Jewish Philosophy


Moses, by Michelangelo

Aug 26, USA (SUN) — Numerous articles have been written in which the connection between Vaisnavism and Judism are explored. One notable article written by Isa dasa and Dharma dasa entitled, "Equality Based on the Soul: Exploring the Jewish Root in the Vedas", is posted in the Comparative Religions section of

Equality Based on the Soul has been online in for a number of years, and we have always been amazed at the amount of traffic that comes into the site in order to read this piece. In fact, a tremendous amount of traffic 'Googles' its way into the Comparative Religions section, most of which goes to Vaisnavism, Judism, and Islam. This has been the case for several years, since increased focus came to bear on the Middle East as a result of the September 11th terrorist attack in New York.

Clearly, many people interested in religion and spirituality are fascinated with the similarities and differences between Vaisnavism and Judism. Having discovered the affinity between these two groups of Internet users, we have always felt that more preaching about Krsna Consciousness should be directed towards those interested in Judism. In that spirit, we publish the following article, Jewish Philosophy, which was originally published in the spiritual magazine, Splendour.

Sun Editors

"Jewish Philosophy" by Alexander Altmann

Part I

The history of Jewish Philosophy does not commence until after the Biblical period had run its full course, and the essential outline of the Jewish Faith had been clearly fixed. Unlike Indian or Greek Philosophy, it arises not from a free and spontaneous movement of the pure Reason, breaking away from the traditional forms of religion, but as an effort towards harmonizing the tenets of the Jewish Faith with philosophic teachings that held sway at successive periods of Jewish history. It is, therefore, fraught with all the tension inherent in an ambivalent attitude. Its fundamental problem, like that of Islamic and Christian Philosophy, is summed up in the formula "Faith and Reason."

Jewish Philosophy makes its appearance, and is developed, not as a product indigenous to the soil of Palestine, but in communities of the Diaspora. First the Jews living in the cultural sphere of Alexandria came under the spell of the Hellenistic civilization, and felt the need of reconciling their Jewish heritage with the Stoic-Platonic philosophy dominant in that age and environment. From the second century BC until the middle of the first century AD, a literature sprang up in which Biblical concepts became increasingly overlaid with Stoic and Platonic elements of thought. It reached full maturity in Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 BC - AD 40), whose mystical bent drew him irresistibly to the Neoplatonism which had been inaugurated by the great Stoic teacher Posidonius in the first century BC, and seemed to reflect the deepest tendencies of the age. Philo pursued this trend much more resolutely and with infinitely greater success than Posidonius.

One may justifiably assert that the decisive factor in his accomplishment was the Jewish component which compelled him to seek the unity of the world in a wholly transcendent principle which was, at the same time, immanent in all being. The Biblical concept of God stresses both the transcendence and the immanence of the Divine Power. Philo could, therefore, accept neither the Platonic notion of God as the Idea of the Good which was the "measure of all things," nor the Stoic concept of Logos as an all-pervading divine principle. Platoís God was wholly transcendent, the Stoic deity wholly immanent. Posidonius had built up an impressive monistic system by identifying Platoís Ideas with the Stoic Logos. He saw the universe as a graded totality rising in a hierarchy of beings from stone to plant, animal, man, demons and gods. But his system was essentially pagan and pantheistic.

Philo anchored the Posidonian cosmos in the supreme Reality of God who was transcendent and yet "filled the universe." The Platonic Ideas in whose image the world is framed have their reality not outside the Creatorís Mind (as in Platoís Timaeus), nor are they transformed into immanent principles of a dynamic world process, but become the Ideas of God, the Divine Mind in process of Creation. The Philonic Logos, it must be emphasized, is not a divine principle but merely the first creation of God. It reflects the order of the visible universe, the pattern thereof as created in Godís Mind. The essence of God remains unknown. Philo is anxious to guard the concept of God against all forms of pantheism, and therefore adopts a strictly negative theology. He may have derived it from a passage in Platoís Parmenides where the One is described as having no name nor being spoken of and defined as inaccessible to knowledge, perception or opinion. But he sought to give it a legitimately Jewish character by reading into it the Biblical statement in which God declares His Name to be "I AM THAT I AM" and which Philo takes to mean "My Nature is to be, not to be spoken." Through Philo, this verse has become a locus classicus for scholastic ontology.

Part II

In Solomon ibn Gabirol (c. 1020-1050, possibly A.D. 1070), poet and philosopher, this Neoplatonic philosophy found a deep echo. His magnum opus, Mekor Hayyim ("Fountain of Life") became known to the Latin world through the translation made of it under the title, Fons Vitae by Dominicus Gundissalinus in collaboration with Abendeath, a baptized Jew of Toledo. Owing to the corruption of Gabirolís name into Avicebron or Avicembrol, he was held by the mediaeval schoolmen to be a Christian. His work exercised a notable influence on the scholasticism of the 13th and 14th centuries. Gabirolís system is interesting from two aspects. Firstly, it introduces Aristotleís distinction of Matter and Form into the very heart of theology by deriving the dual structure of all being from a duality inherent in God Himself. Gabirol, though uneasy about his daring step, was driven to it by the consideration that both Matter and Form must have their ultimate source in the supreme Reality of God.

Secondly, he describes the formative principle in God as the Divine Will. For Plotinus, Will is but a name for Godís freedom and necessity. That God is free does not mean that He could have acted otherwise than He did. As Dean Inge put it, "The Absolute is all necessity, as being subject to no necessity." Absolute freedom is equal to absolute necessity. This concept could hardly be regarded as compatible with the Biblical notion of a Creator-God who was all Will and Power, and who had called the universe into being by His Word and Command. Gabirol therefore introduces into the Neoplatonic system of necessity the Biblical concept of Divine Will. He identifies this Divine Will with the formative principle in God, and opposes it, as it were, to the essence of God which is the source of Matter.

The freedom and spontaneity of the Divine Creative act is thus limited by the dark nature of Godís essence. The dialectic involved in the human artistís creation-resistance of matter to form and the triumph of form over matter-is thus foreshadowed in the nature of Divine creation. Gabirolís differentiation between the essence and Will of God is not strictly maintained. At times, he describes the Will as mediator between Matter and Form; sometimes he obliterates the duality of the two aspects in God by identifying the Will of God with the Divine Wisdom. The latter term denotes obviously the element of essence rather than of Will, seeing that in Godís Wisdom or Intellect the essences of beings are foreshadowed. Yet in spite of the obscurity which surrounds Gabirolís notion of the Will of God, it has brought to light the fundamental cleavage between the Neoplatonic and the Biblical view of Creation.

The most popular among mediaeval Jewish thinkers in Gabirolís contemporary Bahya Ibn Pakudah whose The Duties of the Heart (written between A.D. 1080 and 1090) has become the standard work on Jewish moral philosophy and a manual of the spiritual life. The "duties of the Heart" such as sincerity of faith, humility, and love of God should inspire the "duties of the Limbs," i.e., the ceremonial observances. There is a sprinkling of asceticism in Bahyaís ideal of the devotional life, which is due, in some part, to the influence of Islamic mysticism, and has its immediate source, as I. Heinemann has shown, in an Arabic treatise of Hermetic origin.

The much-debated question as to whether Bahya was also influenced by Ghazali, the great Islamic mystic, has been settled in the negative. Gnostic influence is pronounced in the treatise On the Nature of the Soul which has been wrongly attributed to Bahya, and which probably belongs to about the same period. In describing the descent of the soul through the celestial spheres and zones of elements until it reaches earth and enters the body, the book shows itself under the spell of Gnostic sources, especially in their Hermetic form.

Part III

Crescasí attack is not confined to Gersonides but makes a valiant and successful attempt to demolish, on logical grounds, the whole edifice of Aristotelian metaphysics. His critique of Aristotle is destructive of such basic Aristotelian notions as Matter, Space and Time, and foreshadows the approaching Renaissance. Pico della Mirandola quotes him extensively, and Spinoza, possibly also Giordano Bruno, are indebted to him. Crescasí demonstration of the infinity of Space and Time renders Aristotleís proof for the existence of God (that of the "Prime Mover") invalid. But even an infinite world requires as its ground a necessary Being. Creation need not be interpretated as an act in Time, but must be understood as Creatio ex nihilo.

In Crescas, mediaeval Jewish Philosophy reaches its climax and turning-point. It had inherited from the Hellenistic period-through the mediation of Islam-the legacy of Neoplatonic Aristotelianism. In a gradual process, it had shed first Neoplatonism and eventually radical Aristotelianism as well. It was hard to see which philosophy, if any, was to replace the old and well-worn system of thought. For some time to come, one simply pretended that the crisis did not exist. Crescasí successors in the field continued more or less the Aristotelian tradition. Simon ben Zemah Duran (1361-1444) reverts essentially to the position of Maimonides. Joseph Albo (d. 1444) seeks to harmonize Maimonides and Crescas. Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1509), the last Jewish thinker on Spanish soil, who shared with his people the tragic fate of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, is a lucid commentator of Maimonides. But mediaeval Jewish Philosophy was on its last legs. This is nowhere more patent than in the strained discussions which were carried on in an effort to mark off against each other the respective spheres of Reason and Revelation.

© "History of Philosophy Eastern and Western" by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, published by George Allen & Unwin Limited, Ruskin House, Museum Street, London.


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