The Quest for a Robust Jewish Philosophy

Joshua Koloski, Brandeis University

The struggle for Jewish philosophers has largely been a struggle over the place of Jewish law. In part, this was a response to Spinoza. In his Theological Political Treatise, Spinoza argued for the obsolescence of Jewish law. He posited that (1) Jewish law is predicated on Moses’s miscomprehension of the essence of spirituality, contrasted with Jesus’s superior mind-to-mind parlance with God and (2) Jewish law is constitutive of a commonwealth; it is a corpus by which to establish a practically flourishing state but is absent of spiritual value.1 Spinoza’s thesis was one deeply rooted in Christian anti-Judaic polemic which characterized Jewish law as a series of rigid rules antithetical to genuine spiritual experience.

This brings us to the second motivation for seeking the place of Jewish law. As Franz Rosenzweig points out in “Apologetic Thinking” and Martin Buber in “Renewal of Judaism,” an integral marker of Jewish philosophy has been its defensiveness, or negation. In other words, Jewish philosophy has been characterized by the need to explain how Judaism can be distinguished from its inviting Christian counterpart. A philosophy of Jewish law promises to invest Judaism with unique value.

This essay will examine the thought of Jewish philosophers from Moses Mendelssohn to Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and illustrate the ways in which each wrestles with these factors and in which they characterize Jewish philosophy as robust:2 the positive case for the spirituality of Judaism (affirmation) and the defensive case for the distinctiveness of Judaism (negation).

A century after Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn formulated his vision of Judaism which rejected Spinoza’s skepticism. A peer of Kant and an influential Maskil,3 Mendelssohn was an erudite Jew committed both to a genuine understanding of Judaism and to universal enlightenment ideals.4 Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was harried by Christian colleagues who accused him of philosophical fraudulence. They cast him as an ideological Christian who dissembled as a practicing Jew.5 Thus, it is natural for Mendelssohn’s Jewish philosophy to rear against such accusations and occupy itself overwhelmingly with negation.6 For example, in “Counter-Reflections to Bonnet’s Palingenesis,” Mendelssohn admits that “the more I come to know this religion [of Christianity] so highly recommended to me, the more frightful it is to my reason” (Gottlieb, 17). He proceeds to describe problems inherent in some Christian tenets and the way in which Judaism, which mandates “no natural revolt of our cognition against the oppressive power of faith,” (Gottlieb, 20) avoids such problems. However, to concentrate narrowly on these criticisms of Christianity would be a highly dismissive reading of Mendelssohn. In fact, Mendelssohn also provides forays into an affirmation of Judaism.

Mendelssohn’s approach to Jewish law is an integral feature of his theological account. As mentioned earlier, Jewish law affords Judaism a distinctiveness and legitimacy which are not available in any other arenas of thought.7 In one attempt at an explanation, Mendelssohn points out that “the religious customs are supposed to remind us that God is a unique God; that He created the world; that He is the absolute lord of all of nature; that He freed the nation from the oppression of the Egyptians by means of extraordinary deeds” (Gottlieb, 23). Here, Mendelssohn offers a fledgling theory for the meaning of Jewish law. In another instance, he insists that “all laws refer to, or are based on, eternal truths of reason, or remind us of them, and rouse us to ponder them” (Gottlieb, 89).

However, this defense of Jewish law is undermined by two features of Mendelssohn’s thought. For one, Mendelssohn battles with a deep longing for universality, which the particularity of Jewish law seems to contravene. An argument may be mustered to reconcile the two, but Mendelssohn doesn’t articulate any, except for an appeal to eschatology.8 The other undermining feature–the incomprehensiveness of his vision of Jewish law–arises from the essentially novel nature of his battle to reconcile an equally Jewish and Enlightened disposition; Mendelssohn was among the vanguard in this particular skirmish. Therefore, it is not necessary for Mendelssohn’s successors to shun his advancements. Rather, Mendelssohn offers a paradigm for intellectual boldness supplemented by unequivocal loyalty to Jewish law. Many subsequent Jewish philosophers, whether conscious of it or not, use the torch Mendelssohn lit to illuminate the contours of what Mendelssohn called true Judaism, i.e. the campaign to construct a genuine philosophy of Judaism.

Martin Buber, for instance, is infatuated with the idea of a spiritually rejuvenating Jewish philosophy. As mentioned earlier, Buber is fiercely opposed to the defensive aspect of Jewish philosophy. In “Judaism and Mankind,” Buber characterizes the struggle against secular influences as “increasingly directed against creativity itself, against all that was free, new, change-promoting” (Glatzer, 30). Buber’s gripe here is somewhat elusive at first but becomes clear in a later distinction between religion and religiosity.9  Buber designates Jewish law, which he groups under the umbrella religion, as “prescriptions and dogmas [which] are rigidly determined and handed down as unalterably binding to all future generations, without regard to their newly developed religiosity” (Glatzer, 80). Religion, Buber warns, becomes dangerous when it rejects fluidity and change, properties characteristic of religiosity. By religiosity, which Buber contrasts with religion, Buber means, “man’s sense of wonder…transcending his conditioned being yet bursting from its very core” (Glatzer, 80). How, then, does Buber distinguish Judaism from Christianity? Strangely, he accomplishes this by recasting the question.

For Buber, early Christianity actually prefigures religiosity and it is only later Christianity, withered by dogma, which departs from essential Judaism. Buber’s proclamation of religiosity, however rhapsodic, loses credibility against this glorification of early Christianity. As claimed earlier, one goal of Jewish philosophers has been to revolt against Spinoza’s skepticism. But while Buber offers an inspiring affirmation of Judaism, his utter denial of Jewish distinctiveness seems dangerously akin to Spinoza’s emphasis on Christian spirituality superseding hollow Jewish ritual. Therefore, Buber’s grandiloquent proposal for renewing Judaism is undermined by his unwillingness to engage in negation and justify Jewish particularity.

For Franz Rosenzweig, this dismissal of Jewish law is antithetical to a robust Jewish philosophy. Before countering Buber, though, Rosenzweig administers a scathing critique of Mendelssohn’s Jewish philosophy. In “The Builders: Concerning the Law,” Rosenzweig claims that “From Mendelssohn on…the Jewishness of every individual has squirmed on the needle point of a ‘why’” (Glatzer, 76). There are two possible readings of this. (1) The inadequacy of Mendelsson’s Jewish philosophy contributed to existential Jewish angst, and (2) Mendelssohn’s attempt to reconcile Judaism with rationality generated intellectual unease. It is difficult to say with certainty which interpretation Rosenzweig endorses, but perhaps a combination of the two is most likely.10 Throughout the essay, Rosenzweig engages in dialogue with Buber. Like Buber, Rosenzweig believes that Jewish philosophy must extend beyond a merely defensive position to a positive affirmation: “ultimate knowing no longer defends, ultimate knowing adjudicates” (Franks and Morgan, 108). Yet Rosenzweig fundamentally disagrees with Buber. He laments that Buber “turned [his] back” on Jewish law and instructs reverence “which can effect no practical difference” (Glatzer, 77). In other words, Rosenzweig considers Buber’s Jewish philosophy to be fundamentally effete due to its deracination of Jewish law.

More than Spinoza, Mendelssohn, or Buber, Rosenzweig, Levinas, and Soloveitchik mark a trend of Jewish philosophers who maintain and justify Jewish law. Rosenzweig, the earliest of the three, offers the barest philosophy regarding Jewish law.11 In his philosophy, Rosenzweig eschews efforts to ground the total legitimacy of Jewish Law on Sinaitic revelation.12 Rather, Rosenzweig anchors the authenticity of Jewish law in something more intimate and primal: the simplicity with which Jews dedicate themselves to Jewish law, without rigidifying the experience by appealing to external verifications, like the historicity of revelation. Moreover, Rosenzweig considers Jewish law a unique phenomenon in contrast to secular knowledge. This uniqueness derives from the Divine sanctioned authenticity conferred to Jewish law at the outset. Rosenzweig expresses this point in the following analogy: “[The Jewish people’s] very birth became the great moment of its life, its mere being already harbored its destiny” (Glatzer, 81). For this reason, each Jewish person must learn the law, and, in so doing, will be inspired to take “the ultimate leap, from that which we know to that which we need to know at any price” (Glatner, 81). Only dedication to Jewish law can elevate a person to attain the heights of a genuine understanding of Judaism. Here, it must be noted that Rosenzweig’s Jewish philosophy innovates in that it proposes a negation and affirmation of Judaism. A negation, because it argues for Judaism as opposed to Christianity and an affirmation, because it supplies an approach to Jewish law. Although Rosenzweig’s approach succeeds in the sense that it is robust, it contains some  gaping holes. For one, it seems essentially predicated on revelation–an approach he preemptively rejects–and, further, seems to advocate obscurantism. One is struck by the impression that Rosenzweig’s point is either self-contradictory or requires further elaboration.

Rosenzweig’s philosophy of Jewish law is elaborated by Emanuel Levinas.13 In the article, Levinas defines the temptation of temptation as the desire to partake in a dramatic struggle with temptation without ever losing access to the prior state of purity. Therefore, philosophy is the ultimate temptation because it enables one to scour the contours of knowledge and emerge unadulterated. Levinas contrasts this peculiarly Western ideology with the Jewish ideology which recommends action before understanding. Levinas draws this idea from the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah: “we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). Initially, this phrase seems to stumble into the problem which troubled Rosenzweig’s Jewish philosophy: that it sanctions irrationality. However, Levinas attempts to circumvent this trap by recasting the ordinary conceptual account of knowledge. Levinas entertains the possibility that “the first, Revelation, would condition the second, Reason” (Aronowicz, 37). This approach immediately strains credibility and so Levinas goes to great lengths to distinguish this pre-rational disposition from naiveté. As opposed to the mindless faith which marks naiveté, the trust in Jewish law can be compared to the act of learning itself, which must be performed in order for thinking to develop. Furthermore, Jewish law debunks the whole temptation of temptation paradigm by lending normative supremacy to the vantage point of the Torah. Rosenzweig underscores the importance of this unique vantage point: “Being receives a challenge from the Torah, which jeopardizes its pretention of keeping itself above or beyond good and evil” (Aronowicz, 39). Although Levinas’s Jewish philosophy expressed here marks an extreme position, it satisfies the conditions of negation and affirmation. Still, it seems incomplete.

If Levinas’s Jewish philosophy builds on the foundations set by Rosenzweig, Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s philosophy seems the next stage in the formulation. The affinity between Levinas’s and Soloveitchik’s philosophies can be traced to a couple of the latter’s works. In The Lonely Man of Faith, which deals with the man of faith, or religious man, Soloveitchik argues that “the commitment of the man of faith is…accepted before the mind is given a chance to investigate the reasonableness of this commitment” (Soloveitchik, 68). This reaffirms Levinas’s notion of pre-rational beliefs. Soloveitchik deals with Jewish law more specifically and systematically in Halakhic Man. Here, Soloveitchik formulates an a priori account of Jewish law, in which the Jew cognizes the world through Jewish law’s schematic lens. In this respect, Soloveitchik compares halakhic man14 to the mathematician who constructs a theoretical and a priori system comprised of perfect objects, like an exact triangle, and applies it to the imperfect, empirical world. In the same way, “there is no phenomenon, entity, or object in the world which the Halakhah does not approach with its ideal standard” (Soloveitchik, 20). Thus, Jewish law represents a system of ideals through which to interpret the empirical universe. But from where does it derive its legitimacy? Ultimately, Jewish law is sanctioned by God and revelation. Thus, as Rosenzweig’s Jewish philosophy illustrated, the legitimacy of Jewish law cannot be severed from its root in revelation. Still, by examining the ontology of Jewish law, Rosenzweig and, to a greater degree, Levinas and Soloveitchik, offer profound Jewish philosophical frameworks.

After analyzing various Jewish philosophies in relation to the goals of negation and affirmation, it becomes clear that Rosenzweig, Levinas, and Soloveitchik are the first to offer a robust Jewish philosophy. Mendelssohn is reluctant to radicalize Jewish law and Buber prefers to appeal to mysticism. Where does this leave us? Interestingly, it should be noted that a truly robust and compelling vision of Judaism seems to demand a radical conceptualization of Jewish law. Although this may be averse to a common-sense approach, it seems the only way to account for a distinctive as well as affirmative Jewish philosophy. Another point of interest is the relationship between affirmation and negation in Jewish philosophy. Here, the centrality of Jewish law becomes apparent. Jewish law can simultaneously distinguish Judaism from contesting religions and generate a positive Jewish philosophy. Thus, Jewish law is invaluable for a comprehensive Jewish philosophy.

[1] Since Jews no longer control an autonomous homeland, Spinoza considers Jewish law obsolete. It is intriguing to wonder how he would respond to the modern state of Israel. However, it must be acknowledged that Spinoza’s account of the commonwealth is contingent on temporal circumstance, so that conditions for the flourishing of an autonomous state in the past may be at odds with those in the present. Also, even if Jewish Law is accepted as valid in light of a Jewish sovereign state, Spinoza still strips it of all spiritual significance.

[2] A Jewish philosophy will be considered robust if it supplies an affirmation and defense of Judaism.

[3] “Maskil” is a Hebrew term referring to figures in the European Jewish Enlightenment movement who advocated religious engagement with secular thought.

[4] For one example of Mendelssohn’s enlightenment ideals, see “A Rational Foundation for Ethics”, in which, much like Kant, he tried to formulate an objective maxim-based ethical groundwork.

[5] Mendelssohn was an observant Jew who was dedicated to Jewish law.

[6] Ironically, Mendelssohn stressed to his Christian interlocutors the importance of collaborating on a defense of general religion as opposed to engaging in parochial disputes over differences in particular creeds. See the end of “Counter-Reflections to Bonnet’s Palingenesis” or part II of Jerusalem, where he says “Surely the Christian who is in earnest about light and truth will not challenge the Jew to fight when there seems to be a contradiction between…scripture and reason. He will rather join him in an effort to discover the groundlessness of the contradiction, for this is their common concern” (Gottlieb, 79).

[7] This idea will be further discussed later in the essay in relation to Martin Buber.

[8] Take the following passage for example: “At that time, divine wisdom may no longer find it necessary to separate us from other peoples by means of special ceremonial laws and will instead introduce, in a second public appearance, external rites that will unite the hearts of all men in the worship of their Creator, mutual love, and beneficence.” (Gottleib, 23). What is notably absent here is a justification for the exclusivity Jewish law entails.

[9] Buber makes this distinction most directly in “Jewish Religiosity”.

[10] The quote can be analyzed more thoroughly within the context of Rosenzweig’s essay but, since this is not the central purpose of this essay, nothing further will here be discussed on the matter.

[11] In terms of the philosophy set forth in Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig explains in “The New Thinking” that he intended to set forth not a Jewish or even religious philosophy, but a general system of philosophy. For this essay, Rosenzweig’s philosophy of Jewish law will be drawn from his essay “The Builders: Concerning the Law”.

[12] Rosenzweig primarily attributes this historical justification for Jewish law to Samson Raphael Hirsch

[13] Although he never explicitly references Rosenzweig in “The Temptation of Temptation”, Levinas’s approach is so similar to Rosenzweig’s that it is difficult to believe Levinas does not have him in mind.


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  • Mendelssohn, Moses, Michah Gottlieb, Curtis Bowman, Elias Sacks, and Allan Arkush. Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, & the Bible. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2011. Print.
  • Buber, Martin, and Nahum N. Glatzer. On Judaism. New York: Schocken, 1996. Print.
  • Rosenzweig, Franz, and Nahum N. Glatzer. On Jewish Learning. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 2002. Print.
  • Rosenzweig, Franz, Paul W. Franks, and Michael L. Morgan. Philosophical and Theological Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2000. Print.
  • Lévinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings. Trans. Annette Aronowicz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.
  • Soloveitchik, Joseph Dov. The Lonely Man of Faith. New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2012. Print.
  • Soloveitchik, Joseph, and Lawrence Kaplan. Halakhic Man. Sefer Ve Sefel, 2005. Print.