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Philosophy has often been mistakenly cast as the enemy Judaism, but this is both unfortunate as well as unjustified, and as the recently deceased Rabbi Johnathan Sacks has demonstrated that in truth it can be one of its strongest allies. The Greeks themselves in their many historical roles have proven to be one of the cardinal oppressive enemies of the Jews but this is not to be conflated with the part played by their philosophy (meaning love of knowledge) can serve in enriching Jewish thought.  The Greek philosophers were ongoing adversaries of their rulers   resulting in the execution of Socrates and the flight of Aristotle.

The capacity for knowledge and wisdom is one of the noblest gifts God has bestowed upon humankind, and philosophy is one quintessential aspect of such wisdom and knowledge. In one of the most telling midrashim of our Jewish tradition the patriarch Avraham we are informed he concluded the likelihood of God through argument although revelation was primary.    Argument however it should be recognized is not a matter of simple rationality but also allows intuition to enter the picture as professed in kabalistic thinking through the introduction of Chokmah involving intuition. This stands in contradistinction to Bena which is confined mainly to purely formal deductive and inductive rationality.


There are a number of Jewish scholars who have contributed to such philosophical wealth including the Rambam, Gersonides, Milton Steinberg, and more recently (Blessed be his memory) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The Rambam is particularly well known for his philosophical speculations, especially relevant for its impact upon the moral dimension of philosophy. His contributions were particularly valuable especially with use of Aristotle. One focused area where he devotes his attention is in area of the mean in developing moral character. This has its origins in Aristotle’s philosophy but here Maimonides applies it to Jewish values with some revolutionary fruit bearing results. Aristotle professed that ideal moral character or virtue was largely a mean between two extreme forms of behavior, the former being a deficit and the latter an excess. For example, in conducting oneself in matters of money granting a mean between stinginess and extravagance one approaches the ideal in matters of money. Here Maimonides departs from Aristotle and in the matter of self-interest vs. submissiveness to others introduces a consideration of different factor, namely consideration of the sanctity of all human beings so that a mean between meeting one’s own needs and others is to be achieved.

On another note, regarding sound argument Maimonides vis a vis the existence of God he cites the principle that certainty need not be achieved by argument and that likelihood or superiority to other arguments would suffice. Aristotle’s contact with Judaism, moreover, may be seen in another episode related by Josephus where it is related that based on notes by his student Claricles, Aristotle encountered a Jewish merchant and relates the enormous amount he learned from him.   One individual that deserves here is Hillel Zeitlin. This Hasidic thinker, much underrecognized, wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish (tragically losing his life  in the Holocaust). Zeitlin exhibits an awareness of a multitude philosophers including Schopenhauer, Spinoza Leibnitz as well as Nietzsche. One of his great insights is with regard to the notion of beauty in the universe and how there is in its depths a pervasiveness that animates the universe itself. This is grasped by those with the capacity through a direct intuition, something paralleling a direct grasp of the senses. However, with the senses one can share it’s commonly to others while with mystical perception description becomes ineffable except to a few so capable.

There is furthermore a Spinoza oriented sense of God where God may be understood as the animating order of the universe basically equated with two aspects, namely, the order itself and secondarily with particular expressions of that order of that order at any given time. The first he refers to as natura naturans equated with the unchanging aspects of God and the second as natura naturata or changing aspects.   The notion of God here is something that that the great creative thinker Albert Einstein embraced who described himself as committed to a Spinozian notion of God.

The first consists in the beauty in the order of the universe vis a vis its laws which are unchanging and apply throughout all distance and time. Then there is the beauty of its state at instances (sunsets and mountain ranges)  Additionally, there is the matter of describing God’s attributes and his critical correction to Maimonides thinking.  Spinoza maintains God can only be understood through via negativa or in terms of what God is not. However, Gersonides points out that this will prohibit any distinction between such attributes and other ones including its opposites.  If God is “not loving” in the sense of totally beyond human loving then  loving in God’s sense remains without any definite content.  Gersonides resolves the problem by asserting God’s loving is like human loving but whereas human loving is limited God’s is infinite. By introducing the concept of infinite Gersonides  brings the notion of God’s love within the realm of comprehension but only partially and moreover allows a deeper understanding (still incomplete)  for of other attributes  of God. This builds upon the Torah revelation that God made humankind in his image or tzelm elohim. Tzelm has verbal roots in the notion of shadow which is a lower two dimensional version of a higher 3 dimensional reality also suggesting partial understanding.

More recent philosophical thinkers exhibit the relevance of philosophy to Judaism even more exactly namely Milton Steinberg and Jonathan Sacks   Steinberg provides an example derived from an epistemological analysis. He maintains there are certain truths paralleling in geometry which are intuitively clear which require no proof but are acquired by immediate grasp. Sacks regards the fact that ethical truths are basic and irreducible a point clarified as by philosopher David Hume and that such prescriptive truths which Sacks attributes to God renders the critical distinction that philosophy represents truth taught whereas Judaism represents truth lived.  However, truth lived must in some measure rely upon truth thought. Most importantly he underscores that there are some principles of life that are more worthy of pursuits for human enrichment than others and to assert there is no difference is as the philosopher Jeremy Benthem asserted is  “nonsense on stilts.” Most centrally is the principle that truth lived requires remembering life’s valid lessons and this is a defining characteristic of Judaism. Otherwise communities and most importantly civilizations collapse. Sacks also thoughtfully maintains that without religion ethical conduct and in related fashion civilizations would collapse. This is predicated on his perspective that an awareness of God is linked with an awareness of ethical obligation and has sustaining power. It follows from this involvement that such God awareness is a form of valid intuitive perception.

Philosophy is a veritable ally of Jewish thought but should never be deployed to replace it since revelation and chochmah are quintessential. The utilization of philosophy within Judaism, however has yielded fruitful results but cries out for further commitment in order to ensure an enhanced future reaping its benefits.  The groundwork has been laid by the Rambam, Gersonides and most forcefully the late Rabbi Sacks in our own time. Let us hope our future embraces this utilization for a more illuminating  understanding.


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Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy