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  • Is There a Jewish Philosophy? Rethinking Fundamentals
  • Kenneth Seeskin
Is There a Jewish Philosophy? Rethinking Fundamentals, by Leon Roth. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999. 199 pp. $21.95. ISBN 1-874774-55-2.

This book is a collection of 12 public lectures and previously published articles on Jewish philosophy written by the late Leon Roth. For those unfamiliar with Roth, he was the first professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he taught from 1928 to 1951. The selections in this book deal with classic questions like the aims of Jewish philosophy, the principle of imitatio Dei, the interpretation of Scripture, the authority of the law, and mysticism. The historical figures who receive the most attention are Maimonides, Spinoza, and Ahad Ha’am.

The first thing one notices in picking up Is There a Jewish Philosophy? is the deep humanity of the author. Roth was a traditional Jew who studied philosophy and wrote with grace and wit. Unlike others who have written on these subjects, he does not get lost in a flurry of technical terms or engage in petty disputes with other scholars. Although opinionated, he is never harsh or dogmatic. The inescapable conclusion is that for Roth philosophy was not just a profession but a way of life. This way of life was tested in 1951, when he resigned from the Hebrew University and left Israel to protest policies he regarded as immoral. [End Page 180]

Overall Roth takes a rationalist approach to his subject. For him Judaism’s greatest contribution to world culture is its commitment to ethical monotheism, a doctrine founded on the existence of a transcendent God separate from the world. It is opposed to myth in all shapes and forms “however popular it may have been and however much it endeared itself to the masses.” Not surprisingly he is no lover of Kabbalah, a teaching he regards as (p. 13) “nothing but a resuscitation, through devious and so far untraced channels, of Gnostic mythology.”

On the issue of interpretation, Roth is well aware that some biblical and rabbinic texts appear to compromise the ethical standards to which Judaism is committed. And he is also aware of attempts by philologists to turn biblical hermeneutics into a science that prides itself on being value free. But he still insists that the only true interpretation is that which is guided by the ethical commitments on which the religion is founded. In a telling passage, he concludes (p. 92): “We can now see what interpretation ultimately is and wherein its significance lies. It is—ultimately—the determining of an ideal of life, the establishing of preference among possible ends. It is the ordering of types of action in an ascending and descending scale of better and worse, an ordering which shapes the kind of life we choose to live.”

This is most clear when Roth gets to the issue of what we can know about God and how we are supposed to fulfill the commandment to imitate God’s holiness. “God’s greatness,” he writes (p. 142), “does not lie in the exercise of physical power.” From this it follows that human greatness does not lie in the exercise of physical power either and therefore “[s]oldiers are not the ideal man.” Of course there are passages where God is described in terms that do suggest military prowess, but, counters Roth, “I am not aware of any passage in which we are urged to follow God in his military capacity.”

If there is a fault with Is There a Jewish Philosophy? it is the high level of generality with which it operates. No doubt Roth’s essays were intended for a general audience; but often it is hard to read him without wanting more substance. His definition of Jewish philosophy as (p. 8) “the thinking and rethinking of the fundamen tal ideas involved in Judaism and the attempt to see them fundamentally, that is, in coherent relation one with another so that they form one intelligible whole” is platitudinous. By the same token, his observation (p. 19) that holiness is essentially a negative concept, though highly suggestive, is never fully developed...

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