Is Jewish Philosophy Bad for the Jews?


By N. S. Palmer

Is Jewish philosophy bad for the Jews?

I think it has to do with apple pie.

Whatever it has to do with, it’s not an idle question.

Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century philosopher who led the Jewish Enlightenment, tried to straddle the border between sacred and secular. He had six children. Four of them converted to Christianity.

Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher who codified Jewish law and defined the basic principles of the Jewish faith, warned against teaching Jewish philosophy to the majority of people:

“We should adhere to parables and to concealment of what ought to be concealed.”*

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century philosopher who helped found Modern Orthodoxy, said that even the Torah avoids esoteric teaching and sticks to the basics:

“The Torah, too, discloses only what the created world is to you, what you are to the created world, what God is and ought to be for you, for your activities and the performance of your task in life. Whatever lies beyond this, it does not disclose to you … “**

Much of modern Judaism has ignored that advice. We see the results in soaring rates of Jewish assimilation, intermarriage, and — perhaps worst of all — indifference.

I have a simple attitude about apple pie. I don’t want a recipe. I don’t want it explained. I don’t want to make it myself. I want someone else to make it, give it to me, and let me eat it.

What’s bad for the Jews is not philosophy or apple pie. What’s bad is giving inappropriate answers to important questions.

When most people ask, “What’s important? What’s right? How should I live?”, they don’t want a philosophical discussion. They don’t want “maybe this, maybe that,” and they don’t want “on the other hand.” They can’t make decisions based on that kind of information.

Most of all, they don’t want “science says it doesn’t matter, so do whatever feels good.” That’s no help at all.

They want guidance. They want rules and rituals, inspiration and sacred pageantry, shared by a community of people who support each other. That’s what they need.

Cults give it to them. So do fanatic “social justice” crusades: No shades of gray. No doubts. No ambiguities. There’s good, there’s bad, and you are on the good side. Period.

It would be better for them to get what they need within Judaism, but intellectuals are very uncomfortable giving direct, pragmatic answers to complex questions. They don’t realize that clarity, structure, and community are vital needs for most people. It’s why they don’t understand the appeal of Orthodoxy, any more than expert bakers understand my lack of interest in learning how to make apple pie.

You can’t live your life by a philosophy seminar any more than you can pay your bills with a column of numbers. To pay your bills, you need the totals. To live your life, you need the answers. That applies even if you can do the math and figure out the answers on your own. The “bottom line” is what you can use in your life.

Just as people need physical security for their bodies, they need spiritual security for their souls. Mere abstractions can’t provide it. They need to know where they fit in the universe and in their community. Even more do they need to live that knowledge. They need to see it reflected back to them by the people around them, by their culture and institutions.

To make Jewish philosophy helpful, we should pay attention to who’s asking about it — and to what they’re really asking. It might not be the same question as we’d ask in their place.

If we don’t, then in a few more generations, they might not ask at all.


* Twersky (1972), loc. 3086.

** Grunfeld (1960), p. 11.

Works Cited

Arkush, A., translator (1983), Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA.

Grunfeld, I., translator (1962), Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Soncino Press, New York.

Twersky, I., editor (1972), A Maimonides Reader. Behrman House, Springfield, NJ.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.