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The Last German-Jewish Philosopher: Notes Toward an Intellectual Biography of Amos Funkenstein
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The Last German-Jewish Philosopher:
Notes Toward an Intellectual Biography of Amos Funkenstein

When Amos Funkenstein was a teenager, he assembled his schoolmates in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s famous religious school, Maale, and declared that there is no God. Called on the carpet by the school principal, he refused to repent, thus beginning a lifelong career of épater les religieux. Like Spinoza, whose philosophy played a central role in his work, Amos was a true epikores, a heretic from within his tradition. The term epikores, self-evidently derived from “Epicurean” in the Greek, originally signified in the rabbinic idiom a Jew who, like the Epicurean philosophers, did not believe that the gods intervened in the affairs of this world. On one level, this was certainly Amos’s position. But in popular parlance, the epikores signifies much more broadly the rebel against Orthodox Jewish belief and practice whose rebellion is thoroughly grounded in the classical sources themselves. It is in this latter sense that one thinks of Amos, the heretic who knew the Jewish tradition better than most who call themselves Orthodox.

Like Spinoza, however, Amos was not content to deny the existence of God. Instead, it is fair to say that he spent the next 46 years of his life, up to the moment of his death in November 1995, trying to understand this very Being whose existence he doubted, trying to write God’s biography. This was a task he did by indirection: by engaging the most profound thinkers in the Western tradition, pagan, Jewish and Christian, from the Greeks and the Hebrew Bible through the rabbis and church fathers, medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics, Christian scholastics, and up [End Page 1] to the creators of modern science and philosophy. No stone could be left unturned, no thinker, either close to home or alien, could be ignored in this quest. If religious thought was close to the task, then science and mathematics were equally to be pressed into service. In the final analysis, only by understanding Amos’s intellectual life as an unceasing search for ultimate Being is it possible to bring together all of its seemingly disparate parts: Jewish history, scholastic philosophy, and history of science, to name only the three most prominent. How else can we grasp a mind equally obsessed with biblical exegesis and twentieth-century mathematical logic, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason?

In these few pages, I wish to call attention to some of Amos’s major intellectual contributions as well as to some features of his method. As I have already suggested, I believe that the power of his work stems from the congruence of profound intellectual curiosity with questions of deep existential urgency. Yet its power also derived from his ability to hold the personal in abeyance and to speak through the sources he studied. In the introduction to Theology and the Scientific Imagination (1986), he described the emergence of secular theology in the seventeenth century, defined as the collapse of professional scholastic theology and its appropriation by lay thinkers. The study of this world became, as he says, “its own religious value in that, if well done, it increases God’s honor.” For the secular thinkers of the seventeenth century—and, dare we say, for Amos himself—to take on the questions of medieval theology and turn them toward this world became, paradoxically, a new form of worshipping God. It is in just such surprising and radical inversions that Amos’s work is at its most original.

The architecture of Theology suggests the philosophy of history with which he operated. The book is divided according to the scholastic attributes of God: omnipresence, omnipotence, providence, and divine knowledge. In each chapter, he seeks to show how the categories of scholasticism fed the discourse of the revolution against scholasticism. In the chapter on divine providence, for instance, he demonstrates how the medieval argument that God spoke the language of human beings—a doctrine he calls the principle of accommodation—was secularized and radicalized in Spinoza’s biblical exegesis. The process of appropriation was not usually this direct, however. Many of the connections that he...