Review of Martin Kavka, Zachary Braitman, David Novak (editors), The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy, Volume 2: The Modern Era

Martin Kavka, Zachary Braitman, David Novak (editors), The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy, Volume 2: The Modern Era, (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 891 pgs., $214.99.

Jacob L. Goodson
Southwestern College

In this massive volume, Martin Kavka and his editorial team present us with twenty-six lengthy chapters on questions and themes found within modern Jewish philosophy.  In the introduction, Kavka states: “The guiding thread that connects these chapters in this volume is the recognition that the field of modern Jewish philosophy is a dynamic territory built up around concepts, not around a history of ‘great thinkers’ arranged chronologically” (1).  In addition to summarizing each chapter (see 13-29), Kavka also offers three “conclusions” that orient the reader to the academic discipline of modern Jewish philosophy: (a) “modern Jewish philosophy is neither a universalist nor a particularist discourse” (5); (b) “[i]f Jewish philosophy is to be honest about its inability to trust in either theological or secular-ethical ideals, then it must start with sociology” but not remain within sociological reasoning (8; also see 24); and (c) “Jewish philosophy affirms both the presence and the absence of the distinctiveness of the adjective ‘Jewish’ and the indistinctiveness of the word ‘philosophy’” (9).  Because of its orientational breadth, I recommend all readers of the The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy begin with Kavka’s introduction.

Reviewing a book 891 pages in length feels overwhelming.  However, this book deserves to be reviewed and ought to find its way – despite the cost – into the institutional libraries of the members of the Society of the Scriptural Reasoning.  For this review, I limit myself to reporting on the times that the practice of Scriptural Reasoning (SR) is mentioned within this large collection.

First, in his chapter called “Scripture and Text,” Peter Ochs claims that SR serves as one of two practices helpful for Jewish philosophers “to explore paradigms of inquiry that are…rooted in practice and communities of work” (196-197).  Also, SR is a practice that is “attentive to finite and context-specific sets of problems of topics” (197).  To convince Jewish philosophers to practice SR, Ochs describes SR in these terms:

[S]criptural reasoning draws Jewish philosophers into study fellowship with their complements in other scriptural traditions, Muslim and Christian scholars in particular.  ‘Scripture’ is the source of this engagement because it is separated, for the sake of such exploratory study, from the text traditions through which each Abrahamic religion receives scripture as instruction for social life….  Without this separation, inter-Abrahamic study tends to appear as a form of ‘comparative religion’, reiterating stereotypical depictions of each tradition by the other.  Participants…have found it more valuable to engage in infrequent but intense sessions of…Abrahamic scriptural reasoning, in which participants freely explore the plain sense of selections from all three canons.  Such sessions enrich the work of [Jewish philosophy] in several ways: uncovering additional dimensions of the plain sense of the Tanakh, stimulating…scholars to imagine additional interpretive strategies for…reparative work, and gathering Muslim and Christian peers for…reparative work that extends beyond the borders of Jewish society… (198).

In this paragraph, Ochs makes a case for how SR benefits Jewish philosophers.  The reasons for Jewish philosophers to participate in SR are the following: (a) SR separates Scripture from its textual traditions in order to avoid stereotypical judgments between the three Abrahamic traditions; (b) SR does not require a burdensome commitment of time because the sessions are “infrequent,” yet they are worth the time because the sessions are “intense”; (c) SR allows the free and playful exploration of “the plain sense” of passages found in the Tanakh, New Testament, and Quran.  The benefits that Jewish philosophers will gain from practicing SR are the following: (a) learning other “dimensions of the plain sense” within the Hebrew Bible; (b) imagining other possible “interpretive strategies” in order to have more tools for “reparative work”; and (c) reaching out beyond the concerns of Jewish communities and the Jewish tradition and seeking “reparative work” with Christian and Muslim scholars.

Also in Ochs’s chapter, “Scripture and Text,” SR is identified as one type of “reasoning” among three other types: “textual reasoning,” “philosophic reasoning,” and “creational reasoning.”  Textual reasoning concerns itself with “primary texts” within the Jewish tradition: “Mishnah, Talmud, and anthologies of midrash and readings of Tanakh” (200).  The “reasoning” of textual reasoning is employed through the techniques of peshat and derash: “peshat tends to refer to all of the…aspects of Tanakh read as Scripture” (pg. 200) whereas “derash tends to refer to rabbinic interpretations of the empirical and performative meanings of the peshat of Tanakh” (200).  Jewish philosophers benefit from the actual practice of Textual Reasoning because it forms their arguments around biblical narratives – and the multiple engagements with and various interpretations of those narratives.

Philosophic reasoning, according to Ochs, acquires the “singular gift” of prophecy: “love of one’s neighbor and a devoted compassion for suffering and [for] those who suffer” (214).  Philosophic reasoning helps thinkers gain the discipline of clarification and inference, and these skills strengthen the philosopher’s ability to listen and respond to the cries of those who suffer.  Philosophic reason “learns from prophetism the focus of its ultimate service, the relief of human suffering; in return, reason lends to prophetism the rule of inference that generates out of the prophetic witness to suffering a philosophic ethic” (214).  There is a reciprocal relationship between philosophic reasoning and prophetic reasoning (my phrase, not Ochs’s) where philosophers need to be reminded what the purpose of reasoning is – i.e. to serve those who suffer – while the logic of prophetic calls become aided by the guidance and insights of philosophers.

Creational reasoning replaces the word “metaphysics” within Ochs’s reflections on Jewish philosophy.  Ochs claims, “Jewish ontology examines creation…in its ontological plain sense by way of inquiries that, as in phenomenology and prototypically in mathematics, ‘bracket’ ontic judgments” (215).  Creational reasoning comes across as the Jewish philosophic version of Cartesian and Kantian metaphysics.

Ochs says that, within SR, reason comes “‘out of’ divine speech.”  This means that, from Ochs’s Jewish perspective, the practice of SR assumes that the passages studied during SR sessions are patterns of “divine speech.”  In the ordinary language of some people, Ochs’s claim means that the verses studied during SR sessions are words inspired by God.

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