When we think of great Jewish writing after the Bible, we often focus on the Talmud – that rambling compilation of rulings, debates and stories.
But Jews have also written in a more abstract, philosophical vein, and these writings can be a fruitful path to understanding Judaism.
To get acquainted with this more abstract thinking, we now have “The Jewish God Question: What Jewish Thinkers Have Said About God, the Book, the People, and the Land.” Author Andrew Pessin is a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, but he lives in Providence with his family. In addition to his academic writing on René Descartes, he has written books about philosophy as well as two novels.
“The Jewish God Question” risks appearing as intellectual history, not a true survey of ideas. Pessin deftly solves this problem by presenting two-page summaries of each thinker (a few get multiple summaries). Rather than drily summing up the key points, Pessin presents them with rhetorical force, as though he were trying to convince you.
The compendium ranges widely, from the allegorist Philo in the 1st century C.E. to the Karaite Aaron Ben Elijah in the 14th century, the apostate Spinoza in the 17th, and the moralist Hermann Cohen in the 19th. Only a few entries feel dated, such as that of astrologer Abraham Bivach in the 15th century, and the anti-Zionist Shalom Dov Schneerson in the early 20th.
Pessin groups the summaries chronologically: first Philo and the early medievalists, then Maimonides and later medievalists, then Spinoza and other early modern writers, followed by more recent writers, starting with Theodor Herzl in the late 19th century.
Most of the writings respond to secular philosophies that were implicitly critical of Jewish ideas: first Aristotle and the Gnostics, then the Enlightenment from the 17th to 20th centuries, and post-modernism since the mid-20th.
Pessin’s thinkers wrote for people who agreed with those outside ideas and wanted to understand Judaism accordingly. Most of the thinkers, most famously Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn, were apologists loyal to the religious tradition who worked to reconcile everything.
The book’s approach is especially effective for the writings since the Holocaust. Most of those arguments are still resonant, timely and persuasive. It’s only by reading several summaries that we appreciate the complexity of the issues.
Post-modernism, which exalts personal commitment over universal reason, gets several entries, and may be where many readers linger. It has arguably given renewed cultural respectability to Judaism, but with its own dangers of relativism, individualism and identity politics.
Pessin resists editorializing on these developments, but includes an afterword with editorial comments by Samuel Lebens. A young scholar, Lebens is concerned with the scarcity of committed Jewish practitioners of analytic philosophy. He wants more Jews defending Jewish ideas in secular terms, as Alvin Plantinga has done for the Christian tradition.
Lebens also suggests that hyper-precise analytic philosophy is the best way to take Jewish ideas seriously. But as Rabbis Jonathan Sacks, Meir Soloveichik and others have shown, we don’t have to choose between analytical absolutes and post-modern decadence – there’s a middle ground.
Indeed, it seems to me that a better agenda is to continue the book’s conversation and link it with the Talmud, a multi-voiced, non-analytical document driven by a deep commitment to Torah. Otherwise, we’ll risk ending up with a post-modern cafeteria culture, one where Judaism is just another set of practices to take on according to the feelings of the moment.
JOHN LANDRY lives in Providence.