Commentary Magazine


Bar Hiya

To the Editor:

In his review of my book Judaism as a Philosophy [Aug. ’62], Jerome Eckstein attempted to present a critical appraisal by inflating a relatively minor notion of medieval Jewish philosophy into a major doctrinal affirmation with which he then takes issue. . . .

. . . Every major medieval Jewish philosopher gave credence to the belief current among the Jews in Alexandria that the Jews were the original cultivators of philosophy and that the Bible was a classical source of fundamental philosophical insights. Bar Hiyya’s assertion “that [the philosophers’] conceptual thoughts are taken from the words of the Torah and are drawn from our fountain of wisdom” was repeated by Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn Daud, and Maimonides. The discussion in the Talmud revolving around ma caseh bereshith was regarded by David Neumark as representing the original thought modes of the Hebraic world scheme. . . .

My major concern, however, with the reviewer is his complete omission of the central thesis of the book. . . . Through a critical analysis of the works of Bar Hiyya, a comparative study of the manuscripts available, and a historical investigation into the intellectual climate of the times, Judaism as a Philosophy projects two basic ideas: . . . One is that Bar Hiyya’s Aristotelian notions are crucial to the exposition of a philosophy of personalism. Such a philosophy maintains, among other things, that the absolute is not a gift conferred upon men initially by grace or faith or intuitive apprehension. In a dynamic world scheme combining causality with commanding purpose, the absolute is projected as the ideal and is hammered out in the crucible of existential experiences and spiritual commitments. As a metaphysic of self-realization, personalism puts the mark of emphasis on ultimate “rational wholeness” born of man’s infinite capacity to attain intellectual excellence and human perfection. In this context the absolute is not a theory but an activity. “Being” is a verb as well as a noun.

Tied up with this ideological construct there is a novel approach to the tacame hamitzvot based on the notion of Kabb’lat ha-Torah and Yihud ha-Shem. The reviewer either deliberately miscontrues Bar Hiyya’s interpretation of these terms or he has failed to read my chapters on the subject. . . .

Leon D. Stitskin
Yeshiva University
New York City

_____________

 

Mr. Eckstein writes:

The indefensibility of Mr. Stitskin’s position is exhibited in his letter by the avoidance of any attempt (with one exception) to answer the several objections which I raised in my review. . . .

Now, I mentioned that Mr. Stitskin supports his view by references to the medieval Jewish philosophers and ancient Alexandrian Jews; but my point was that while I can sympathize with their provincialism, I cannot approve of this unhistorical stand in Mr. Stitskin. No major modern history of world philosophy begins its account with the Jews or the Bible, or claims that the Greeks borrowed their philosophies from them. Moreover, not only does the reference to Maimonides in his letter and book fail to support Mr. Stitskin’s position, but it contradicts it. For Maimonides writes there that although some metaphysics was “once cultivated by our forefathers” it was never “permitted to be written down.” It was communicated orally to only a few able Jews, and hence it became completely lost. “Nothing but a few [metaphysical] remarks and allusions are to be found in the Talmud and the Midrashim,” says Maimonides, thus suggesting clearly that philosophic insights could not possibly be “taken from the words of the Torah.” . . . Maimonides even writes that “in the few [philosophic] works composed by the Geonim and the Karaites . . . they followed the lead of the Mohammedan Mutakallemim, and what they wrote is insignificant in comparison with the kindred works of the Mohammedans.”

Surely, Mr. Stitskin is inconsistent in his criticism mat my review contains both a “complete omission of the central thesis” and a “misconstruction” of some of its basic concepts. . . . Moreover, I could not have misconstrued the notions of Yihud ha-Shem and Kabb’lat ha-Torah, because I gave exactly the same definitions of them which he did.

With regard to the area I omitted, I could have noted Mr. Stitskin’s unscholarly avoidance of any reference to G. Vajda; for Vajda is one of the most respected authorities on Bar Hiyya, and he argues, contrary to Mr. Stitskin, that Bar Hiyya was a neo-Platonist. . . .

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