Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Jewish History >> Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Medieval Jewish Philosophy began as part of a general cultural revival in the Islamic East in the tenth century. This revival continued in Muslim countries, especially North Africa, Spain, and Egypt, for 300 years. During this time the Jews spoke, read, and wrote in Arabic and were able to take advantage of the culture of this period. The works of the Jews during this period were devoted to determining how philosophy and Judaism were related. Toward the end of the 12th-century the Jewish communities of the Islamic world declined while the Jewish communities of Christian lands – especially Spain, France, and Italy – began to increase. It was during this time that Hebrew became the language of Jewish philosophical works and the Jews began to foster their own general culture. The first step toward this cultural shift was to translate the Arabic works into Hebrew and added commentary to them. New treatises and books were also produced during this period. Islamic philosophical traditions and well as Christian scholastics both played a part as sources for Jewish philosophy at this time.1

According to the Medieval Jewish philosophers they themselves were simply carrying forth the wisdom that had been given to both Jews and non-Jews as far back as Adam. This wisdom, being given from teacher to student, reached the Greeks and influenced the great Greek philosophers. It was believed that the key to understanding the Law would be to understand Greek philosophy since the Jews had been persecuted and much of the understanding had been lost to them but had been retained by the Greek philosophers. The Jews of the Medieval Period accepted Torah and the prophetic writings as the word of God and that these writings were absolutely true. In an attempt to fit Greek wisdom within these writings the Jewish philosophers often resorted to using non-literal interpretations such as allegories. There was also a noted elitism amongst the Medieval Jewish philosophers. They felt that the untrained and unworthy would fail to comprehend wisdom and they were harmed by their misunderstanding of wisdom. This resulted in a tension between the desire to simultaneously reveal and conceal these philosophies. There was a belief in the universal character of wisdom even though these philosophers also believed that there must be an ultimate unity between the ancient Jewish writings and wisdom.2

Schools of Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Following the example of Islamic philosophers the Jewish philosophers divided themselves into four schools: followers of the Mu’tazilite branch of the Kalam, Neoplatonists, Aristotelians, and the critics of Aristotelian rationalism. The Mu’tazilite Kalam’s views developed out of problems posed by Scripture – the two major problems being the unity of God and God’s justice. This school of philosophy did not formulate a systematic philosophy since the emphasis was on scriptural problems. Philosophy for the followers of this school was a means of solving scriptural difficulties and they made use of any philosophical principles that may assist with this task. Neo-Platonism argued for the doctrine of emanation which states that creation emanated from a first principle, God, in a manner similar to the emanations of rays from the sun or the streams of water from an active fountain. Neo-Platonists believed firmly in the oneness of God and posited that the first emanation was identified as either wisdom or will – both of which were between God and creation. According to Neo-Platonism God is completely outside creation and can only be described with negative attributes. The purpose of mankind in this philosophy is for the soul to be freed from the body in order to rejoin the upper region from whence it came. This purification is done through the practice of moral virtues and philosophic speculation. Aristotelian philosophy was based on the idea that the world must become known through observation and this knowledge is gained through the study of the sciences. The soul of mankind possesses five faculties of which the highest is the rational. The development of this rational faculty is the purpose of human life. Moral virtues according to the Aristotelians are acquired by habituation and they become second nature. These virtues are a prerequisite for the attainment of the final goal of intellectual virtues. The fourth school of Medieval philosophy were the critics of the Aristotelian philosophy. The followers of this school attempted to show, on philosophical grounds, that the Aristotelian philosophers did not prove that they had discovered physical and metaphysical truths. Part of the proof was simply that the Aristotelian philosophers themselves could not agree so they therefore failed at their pursuit. Even though this school rejected the physics and metaphysics of the Aristotelian philosophers they accepted the principles of Aristotelian logic.1

Medieval Philosophers

There were many Medieval Jewish philosophers but I will discuss just a few of them.

Yosef ben Yehuda was a student of Rambam for whom Moreh Nevukhim was written. He studied under Rambam and is known to have written a treatise in Arabic on the problem of Creation. Yaakov Anatoli is thought of as a pioneer in the application of the rationalism of Rambam to the study of Jewish texts. He wrote Malmad which exhibited his broad knowledge of classical Jewish exegesis, Plato, Aristotle, Averroes, the Vulgate, and various Christian doctrines. Hillel ben-Shmu’el attempted to deal systematically with the question of the immortality of the soul. He also played a major role in the controversies of 1289-1290 concerning the philosophical works of Rambam. He was devoted to Jewish learning and philosophy in Italy and was one of the first Latin translators of non-Jewish scholars. He wrote a commentary on the 25 propositions in the second part of the Moreh Nevukhim as well as three philosophical treaties that were appended to Tagmulei haNefesh.3

Shem-Tov ibn-Falaquera was a Spanish-born philosopher who attempted to reconcile Jewish dogma and philosophy. His two leading philosophical authorities were Averroes and Rambam.  He wrote a commentary on Moreh Nevukhim called Moreh haMoreh as well as treatises on the body and soul, science and philosophy, and human perfection. Yosef ibn-Kaspi was an advocate of Rambam. He began writing at the age of 17 on topics including logic, linguistics, ethics, theology, biblical exegesis, and commentaries on ibn-Ezra and Rambam. Levi ben-Gershon, also called Gersonides, is best known for his work Milhamot HaShem which was modeled after Moreh Nevukhim. He argued that God does not have complete foreknowledge of humankind’s acts since this would be incompatible with free-will. He suggested however that God does know all the choices that are open to mankind but God doesn’t know which choice the individual will make.3

Yitzhak ben-Sheshet Perfet was a steadfast rationalist who did not hesitate to refute leading authorities such as Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Moshe ben-Nahman, and Shmu’el ben-Adret. His philosophical writings showed a profound knowledge of the philosophical writings of his time. He was a fierce adversary of Kabbalah and is known to have quoted another philosopher when he reproached believers in Kabbalah stating that they believe in the ten sefirot as the Christians believe in the trinity. Yosef Albo is known for writing Sefer haIkkarim which is a classic work on the fundamentals of Judaism.  He narrowed the thirteen principles of Rambam down to three: (1) belief in the existence of God; (2) belief in revelation; and, (3) belief in divine justice as related to the idea of immortality. He also postulated that not every law is binding even though observance can lead to happiness it does not follow that each law is binding. He taught that neglect of a part of the law does not mean that a Jew violates the divine covenant nor does it mean the person will be damned.3

Medieval Jewish philosophers wrote on various topics both within the Jewish world and within the Christian and Islamic worlds. The philosophy of these men helped to establish a Jewish culture within Christian Europe.


1Philosophy, Jewish.” The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2008.
2Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Reason in a Religious Age.” from Daniel Frank, Oliver Leaman, and Charles Manekin (eds.). “The Jewish Philosophy Reader.” London: Routledge, 2000.
3Jewish Philosophy.” Wikipedia, n.d.