124 - The Chosen Ones: Judaism and Philosophy

Posted on 14 April 2013

The roots of Jewish philosophy in the Islamic world, focusing on the Rabbinic background in the Mishnah and Talmud, and the thought of early figures like Isaac Israeli.

Further Reading

General works on medieval Jewish philosophy

• D.H. Frank and O. Leaman, History of Jewish Philosophy (London: 1997).

• D.H. Frank and O. Leaman, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: 2003).

• C. Sirat, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: 1985).

For the figures and texts discussed in this episode:

• Altmann, A., and Stern, S.M. 1958: Isaac Israeli: a Neoplatonic Philosopher of the Early Tenth Century Oxford: Oxford University Press.

• R. Goldenberg, The Origins of Judaism (Cambridge: 2007).

• W.Z. Harvey, “Rabbinic Attitudes Towards Philosophy,” in Open Thou Mine Eyes: Essays on Aaggadah and Judaica Presented to Rabbi William G. Braude on His 80th Birthday and Dedicated to His Memory, ed. H.J. Blumberg et al. (Hoboken: 1992), 83-101.

• S.T. Katz, The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol.4: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period (Cambridge: 2006).

• J. Neusner, Judaism as Philosophy: The Method and Message of the Mishnah (Columbia: 1991).

• S. Stroumsa, Dāwūd ibn Marwān al-Muqammiṣ’s Ishrūn Maqāla (Leiden: 1989).


Ollie Killingback 14 April 2013

How nice to be taken further into something I know a little bit about again. I admit that my shameful ignorance of the Islamic world has made the last couple of weeks more challenging than usual. I really enjoyed today's podcast.

Peter Adamson 14 April 2013

In reply to by Ollie Killingback

Oh good! Glad you enjoyed it. Hopefully the Islamic world stuff will begin to seem familiar after a while, there will be quite a lot of it!

Rhys W. Roark 14 April 2013


On the discussion of God’s bringing the world into being, around minutes 19:45 to c. 20:00.

This has been a subject of interest to me, what may be described as the difference between emanation vs. creation, esp. as divine creation can serve as metaphors for human artistic expression and formation (I am thinking of Milton C Nahm’s, The Artist as Creator: An Essay in Human Freedom [1956])

Emanation vs. creation: I tend to regard the former as non-intentional compared to the latter. Plotinus, if I recall, describes the former as a akin to a flowing fountain, the One’s spontaneous overflowing, and this contrasts to the willfulness of the Abrahamic God.

So I was intrigued by your description of Plotinus as understanding that God could necessarily give rise to everything but still freely as no outside force was making him do this.

I am still trying to wrap my head around this. Can I understand the latter part of this claim as a kind of negative definition of freedom? The One can’t will creation as such willful thinking imposes a subject-object dualism within him. The One’s act is, paradoxically, one of a non-choosing “spontaneous necessity” [?] free only insofar he is simply being left alone while the Abrahamic God chooses to manifest creation? Is the semantics there about right?

And does this mean for Plotinus, that there is no speculation of other possible worlds God could’ve made as found in, e.g., Christian speculation. No matter what the One does, it still produces this world?

(I’ve typically tended to see emanation as influencing more “unconscious” theories of artistic motivation: automatic writing and the like compared to the Abrahamic tradition of much more conscious arbitrary willfulness. Still trying to figure out how each notion of cosmic genesis fits in with the concept of purposefulness or telos as in the manner of Plato’s Craftsman and his artisanal way of proceding.)

And yes, I shall check out episode 88 on Plotinus and the One. Any other recommendations, book-wise?

Thanks again!


Dear Rhys,

Yes, that is pretty much what I wanted to say. The key text here in Plotinus is Enneads VI.8. There he gives something like what you call a "negative" understanding of freedom, though it's a very complicated text. But certainly he does not seem to think that the availability of multiple options is crucial for freedom -- either for the One or for nous (or even for us). In fact he frequently stresses that the higher principles do not need to "deliberate" in their causation, despite being providential. The idea here seems to be that if something arises from the nature of X, then that would in fact be a paradigm case of the causation being "up to" X (he uses other formulations too including hekousion, "voluntary"). So at least in Plotinus, and I suspect also in Israeli though we have much less to go on with him, the contrast between necessary emanation and free creation is a spurious dichotomy. This will be picked up by Avicenna, for instance, who more explicitly argues that _everything_ about God is necessary, yet still wants to see Him as good, generous, etc. rather than as some kind of unconscious or automatic cause.

I have a paper coming out in a collection on Neoplatonism which deals with all this, actually.

Best wishes,


Dear Peter,

I would love to see this paper when available. Not to mention the wider text. This sounds most helpful and illuminating.

On the contrast between necessary emanation and free creation as a spurious dichotomy, esp. as you've explained for Plotinus I could certainly see that. But I wonder for example how Medieval Scholastics might regard that? Given on the one hand God's necessary being and his complete voluntarism in creating, I suppose that might be a type of harmonization as you note with Plotinus.

But most Scholastics (Abelard being one exception, and so condemned) in their exposure to Aristotle sure do want to loudly declare that God cannot be hemmed in by any necessary thing that he must do--thus the increasing Divine arbitrariness, at least in thought experiments on his absolute power (and with some debate on the priority of God's will vs. his intellect on this).

I confess, it is that tradition of divine idiosyncracity that makes me lean more toward the universalism of Plato and Plotinus themselves (and distinct from Christianity), so I like the way you've noted the reconciliation.

(Also, thinking of JN Findlay's delightful and compelling "Why Christians should be Platonists," even if not strictly meant that Christians must--necessitarianism again--bail on Christianity).

Thanks again!


Yes, these are issues that will definitely occupy us when we get to Latin scholasticism. I think actually (and here is why this should be interesting even to people who don't have a philosophical interest in religion as such) that to solve this issue, one needs first to have worked out conceptions of modality (necessity, contingency) and of what free will means. Often the conceptions medieval thinkers develop on both fronts are designed to help them with this issue of divine freedom. Certainly if you think about the modern notion of possible worlds which goes back through Leibniz to Scotus and probably then to Avicenna, you are dealing with a conception of modality that is tailor-made to explain how God can freely choose the best world to create. That isn't likely to be a coincidence!


Daniel 16 April 2013

AS you mentioned the Talmud does contain philosophical discussions, although they are are not framed as such and do not use Greek philosophical which the Rabbis may have been familiar with, and do not try and present a coherent doctrine, but rather as is the nature of many Talmudic legal and non-legal discussions no binding resolution is presented. To give a fascinating illustration, Mark Steiner notes there is a debate in the Talmud (B. Avodah Zarah 48b) if one worships (prostrates himself before) a spring, are the waters of that spring made unfit to be offered as a libation? “Is it the water before him that he worshipped, which is no longer there, or is it the [entire] stream of water that he worshipped?”. He demonstrates that the question is not based on the idolater's intention, which can not be ascertained, but rather the philosophical issue whether or not the spring itself is an object which persists through time, and therefore could be the object of worship - a disagreement between Heraclitus and Parmenides(Rabbi Israel Salanter as a Jewish Philosopher in The Torah u-Madda Journal (9/2000) page 44). See also Eli Hirsch, “Identity in the Talmud,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 22: New Directions in Philosophy (Oxford, 1999), 166-80.

For that matter why start at the Talmud when the Bible itself contains plenty of philosophical positions, not just explicitly as in the later books of Job and Ecclesiastes, but even in Genesis? As noted by Shalom Carmy and David Shatz, there are contradictory positions taken in Biblical teachings in Genesis regarding the Euthyphro question can there be an independent morality of God's law. When Abraham asks God how he could allow evil in Genesis 18:25 he is judging God’s conduct by human moral standards; whereas in Genesis 21 he willingly follows God's command to sacrifice his son and does not complain it is not moral. (D.H. Frank and O. Leaman, History of Jewish Philosophy (London: 1997) Chapter 2)

What is unique though about Judaism is precisely the fact that it did not become a philosophical religion (on which see Carlos Fraenkel, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy, Cambridge: 2012) or develop a theology for millenium after its founding and for many cenutries after its exposure to philosophy during the Hellenistic era, unlike Christianity and Islam which developed a theology a hundred to two hundred years after their founding (see discussion in Dov Schwartz, Faith and Reason: Debates in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, Ministry of Defense, Israel, 2001, Chapter 1; Hebrew).

Thanks, that's all very interesting and helpful! I didn't know the Steiner piece, that sounds very much worth reading. More generally you may have noticed I tried to walk a fine line by saying that the Mishnah and Talmud are philosophically interesting but not necessary works of philosophy. The same goes for the Bible of course; and similar issues arise for Christianity and Islam. Some people nowadays want to describe Jesus as a philosopher, and one might infer that al-Farabi at least thought that Muhammad was a philosopher, in addition to being a prophet. In general though I thought it would be better not to deal with these Scriptural texts head on (that would be a topic for a podcast on religion) but refer to their effect on what we would less controversially recognize as the history of philosophy. It's hard to draw the lines though and I have tried to take a pretty broad approach, with the church fathers and Islamic kalam, and now with Judaism also.

Thanks again for the interesting post!


Arie Zychlinski 19 April 2013

hello - I reached your site while I was looking for some introduction to Neoplatonism. I am sure I found a gold mine and I will be using your site to learn more on philosophy ! as to the Neoplatonism - I study "Jewish Studies" and I am interested in the major ideas of the Neoplatonism that were later used in Jewish Philosophy and Chassidic thought and Kabbalah. I did not see a lecture in your site that talks about this = am I correct ? can you recommend a textbook for these issues ? I saw there is a book by Remes in Amazon. any comments on it ?

thank you very much !


Peter Adamson 19 April 2013

In reply to by Arie Zychlinski

Dear Arie,

I will actually have an episode about this later on, which will focus more on the Zohar and in general the late medieval mystical tradition, but I will probably look back a little bit to ancient Jewish mysticism. I will have suggestions for reading when that comes along... you'll have to be patient though because that will come only about 6 months from now or something! Actually I will need to read up on this myself so if anyone else has suggestions now, that would be welcome! Obviously there are the classic studies by Gerson Sholem. And here is an online bibliography I have discovered.



Arie Zychlinski 20 April 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter -

first, thank you for your reply. I will count the days !

second - you referred in your answer to the Kabalah and I am thinking also about the Chassidim's thought, like the concept that was developed by Chassidei Ashkenaz. so I will be glad if you would be able to include this in your discussion.

meanwhile, what is the recommended book, article, etc that I can find to understand the basics of Neoplatonism = the ideas that are relevant to the Jewish Thought (nad not a book just about Neoplatonism as a field by its own that will probably include much more than I need ... life is short ...)

thank you very much for the time !

Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah) by Raphael Jospe provides the basics of Neoplatonism and its relation to Medieval Jewish thought. The Hebrew version of the book is even more detailed which can be read online at the Open University website. Also look at the entires in the new Jewish Encylopedia. A more advanced set of studies is Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought edited by Lenn E. Goodman. For Hassidei Ashkenaz Joseph Dan has a lot of studies, as well as a multi volume set tracing the history of kaballah in Hebrew. Contact me at danielprice.kly@gmail.com for more help.

Ted Hand 9 June 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Read Moshe Idel's books, especially Kabbalah: New Perspectives, for an update to Scholem. His Absorbing Perfections, influenced by Harold Bloom, gets into connections with contemporary philosophy and literary theory (Elliot Wolfson is also good for contemporary philosophical perspectives) Joseph Dan's Introduction and Daniel Matt's Essential Kabbalah are great. Matt's Zohar is the new translation to read. Peter Schafer "The Hidden and Manifest God" for early jewish mysticism and a nice review of theoretical categories.

Very useful for an overview of scholarly approaches is Frederick E. Greenspahn (editor)-Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah_ New Insights and Scholarship.

Christian Kabbalah is more difficult to recommend books about, but there's a great bibliographical survey by Don Karr http://www.digital-brilliance.com/contributed/Karr/Biblios/index.php

Are you going to do Ibn Gabirol?

Hi there,

Great, thanks very much! That's really helpful since this is an area I don't know much about yet.

Yes, I will do Ibn Gabirol, in fact one episode on him plus an interview on Jewish Neoplatonism with an expert on his thought, Sarah Pessin. At least that's the plan, we haven't recorded it yet.



Yaser Mirdamadi 26 January 2014

Dear Peter.

Thanks a lot for your incisive and thought-provoking episodes. I wonder why you don't use a much more accurate title of "Islamicate", coined by Marshall Hodgson, instead of the stablished but inaccurate title "Islamic". Maimonides philosophy is Islamiacte but bu no means is Islamic, due to the obvious fact that it is Jewish.

Well, I sympathize with your broader point but unfortunately "Islamicate" isn't a word. I know that insiders/scholars sometimes do use it, but since it is not a term that a normal person would understand I would have to explain it every time I said it in the podcast ("Islamicate, meaning the world under Islamic political domination"). You'll note that I do not use the label "Islamic philosophy," but rather "philosophy in the Islamic world," for precisely the reason you mention. So in effect I am using the phrase "Islamic world" as a comprehensible version of "Islamicate".

To be honest though, I also don't ever use "Islamicate" in my research aimed at a more scholarly audience, either. Basically, I don't feel that one can just magically summon up words like that because we wish they existed to cover over an awkward problem of demarcation. Maybe I'd feel differently if it weren't such an ugly word though!

Michael Baldwin 24 May 2021

Do you or will you talk about any of the famous Rabbi commentators on the Tanakh like Rashi, ibn Ezra, David Kimhi? If not, do you know anything I can read on the philosophical views of those canonical commentators? I’m interested in whether those who were working most closely with the Scriptural texts were more or less open to classical theism along the lines of a Jewish Platonism, Aristotelianism or neo-Platonism. Many in the contemporary biblical studies guild want to play off the perfect being of Hellenistic philosophies versus the personalistic YHWH of the Hebrew Bible, and I’d love to see whether Jewish exegetes in history ever or often made this move. 

Btw, Peter, thanks again so much for your wonderful work on this podcast! I’m really enjoying going through your material on philosophy in the Islamic world atm. 

Jordan 30 November 2021

I'm so glad to see the Rabbinic works mentioned here! I thought this would be mentioned before Christianity and I didn't see them on the timelines when I looked. I could have sworn that some of the works of the oral Torah predated Christianity (with dates attached, not just the internal claim that they represent an ancient tradition), but Google isn't showing that as correct... I wonder what I was thinking of. 

Peter Adamson 1 December 2021

In reply to by Jordan

The written works are indeed from late antiquity, so not before the time of Christ. Obviously the idea is that these preserve an oral tradition that goes back to the time of Moses, though. Anyway glad you were pleased to find them here! Jewish philosophy and culture come up all across the podcast actually, for instance there is an episode in the Italian Renaissance series on Jewish thinkers in Italy.

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