Philosophy 73 - 4.3.6 Jewish Philosophers in the Christian and Islamic Worlds

Although Jewish people did not enjoy equal status in Europe, Africa, and Asia, they did contribute to medieval philosophy in both the Christian and Islamic worlds. Perhaps the two most notable Jewish scholars of this period were Moses Maimonides and Levi ben Gershom.

Moses Maimonides

Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides (1138–1204), was a physician, Torah scholar, and astronomer in addition to being a philosopher. Born in Cordova in Muslim-ruled Spain, he served as the personal physician of Saladin, the political and military leader of Muslim forces during the Second and Third Crusades.

Like many medieval thinkers across the various traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, Maimonides’s philosophical work begins with the question concerning the relationship between theology and philosophy. His most well-known work, The Guide for the Perplexed (1190), is addressed to a student trying to decide which field of inquiry to pursue.

To the ancient Greek philosophers, God is the unmoved mover that sets into motion all other existence in a universe that has always existed. This conception of God conflicts with both the story of creation and with the idea of miracles, which necessitate intervention. These conflicts created perplexity in the minds of Maimonides’s student and other Jews. This conflict came about, Maimonides proposed, because philosophers developed doctrines that do not follow from objective evidence and reason, whereas theologians erroneously interpreted religious texts literally (Bokser 1947).

Maimonides claimed that biblical literalism was the main reason people could not get closer to God. Instead, biblical texts ought to be interpreted figuratively. Typical of medieval thinkers in these traditions, Maimonides was a systematic thinker who held that ultimate truths akin to Platonic forms remain forever true in the mind of God, which our finite minds seek to apprehend. Adam and Eve comprehended these truths prior to the Fall, but in the post-Fall world, we can only approximate them. Literalism and a materialist conception of God are the two forces keeping us from a fuller knowledge.

Maimonides presents a demythologized conception of the divine that influences later thinkers, Spinoza among them. Like Xenophanes before him, Maimonides rejects anthropomorphic religious elements, such as God in human form. Although Maimonides grants that picturing the divine in human terms may be necessary for young believers, adherents should get over this tendency as they mature, as it obscures the true nature of the divine. The true nature of the divine is captured in the central prayer of Jewish faith, the Sh’ma: “Hear, oh, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” God is one—unity that is expressed in the biblical reference to God as ein sof—without end. Maimonides argued that God cannot be broken into parts or assigned attributes. The Bible refers to God’s rod and staff, but this is figurative and should not be taken literally (Robinson 2000). When the Bible refers to God as merciful or gracious, these are not moral attributes of God. Rather, Maimonides explained, God has performed actions—set into motion events—that if performed by a human, we would perceive as merciful or gracious (Putnam 1997).

Statue of a seated man wearing a long robe and holding a book in his lap.
Figure 4.10 Although deeply religious, Maimonides opposed both literal interpretations of the Bible and anthropomorphized images of God, arguing that God cannot be imagined or even assigned attributes. This statue of Maimonides stands in his birthplace of Cordoba, Spain. (credit: “Maimónides” by Marco Chiesa/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Just as often we often understand God’s attributes as analogous to human attributes, we often liken God’s knowledge to human knowledge. This sort of analogical thinking is misguided, Maimonides argued. Human knowledge is finite and quantifiable, as is human power. God’s knowledge and power are infinite and hence not the finite knowledge and power familiar to us. We may perceive God as gracious, but what we see as gracious is not God but an attribute of his action. “Every attribute that is found in the books of the deity . . . is therefore an attribute of His action and not an attribute of His essence” (Maimonides 1963, 121). This leads Maimonides to a radical negative theology asserting that human knowledge cannot conceive of what God is but only of what God is not. Humans can only ascribe attributes to God’s actions and not God’s essence. The role of revelation, as transmitted through the Jewish Bible, was not to acquaint us with knowledge of God but rather to guide us to our highest ends—and in doing so, we come as close to God as is possible (Bokser 1947). Maimonides’s negative theology was radical and was challenged, perhaps most notably, by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides)

Like Maimonides, Gersonides (1288–1344) sought to demonstrate the compatibility between Jewish faith and reason. His most well-known work, Wars of the Lord, takes up the problem of the relationship between Torah or Jewish scripture on the one hand and reason on the other. Gersonides also made major contributions to the scientific study of astronomy. Applying mathematical calculations to data he collected using tools that he himself created, Gersonides concluded that several principles advanced by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy were wrong. For Gersonides, reason was both mathematical and empirical. He built upon the work of Maimonides and Averroes, and his work can be read as an effort to understand Aristotle through these predecessors.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax