June 24, 2019

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Book review: The Jewish God Question


The Jewish God Question, by Andrew Pessin, is a very readable compendium that briefly describes the philosophy of dozens of Jewish thinkers over the centuries, from Philo to today.

Over 70 Jewish philosophers are given a short chapter or two (or three). Each chapter is two pages long. Pessin manages to take key points of their thinking and condense them into very few pages.

The book is divided into four parts: pre-Maimonides, Maimonides to Sforno, Spinoza to the 20th century and contemporary Jewish philosophy. Many of the philosophers are within the traditional rabbinic Jewish framework, and many are not.

The Jewish God Question mostly sticks to Jewish thought as a reaction to, or in consonance with, ancient Greek philosophy. Hence, Philo is the first Jewish philosopher who grappled (and tried to synthesize Jewish thinking) with Greek philosophy. There is a large time gap between Philo and the next Jewish philosopher mentioned, Saadia (ben Joseph) Gaon, who similarly tried to make Jewish thinking compatible with rational observation. Pessin shows how Saadia Gaon uses logic to prove that the universe must have had a beginning, as opposed to the prevailing philosophy that it had been there forever, for example.

To give you an idea of what the book is like, here is Chapter 1:

Pessin doesn’t only speak about these philosophers’ thoughts about God but also about how they look at the Torah, free will vs. predetermination, and the land of Israel.

On the latter theme, for example, he describes the thinking of Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, a 19th century Orthodox rabbi and philosopher who strongly urges Jews to move to Israel, buy land and build farms and communities before the Messiah comes – a proto-Zionism that predates Herzl (also in the book) by some three decades.

But, Pessin notes, he wasn’t the first philosopher to urge Jews to return to Israel. That may have been Judah Halevi (12th century CE) where he said that Jews can only achieve our purpose by returning to Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem. One of the chapters on the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that he also believes that there is a mitzvah for Jews to return to the land.

The book is a fascinating journey through Jewish thought of all stripes. As Pessin points out, it is difficult to read about the German Jewish philosophers of the 19th century who convinced themselves that they were finally being accepted as equals in an enlightened Europe. The founding thinkers of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements are also given chapters.  The modern philosophers’ section provide a nice overview of the diversity of the field today, as well as the influence of the Holocaust, the State of Israel and modern liberal thought on today’s Jewish philosophy.

Too often I’d read a chapter and think, yeah, that makes sense. Then I’d read another from a bitter opponent of the first and think, yeah, that makes sense too. This book is a toe-tip in an ocean.

The book also introduces Samuel Lebens, a philosopher at the University of Haifa, who writes the afterword and sounds like the kind of guy I’d love to have over for Shabbat. In his afterword he defines two threads that define Jewish philosophy throughout the centuries: the idea of encountering thoughts and ideas and God – not just looking at them as museum pieces but wrestling with them. In fact, I found it fascinating that Lebens describes Jewish philosophers of the past in present-tense terms, which is the way that generations of Jewish yeshiva students have discussed the opinions of rabbis of the past.

The second thread that Lebens describes is the idea of objective truth, which is under assault in postmodern thought. Lebens sees this as pernicious.

I would have loved to have seen a brief biography of the philosophers whose thoughts were detailed here so I could put their thinking in more historic perspective, as well as who argued with them.

But altogether it is a wonderful and accessible introduction to Jewish philosophy, and it will make you think.

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