Welcome! This site is a space promoting rigorous philosophical analysis of any aspect of Judaism. We look forward to your participation. THIS WEBSITE HAS MOVED! IT CAN NOW BE FOUND AT

Sunday, 18 March 2012


This website has moved. It can now be found at

The symposium on halakha and the philosophy of law (21-28 March) will take place on the new site. The symposium is entitled "Authority, Halacha, and the Official Vigilante," and will center around a discussion of the problems of authority and law in relation to Mishna Sanhedrin 9:6, in particular the rule that zealots may attack the Jewish man who is having sexual relations with a Gentile woman. On March 20th materials will be posted on the new website which will contain some discussion of the issues by the symposium participants Sari Kisilevsky (CUNY), Ken Ehrenberg (SUNY), and Laliv Clenman (Leo Baeck). Of particular relevance will be the following texts: Mishna Sanhedrin 9:6, Babylonian Talmud 81b-82b, and Palestinian Talmud 16:11 27b

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Symposium on Jewish Business Ethics

In this thought-provoking paper, Pava defends the claim that there is a unique Jewish business ethic. In so doing, Pava sets himself apart from those like Kant and Mill who defend the universal character of ethical imperatives. In other words, Pava proposes that there is a business ethics to be found within the texts of Judaism that cannot be reduced to the ethical systems with which we are familiar. To substantiate this claim, Pava argues that Jewish business ethics displays the following features:

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Philosophy in Halakhah and Philosophy of Judaism: Introducing “Philosophy in Halakhah: The Case of Intentional Action”

The relationship between Judaism and philosophy has been the subject of discussion at least since Late Antiquity. Often, however, philosophy is reified as a distinct body of knowledge, the views of Epicurus and his followers, Aristotle’s corpus, or the very idea of the self-sufficiency of human reason, and viewed as either in conflict or agreement with an equally simplified notion of revelation, the word of God unambiguously revealed. In contrast, analytic philosophy allows us to see philosophical methods as regimented extensions of everyday argumentation, while a focus on halakhic texts reveals the role of human reason and debate in mediating the application of God’s will to the world. In this spirit, Jed Lewinsohn does a masterful job demonstrating the relevance of current philosophy for Talmudic learning in his article “Philosophy in Halakhah: The Case of Intentional Action.” His discussion is grounded in traditional lomdus, extended by knowledge of contemporary philosophy, and, most importantly for both traditional learning and contemporary philosophizing, guided by a keen intellect. His essential goal is simply to “[d]emonstrate different ways halakhic texts can be read philosophically” (98). Along the way though, he engages in detailed analyses of positions presented in the Talmud, by post-Talmudic commentators, as well as philosophers of action, discusses the epistemological and religious implications of finding philosophical positions embedded in halakhic views, and speculates on the theological consequences of what he takes to be the mainline halakhic view of action.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Judaism and Philosophical Speculation

I was recently asked to write an article of philosophical interest for a Jewish publication. The content is aimed at the lay-person, but perhaps people here will find it interesting. I'd be grateful, as ever, for your comments.
As a modern orthodox Jew, I am keenly aware of the value and weight that we place upon secular studies and rational inquiry. This emphasis is one of the key features that distinguishes our community from other varieties of orthodoxy. For that reason, we must be certain to pay attention to a certain Mishna, the first Mishna in the second chapter of tractate Haggiga. As we’ll see, it looks like a Mishna that’s specifically aimed at forbidding the study of philosophy and limiting our freedom of thought.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Symposium on Curtis Franks's Paper

Is Judaic logic used in the Talmud for inferring Jadaic laws analytic? Is it a priori?

Judaism differs considerably from other theistic religions. One of the main features is that Jewish religious laws are not dogmatic but based on specific legal reasoning. This reasoning was already used by the first Judaic commentators of the Bible (Tannaim) for inferring Judaic laws from the Pentateuch. Hence, Judaic logic that was aimed to be a methodology for deducing religious laws has been developed in Judaism. Rambam claimed that this logic was invented by nobody, but it is a part of the Torah. Indeed, this logic differs from other formal systems (Stoic propositional logic, Aristotelean syllogistic, etc.). On the one hand, Judaic logic is analytic as well as other systems. On the other hand, it contains so many ad hoc rules that we may ask whether it is a prpiori in fact? The paper by Curtis Franks considers cases when we may not draw an inference from something which itself has been inferred. Under these circumstances, we could assume that Judaic logic is analytic a posteriori. The status of analytic a posteriori was grounded first by Saul Kripke and Stephen Palmquis. Also, we could attempt to answer, whether the Lord is analytic a posteriori? As we know, in Kant's opinion, the Lord is a construction a priori. This means that God exists just in our thoughts and nowhere else. According to modern logicians, there is analytic a posteriori. Perhaps the Lord is analytic a posteriori, too? This means that we could investigate His Will logically, i.e. analytically, and at the same time He is in reality, i.e. a posteriori.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Change of Symposia Dates!


The symposium on Hilary Putnam's paper scheduled for 14-21 November, has been postponed. Apologies. The symposium on Curtis Franks's paper will now be held between 01-08 December. Professors Franks and Andrew Schumann have kindly agreed to participate in the symposium.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Symposium: Eleonore Stump

The symposium on Eleonore Stump's paper, "Saadia Gaon on The Problem of Evil" (Faith and Philosophy 1997, Vol. 14, No. 4: 523-49), is now underway.  Prof. Stump has kindly agreed to participate in the Symposium.  In what follows, I replicate the abstract of the paper, a brief summary and a series of questions to get things started.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Stump Symposium on Evil: A Few Questions

I'm wondering if anyone can help me with these clarificatory questions that have arisen after reading Professor Stump's thoroughly interesting article.

1) As Stump presents Saadia, he is of the opinion that those who are mostly righteous are punished in this world so that their remaining sins do not prevent them from enjoying eternal reward. I'm left wondering when God decides to enact this punishment? Here's the problem I see. Suppose person S qualifies as one of Saadia's (mostly) righteous. Suppose S is 70 years old. Now, assuming 70 still has time to repent for her remaining sins, there still remains time for S to forestall punishment due for those sins. But once God punishes S for those sins so as to ensure S gets eternal reward, God has closed off the opportunity to S to repent. Is this a problem or is Saadia happy to accept that God knows in advance that S will not repent for those sins and hence undertakes to punish S during the remaining years of her life?

2) On page 537, Saadia is presented as understanding a trial to be undertaken by God if and only if God knows that the agent will endure it. Does Saadia have anything to say on the following verse in Genesis found after Abraham had passed his trial "Do not stretch your hand against the lad ... for NOW I KNOW that you are a God-fearing man" (22: 12). In other words, the verse seems to indicate that trials do not involve God's knowing the result of the trial. I realize that this point opens up the God and time can of worms, but I find it an interesting component of what a trial is and therefore a hinge on which a theodicy must swing.

3) Assumedly a trial of a seemingly innocent person will engender doubts or questions about either God's being just or God's existence in those around him. This feature of evil is demonstrate, I think, quite nicely by the conversational nature of Job and the traditions in the Midrash that Sarah died upon hearing that Abraham had "killed" Isaac. Can Saadia account for the "collateral damage" of a trial on those around the tested individual? Surely those seeing a seemingly righteous person suffer aren't themselves being punished or punished for the sake of future rewards. Are they enduring this evil for the sake of character building, Saadia's second category? Would this be a suitable answer from Saadia?


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Judaism and Religious Pluralism

In the recent past John Hick has produced a significant amount of material defending a particular kind of religious pluralism. Even if one disagrees with Hick’s version thereof, a religion’s theological flexibility to incorporate a just pluralism of one sort or another is seen to be a virtue of said religion. A theology that promotes exclusivism is, by my lights at least, to be viewed with suspicion for it hardly befits an omnibenevolent God to exclude a significant proportion of humanity from salvation.
I am wondering, therefore, what is Judaism’s view on this matter? Is Judaism an exclusivist, inclusivist, or a pluralist religion (where these terms are to be understood a la Hick)? No doubt the various strands of Judaism will take up different and perhaps contrasting positions. But all will face at least these considerations:

The Kuzari Principle

There is an argument known as the Kuzari Principle. It tries to justify belief in whole swathes of the Biblical narrative, especially in the revelation at Mount Sinai. In this blog post, I hope to show that the argument is much stronger than it might seem. The name of the argument is slightly unfair, as it was first put forward not in R. Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari, but in Saadya Gaon's Emunot Vadeot.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Rosh Hashana: The Introduction of Bold Ideas

Nathan Lopes Cardozo
This article will appear in the Hebrew Makor Rishon
Erev Rosh Hashana, 5772
Rosh Hashana is a day to contemplate the need for great Jewish Ideas. A day to think big. To get out of our compartmentalized boxes. Hayom Harat Olam: Today the world is born. On Rosh Hashana the world should be newly created. This is specifically important for the future of Judaism.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Sacrifices- The Great Jewish Embarrassment? Why Spinoza’s Ethics were not given at Sinai

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Does Judaism really need animal sacrifices? Would it not be better off without them? After all, does the sacrificial cult not compromise Judaism? What does a highly ethical religion have to do with the collecting of blood in vessels and the burning of animal limbs on an altar? No doubt Judaism should really be sacrifice-free. Yet it is not.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Symposium: David Shatz's Preface

The symposium on David Shatz's paper, "Hierarchical Theories of Freedom and the Hardening of Hearts" (Midwest Studies in Philosophy 1997 (XXI): 202-24), is now underway.  Professor Shatz has kindly agreed to initiate the symposium with some thoughts on his paper and the broader philosophical and exegetical issues it raises.  What follows are his remarks.

This article (from 1997) belongs to a genre that is becoming increasingly popular among analytic philosophers, thanks to pioneering efforts by Eleonore Stump, Charlotte Katzoff and (without a predominantly analytic emphasis) the Shalem Center: namely, the philosophical analysis of biblical narratives. As editors Charles Manekin and Robert Eisen remark in their introduction to Philosophers and the Jewish Bible, “While the contemporary project of philosophical exegesis differs greatly from the medieval project, both share a fascination with the Bible and a desire to make sense of it in philosophical terms” (p. 5). Just as medieval philosophers sought to harmonize Scripture and  philosophy and to use philosophy as an exegetical tool, analytic philosophers who are committed to what can loosely and evasively be called "traditional philosophical theology" utilize philosophical analyses to remove inconsistencies between the Bible and philosophy and to understand narratives more deeply. It scarcely needs to be added that philosophers who are not theists may -- and do-- use philosophical theories and methods to analyze biblical narratives, and that philosophers committed to "traditional philosophical theology" may, like everyone else, use philosophy to interpret narratives without relating them to theological concerns. Also, some philosophers (like Howard Wettstein) stress the gap between traditional philosophical theology and the Bible.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Foundational Question for the Philosophy of Judaism

Since the foundation of this blog, I have slowly come round to the following questions. These questions are not posted here because I have something by way of an answer to them; something that I’d wish to share. I don’t have answers. But the discussions that we’ve had on this blog have led me to think that these questions are foundational for anything like a rigorous investigation into the philosophical commitments of the Jewish faith. I share them because I’d like your help. What should I be reading, in the secular and religious literature, in order better to address these questions? Have they already been answered satisfactorily by anyone?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Properties of the Propety of Being Jewish

I’m marrying someone in a couple weeks. A lot of drama has arisen over his not being “Jewish” which made me wonder how the property of “being Jewish” works.
First, the word “Jewish” can mean lots of different things. Here are some of the factors that seem relevant to people’s determination of whether or not someone is Jewish
- Whether the person is of a certain ethnicity (where the extent to which one is from that ethnicity doesn’t depend on which side of the family is of the relevant ethnicity).
- Whether the person is of a certain ethnicity but only via the mother’s side
- Whether someone has converted
- Whether someone’s parents have converted
- Whether someone’s mother has converted before their birth
- Whether the person has certain beliefs
- Whether the person engages in certain practices
- Whether the person grew up in a certain culture
- Whether the person identifies as Jewish.
Here is the first question: suppose we interview someone and find the answer to all of these questions. Is a list of answers to these questions (and some more if you like) all there is to say about whether or not someone is Jewish? Or, is there a further question one can ask - namely whether, given the answers to all these questions someone is Jewish, simpliciter.
A lot of people seem to think there is a further question about whether or not is Jewish since people may disagree about whether someone is Jewish even if they agree about the answers to all of these questions.
Here is the second question: If we do think there is this further fact, (a) what grounds it and (b) what sort of beliefs do you have to have to make it legitimate for you to think that this further fact holds?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The religious significance of Metaphysics: A tangent from the symposium on Eli Hirsch's paper on Identity in the Talmud

In our discussions of Eli Hirsch's paper, this week, Aaron Segal raised the following criticism of Hirsch's general approach to the Talmud. Segal said:

'We might wonder whether Hirsch’s assumption [that the disputants in the Talmud were making claims about the metaphysical nature of identity] compromises, to one degree or other, the religious value of either the original debates/conversations among the Talmudists or our study of them. If in these instances the Tana’im and Amora’im were making straightforwardly metaphysical claims and having metaphysical disputes, rather than making claims about what God wants from us, then does that not diminish the religious value of studying these disputes? I am aware of the Gemara in Avoda Zara that even Sihat Hulin (the mundane conversations) of Torah scholars require study, and I don’t mean to question that, but can one compare the religious value of studying Havayot D’abaye V’rava when they are directly grappling with the will and word of God to their discussions of “mundane matters”, even when those mundane matters are as interesting and ripe for philosophizing as identity? I can only record my own feeling that one cannot.'

This lead me [Sam Lebens] to question whether metaphysics is really devoid of religious significance. At first I compared it to the religious significance of science, in its attempt to chart the terrain of God's universe. A long debate ensued. I replicate the debate here so that the discussion can take on a life of its own, separately to our discussions of Hirsch's paper, as this has become somewhat of an independent tangent.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Hirsch on Identity in the Talmud: Post #2

There is certainly much of interest in this excellent article both for philosophers and for Talmudists (and even more for those who are both).  I want to focus on just one issue, which is briefly addressed at several points in the article and which I take to be of some importance.  I tried to tackle this issue in a paper that I presented this summer at the Shalem Center’s conference, Philosophical Investigations of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Midrash.  What follows draws heavily on that paper.  [For those who are interested in the full version, please click on the link at the end of the post.]

At various points in the article, Hirsch asserts that the Tana’im and Amora’im were making claims about identity.  For instance, he says, “I think it is clear that R. Yochanan was indeed making a claim about identity and I have formulated his principle accordingly.” (p. 167) And later he writes, “I think it is no distortion to say that the tractate as a whole presents an extended treatment of the identity of a wide range of artifacts.” (p. 175) If this is right, then R. Yochanan and the Tana’im (and Tosafot) are entering into debates with “ordinary” metaphysicians – from the Hellenistic philosophers, who had a keen sense for the interesting philosophical questions about identity, to contemporary philosophers like Peter Geach, Roderick Chisholm, Eli Hirsch, and others.  And presumably, they are also having such debates with each other – two Tana’im who have a machloket about whether a certain kli is still tameh are (in certain circumstances) having a dispute about identity, plain and simple.  [See pp. 7-11 of my paper for a discussion of some examples in which there would appear to be a machloket about identity.]     

Hirsch on Identity in the Talmud

I have read Professor Hirsch’s paper with much interest and enjoyment. I think that his article provides a benchmark for good scholarship in the philosophy of Judaism. I have a few questions on the paper, all of which are clarificatory. I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on these points:
1. Is there any relation of the concept of panim chadashot as found in the laws of sheva brakhot, to the concept of panim chadashot as it is discussed here with regards to artefacts?
2. On a more fundamental level: Is there a unified Jewish position on artefact identity that we need to uncover through various examples in the various texts (as Hirsch does by quoting different debates on identity)? Or is the nature of artefact identity up for grabs, in which case different sources need not be aligned with one another to form a coherent position? (I’ve asked a similar question in a previous post “Some Meta Questions.”)
3. Hirsch’s solution to the problem raised by Tosafot on the relative tumah properties at different stages, as i see it, depends on the notion of an embedded kli. I find it hard to read the sources Hirsch quotes as being cases exemplifying this principle. I think it a little stretched to understand the respective opinions as being committed to the claim that when a single piece of cloth functioning as a coat is split into two coats, that the two coats are to be considered as embedded kelim of the larger coat. Similarly for the oven that is cut in half.
4. Is there any relation between the concept of an embedded kli and the opening mishnah of Baba Metzia about two claiming ownership of the identical cloak/talis? A similar question can be asked regarding the commandment of sukkah: what does shifting some branches of a sukkah one built last year do such that merely shifting some branches this year enables one to fulfill the mitzva of sukkah? Surely the properties of the original sukkah are such that Rav Yochanan's principle does not apply.
5. With respect to Hirsch’s interpretation of Rav Yochanan’s principle, what implications are there, if any, of a kohen who loses his status as a kohen for whatever reason e.g. he marries a forbidden partner?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Temple was Destroyed because ...

After a discussion I had with my brother about the nature of Torah study (is it merely an intellectual exercise or something more?) I started wondering about the following issue after he quoted a relevant point related to Tisha be’Av, which was yesterday and is the day commemorating the destruction of both temples, among other events. Many are aware of the famous statement in B. Nedarim 81a that the first temple was destroyed because the people did not recite the blessing required before studying Torah. This point was taken up and featured heavily in the work of many commentators on the Talmud and legal scholars, e.g. Rabbeinu Yonah, Ran and Shulchan Aruch.

To be more precise, in the above text the famous dictum is stated by Rabbi Yehudah in Rav’s name with respect to the verses in Jeremiah 9: 11-13.
9. I will take up weeping and wailing for the mountains, and a lamentation for the dwellings of the wilderness, because they are withered and without any one passing through, and the lowing of the cattle is not heard; both the fowl of the heavens and the beast have fled and are gone.
10. And I will make Jerusalem heaps (of ruin), a lair of jackals; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.
11. Who is the man so wise that he can understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that he may declare it? Why is the land ruined (and) withered like a wilderness, without anyone passing through?
12. And the Lord said: (It is) because they have forsaken My Law, which I set before them, and have not hearkened to My voice, nor walked by it.
This made me think of a discussion Sam, Aaron, and I had recently on the nature of claims made by certain scholars about historical events. The question I put to them regarding claims made by Ran and Ritva elsewhere (see below), can be repeated in this context as well:
Is Rav stating an empirical fact about actual events that took place in history? If he is making an empirical claim, what would his evidence have been for this claim? And if he is not making an empirical claim, what kind of claim is he making?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Izbicer Rebbe and Freewill

Having spent some time thinking about medieval approaches to the freewill problem – the apparent contradiction between God’s foreknowledge and our freedom – Rabbi Herzl Hefter introduced me to the work of the Chassidic Rebbe, R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, otherwise known as the Izbicer. In this blog, I want to present what I take to be the Izbicer’s ‘solution’ to the free will problem. All of this has been worked out for me, essentially, by R. Hefter. The only contribution I’ve made, if any, is to repackage the central ideas utilising a collection of philosophical tools that I borrow from Gareth Evans and Kendal Walton.[1]

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Developing a philosophy of Judaism: the fortunes of an enterprise

by Ben Elton

Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) famously remarked that the Jewish Middle Ages did not come to an end until the French Revolution. He was making the important point that a state or religion does not become modern simply because it is exists in modern times. To be modern it must engage with modernity. The French Revolution facilitated that engagement by setting in train events that would lead to the tearing down of the ghetto walls, and with them the intellectual walls that some hoped would keep modernity at bay.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Letter of Support from Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks

When we established this blog, I wrote to the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Lord Sacks. He is surely one of the greatest living rabbis and one of the greatest living Jewish philosophers/thinkers/leaders, so, I asked him what he thought were the major tasks for the next generation of Jewish philosophers. We are thrilled and honoured to have received this response, which I post below.
Dear Sam, Dani and Aaron
What a wonderful idea: a Jewish philosophy blog. Where blogs fit in the genealogy of philosophical thought, I'm not sure. Are they a continuation of the Socratic dialogue by other means? Are they – bearing in mind Franz Rosensweig’s reservations about the nature of those dialogues – what he sought by way of the “new thinking,” namely a genuinely open conversation that changes its participants in unpredictable ways as it is taking place? Or are they simply musings in the manner of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, or for that matter Wittgenstein?
It may be that blogs will produce new forms of thought. Walter J Ong, in his Orality and Literacy, wrote that “writing restructures consciousness”, and I believe this. New modes of communication change not only how we communicate but also what we communicate. They change the way we think. And I believe that, as Jews, we need to change the way we think.
Which brings me to the question you ask: what should the next generation of Jewish philosophers be thinking about and writing about?
To that I have no doubt. As I argued in one of the chapters of Future Tense, we need to understand the world in order to transform the world. The three great principles of Judaism are creation, revelation and redemption. Creation is the relationship between God and the world. Revelation is the relationship between God and us. When we apply revelation to creation the result is redemption. We are called on to change the world.
We are not called on to convert the world. How then do we change the world? By contributing to it what we uniquely are, thus giving what only we can give.
Avishai Margalit distinguishes between an i.e. philosophy and an e.g. philosophy. In Judaism, the Noahide covenant is the i.e.; the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are the e.g. We are called on, that is to say, not to be the only way of finding and serving God, but to be a compelling example to others who will find their own way -- inspired by us but not imitating us.
This means that we must so construct our thought – our philosophies of Judaism, if you like – in such a way as genuinely to engage with the world. That is what I find in very short supply. We are not short of Torah in our time – Torah that operates within a closed, self-contained, self-referential system. But Torah that engages with the world – that could be read by, understood by, appreciated by the world – of that I find little.
One of the great inspirations in my own work was the writing – the immense lifework – of the late Prof Daniel Elazar on Jewish political thinking, that is to say, the politics of covenant. Other inspirations have been cognitive psychotherapists like Aaron T. Beck and Martin Seligman. Then there was the late David Daube who showed, in his great book Biblical Law, published in 1947, how law and narrative were interwoven in the Torah. There have been many others.
But the overwhelming majority of what passes for Torah today does not speak to the world, in a language comprehensible to the world, taking into account the current state of knowledge of the world, and thus has nothing to say to the world.
Judaism really is different, as I have argued in many books, including my latest: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning. I use the metaphor – it is only a metaphor – that the thinking that emerged in Greece on the fifth century BCE was left brain, as contrasted with the thoroughly right brain thinking of the prophets of ancient Israel.
Judaism focused and should still focus on what makes a person a person and not the object of scientific knowledge. From that much else follows, from the theology of Tanakh, to the epistemology of personal knowledge (the phrase belongs, of course, to Michael Polanyi), to the kind of political philosophy that honours persons as persons, and so on.
This is a genuinely philosophical enterprise – it is not simply theology – and in my view the only one worthy of the name of a Jewish philosophy, that is, not Greek, not Cartesian, not Kantian, not shaatnez or kilayim, a forbidden mixture of things that don’t belong together, but a genuinely systemic philosophy of (to use John MacMurray’s phrase) Persons in relation.
And yes, it would involve biblical exegesis, and perhaps aggadah and halakhah, but it would have to stand on its own authority, as intellectually compelling even without prooftexts. And – to state a personal prejudice – it should also be readable and intelligible. I say this because I am British, therefore in the great empiricist tradition, but also because that is what the prophets of Israel did: they spoke in language intelligible to the people (see on this both Moshe Greenberg and Michael Walzer). As Jeremiah in effect said: only a prophecy that is testable is worthy of the name. The same applies to philosophy.
In short, I urge the next generation of Jewish philosophers to help me and others understand what it is to think distinctively as a Jew. To quote a non-Jew, former editor of The Times, William (Lord) Rees-Mogg: "One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews. Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all." Or to quote Nietzsche: “Wherever Jews have won influence they have taught men to make finer distinctions, more rigorous inferences, and to write in a more luminous and cleanly fashion.”
I will be right there beside you, because I intend doing my own share of the intellectual work that so badly needs to be done. And for all those wondering whether in a 4000 year old tradition, which more than most has given rise to generation after generation of thinkers, each of whom has added his commentary to the tradition, is there still work to be done? Are there still ideas to be clarified? Is there still a philosophy to be written? The answer is unequivocally, manifestly and urgently: yes.
So, with every good wish and with great expectations, I send you my blessings.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Some "Meta Questions"

So if one reads the philosophical literature on God's relationship to time (e.g. Leftow, Swinburne, Plantinga, Hasker, Wierenga), one encounters the following phenomenon: those arguing for God's being outside of time will draw on certain biblical verses in support of their position. Similarly, those defending God's being inside time draw on biblical verses in support of their position.
At a recent conference that I attended on Jewish philosophy, I had a similar experience: presenters would draw on different verses or references in Jewish literature (Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash etc.) in support of the position/interpretation they were pushing.
This makes me wonder: Is there a "Jewish philosophy" to be uncovered or discovered in the texts? Or are the very theological/philosophical fundamentals of Judaism "up for grabs"?
I realize that the question could do with more clarity. Here is one way to see what I am getting at: Is there, for example, a Jewish position on God's relationship to time? Or is this question a matter of dispute? Here are two practical differences between the two sides of the coin.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Heschel's Concise Dictionary of Hebrew Philosophical Terms now available opensource online

My Rabbi sent me the link to a blog called "On the Mainline," which looks like it might have some more useful stuff. (Correction: definitely interesting stuff, see also the writer's other blog, English Hebraica)

The Six Pillars of Jewish Wisdom

What on earth is the philosophy of Judaism?
There are six elements. Each has roots in the Pentateuch. It is part of the mystery of Jewish identity that these principles produce techniques that are fecund and unembarrassing in the hands of avowed secularists.
1. The Imago Dei
Man, says the Torah, is made in the image of God. That indicates: (a) that man is not God; and (b) that man has some of God’s attributes, and is accordingly worthy of respect (although not worship). The tension between (a) and (b) generates the energy of Jewish ethics.
In the hands of Christian theologians, the notion of the Imago Dei has become a liability. That is because they have engaged in over-elaborate exegesis of the creation story in Genesis. They have derived over-dogmatic conclusions about God’s nature (and hence man’s nature), from the description of God’s attributes there. The dogmatism has gone in several different directions, but here’s one example. In the creation story, God is rational; he has a plan, which he utters into existence. That indicates, says one line of Christian theological speculation, that man is only properly human if and insofar as he is rational too. You can go straight from that conclusion to Kant, whose metastasis throughout medical ethics has done incalculable harm. Kant, if he’s being consistent, denies full human status to everyone and everything that is incapable of reason – whether a stone, a dog, a child, or an adult in Permanent Vegetative State.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Maimonides, Boethius and Freewill

It strikes me that the solution proposed by Maimonides to the freewill problem has been wrongly equated with the solution put forward by Boethius. In what follows, I try to explain how the two proposals differ. I’d love to hear people’s feedback on this, as I’m no real Maimonides scholar. Have other people noted this difference? Do let me know.
The freewill problem, in its medieval formulation, arises from the fact that our free will seems to be incompatible with God’s foreknowledge. The problem can be stated as follows:
  1. A being with a free will often has the choice between two mutually exclusive actions, action x and action y, at some time, t.
  2. God is omniscient, and therefore knows that I will chose to perform, say, action x at time t.
  3. Knowledge is factive, which is to say that it’s either a relation between a mind and a fact, or at least, a relation between a mind and a true proposition; a proposition made true by a fact. Knowledge is, therefore, always accompanied by the existence of a fact.
  4. Given 3, if God knows that I will perform action x at time t, then it is a fact that I will perform action x at time t.
  5. If it is a fact that I will perform action x at time t, then I cannot choose to perform action y at the same time.
  6. Therefore, I am not a free being with control over the course of my own life. Given any choice, I am always bound to act in the way that God already knows that I will act.

Review of Ze'ev Maghen's "John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage" (Bottom Books 2011)

Reviewed by Andrew Pessin, Professor of Philosophy, Connecticut College:

John Lennon and the Jews (JL&J) is an extremely original and significant book. It should be read by every Jew, no matter where he or she stands on the long spectrum between strict religious observance and determined rejection of the same. Maghen -- an American-born Israeli scholar of Islamic law but also something of a Talmid chacham and general know-everything-but-not-in-an-arrogant-way sort of guy -- has literally invented a new genre of writing, aptly self-titled the “philosophical rampage,” which might best be described as the literary equivalent of three parts strong coffee, two parts Red Bull, and one part nuclear fusion. You pick this thing up and it practically supernovas right in your hand. And if you can hold on you are in for a heck of a ride, whoever you are.

In its very high-energy and entertaining way that is philosophically informed throughout, JL&J basically addresses the question of why, if you're Jewish, you should be Jewish, i.e. make your Jewishness a flourishing part of your identity – despite the fact that stressing your affiliation with an ancient tribe seems, in this 21st century, to be not merely outdated and inconvenient but even downright irrational. Why be Jewish, after all, when there are so many other wonderful things you can be: modern, progressive, scientific, secular, multicultural, an American, a European (etc.), a Citizen of the World, or maybe just an individual devoid of all labels, period? But Maghen is rightly aware that this sort of question cannot be addressed properly without quickly ranging deeply into issues of very general philosophical interest and urgency.

Evidence and the Exodus

posted on behalf of Yehudah Gellman

Sometimes, absence of evidence for p does not count as evidence for not-p. So, there being an absence of evidence for, say, that there are 1.2 billion ants in Jerusalem does not count as evidence that there are not 1.2 billion ants in Jerusalem. At other times, however, absence of evidence for p does count as evidence for not-p. So, that there are no signs of footprints in the mud is not only an absence of evidence that somebody has just recently walked in the mud, but is evidence that nobody has walked there. The difference seems to be this:

The absence of evidence for p is evidence for not-p when - were p true, then there would be evidence for p.

The more evidence there should be for p and there is not, the more evidence there is that not-p.

In what follows I will refer to natural evidence, independent of religious authority as simply "evidence."
The conclusion I want to argue for is that regard to the biblical story of the stay of the Israelites in Egypt, and their exodus from Egypt, their sojourn in the desert, and invasion of Canaan, (hereafter: The Exodus Story) we have strong evidence that the story did not take place. And the argument is this: If the story did take place, we would have strong evidence in its favor. But none of the evidence that should exist does exist. Therefore, we have strong evidence against the truth of the story.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Maimon and Agushewitz

In recent years works by Reuven Agushewitz and Solomon Maimon have been translated into English. I wonder if anyone is able to furnish us with a book review or a detailed summary of their work. Whilst the two men couldn't have been more different by the end of their lives, their reputations as men of extraordinary learning makes me inquisitive about their work. I post links to the translations of their works below. Dani

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Religious Belief, Make-believe and Science

I’ve written a short little book that is a re-writing of Rav Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters. The re-working tries to package the key ideas in modern language and reapply them to different historical circumstances. Here is an edited excerpt from the manuscript. It’s aimed for a lay audience, and tries to be accessible to young adults. But I’m interested to hear what readers of this blog think about this excerpt, in which I outline why the Nineteen Letters interests me as a philosopher. Rav Hirsch’s book is an argument for living an observant Jewish lifestyle that never once tries to argue that the theological or historical claims made by the religion are true. I find that interesting and strangely compelling, as I try to explain in what follows. The excerpt starts with some philosophical background ...

Philosophical background

In the course of our everyday lives, we are forced to make a large number of assumptions. Indeed, we habitually make all sorts of assumptions for all sorts of reasons. When I attend an ‘introduction to physics’ lecture, I assume that the teacher is teaching well established facts and not simply making things up! When I get into an aeroplane, I assume that the laws of aeronautics that have held planes up in the sky for the entire history of aviation will continue to operate, at least until I land safely on terra firma. I assume that other people exist and that I’m not just dreaming them up. These things I assume to be true. These assumptions are simply beliefs that I might not feel confident enough to call ‘knowledge’ when pressed by a sceptical philosopher; but I believe them, nevertheless, without any real reservation.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Logic and the Talmud

Here are links to two articles relating to logic in the Talmud:

"The Realm of the Sacred, wherein We may not Draw an Inference from Something which Itself has been Inferred: a reading of Talmud Bavli Zevachim folio 50" by Curtis Franks
Department of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

"The Evolution of Talmudic Reasoning." History and Philosophy of Logic 32 (1):9-28 by Norman Solomon, Oriental Institute, Oxford University.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Induction: A peculiar little discussion in tractate Gittin 28a

In what follows, I copy the soncino translation of tractate Gittin 28a. I intersplice the text with my italicised comments. I have nothing of real interest to say about this excerpt. That's why I'm appealing for your help! If we don't want to reduce the Talmud's second response, on behalf of Raba below, to absurdity, how should we interpret it?

The exceprt talks about a person who is delivering a Get (a bill of divorce) from a husband to a wife. The divorce doesn't take effect until the Get reaches the hand of the wife (or her appointed agent). Only a living man can divorce his wife, so the rabbis discuss what justifies the messenger's assumption that the husband is still alive at the point of delivery to the wife.