One of the most famous works of Jewish philosophy from the Middle Ages is arguably Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. The Guide has been translated into many languages and has been a popular read among theologians and philosophers around the globe.

On Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies invited Dr. Mark Steiner of Hebrew University of Jerusalem to discuss the true impact of Maimonides’ Guide on the work of the renowned Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

Dr. Mark Steiner discussing Maimonides’ influence on philosopher David Hume

Dr. Steiner, who has authored multiple books relating to mathematics and philosophy, began the lecture exploring Maimonides’ opposition to the Mutakallimun, believers of a stream of Jewish and Islamic theology that attacked science in the service of religion.

At the beginning of his Shemoneh Perakim [Eight Chapters] and the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that the Mutakallimun based their beliefs on what Dr. Steiner calls Axiom I: “Something is possible if, and only if, it is imaginable.” In other words, they determined what is possible not from reason but from imagination. Maimonides then went on to explain how science disproves Axiom I by demonstrating that something can be possible without it being imaginable.

Dr. Steiner pointed out that Dr. Michael Schwarz, scholar of medieval Islamic texts, found no expression of Axiom I in any texts of the Mutakallimun. By Maimonides’ lifetime, there had been no members of the Mutakallimun for over 100 years. Dr. Schwarz suggested that Maimonides reconstructed what the Mutakallimun should have believed, not what they actually believed, in order to distill their philosophy into clearer arguments that he subsequently refutes.

The only other place where Axiom I can be found in all philosophy is in the Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, an 18th-century empiricist. Hume’s statement of “nothing we can imagine is absolutely impossible” is alien to both his rationalist predecessors and his empiricist colleagues, and as none of the Mutakallimun actually expressed their beliefs in such a way, it is plausible to suggest that Hume read one of the many translated copies of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Steiner admitted that more investigation is necessary to determine if Hume had access to the Guide, but he believed there is enough evidence to suggest he did.

Though the Guide was not found in Hume’s personal library, it may be in the library Hume used while writing the Treatise. Steiner added that Hume knew of Maimonides since he read and quoted Pierre Boyle’s famous dictionary, which praises Maimonides.

For those well-read in philosophy, Dr. Steiner’s lecture piqued curiosity and shed light on the transmission of philosophical concepts throughout the ages. Only time will tell what other philosophical mysteries Dr. Steiner will uncover.

 

Rabbi Becher in Korea

This past summer two PhD candidates at Bernard Revel Graduate School coordinated a lecture in Seoul for Korean educators and graduate students interested in Jewish studies. The lecture was initiated by Jeong Mun Heo, a current doctoral candidate in Jewish Philosophy at Revel and a native of South Korea.  With the diverse background of computer science, mathematics, and Christian theology, one of Jeong’s current interests is Jewish learning methodologies, such as the chavruta system, where partners study together. Since the Korean educational system has a significant focus on rote memory, Jeong wanted to share the more interactive chavruta system with his Korean colleagues. Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a fellow doctoral student at Revel whose dissertation focuses on the historical development of laws of prayer, agreed to deliver the lecture. Rabbi Becher, currently senior lecturer at Gateways Organization and instructor at Yeshiva University, has a rich and varied resume of Jewish education and outreach, and was also passing through South Korea as scholar in residence for a Jewish tour there this summer. On August 13, 2019, seven Korean educators and graduate students attended and enjoyed Rabbi Becher’s lecture about the educational philosophy and history of chavruta learning. Rabbi Becher remarked, “It was a wonderful opportunity for some cultural exchange, and to explain some key aspects of Judaism to an educated group who had very little access to traditional Jewish thought.”

 

Jackie, Moriah, Rebbetzin Smadar, Avigayil, and Rav Michael Rosensweig (from L – R)

Many institutions pride themselves on being not just a school but a family, a colloquial reference to the camaraderie and mutual support of their students and staff.

But the Bernard Revel Graduate School can profile an actual family of students studying together.

Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, renowned Talmudic scholar and Rosh Kollel of the Beren Kollel Elyon at Yeshiva University, holds the Nathan and Perel Schupf Chair in Talmud at RIETS. Rav Rosensweig, as he is respectfully called, also completed an MA and PhD in Medieval Jewish History at Revel. His doctoral thesis, “Debt collection in absentia : Halakhah in a mobile and commercial age,” was completed under the direction of Dr. Haym Soloveitchik.

Now, many of Rav Rosensweig’s children are pursuing degrees at Revel. Moriah Rosensweig Weiss, 31, completed her MA and is pursuing a PhD in Medieval Jewish History focused on the intellectual history of the Rishonim and the interface between Ashkenaz and Sefarad. She currently teaches as an adjunct Bible instructor at Stern College for Women, where her mother, Mrs. Smadar Rosensweig, serves as Clinical Assistant Professor of Bible. For Moriah, Revel was the best place to develop her interest in Jewish intellectual history and “to study the time period of the Rishonim..[and]..analyze their works of biblical and Talmudic exegesis.” Moriah is inspired by her parents’ dedication to teaching Torah and enjoys “discuss[ing] the ideas and sources” from Revel classes with her siblings.

Itamar Rosensweig, 30, also completed his MA in Medieval Jewish History at Revel and is now pursuing his PhD at the graduate school. He serves as scholar in residence at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah and gives a weekly shiur at RIETS. Avigdor (28) and Avigail (23) Rosensweig each completed their MA in Medieval Jewish Studies this year, and Avigail will be continuing in the Revel PhD program this fall.

Jackie Fast, 33, married to Ariel Rosensweig, is completing her PhD in Modern Jewish History at Revel. Jackie is writing about the social history of the Bais Yaakov movement in the inter-war period. Reflecting on her time at Revel, Jackie highlights “the caliber of its professors as scholars, teachers, and mentors, the religious environment, the impressive cadre of peers.” She also feels that  “being in a family with many current students… is wonderfully supportive.”

The broader Revel family is proud to have so many members of the Rosensweig family in its midst.

 

 

 

Jonathan GrossmanYeshiva University Press and Maggid/Koren Publishers recently announced the publication of Creation: The Story of Beginnings by internationally-renowned biblical scholar Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Grossman, an associate professor in the department of Bible at Bar-Ilan University.

In the book, Dr. Grossman uncovers new meaning in the first eleven chapters of Genesis through a creative analysis that interweaves theology, psychology and philosophy with contemporary literary tools.

Creation book coverIn the book’s foreword, Dr. Mordechai Cohen, associate dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, praises the book as representing the best of modern Jewish scholarship, with literary-theological analysis that exemplifies what Rashi referred to as “the peshat [simple meaning] interpretations that newly emerge every day.”

Dr. Grossman’s book is a meaningful exploration that will have deep resonance for any curious reader interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Genesis.

 

Dr. Roger Ames of Peking University Unfolds the Complexities of Confucian Thought

by Michael Bettencourt for YUNews

Roger Ames (left) and Mordechai Cohen

Dr. Roger Ames (left) and Dr. Mordechai Cohen

The Chinese-Jewish Conversation” took an interesting turn on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, at an event held at the Israel Henry Beren Campus sponsored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, the Katz School of Science and Health and the Provost’s Colloquium Initiative.

Dr. Roger Ames, a leading scholar of Confucian philosophy and the interpretations of classical texts from Peking University in China, delivered an invigorating lecture to over 100 attendees on Confucian role ethics and the multiple ways they differ from the worldview encompassed by Jewish and Christian theologies and Western philosophical principles.

In introducing Dr. Ames, Dr. Mordechai Cohen, professor of Bible, associate dean Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies and divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies, noted Yeshiva University’s longstanding tradition of “engaging the world around us through the rubric of Torah U-Madda [Jewish and general learning]” and emphasized the importance of “exploring the Chinese and Jewish traditions comparatively” as global networks and connections abound and the number of Chinese students at Yeshiva University expands.

Shun Shang Guan

Shun Shang Guan

Representing Yeshiva’s Chinese student union, Shun Shang Guan from Wuhan in China spoke of her experiences at the Katz School of Science and Health, where she is studying quantitative economics after having earned a bachelor‘s degree in statistics from Zhong Nan University of Economics and Law in China. She expressed gratitude for “the opportunity to study at Yeshiva University, America’s famous Jewish university,” where she is able to “engage in the educational benefits and social learning common to Jewish culture and pursue the American experience.”

In “A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism,” Dr. Ames began by stripping away the Christian overlay that generations of missionaries had used to make the writings of Confucius feel familiar to a religious audience that believed in a single divinity located in a place called heaven and who exercised control over the fates of human beings.

The reason for deleting this veneer, said Dr. Ames, is so that we can come to the texts in all their strangeness and originality and understand them in their Confucian context.

For example, one major difference between the Christian and Confucian views of life concerns the idea of a deity: “A capital H ‘Heaven’ gives us a concept of God where, in the Chinese tradition, there is no notion of a transcendent God, which is a different way of being religious that is not familiar to us.”

Another example concerns the idea of “the way,” which in Chinese is dao. The Christian notion of this comes from John 14:6: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” In Christian religiousness, the path to salvation is already laid out, and the individual is obliged to follow that path to its expected end.

Roger Ames speaking and gesturing“However, this is not Confucianism,” said Dr. Ames. In the Chinese tradition, “‘the way’ is not His way; ‘the way’ is the human way together. The human being extends the way, it’s not the way that extends the human being: dao is made in the walking, something in which the human being has to participate in extending for his or her own time and place.”

“Family” is one area where Western and Chinese traditions do overlap, but a major difference concerns the relationship between the family and the authority that establishes social order and governance. For Westerners, authority is grounded in laws derived from religious and secular principles external to the family, and the family follows these laws in carrying out the work of civilization.

For the Chinese, the social authority for achieving harmony through governance derives directly from family relations, from both the “cultural body” of the family, the repository of the values transmitted forward generation by generation—what Dr. Ames called “embodiment”—and the family’s physical bodies, whose interrelationships keep the cultural body whole and intact.

“Using family as the governing metaphor,” said Dr. Ames, “is really quite productive because it leads us, as one philosopher noted, to want to ‘family’ the world as the way to bring peace to our lives.”

“When we think of the concept of ‘person’ in this tradition,” continued Dr. Ames, “it’s holistic: the whole cosmos is in any one person, and we need the whole of the cosmos to explain one person. A human being is not a human being but a human ‘becoming’: a human is something that we do, a human is a process. The individuality of a person is not a starting point but an achievement, accomplished by virtue of the relationships cultivated with other people.”

Using linguistic terms, “Aristotle gave us a world of things, noun-centered. In the Chinese world, the idea of the gerund, that is to say, ‘human becoming,’ is fundamental. A human being is an event in history, a narrative. A human being is not something you can isolate and know; you have to know the narrative of where she comes from.”

Two women in the audience of the lecture by Dr. Roger AmesUnderstanding these texts on their own terms, then, leads to concepts about human individuality and the purpose of life that are quite different from those put forth through Judaism, Christianity and Western philosophy. Confucianism proposes an “atheistic religiousness, a family-centered religiousness, and you need a Chinese vocabulary to express it. We have to let this Confucian tradition have its own voice in order to appreciate the contribution it has to make to the modern world.”

What is that contribution? For Dr. Ames, the world in which we live is too often focused on winners and losers, on playing what he called “finite games.” The challenges presented by climate change are one example of humans playing finite games regarding resources and dominance.

To move toward playing “infinite games,” which are generative in nature and call for a continuous interplay of renewable resources, we need different concepts about what makes humans human and what constitutes a viable world order.

“Infinite games, which are the alternative to individualism, to winners and losers, is grounded in a relationally constituted gerundive concept of person,” he observed, “in achieving personal identity through embodiment, through living your roles and relationships. It’s not only through rationality that you find your way forward; we also need our feelings, we need our bodies, we need imagination, the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s position and figure out the best way to grow this relationship.”

Dr. Henry Huang

Dr. Henry Huang

The increasing number of Chinese attendees at events sponsored by the Chinese-Jewish Conversation at YU indicates that the time has come for this vision. Quite a number of Chinese attendees—alumni of Beijing University—were invited by Dr. Henry Huang, associate professor of accounting at the Sy Syms School of Business. Dr. Huang, who is also president of the Beijing University Alumni Association of Greater New York, encapsulated the rationale for the conversation: “Jewish and Chinese cultures share common core values like family and education, and there is no better place than YU to host such a dialogue to bring the two communities closer.”

For more Revel events, go to https://www.yu.edu/revel/events-calendar.

Group shot with Dr. Cohen and Dr. Ames

Dr. Mordechai Cohen, Ms. Shun Shang Guan and Dr. Roger Ames with students from the Katz School of Science and Health and Stern College for Women