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Jewish Thought: Modern Thought

Last Updated: Jan 10, 2023 11:50 AM

Modern Thought

With expulsion from Spain came the dissemination of Jewish philosophical investigation throughout the Mediterranean Basin, Northern Europe and the Western Hemisphere. The center-of-mass of Rationalism shifted to France, Italy, Germany, Crete, Sicily and the Netherlands. Expulsion from Spain and the coordinated pogroms of Europe resulted in the cross-pollination of variations on Rationalism incubated within diverse communities. This period is also marked by the intellectual exchange among leaders of the Christian Reformation and Jewish scholars. Of particular note is the line of Rationalists who migrated out of Germany, and present-day Italy into Crete, and other areas of the Ottoman Empire seeking safety and protection from the endless pogroms fomented by the House of Habsburg and the Roman Catholic Church against Jews. Some of the Monarchies of Asia Minor and European welcomed expelled Jewish Merchants, scholars and theologians. Divergent Jewish philosophies evolved against the backdrop of new cultures, new languages and renewed theological exchange. Philosophic exploration continued through the Renaissance period as the center-of-mass of Jewish Scholarship shifted to France, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.Rationalism was incubating in places far from Spain. From stories told by Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm, German-speaking Jews, descendants of Jews who migrated back to Jerusalem after Charlemagne's invitation was revoked in Germany many centuries earlier, who lived in Jerusalem during the 11th century, were influenced by prevailing Mutazilite scholars of Jerusalem. A German-speaking Palestinian Jew saved the life of a young German man surnamed "Dolberger". When the knights of the First Crusade came to besiege Jerusalem, one of Dolberger's family members rescued German-speaking Jews in Palestine and brought them back to the safety of Worms, Germany, to repay the favor. Further evidence of German communities in the holy city comes in the form of halachic questions sent from Germany to Jerusalem during the second half of the eleventh century. All of the foregoing resulted in an explosion of new ideas and philosophic paths.A new era began in the 18th century with the thought of Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn has been described as the "'third Moses,' with whom begins a new era in Judaism," just as new eras began with Moses the prophet and with Moses Maimonides. Mendelssohn was a German Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the renaissance of European Jews, Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) is indebted. He has been referred to as the father of Reform Judaism, although Reform spokesmen have been "resistant to claim him as their spiritual father". Mendelssohn came to be regarded as a leading cultural figure of his time by both Germans and Jews. His most significant book was Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (Jerusalem), first published in 1783. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Image of a monument of Baruch Spinoza from the Nederlands

Baruch Spinoza was a philosopher of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish origin, born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was one of the foremost exponents of 17th-century Rationalism and one of the early and seminal thinkers of the Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. Inspired by Stoicism, Jewish Rationalism, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and a variety of heterodox religious thinkers of his day, Spinoza became a leading philosophical figure of the Dutch Golden Age. In his works in Latin, he used the name "Benedictus de Spinoza". Spinoza was raised in the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam. He developed highly controversial ideas regarding the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible and the nature of the Divine. Jewish religious authorities issued a herem against him, causing him to be effectively expelled and shunned by the Jewish society at age 23, including by his own family. He was frequently called an "atheist" by contemporaries, although nowhere in his work does Spinoza argue against the existence of God. Spinoza lived an outwardly simple life as an optical lens grinder, collaborating on microscope and telescope lens designs with Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens. In June 1678, the States of Holland banned his entire works, since they "contain very many profane, blasphemous and atheistic propositions." The prohibition included the owning, reading, distribution, copying, and restating of Spinoza's books, and even the reworking of his fundamental ideas. Shortly after (1679/1690) his books were added to the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books.Spinoza's philosophy is largely contained in two books: the Theologico-Political Treatise, and the Ethics. Spinoza's philosophy has been associated with that of Leibniz and René Descartes as part of the rationalist school of thought, which includes the assumption that ideas correspond to reality perfectly, in the same way that mathematics is supposed to be an exact representation of the world. The writings of René Descartes have been described as "Spinoza's starting point". Spinoza's first publication was his 1663 geometric exposition of proofs using Euclid's model with definitions and axioms of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy. Following Descartes, Spinoza aimed to understand truth through logical deductions from 'clear and distinct ideas', a process which always begins from the 'self-evident truths' of axioms. Spinoza's metaphysics consists of one thing, substance, and its modifications (modes). Early in the Ethics Spinoza argues that there is only one substance, which is absolutely infinite, self-caused, and eternal. He calls this substance "God", or "Nature". In fact, he takes these two terms to be synonymous (in the Latin the phrase he uses is "Deus sive Natura"). For Spinoza the whole of the natural universe is made of one substance, God or Nature, and its modifications (modes). When the public reactions to the anonymously published Theologico-Political Treatise were extremely unfavorable to his brand of Cartesianism, Spinoza was compelled to abstain from publishing more of his works. Wary and independent, he wore a signet ring which he used to mark his letters and which was engraved with the word caute (Latin for "cautiously") underneath a rose, itself a symbol of secrecy. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Monument of Baruch Spinoza from the Nederlands. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Frédéric Hexamer. License: public domain.

Baruch Spinoza (1632– 677 CE)

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was a prominent Italian Jewish rabbi, kabbalist, and philosopher. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was born in 1707 in the Jewish ghetto of Padua, Republic of Venice. He received a classical Jewish and Italian education, showing a predilection for literature at a very early age. He may have attended the University of Padua and certainly associated with a group of students there, known to dabble in mysticism and alchemy. With his vast knowledge of religious lore, the arts, and science, he quickly became the dominant figure in that group. His writings demonstrate mastery of the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the rabbinical commentaries and codes of Jewish law. The turning point in Luzzatto's life came at the age of twenty when he claimed to have received direct instruction from an angel (known as a maggid). While stories of such encounters with celestial entities were not unknown in kabbalistic circles, it was unheard of for someone of such a young age. His peers were enthralled by his written accounts of these "Divine lessons", but the leading Italian rabbinical authorities were highly suspicious and threatened to excommunicate him. After threats of excommunication and many arguments, Luzzatto finally came to an agreement with the leading Italian rabbis, including his decision not to write the maggid's lessons or teach mysticism; he handed over all his writings to his mentor Yeshayahu Basan.  In 1735, Luzzatto left Italy for Amsterdam, believing that the more liberal environment would allow him to pursue his mystical interests. Frustrated by his inability to teach Kabbalah, Luzzatto left Amsterdam for the Holy Land in 1743, settling in Acre. Three years later, he and his family died from a plague. Luzzato's original synagogue in Acre was razed by the city's Bedouin ruler, Zahir al-Umar, in 1758, who built a mosque on top of it. In its place, the Jews of Acre received a small building north of the mosque which still functions as a synagogue and bears Luzzato's name. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Below: Wall painting of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (aka Ramhal), at the wall of Akko's Auditorium, Israel. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Yuval Y. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Image of a Wall painting of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (aka Ramhal), at the wall of Akko's Auditorium, Israel

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 - 1746 CE)

Image of Moses Mendelssohn displayed in the Jewish Museum at Berlin

Moses Mendelssohn was a Jewish philosopher and theologian from Germany. His writings and ideas on Jews and the Jewish religion and identity were a central element in the development of the Haskalah or “Jewish Enlightenment” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Born to a poor Jewish family in Dessau, Principality of Anhalt, and originally destined for a rabbinical career, Mendelssohn educated himself in German thought and literature. Through his writings on philosophy and religion, he came to be regarded as a leading cultural figure of his time by both Christian and Jewish inhabitants of German-speaking Europe and beyond. It was after the breakdown of his health that Mendelssohn decided to "dedicate the remains of my strength for the benefit of my children or a goodly portion of my nation"; which he did by trying to bring the Jews closer to "culture, from which my nation, alas! is kept in such a distance, that one might well despair of ever overcoming it". One of the means of doing this was by "giving them a better translation of the holy books than they previously had". To this end, Mendelssohn undertook his German translation of the Pentateuch and other parts of the Bible. Mendelssohn also tried to better the Jews' situation in general by furthering their rights and acceptance. He induced Christian Wilhelm von Dohm to publish his work, On the Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews, which played a significant part in the rise of tolerance. The interest caused by these actions led Mendelssohn to publish his most important contribution to the problems connected with the position of Judaism in a Gentile world: titled Jerusalem, it was a forcible plea for freedom of conscience, which was described by Kant as "an irrefutable book". The book's basic thrust is that the state has no right to interfere with the religion of its citizens, Jews included. While it proclaims the mandatory character of Jewish law for all Jews (including, based on Mendelssohn's understanding of the New Testament, those converted to Christianity), it does not grant the rabbinate the right to punish Jews for deviating from it. He maintained that Judaism was less a "divine need, than a revealed life". Jerusalem concludes with the cry "Love truth, love peace!"—in a quote from Zacharias 8:19. Kant called this "the proclamation of a great reform, which, however, will be slow in manifestation and in progress, and which will affect not only your people but others as well." Mendelssohn asserted the pragmatic principle of the possible plurality of truths: that just as various nations need different constitutions—to one a monarchy, to another a republic, may be the most congenial to the national genius—so individuals may need different religions. The test of religion is its effect on conduct. This is the moral of Lessing's Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), the hero of which is undoubtedly Mendelssohn, and in which the parable of the three rings is the epitome of the pragmatic position. To Mendelssohn his theory represented a strengthening bond to Judaism. But in the first part of the 19th century, the criticism of Jewish dogmas and traditions was associated with a firm adhesion to the older Jewish mode of living. Reason was applied to beliefs, the historic consciousness to life. Modern reform in Judaism has parted to some extent from this conception. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A picture of Moses Mendelssohn displayed in the Jewish Museum, Berlin. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: James Steakley. License: public domain

Moses Mendelssohn (1729 - 1786 CE)

Karl Heinrich Marx was a philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist, critic of political economy, and socialist revolutionary. His best-known titles are the 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto and the four-volume Das Kapital. Marx's political and philosophical thought had an enormous influence on subsequent intellectual, economic, and political history. His name has been used as an adjective, a noun, and a school of social theory. Born in Trier, Germany, Marx studied law and philosophy at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. Due to his political publications, Marx became stateless and lived in exile with his wife and children in London for decades, where he continued to develop his thought in collaboration with German philosopher Friedrich Engels and publish his writings, researching in the British Museum Reading Room. Marx's critical theories about society, economics, and politics, collectively understood as Marxism, hold that human societies develop through class conflict. In the capitalist mode of production, this manifests itself in the conflict between the ruling classes (known as the bourgeoisie) that control the means of production and the working classes (known as the proletariat) that enable these means by selling their labor-power in return for wages. Employing a critical approach known as historical materialism, Marx predicted that capitalism produced internal tensions like previous socioeconomic systems and that these tensions would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system known as the socialist mode of production. Marx actively pressed for its implementation, arguing that the working class should carry out organized proletarian revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic emancipation. Marx has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and his work has been both lauded and criticized. His work in economics laid the basis for some current theories about labor and its relation to capital. Marx is typically cited as one of the principal architects of modern social science. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Right: Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German politician. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: photo by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, colored by Olga Shirnina. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

Image of Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883 CE)

Image of the opening of the 26th Zionist Congress 1964

Theodor Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish lawyer, journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer who was the father of modern political Zionism. Herzl formed the Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state. Although he died before Israel's establishment, he is known in Hebrew as Chozeh HaMedinah, lit. 'Visionary of the State'. Herzl is specifically mentioned in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and is officially referred to as "the spiritual father of the Jewish State", i.e. the 'visionary' who gave a concrete, practicable platform and framework to political Zionism. However, he was not the first Zionist theoretician or activist; scholars, many of them religious such as rabbis Yehuda Bibas, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Judah Alkalai, promoted a range of proto-Zionist ideas before him. As the Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse, Herzl followed the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. It was a notorious antisemitic incident in France in which a Jewish French army captain was falsely convicted of spying for Germany. Herzl was witness to mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial. Herzl himself stated that the Dreyfus case turned him into a Zionist and that he was particularly affected by chants of "Death to the Jews!" from the crowds. Beginning in late 1895, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), which was published in February 1896 to immediate acclaim and controversy. The book argued that the Jewish people should leave Europe for Palestine, their historic homeland; the Jews possessed a nationality, however, they were missing a nation and a state of their own. Only through a Jewish state could they avoid antisemitism, express their culture freely and practice their religion without hindrance. Herzl's ideas spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world and attracted international attention. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Opening of the 26th Zionist Congress 1964. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image Creator: Moshe Pridan License: public domain

Theodor Herzl (1860 - 1904)

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