Yehuda Halper
Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University

Distel-Atbaryan is right! Jewish philosophy is a complex and wonderful world

חברת הכנסת גלית דיסטל אטבריאן במליאת הכנסת, 21.4.2021. צילום: נועם מושקוביץ, דוברות הכנסת
חברת הכנסת גלית דיסטל אטבריאן במליאת הכנסת, 21.4.2021. צילום: נועם מושקוביץ, דוברות הכנסת

As a professor of Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, I was delighted to hear Galit Distel-Atbaryan say:

The [education] sub-committee which I head is determined to make a fundamental change in the Israel education system and, for the first time in history, since the formation of the State, grant Israeli children a view into the complex and wonderful world of Jewish thought and philosophy. The people of Israel are in need of spirit and unity. The contents [of the bills] this committee introduces will supply these needs which have until now been excluded from the education system. (Source: Melukadim News, my translation, emphasis added)

Jewish philosophy is indeed a “complex and wonderful world” and, as Joseph Ibn Kaspi advised his son in the 14th century, one should study philosophical ethics every day for one’s whole life. Moses Maimonides, of course, also recommends dedicating at least one third of one’s daily study time to Jewish philosophy, which he describes as the rules of inference and the topics of what he calls the Pardes, i.e., physics and metaphysics (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Talmud Torah,” I.11-12). Abraham Ibn Ezra seems to have considered the pinnacle of Jewish philosophy to lie in astronomy and astrology, while Jacob Anatoli considered logic to be the highpoint, and Judah Messer Leon favored the study of rhetoric. In his famous Meqor Hayyim, Solomon Ibn Gabirol argues against dividing philosophy into fields, suggesting instead to look inward at one’s own soul as a microcosm of the world and the divine soul. These are, of course, oversimplifications, but even so they emphasize how complex and wonderful Jewish philosophy really is. And these examples are all only from the Middle Ages! Modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy, to say nothing of the various approaches of Kabbalah and Hasidism, add further layers of complexity.

Complexity, of course, does not automatically lead to unity. In fact, Jewish philosophers who could not agree on whether Jewish philosophy could be divided into disciplines and which discipline was the most important were rife with disagreements. Some Jewish thinkers even said not to study philosophy at all! Others, including Maimonides, emphasized its value for the elite alone, while others, like Jacob Anatoli, thought that it should be a preserve of adults. Scholars still argue about what precisely was so sensitive about philosophy as to warrant this kind of caution, but many think it had to do with questions of whether and how the world was created and how such explanations can be connected to physics, astronomy, biology, etc.

Actually, the study of disagreements and how to argue about them is also part of Jewish philosophy. The Talmud presents us with numerous accounts of all kinds of disagreements, but medieval Jewish philosophers, like Levi Gersonides and Todros Todrosi, turned to Aristotle, Al-Farabi, and Averroes, for the basic accounts of how to form and make arguments. Other thinkers, like Shem Tov Falaquera and Immanuel of Rome, present literary accounts of debates that exemplify the uses of rules and strategies of argumentations.

These works, studies, commentaries, and literary accounts do not aim for Jewish unity, but celebrate disagreement. It is precisely in the diversity of views and the various ways of arguing those views that Jewish philosophy is interesting. Indeed, the study of argument and debate – which in medieval Hebrew was called niṣuaḥ – is perhaps what Jewish philosophy is all about.

I hope that we shall follow Distel-Atbaryan in increasing our study of Jewish philosophy, and in promoting arguments and debate. Disagreement is not only good for philosophy, it is good for democracy. One day soon I hope we can modify the slogans pasted all over our schools from saying yaḥad nenaṣeaḥ (“Together we will win”), to say yaḥad nitnaṣeaḥ (“Together we will debate”)!


About the Author
Yehuda Halper is associate professor in the department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University. He directs the Israel Science Foundation, Research Grant: "Samuel Ibn Tibbon's Explanation of Foreign Terms and the Foundations of Philosophy in Hebrew." His 2021 book, Jewish Socratic Questions in an Age without Plato won the Goldstein-Goren book award for best book in Jewish Thought 2019-2021.
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