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Review of Jacobs, Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Sadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Moses Maimonides

January 14th, 2013

Review of Jonathan Jacobs, Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy: Sadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Moses Maimonides. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 256 pp.  $99.00

By Ute Steyer
utsteyer@jtsa.edu

Jacobs sets out on an ambitious project: to motivate a broader audience to pay attention to medieval Jewish philosophy and to demonstrate that medieval thought has relevance to contemporary moral philosophy. With the help of the “big three” of medieval Jewish philosophy, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and Bahya ibn Pakuda, Jacobs wants to demonstrate that meta-ethical and ethical thought is enriched, rather than inhibited, by rootedness in a theological universe. There is undoubtedly a strong rationalist stream within Jewish philosophy and Jacobs picked the three most prominent proponents of that stream, a choice that doesn’t undermine his claim. This choice does, nevertheless, somewhat limit his goal of making medieval Jewish philosophy more interesting to the wider audience, since these three continue to be the most well-known and influential thinkers. This choice does make sense, however, for his second goal, namely, showing the relevance of medieval thought for contemporary moral philosophy and demonstrating how a “religious” philosopher’s moral philosophy can actually be enriched, not limited, by his faith. Many books have been written attempting to reconcile reason and religion, including those by the above mentioned three Jewish thinkers, but none of them really does justice to their declared goal.

Jacobs is aware of the potential tendentiousness of his effort to harmonize reason and religion and proceeds very carefully. He often invokes moral psychology to establish that both faith and reason attempt to define that which is “good”, “true”, and “real,” and that both have human perfection as its goal. In rational thought this perfection lies in the highest possible comprehension of the intelligible order, while in Jewish religious thought it lies in imitatio dei, the imitation of the divine. Faith and reason can then be understood as different yet complementary ways toward achieving a common goal. The author’s background in moral philosophy as well as in moral psychology is evident throughout the work and allows for many interesting insights and parallels that he can draw between the different fields. He moves back and forth between the different fields with ease while remaining sensitive to classic philosophy, scholasticism and Jewish thought.

He starts by outlining the connections and parallels between basic tenets of Jewish religious thought and classical rational philosophical thought, and structures the book in seven chapters. In chapter one the author attempts to show connections between Greek classical thought and Jewish thought (what he calls “Athens” and “Jerusalem”) and how reason and religion might share a common objective. One of the questions he asks is whether Jewish moral thought is a version of theorizing about practical wisdom and natural law. He moves in the subsequent chapters to explore specific areas that are intimately connected with the essential questions of morality and how they are answered by religion and reason, such as freedom of will and the nature and importance of repentance. Jacobs very skillfully shows not only the parallels between Greek and Jewish thought but also where they differ in their views on specific issues. For example, he notes that gratitude and shame exist in Greek thought in the social and political sphere alone but play a tremendously important (and positive) role in Jewish thought as a cornerstone and basis of the relations between God and humans. In Greek thought, a person can free himself from shame by achieving excellence, an impossibility in Jewish moral thought, where, on the contrary, the most righteous person is the one whose awareness of his unlimited gratitude towards God instills in him a sense of humility and shame.

The last chapters are dedicated to outlining the contrasts between Jewish medieval moral thought and two approaches of moral theory: practical wisdom theory and natural law theory. He argues that despite some overlaps, Jewish thought contains its own distinctive insights and should not just be seen as a version of these two. For instance, he shows nicely the differences between Jewish thought and Aristotelian practical wisdom: the former is rooted in a concept of imparting holiness to life, with associated dimensions of gratitude and devotion, while the latter is not.  Jacobs is careful not to overstate this difference: Habituation is the goal of Aristotelian wisdom and, although experience-based, it too is reinforced and preserved by law—although not part of an integrated view of a universe ruled by God and an expression of a divine-human relationship, as in Jewish thought. This aspect of Jewish thought finds its expression, as Jacobs elaborates, in the concept of lifnim mishurat hadin, supererogatory acts that are not clearly distinguished in the rabbinic writings from legal requirements but that reflect the overall Jewish view on the Law as both a set of legally enforceable requirements as well as a way of achieving holiness and coming closer to God.

Jacobs dedicates a whole chapter to the historical and conceptual background of natural law and Judaism and very skillfully interweaves views on natural law by the Stoics, Aristotle, Aquinas and its subsequent entry into Jewish thought. He presents both sides in the question of whether natural law is evident in Jewish moral thought or not and also how and where it differs from the Christian application of the concept. Jacobs concludes that although there are significant points of overlap between natural law theory and Jewish moral thought, the objectivity and universality of the latter cannot be rooted in the former.

I was surprised by the almost complete absence of any reference to contemporary Israeli scholarship on the subject. In addition, I believe that a look at some more recent legal philosophers in particular (with the exception of David Novak, whom Jacobs refers to frequently in the sections dealing with natural law and Judaism, most of the other cited works are a bit dated, ranging from the 1970s to the 1990s) would have made this book even more relevant. Those quibbles aside, I very much enjoyed reading this book and will surely return to it to reread passages.

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