God. Torah. Israel. These three concepts—incorporated in personal belief, the meaning of Jewish ritual acts, and the purpose of continued Jewish existence—have been the focus of Jewish thought throughout history.
But the last four centuries have presented Jewish thinkers with difficult challenges:
- In a world having a history of untold suffering—especially, it seemed, for Jews—was the existence of an all-powerful and comforting God still tenable?
- What were the purpose and meaning of Jewish practices and customs, given the increasing number of Jews who placed greater value on their own autonomy?
- Could Jews still justify the notion of a “chosen people” in a society where Jewish integration and full participation with the rest of humanity had become the norm?
These lectures present the varying ways in which a small group of thinkers has attempted to answer these challenges.
These men and, in recent years, women, have reflected deeply on the relevance of Jewish texts and traditions to modern Jews.
Different Routes to a Common Goal
Though their approaches and solutions differed, most shared a common goal: provide a continuing sense of faith, meaning, and identity for their fellow Jews.
Through these lectures, you will observe the time-honored intellectual tradition through which Judaism analyzes, rethinks, and reformulates itself.
This process of preserving its essential character while still trying to accommodate itself to the modern world has kept Judaism a vital and vibrant, rather than static, religion.
This course may serve to introduce you to a new and rich body of thinkers and thinking, for until recently, Jewish intellectual history, though an integral part of Western intellectual history, has been less heralded.
But one of the contributions of the young field of Jewish Studies has been to bring the thinkers featured in this series to a wider audience.
Spinoza’s Devastating Challenge
The central figure in the course is well known: the prominent philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632–1677).
Spinoza’s impact was so significant, Professor Ruderman notes, that much of the course might be viewed as a series of responses to his thinking.
Spinoza received a traditional rabbinical education, but he broke with Judaism after his father died. He was raised in Amsterdam, a city in which both Jews and Christians lived in an increasingly tolerant and secular atmosphere.
In his Theological–Political Treatise, published anonymously in 1670, Spinoza became the first Jew to break with the medieval Jewish tradition espoused by Moses Maimonides (1132–1204).
Breaking with Four Centuries of Tradition
Spinoza disputed Maimonides’s belief that reason and faith could be reconciled. Because biblical texts were believed to have been inspired by God, he asserted, they were supernatural. They could be interpreted through faith or reason, but not both.
If one chose reason, then the Bible was not divinely inspired but a document created by Man.
This argument was devastating to the question of Jewish identity.
Essentially, it negated God, Torah, and Israel, denying any rationale for Jews to think of themselves as the chosen people, observe ceremonial laws, or accept the authority of the rabbis.
Spinoza’s critique laid bare the contradiction between Jewish communal values and secular liberal ones. He was the first to pose a fundamental question that remains relevant to this day: Is it possible to be a true liberal and a traditional Jew?
Three Responses: Insiders, Outsiders, and Rejectionists
This course considers modern Jewish thought largely in terms of two issues:
- The response to Spinoza and his attack on the very viability of Judaism
- The shift in the standard by which Jews defined themselves and their faith. In the Middle Ages, this defining factor had been God. In the modern age, it became the non-Jewish world.
With the weakening of the Jewish community, the need to provide a rationale for being Jewish in a non-Jewish world became pressing and more problematic.
Given these two issues, Professor Ruderman presents the various thinkers according to three approaches:
- Insiders want to remain Jews but believe that Judaism has to be tailored to better fit the culture at large. The problem is how to accomplish this and still preserve the belief that Judaism is unique.
- Outsiders believe there is no longer a place for Judaism, that Judaism should essentially be overcome to create something in which all humans can share. The philosophies of Spinoza, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud might be included in this category.
- Rejectionists believe Jews should maintain their traditional beliefs and customs and refuse to blend in with the larger Western culture. This approach became very apparent in the wake of the Holocaust.
Reconciling Problems for a Modern World
Most thinkers represented in these lectures are insiders who struggled to create a better fit between Judaism and the contemporary world.
Each had to deal with problems related to cherished notions of God, Torah, and Israel, including:
- Jewish law: This has been a central issue in modern Jewish thought. In his book Jerusalem (1783), Moses Mendelssohn drew a distinction between moral and ritual commandments, but insisted both were obligatory for Jews. Subsequent thinkers emphasized the moral over the ritual, claiming the former was eternal, while the latter could change.
- Comparisons with Christianity:Living in a predominantly Christian society led many thinkers to reflect on the relative merits of both religions. Some constructed rationales arguing for the superiority of Judaism over Christianity. Immanuel Wolf implied a belief in inferiority by asserting that “Judaism must raise itself to the level of a science.”
- Particularity: It remained important to demonstrate that the Jews retained their status as a chosen people. Thinkers developed such philosophies as “the mission of Israel” and “Catholic Israel,” and highlighted the moral and rational virtues of Judaism in an effort to preserve its unique place in the world.
This lecture series places historical theories and religious practices in a fresh light. You will encounter thinkers who embodied lifestyles and philosophies difficult to categorize but often original and thought provoking.
A Wait before Considering the Holocaust
The final lectures examine the impact of the Holocaust, as well as newer contributions being made by women thinkers.
Jewish thinkers, in fact, did not write extensively about the Holocaust until 1960.
“The shock was so great that the most appropriate response for a while was silence,” Professor Ruderman notes.
Women Jewish intellectuals in the last 40 years have challenged the patriarchal nature of Judaism by arguing for full participation of women in ritual services and creation of gender-sensitive prayer books:
- Judith Plaskow has raised awareness of ways women have been overlooked in Jewish history and in the scriptures themselves.
- Rachel Adler argues that Judaism’s commitment to justice obligates it to address gender inequity.
Professor Ruderman completes the lectures with an evaluation of current Jewish thought and the argument that has been raised that it may no longer be relevant.
In his estimation, however, Jewish thinking is not something that only intellectuals do. It is a widespread and necessary part of Jewish life—an effort to find meaning and hope in an uncertain world.
Visit Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century (The Great Courses) to read more...