OHPT: Thoughts on Jewish Theological Philosophy (Chapter 24)

And with that… we’ve completed the survey of Christian Philosophical Theology. It’s really unfortunate that the Oxford Handbook folks reserved only three chapters for an exploration of philosophical theology in any other religions. Not only that, but how did Hinduism not get a chapter?! Color me SUPER unimpressed.

This chapter is nowhere near as in-depth as the others, because it presents an overview of how philosophy operates in general within the Jewish faith and the work of Jewish theologians. This chapter was provided by Dr. Daniel H. Frank, Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University. His research focuses, in part, on Jewish philosophy, but also on medieval Islamic philosophy, ethics, and the history of political philosophy. He earned and received his PhD from the University of Pittsburg (sad that this is what counts for diversity in this volume, but I’m celebrating the minor victories!).

Frank focuses his analysis on the work of Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher. Maimonides’ main claim of relevance to this chapter is rather mystical: God has an “unfathomable otherness” (542) and the priority of the Jew should be on understanding God. As a result, Judaism becomes less about faith and more about practice.

Judaic practice is not just bound up in rituals, celebrations, meditation, prayer, and other religious acts, but necessarily involves the undertaking of a scientific understanding of the world. The devout seek out answers to questions of “what is”, “how”, and “why” as a way of knowing God, until the inquiry leads to an unanswerable question.

Frank argues (tentatively, it should be noted) that the philosophical theology of Judaism is guided by “practical, moral, and even political” considerations. The guiding ethos of the belief system is reason, as far as reason can take us before the “unfathomable otherness” of God becomes apparent and we discover our own limits. He ends: “Jewish philosophical theology muddies the grand dichotomy of theory and practice. Study is commanded for the sake of moral and social reform. And the law itself becomes most effective in a human life when obedience follows on considerations of its grounds” (553).

For several reasons, I love this kind of faith, the Jewish faith as presented by Maimonides and Frank. It recognizes science, and takes human nature not as something broken to be fixed but as something enlightening about not just our relationship with God, but the very way we can inquire, can know, can be. It recognizes limits and respects them. It is, in part, guided by what we are able to scientifically know but leaves space for the unknowable to be meaningful.

There was a passage that suggested Maimonides thought there were some “natural” parts of us that are inaccessible to reason, that “cannot be brought under the rule of reason” (551). This was not all that clear. I can’t tell if this is meant as an ontological claim or a practical claim — is part of our nature inherently opposed to, or separate from a framework as constructed by reason, or is that part of our nature simply inaccessible to our individual and collective reason (theoretically explained by or accessed by reason, but based on our limitations it cannot come under the sway of reason). If the latter, it seems like this is a good way of understanding the brain, or even something like the Theory of Everything.

Favorite quote:

Human beings need the law to achieve certain political as well as spiritual and intellectual ends. The law provides a teleological framework for the good life, but a good human life, one in accord with human nature.

Frank 551

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