Jewish Philosophy

Sunday, April 27, 2008
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 1, 2006

What Is It

Rabbis and Talmudic scholars have spent centuries puzzling over theology, texts, and life.  In the process they came up with many philosophical ideas that have inspired the work of more recent philosophers such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas.  Who or what is God?  By what rules should people live?  And what does Maimonides have to say about diets and bathing? John and Ken investigate the past, present, and future of Jewish philosophy with Paul Franks from the University of Toronto, author of All or Nothing: Skepticism, Transcendental Arguments and Systematicity in German Idealism.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by trying to define what they mean by Jewish Philosophy. If Jewish Philosophy simply referred to philosophical writings which happened to be written by Jews, then there would be a wealth of unconnected topics to talk about, from Marx to modern theories of linguistic reference. But the goal of this installment is to discuss philosophers who are deeply in touch with Judaism and Jewish history, and try to solve philosophical problems from this point of view. John notes that like Christian and Islamic philosophy and theology, Jewish scholarship flourished during the middle ages as ancient greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, filtered through these monotheistic traditions. John says that he would pick being a Jewish philosopher during this time period because he thinks it would be easier than grappling with what he thinks are really difficult contradictions in Christian metaphysics and theology. Ken points out that Jewish philosophy didn't exactly have an easy time either.

John and Ken introduce Paul Franks, Associate Professor from the University of Toronto, author of many things, but most importantly for today the translator of Franz Rosenzweig's Theological and Philosophical Writings. John begins by asking Paul to distinguish the great Jewish philosophers of the flourishing middle ages from the great philosophers of Islam and Christianity. Paul Franks believes that the main feature of Jewish thought at this time was the way reason and faith were easily intertwined. Though not all Jewish beliefs are necessitated by rationality, they do not seem to contradict it (the way John mentioned some Christian and Islamic doctrines do). On the other hand, Judaism is very particularistic in that it doesn't make universal claims but rather speaks primarily about what the Jewish people have done and should do. Ken notices that the Jewish deity claims to be the deity of all, and this may be seen as a universal claim.  Paul Franks admits this, and in addition remarks on some evidence in the old testament which points towards normative claims about how people should act. John and Ken go on to question details of Jewish theology and whether or not their particular nature makes them appear a bit random. Paul Franks acknowledges that the literal interpretation of rules in the Jewish tradition, especially the Ten Commandments, was historically a big topic that famous figures like Maimonides addressed. John discusses the use of figural and non-literal interpretations of the Bible put forward by Maimonides and Paul Franks puts this into historical perspective.

Ken returns to the reconciling of reason and faith in Jewish Philosophy, but this time specifically wonders how jews can reconcile the awful trials Yahweh puts them through with the idea that he has their best interests at heart. Paul Franks discusses how this problem has been approached in contemporary Judaism, and the newfound attempts to dissociate Greek ideas that may have filtered into Judaism through the Bible's original translation. John brings up Martin Buber and this leads the discussion to contemporary Jewish philosophers and how they deal with the personal relationship between jews and God presented in the Bible. Afterwards John brings up the interesting fact that many modern Jews do not seem to believe in God the way other religious people from other traditions do. John, Ken and Paul then discuss the personal relationship with God in the Jewish tradition. John tries to link together ethnically Jewish philosophers with Jewish theologians through these personal relationships, and Paul Franks agrees with some of his conclusions.

John, Ken, and Paul go on to discuss many issues with callers ranging from the relationship between Jewish Philosophy, space and time to Judaism's place in the contemporary multicultural and globalized world.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:21): Polly Stryker investigates the history and influence of Jewish Philosophy from metaphysical queries and its relationship to Islam in the Middle Ages to its struggle to grapple with the Holocaust in the 20th century through an interview with Leora Batnitsky from Princeton University.
  • Conundrum about Destroying Unpleasant Books (Seek to 45:46): John and Ken help Liz from Oregon deal with her dilemma concerning a children's book with some racist imagery and her choice whether to destroy it or not.