Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The Encounter with Greek Philosophy

Note that Jews had no continuing tradition of philosophizing. Incidental passages in the Bible and rabbinic literature dealt with philosophical issues, but not in a systematic way.

The works of Philo of Alexandria were not known directly to the rabbis of the Talmud, or to the medievals, though he was know to the Christian church.

In the Syrian Church

The Greek philosophical tradition was virtually lost to Europe with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

Philosophical activity continued in Asia and Africa. Major centres: Alexandria (Egypt) and Antioch (Syria), Edessa (Mesopotamia). In Syria, philosophy was incorporated into religious curriculum. Major works were translated into Syriac.

In the Islamic World

With Islamic expansion into Syria, Syrian (Nestorian) Christians became influential in Caliphate, especially as court physicians.

Caliphs commissioned translations (usually from Syriac) of Greek scientific and philosophical literature.

The medieval versions of Greek philosophical texts were often different from the originals, because of:

  • absence of certain works (e.g., Aristotle's Politics, which had to be "filled in" by Plato's Republic).
  • Incorrect attribution of works by other authors (e.g., neoplatonic and mystical works were ascribed to Aristotle, such as the "Theology of Aristotle" that was actually composed by Plotinus).
For Jews, the ancient texts were mediated by the interpretations of Arab commentators, such as Alfarabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

The Three Major Schools of Islamic-Jewish Rationalism:


    "Theology" rather than "Philosophy"
      Based on revealed tradition, rather than independent logical or scientific proof. Reason is subordinated to the revealed religion, as an aid to understanding and resolving apparent contradictions.
    Two major issues in Muslim Kalam:
    1. Unity: The reinterpretation of scripture in order to deny all compromises of God's One-ness.

    2. In addition to denying straightforward claims that God has physical substance or human-like form (anthropomorphism), the principle of "Unity" required the rejection of all personal and emotional attributes, which would imply that God can undergo changes.
      God cannot have multiple attributes ("wise," "good," "mighty") because this would contradict his Unity.
    3. Justice: The affirmation of human free will, since otherwise God would be unjust in rewarding and punishing people. This was more of an issue for Muslims, but Jews also had to deal with questions like the tension between human freedom and God's knowledge of our future actions.

    4. Main Jewish exponent of this school was Rabbi Saadia Ga'on (Cairo, Baghdad, 10th Century). Kalam was eventually superseded among Rabbinite Jews by Aristotelianism, but it continued to enjoy popularity among the Karaites.


    Mystical tendencies.
    The problem of "the One and the Many": Focus on God's abstract unity,and the problem of how the diverse material universe could have originated from that abstract unity. Tried to resolve the problem through theories of emanation.
    As religious way of life, Neoplatonism advocated dualistic outlook, liberation of soul from physical body in favour of spiritual ascent towards mystical union with absolute spirit.
    Principal Jewish neoplatonists included Solomon Ibn Gabirol ("Avincebrol") and Bahya Ibn Paquda.

    Though the movement was displaced by Aristotelianism, many of its themes continued to exert an influence in the guise of Kabbalah.


    Aristotle believed to be the most perfect human intellect possible: The ultimate achievement possible with out the aid of supernatural revelation.

    Philosophy grounded in scientific observation interpreted through logic.

    Perception of world as combination of matter and form. Normally the two cannot exist independently of one another.

    Aristotelian cosmology:
    The universe as sequence of concentric spheres with our world at the beginning. Between the outermost sphere (home of the fixed stars) and our world is a series of "separate intelligences [i.e., consisting of form without matter]" identified with the sun, moon and planets (all of which were believed to orbit around our world).
    Aristotle believed that the universe was eternal, a doctrine that conflicted with the traditional Jewish belief in creation in time out "ex nihilo."

    The lowest of the Separate Intelligences is identified by the moon. Our "sublunar" world is that of matter, made up of the four elements (air, fire, water, earth).

    Ethical Implications Human perfection is achieved through philosophy; i.e., by contemplating abstract ideas, the most sublime of which is God. For Jewish Aristotelians, the Torah was understood to be the most effective way of achieving this perfection, by laying the groundwork for a peaceful society, by teaching us to discipline our physical apetities, and by instilling a spiritual understanding of God.

    Medieval Aristotelians believed that those few who succeeded in purifying their intellects will be able to link in with the lowest of the Separate Intelligences, designated the "Active Intellect." At this point, the human "Potential Intellect" becomes transformed into the "Acquired Intellect," which some thinkers equated with the religious concept of the afterlife and/or with prophetic revelation.

    The dominant figure in Jewish Aristotelianism was Moses Maimonides. His philosophical system, as found especially in his Guide of the Perplexed, became the standard statement of medieval Jewish rationalism, and most subsequent philosophical works were either commentaries or criticisms of Maimonides' system.

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