Philosophy & theology

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Jewish philosophy (פילוסופיה יהודית) is the attempt to fuse the fields of philosophy with the religious teachings of Judaism.

In Israel philosophy classes may be called “מחשבת ישראל” (“thought of Israel”).  Medieval Jewish theologians sometimes used the word  חקירה (“investigation”) for philosophy.

Jewish philosophy books middle beta

As with any fusion of religion and philosophy, the attempt is difficult because classical philosophers start with no preconditions for conclusions they must reach in their investigation, while religious believers have a set of religious principles of faith.

Due to these divergent views, some hold that one cannot simultaneously be a philosopher and a true adherent of a revealed religion. In this view, all attempts at synthesis ultimately fail. For example, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov views all philosophy as false and heretical. Approaching this point of view from the opposite direction, Baruch Spinoza views revealed religion as inferior to philosophy, and thus saw traditional Jewish philosophy as an intellectual failure.

Others hold that a synthesis between the two is possible. One way to find a synthesis is to use philosophical arguments to prove that one’s preset religious principles are true. This is a common technique found in the writings of many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but this is not generally accepted as true philosophy by philosophers. One example of this approach is found in the writings of Lawrence Kelman, in his Permission to Believe, (Feldheim 1990).

Another way to find a synthesis is to abstain from holding as true any religious principles of one’s faith at all, unless one independently comes to those conclusions from a philosophical analysis. In some ways this can be found in the works of Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (20th century). However, this approach is not generally accepted as being faithful to one’s religion by adherents of that religion.

Another path towards synthesis is to apply analytical philosophy to one’s own religion. Among Jewish thinkers who had this view one may note Saadia Gaon, Gersonides, Maimonides, and Abraham Ibn Daud.

Julius Guttman Philosophies of Judaism
In this latter case a religious person would also be a philosopher, by asking questions such as:

  • What is the nature of God? How do we know that God exists?
  • What is the nature of revelation? How do we know that God reveals his will to mankind?
  • Which of our religious traditions must be interpreted literally?
  • Which of our religious traditions must be interpreted allegorically?
  • What must one actually believe to be considered a try adherent of our religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of philosophy with religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of science with religion?
  • What are the boundaries of Jewish thought? Avodah Zarah: idolatry is prohibited by Judaism

This is the task of Jewish philosophy.

Jewish philosophy books row 2

Early Jewish philosophy

Early Jewish philosophy was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and Islamic philosophy.

Many early medieval Jewish philosophers (from the 8th century to end of the 9th century) were especially influenced by the Islamic Mutazilite philosophers; they denied all limiting attributes of God and were champions of God’s unity and justice.

Over time Aristotle came to be thought of as the philosopher par excellence among Jewish thinkers. This tendency was no less marked in the Islamic, the Christian Byzantine and the Latin-Christian schools of thought.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 40 CE) was an Hellenized Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt.

Philo of Alexandria Classics of Western Spirituality

Philo included in his philosophy both Greek wisdom and Judaism, which he sought to fuse and harmonize by means of the art of allegory that he had learned as much from Jewish exegesis as from the Stoics. His work was not widely accepted. Philo made his philosophy the means of defending and justifying Jewish religious truths. These truths he regarded as fixed and determinate; and philosophy was used as an aid to truth, and as a means of arriving at it. With this end in view Philo chose from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks, refusing those that did not harmonize with the Jewish religion, as, e.g., the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity and indestructibility of the world.

Avicebron, Solomon ibn Gabirol

The Jewish poet-philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol is also known as Avicebron. He died about 1070 CE. He was influenced by Plato. His classic work on philosophy was Mekor Chayim, “The Source of Life”. His work on ethics is entitled Tikkun Middot HaNefesh, “Correcting the Qualities of the Soul”.

In Gabirol’s work Plato is the only philosopher referred to by name. Characteristic of the philosophy of both is the conception of a Middle Being between God and the world, between species and individual. Aristotle had already formulated the objection to the Platonic theory of ideas, that it lacked an intermediary or third being between God and the universe, between form and matter. This “third man,” this link between incorporeal substances (ideas) and idealess bodies (matter), is, with Philo, the “Logos”; with Gabirol it is the divine will. Philo gives the problem an intellectual aspect; while Gabirol conceives it as a matter of volition, approximating thus to such modern thinkers as Schopenhauer and Wundt.

Gabirol was one of the first teachers of Neoplatonism in Europe. His role has been compared to that of Philo. Philo had served as the intermediary between Greek philosophy and the Oriental world; a thousand years later Gabirol occidentalized Greco-Arabic philosophy and restored it to Europe. The philosophical teachings of Philo and Ibn Gabirol were largely ignored by their fellow Jews; the parallel may be extended by adding that Philo and Gabirol alike exercised a considerable influence in extra-Jewish circles: Philo upon early Christianity, and Ibn Gabirol upon the scholasticism of medieval Christianity.

Jewish philosophy books top

Gabirol’s philosophy made little impression on later Jewish philosophers. His greatest impact is in the area of the Jewish liturgy. His work is quoted by Moses ibn Ezra and Abraham ibn Ezra. Christian scholastics, including Albertus Magnus and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, defer to him frequently and gratefully.

Jewish Mysticism, Kabbalah

A separate entry exists for Kabbalah. A fundamental difference between the Kabbalists and exponents of philosophy is due to their different views of the power of human reason. Kabbalists reject the conclusions of reason, and rely upon tradition, inspiration, and intuition. Philosophers, on the other hand, hold that reason is a prior requisite for all perception and knowledge.

Saadia Gaon

Saadia Gaon (892942 is considered one of the greatest of the early Jewish philosophers. His Emunoth ve-Deoth was originally called Kitab al-Amanat wal-l’tikadat, the “Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma”. It was the first systematic presentation and philosophic foundation of the dogmas of Judaism, completed in 933.

In it he posits the rationality of the Jewish faith, with the restriction that reason must capitulate wherever it contradicts tradition. Dogma must take precedence of reason. Thus in the question concerning the eternity of the world, reason teaches since Aristotle, that the world is without beginning; that it was not created; in contrast, Jewish dogma asserts a creation out of nothing. Since the time of Aristotle it was held that logical reasoning could only prove the existence of a general form of immortality, and that no form of individual immortality could exist. Mainstream Jewish dogma, in contrast, maintained the immortality of the individual. Reason, therefore, must give way in Saadia’s view.

In the scheme of his work Saadia closely followed the rules of the Mutazilites (the rationalistic dogmatists of Islam, to whom he owed in part also his thesis and arguments), adhering most frequently to the Mutazilite school of Al-Jubbai. He followed the Mutazilite Kalam, especially in this respect, that in the first two sections he discussed the metaphysical problems of the creation of the world (i.) and the unity of God (ii.), while in the following sections he treated of the Jewish theory of revelation (iii.) and of the doctrines of belief based upon divine justice, including obedience and disobedience (iv.), as well as merit and demerit (v.). Closely connected with these sections are those which treat of the soul and of death (vi.), and of the resurrection of the dead (vii.), which, according to the author, forms part of the theory of the Messianic redemption (viii.). The work concludes with a section on the rewards and punishments of the future life (ix.)

Karaite philosophy

A sect which rejects the Rabbinical Works, Karaism, developed its own form of philosophy, a Jewish version of the Islamic Kalâm. Early Karaites based their philosophy on the Islamic Motazilite Kalâm; some later Karaites, such as Aaron ben Elijah of Nicomedia (fourteenth century), reverts, in his Etz Hayyim (Hebrew, “Tree of Life”) to the views of Aristotle.

Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart

Bahya ibn Paquda lived in Spain in the first half of the eleventh century. He was the author of the first Jewish system of ethics, written in Arabic in 1040 under the title Al Hidayah ila Faraid al-hulub, “Guide to the Duties of the Heart”, and translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon in 1161-1180 under the title Hovot ha-Levavot, Duties of the Heart.

Though he quotes Saadia Gaon’s works frequently, he belongs not to the rationalistic school of the Motazilites whom Saadia follows, but, like his somewhat younger contemporary, Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1070), is an adherent of Neoplatonic mysticism. He often followed the method of the Arabian encyclopedists known as “the Brothers of Purity,” 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. He wanted to present a religious system at once lofty and pure and in full accord with reason.

Yehuda Halevi and the Kuzari

The Jewish poet-philosopher Yehuda Halevi (twelfth century) in his polemical work Kuzari made strenuous arguments against philosophy. He became thus the Jewish Al-gazali, whose Destructio Philosophorum was the model for the Kuzari.

Human reason does not count for much with him; inward illumination, emotional vision, is everything. The Kuzari describes representatives of different religions and of philosophy disputing before the king of the Khazars concerning the respective merits of the systems they stand for, the palm of course being ultimately awarded to Judaism.

The rise of Aristotelian thought

Judah ha-Levi could not bar the progress of Aristotelianism among the Arabic-writing Jews. As among the Arabs, Ibn Sina and Ibn Roshd leaned more and more on Aristotle, so among the Jews did Abraham ibn Daud and Maimonides.

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides, or the Ralbag, (12881345) is best known for his work Milhamot Adonai, (Wars of the Lord). Among scholastics, Gersonides was perhaps the most advanced; he placed reason above tradition.

Gersonides stamp astronomy
The Milhamot Adonai is modelled after the Guide for the Perplexed of Maimonides. It may be seen as an elaborate criticism from a philosophical point of view (mainly Averroistic) of the syncretism of Aristotelianism and Jewish orthodoxy as presented in that work.
Gersonides The Wars of the Lord

Hasdai Crescas (13401410) is best known for his Or Adonai (Light of the Lord). Crescas’ avowed purpose was to liberate Judaism from what he saw as the bondage of Aristotelianism, which, through Maimonides, influenced by Ibn Sina, and Gersonides (Ralbag), influenced by Ibn Roshd (Averroes) threatened to blur the distinctness of the Jewish faith, reducing the doctrinal contents of Judaism to a surrogate of Aristotelian concepts. His book, Or Adonai, comprises four main divisions (“ma’amar”), subdivided into “kelalim” and chapters (“perakim”): the first treating of the foundation of all belief—the existence of God; the second, of the fundamental doctrines of the faith; the third, of other doctrines which, though not fundamental, are binding on every adherent of Judaism; the fourth, of doctrines which, though traditional, are without obligatory character, and which are open to philosophical construction.

Joseph Albo was a Spanish rabbi, and theologian of the fifteenth century, known chiefly as the author of the work on the Jewish principles of faith, his Ikkarim. Albo limited the fundamental Jewish principles of faith to three: (1) The belief in the existence of God; (2) in revelation; and (3) in divine justice, as related to the idea of immortality. Albo finds opportunity to criticize the opinions of his predecessors, yet he takes pains to avoid heresy hunting. A remarkable latitude of interpretation is allowed; so much so, that it would indeed be difficult under Albo’s theories to impugn the orthodoxy of even the most theologically liberal Jews. Albo rejects the assumption that creation ex nihilo is an essential implication of the belief in God. Albo freely criticizes Maimonides’ thirteen principles of belief and Crescas’ six principles.


Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (11351204), רבי משה בן מיימון, known commonly by his Greek name Maimonides, was a Jewish rabbi, physician, and philosopher.

Maimonides held that no positive attributes can be predicated to God. The number of His attributes would seem to prejudice the unity of God. In order to preserve this doctrine undiminished, all anthropomorphic attributes,such as existence, life, power, will, knowledge – the usual positive attributes of God in the Kalâm – must be avoided in speaking of Him. Between the attributes of God and those of man there is no other similarity than one of words (homonymy), no similarity of essence (“Guide,” I 35, 56). The negative attributes imply that nothing can be known concerning the true being of God, which is what Maimonides really means. Just as Kant declares the Thing-in-itself to be unknowable, so Maimonides declares that of God it can only be said that He is, not what He is.

Maimonides wrote his thirteen principles of faith, which he stated that all Jews were obligated to believe. The first five deal with knowledge of the Creator. The next four deal with prophecy and the Divine Origin of the Torah. The last four deal with Reward, Punishment and the ultimate redemption.

The principle which inspired all of Maimonides’ philosophical activity was identical with the fundamental tenet of Scholasticism: there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy. Moreover, by science and philosophy he understood the science and philosophy of Aristotle. In some important points, however, he departed from the teaching of the Aristotelian text, holding, for instance, that the world is not eternal, as Aristotle taught, but was created ex nihilo, as is taught explicitly in the Bible. Again, he rejected the Aristotelian doctrine that God’s provident care extends only to humanity, and not to the individual. But, while in these important points Maimonides forestalled the Scholastics and undoubtedly influenced them, he was led by his admiration for the neo-Platonic commentators and by the bent of his own mind, which was essentially Jewish, to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept.

Position in the history of thought

The scholastics preserved the continuity of philosophical thought. Without the activity of these Arabic-Jewish philosophers, the culture of the Western world could scarcely have taken the direction it has, at least not at the rapid rate which was made possible through the agency of the Humanists and of the Renaissance. The Jewish philosophers of the Arab-speaking world were the humanists of the Middle Ages. They established and maintained the bond of union between the Arabic philosophers, physicians, and poets on the one hand, and the Latin-Christian world on the other.

Gersonides, Gabirol, Maimonides, and Crescas are considered of eminent importance in the continuity of philosophy, for they not only illumined those giants of Christian scholasticism, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, but their light has penetrated deeply into the philosophy of modern times.

Renaissance philosophers

Classical Judaism saw the development of a brand of Jewish philosophy drawing on the teachings of Torah mysticism derived from the esoteric teachings of the Zohar and the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. This was particularly embodied in the voluminous works of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel known as the Maharal of Prague.

Post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers

Modern Jewish philosophy

One of the major trends in modern Jewish philosophy was the attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism. One of the primary players in this field was Franz Rosenzweig. While researching his doctoral dissertation on the 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Rosenzweig reacted against Hegel’s idealism and favored an existential approach. Rosenzweig, for a time, considered conversion to Christianity, but in 1913, he turned to Jewish philosophy. He became a philosopher and student of Hermann Cohen. Rozensweig’s major work, Star of Redemption, is his new philosophy in which he portrays the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are connected by creation, revelation and redemption.

Later Jewish existentialists include Conservative rabbis Neil Gillman and Elliot N. Dorff.

Perhaps the most controversial form of Jewish philosophy that developed in the early 20th century was the religious naturalism of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. His theology was a variant of John Dewey‘s philosophy. Dewey’s naturalism combined atheist beliefs with religious terminology in order to construct a religiously satisfying philosophy for those who had lost faith in traditional religion. In agreement with the classical medieval Jewish thinkers, Kaplan affirmed that God is not personal, and that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are, at best, imperfect metaphors. Kaplan’s theology went beyond this to claim that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled. Kaplan wrote that “to believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society.”

One of the more recent trends has been a reframing of Jewish theology through the lens of process philosophy, and more specifically process theology. Process philosophy suggests that fundamental elements of the universe are occasions of experience. According to this notion, what people commonly think of as concrete objects are actually successions of these occasions of experience. Occasions of experience can be collected into groupings; something complex such as a human being is thus a grouping of many smaller occasions of experience. In this view, everything in the universe is characterized by experience (which is not to be confused with consciousness); there is no mind-body duality under this system, because “mind” is simply seen as a very developed kind of experiencing.

Inherent to this worldview is the notion that all experiences are influenced by prior experiences, and will influence all future experiences. This process of influencing is never deterministic; an occasion of experience consists of a process of prehending other experiences, and then a reaction to it. This is the process in process philosophy. Process philosophy gives God a special place in the universe of occasions of experience. God encompasses all the other occasions of experience but also transcends them; thus process philosophy is a form of panentheism.

The original ideas of process theology were developed by Charles Hartshorne (18972000), and influenced a number of Jewish theologians, including British philosopher Samuel Alexander (18591938), and Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, Harry Slominsky and to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Today some rabbis who advocate process theology or a related theology include Rabbis William E. Kaufman, Harold Kushner, Anton Laytner, Nahum Ward, Donald B. Rossoff and Gilbert S. Rosenthal.

Perhaps the most unexpected change in Jewish religious thinking in the late 20th century was the resurgence of interest in Kabbalah. Many philosophers do not consider this to be a form of philosophy, as Kabbalah is a form of mysticism. Mysticism in general is generally understood as an alternative to philosophy, and not a variant of philosophy.

Holocaust theology

Judaism has traditionally have taught that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good). Yet, these claims are in jarring contrast with the fact that there is much evil in the world. Perhaps the most difficult question that monotheists have confronted is how can we reconcile the existence of this view of God with the existence of evil? This is the problem of evil. Within all the monotheistic faiths many answers (theodicies) have been proposed. However, in light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined classical views on this subject. How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust? This set of Jewish philosophies is discussed in the article on Holocaust theology.

Modern Jewish philosophers

The following philosophers have had a substantial impact on the philosophy of modern day Jews who identify as such. They are writers who consciously dealt with philosophical issues from within a Jewish framework.

Orthodox Judaism philosophers

See Orthodox Judaism.

Conservative Judaism philosophers

See Conservative Judaism.

Reform Judaism philosophers

See Reform Judaism.

Reconstructionist Judaism philosophers

See Reconstructionist Judaism.


Philosophers informed by their Jewish Background

Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism

Blogs on Jewish Philosophy



The original version of this article comes from an early version (2005) of the Wikipedia article on ‘Jewish Philosophy’ , much of which was written or edited by Robert Kaiser. Later versions became the subject of intense editing wars between religious fundamentalists, and well-intentioned but not well-trained students. As such, the organization and focus of the article became lost amidst endless edit wars.  What is presented here has been edited with an eye towards academic honesty and linguistic clarity.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy & theology

  1. Pingback: Idolatry: The boundaries of Judaism | merrimack valley havurah

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