The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Another fairly self-explanatory title… The series of Cambridge Companions aim to provide a range of scholarly essays on a topic or philosopher, to help advanced students to get to grips with them. Thus, they are introductory from one perspective, but very far from superficial, which makes them an interesting read.

One interesting thing about this book was the number of important medieval Jewish philosophers I’d never heard of. Given that I’ve studied medieval philosophy in some detail, that was a little surprising; not even the names had come up with any frequency. Of course, there were some, Maimonides and Gersonides, most notably, of whom I had heard; I’ve even read Maimonides. One question running through the book is the degree to which Jewish philosophers engaged with Christian and Islamic philosophers in the period, and vice versa, and in many cases the evidence for engagement seems fairly slender. Maimonides and Gersonides are exceptions, which might well be why they were the two I’d heard of; I’ve tended to approach medieval philosophy from the Christian direction.

Another interesting point was the discussion of Judah Halevi, an early twelfth century philosopher who wrote a book known as the Kuzari, dramatising the conversion of the Kazars to Judaism. In this text, he apparently argued that the Jews were racially superior to all other people, and that only Jews could ever be truly virtuous. Conversion was not an option; you had to be a genuine blood descendant of Israel. It’s the first time I’ve come across clear ideas of racial supremacy in a medieval context; the Christians were big on ideological and religious supremacy, but don’t seem to have cared very much about races. Jews (or Muslims) who converted to Christianity were just as good as those who were born that way. Of course, Halevi may have been isolated; certainly, Maimonides seems to have been much less racist. But it was still something of a shock to come across such a pure form of racial supremacy in a medieval text. It’s also something of a shock to come across Jews being racist; they are normally the victims of prejudice in the period. (Not just in the medieval period, either, of course.)

The book also discusses the origins of Kabbalah, albeit somewhat indirectly. Kabbalah tended to be mystical rather than philosophical, and some of its practitioners were opposed to philosophy. Similarly, there was a strong current of medieval Jewish philosophy that thought Kabbalah was a load of rubbish. However, there was also a group, quite important in some areas, that combined Kabbalah and philosophy, generally in a Platonic way. They influenced some Christians who were important in the Renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola, and that seems to be how Kabbalah broke out of the Judaism and found its way into the mainstream of European occultism.

The book covered far more than I’ve mentioned here, and I now feel like I have a much better grip on what was happening in Jewish philosophy in the period, which should help when it comes to studying Christian philosophy from the same era. It’s rather specialist, but I think it’s a good book.

Posted in Books, History, Philosophy.

One Comment

  1. I don’t imagine a whole RPG book coming put of this, but a Sub Rosa article might … I doubt you have time now for such frivolities, alas.

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