconditional self-sacrificing love for God and for all people, service and humility, the forgiveness of sin, faith, turning the other cheek, love for one's enemies as well as friends, and the need to follow the spirit of the law in addition to the letter.
Medieval Era Back to Top

Many Early Medieval Jewish philosophers (from the 8th Century to end of the 9th Century) were particularly influenced by the Islamic Persian Mu'tazilite philosophers: they denied all limiting attributes of God and were champions of God's unity and justice. Over time, the Ancient Greek Aristotle came to be thought of as the philosopher par excellence among Jewish thinkers.

  • Saadia Gaon (892 - 942) is considered one of the greatest of the early Jewish philosophers. His Emunoth ve-Deoth (originally called Kitab al-Amanat wal-l'tikadat or the Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma), completed in 933, was the first systematic presentation and philosophic foundation of the dogmas of Judaism. In it, he posits the rationality of the Jewish faith, but with the restriction that reason must give way wherever it contradicts tradition: dogma must take precedence over reason.
  • Solomon Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron) (1021 - 1058) was a Spanish-Jewish poet-philosopher and one of the first teachers (or revivers) of Neoplatonism in Europe. Although, (like Philo before him), Avicebron was largely ignored by his fellow Jews and made little impression on later Jewish philosophers, he exercised a considerable influence on the Scholastics of medieval Christianity, including Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • Bahya ibn Paquda lived in Spain in the first half of the 11th Century, and was the author of the first Jewish system of ethics, written in Arabic in 1040 and translated into Hebrew in 1180 under the title Chovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart). He was an adherent of Neoplatonic mysticism and inclined to contemplative mysticism and asceticism. Bahya eliminated from his system every element that he felt might obscure monotheism or might interfere with Jewish law.
  • Judah ha-Levi (Yehuda Halevi) (c.10751141) was a Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet. He made strenuous arguments against philosophy in his polemical work Kuzari, and expounded his views on the teachings of Judaism, which he defended against the attacks of the Karaites (a sect which rejected the rabbinical works and oral law of the Mishnah and the Talmud, in preference for sole reliance on the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, as scripture).
  • Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) (1135 - 1204) was a Jewish rabbi, physician, and philosopher who lived in Spain, Morocco and Egypt. Although his copious works on Jewish law and ethics initially met with much opposition during his lifetime, subsequently his works and views came to be considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study, and his influence on the non-Jewish world was profound. Maimonides declared that it can only be said of God that He is, not what He is, and he established thirteen principles of faith which he stated that all Jews were obligated to believe. Maimonides foreshadowed the Scholastics and undoubtedly influenced them, although he also maintained many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept.
  • Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides) (1288 - 1345), a French Rabbi and philosopher, is best known for his work Milhamot HaShem (Wars of the Lord), a criticism of some elements of Maimonides' syncretism of Aristotelianism and rabbinic Jewish thought. In contrast to the theology held by the majority of Orthodox Judaism, Gersonides held that God limited his own omniscience concerning foreknowledge of human acts. He also posited that people's souls are composed of two parts: a material, or human, intellect (which gives people the capacity to understand and learn); and an acquired, or agent, intellect (which survives death, and can contain the accumulated knowledge that the person acquired during their lifetime).
  • Hasdai Crescas (1340 - 1410) is best known for his Or Hashem (Light of the Lord). Crescas' avowed purpose was to liberate Judaism from what he saw as the bondage of Aristotelianism, which threatened to blur the distinctness of the Jewish faith.
  • Joseph Albo (c. 1380 - 1444) was a Spanish rabbi and theologian, known chiefly for his Ikkarim, a work on the fundamental Jewish principles of faith, which he limited to three: belief in the existence of God, belief in revelation and belief in divine justice, as related to the idea of immortality.

The Arabic-Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages were essential in preserving the continuity of philosophical thought from the classical philosophies of Ancient Greece through to the Muslim and Christian scholasticism of the Medieval period and beyond.

Mystical Jewish Philosophy Back to Top

Kabbalah refers to a set of esoteric teachings and mystical practices that form an alternative to traditional Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and especially of the Torah (the name commonly given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). It is a set of beliefs followed by some Jews as the true meaning of Judaism, while rejected by other Jews as heretical and contrary to Judaism. The Zohar is widely considered the most important work of Kabbalah. With its wide dissemination in the Jewish world of the Middle Ages, it became the mainstream Jewish theology, side-lining the earlier schools of philosophy that had expressed Jewish belief in the framework of Greek thought.

Hasidic philosophy is the thought and teachings of the Hasidic movement founded by Baal Shem Tov (1698 - 1760), which expressed the Kabbalisic tradition in a new paradigm in relation to man, and so could be conveyed to the Jewish masses.

Modern Era Back to Top

One of the major trends in modern Jewish philosophy was the attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism, as exemplified by the work of Franz Rosenzweig (1886 - 1929).

Perhaps the most controversial forms of Jewish philosophy that developed in the early 20th Century was the religious naturalism of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881 - 1983) whose theology was a variant of John Dewey's philosophy.

Another important figure in 20th Century Jewish philosophy is Martin Buber (1878 - 1965), a cultural Zionist active in the Jewish and educational communities of Germany and Israel. His work centered on theistic ideals of religious consciousness, interpersonal relations and community, and his major interest was in ontology (the study of reality and existence).

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