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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Jewish Philosophy

The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy edited by Daniel H. Frank, Oliver Leaman (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy: Cambridge University Press) Influenced originally by Islamic theological speculation, classical philosophers and Christian Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers living in Islamic and Christian lands philosophized about Judaism from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. They reflected on the nature of language about God, the creation of the world, the possibility of human freedom and the relationship between divine and human law. This Companion presents major medieval Jewish thinkers in a comprehensive introduction to a vital period of Jewish intellectual history. 

A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy by Isaac Husik (Dover) In this enlightening study, a noted scholar elucidates the distinguishing characteristics of the works of several Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages. In addition to summaries of the main arguments and teachings of Moses Maimonides, Isaac Israeli, Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn Daud, Hillel ben Samuel, Levi ben Gerson, Joseph Albo, and many others, the author offers insightful analyses and commentary. Of particular value to beginners, this volume is also an ever-relevant resource for many issues of scholarly debate.

Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World by Rabbi David W. Nelson (Jewish Lights Publishing) Hear the Voices of Ancient Wisdom in the Modern Language of Science

Ancient traditions, whose only claim to authenticity is that they are old, run the risk of becoming old-fashioned. But if an ancient tradition can claim to be not only ancient but also timeless and contemporary, it has a far greater chance of convincing each new, young generation of its value. Such a claim requires that each generations retelling use the new metaphors of the new generation. from Chapter 1

In our era, we often feel that we can either speak about God or think scientifically about the world, but never both at the same time. But what if we reconciled the two? How could the basic scientific truths of how the natural world came to be shape our understanding of our own spiritual search for meaning?

In this provocative fusion of religion and science, Rabbi David Nelson examines the great theories of modern physics to find new ways for contemporary people to express their spiritual beliefs and thoughts. Nelson explores cosmology, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, relativity, and string theory in clear, non-technical terms and recasts the traditional views of our ancestors in language that can be understood in a world in which space flight, atom-smashing, and black holes are common features of our metaphorical landscape.

Judaism, Physics and God reframes Judaism so that it is in harmony with the conquests of modern scientific thinking, and introduces fascinating new ways to understand your relationship with God in context of some of the most exciting scientific ideas of the contemporary world.

Well worth the read. Rabbi Nelson has a very user friendly style of writing. He is able to link traditional Jewish words and motifs with today's language (scientific mindsets) of atoms and particles. Rabbi Nelson has built a very strong bridge to show where there is linkage through the passionate creative use of language-metaphors. He has also taken it one step further to give texture and depth to everyday acts. By assuming all things began at the big bang; then knowing/thinking that we all began as star dust embodies everything with holiness.

Nelson also lays out the dark side/ challenges of new scientific insights. If nothing is knowable for certain, as quantum physics states, then an all knowing God becomes an open question. Maybe the really difficult answer is that God is not all knowing. The implication of that insight for man-God relations is hard.

My only regret about the book is that the books' section on String Theory. Nelson's continued efforts at finding metaphors that reconcile our traditional language and science limit him. I would have been interested in Rabbi Nelson working with String Theory as a new challenge to both cosmology and Judaism. The harmonics of String theory and the transcendent nature of God would have been an interesting discussion.

The Jewish Philosophy Reader edited by Daniel H. Frank, Oliver Leaman, Charles H. Manekin (Routledge) is the first comprehensive anthology of classic writings of Jewish philosophy from the Bible to the present. Complementing the History of Jewish Philosophy (Routledge, 1997), the Reader is divided into four parts: Foundations and First Principles, Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Philosophy, Modern Jewish Thought, and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy. Each part is clearly introduced by the editors. The readings are drawn from such major figures in Jewish thought as Maimonides, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Buber, Rosenzweig, and Levinas.

Ideal for courses in Jewish studies and Jewish thought, The Jewish Philosophy Reader provides a thorough introduction to, and collection of, the leading writers and commentaries on the subject. It will be essential reading for both students and scholars of Jewish thought.

Daniel H. Frank is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of Kentucky. Oliver Leaman is Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Charles H. Manekin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland.

'This is a superlative book which will greatly enrich the study of Jewish philosophy from ancient times to the present.'-Dan Cohn‑Sherbok, University of Wales

'A rich treasury of readings in Jewish philosophy. It will be a standard work for a long time to come'.-Arthur Hyman, Yeshiva University, New York

'it is an extremely impressive work, covering the main themes and thinkers of Jewish philosophy. The selection of texts is judicious and the introductions to the various sections are illuminating.' -Tamra Wright London School of Jewish Studies

'This remarkable compilation of key texts in Jewish philosophy shows how that rich tradition is relevant to people of the faith today. It will surely be adopted as a basic text.'-David Burrell, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

ESSAYS IN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY IN THE MODERN ERA by Nathan Rotenstreich, introduction by Paul Mendes-Flohr, edited by Reiner Munk

Amsterdam Studies in Jewish Thought 1: J.C. Gieben, Publisher

$64.00, cloth, 304 pages, source references, index


According to Rotenstreich, "Jewish philosophy appears as the philosophical interpretation of Jewish sources, ‘sources’ being understood to include both literary documents and modes of actual life. Philosophy makes explicit that which is only implicit in literary documents, or presupposed as an underlying principle of behaviour." Both in medieval and modern times, the philosophical interpretation of these sources has the combined objective of articulation and justification of Judaism. The justification is addressed, on the one hand, to different historical traditions. It aims at an articulation of the distinctive character of Judaism as conceived by individual philosophers. The justification is addressed, on the other hand, to philosophy and is characterized by a transformation of traditional religious thought to a philosophical discourse. The articulation and justification may take the form of an adjustment of Judaism to certain trends in philosophy. It may also take the form of a critique of philosophy by pointing to its fundamental limitations. Whatever the form, it is clear that the current philosophical systems and cultural ‘climate of opinion’ have their impact on the interpretations offered. Systematic philosophical interpretations of Judaism are therefore to be viewed within the framework of the history of philosophical systems, as well as under the aspect of what is called the history of ideas, or intellectual history, in German Geistesgeschichte.

Modern Jewish philosophy bears the characteristic of, among other things, a strong emphasis on the ethical core of the Jewish tradition. The ethical interpretation of Judaism is a common feature among Jewish philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth century. "Ethics, however, can be understood as having sources in a religious world-outlook; but eventually goes beyond it. The ethical interpretation of Judaism makes possible a further, more radical interpretation, that the ethical teaching of Judaism may be meaningful and binding apart from religious attachment. Thus the ethical interpretation can be placed historically on the borderline of the religious attitude and the secular transformation of Judaism. This transformation is prompted not by the inner logic of the religious world-outlook, but by the dilemma of the modern Jew who, while being modern, attempts to adhere to Jewish tradition. The ethical core of this tradition can be interpreted as meeting his need or as solving his dilemma," Rotenstreich asserts.

The modern articulation and justification of Judaism, however, is not exclusively ethical. The central position granted to ethical codes in Judaism poses questions related to the structural meaning of ethics and religion. Questions dealt with in this context are by virtue of an ethical interpretation of religion, to adhere to revelation as the demanding or commanding authority. What is the grounding of religious, that is, halakhic, practice; is religious practice self-validating, or is it to be subsumed under an a-religious theory of consciousness and behavior? In addition to these questions in the fields of ethics and religion, modern Jewish philosophy deals with issues of, for example, historicity, Zionism, or the fundamental problem of the relationship between transcendental and dialogical thought.

These and other related issues are discussed in the essays presented in this volume. An analysis of central themes in the thought of Moses Mendelssohn, Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber, as well as Abraham J. Heschel and Gershom G. Scholem comprise this volume. The analysis is preceded by an examination of the main currents in Jewish philosophy in the nineteenth century. The book can be regarded as a companion volume to the author’s Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times: From Mendelssohn to Rosenzweig (New York, 1968, reprint 1997)

Allan Arkush
SUNY, State University of New York
$21.95, paper; 304 pages

Moses Mendelssohn became the first major Jewish thinker in Enlightenment German philosophy and literature while appearing to remain faithful to his Jewish heritage. Arkush's study renews the debate about this controversial thinker who appeared to be a conservative Jew, but whose actual program included a radical overhauling of the religion. Thus Mendelssohn encouraged those, both Jewish and Christian, who believed that Jews could accept modern Western culture without apostasy. Although he was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, Mendelssohn cast his philosophic lot with the "academic" expositors of the philosophy of G. W. Von Leibniz, especially Christian Wolff. Mendelssohn's most important philosophic work, Phaedon (1767), is concerned with immortality. As an advocate of secular as well as religious education for Jews, Mendelssohn brought the ideas of the Enlightenment to his coreligionists by his activities as an editor and by his German biblical translations with Hebrew commentaries. In his essay Jerusalem (1783) he first defended the separation of religious and political authority, and then argued for granting full civil rights to Jews. His personal character was so highly esteemed that his friend Gotthold Lessing immortalized him as the title character of the drama Nathan the Wise (1781). This study examines in detail the question of the exact relationship between his Judaism and his philosophical rationalism, casting new light on the significance of the philosopher for Jews and for comparative religious studies.

The Dialectics of Revelation and History
Michael L. Morgan
Indiana University Press
$30.00, cloth; 224 pages

Morgan raises the ethical question facing liberal Judaism that recognizes no absolute authorities, yet still considers some things definitely good or evil. These issues are grounded in the modern discussion of both the historicity issue and the post-holocaust perspective. Recommended.

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