To the Editor:
Leon Wieseltier [“Philosophy, Religion & Harry Wolfson,” April] is no doubt correct in his assertion that Harry A. Wolfson was never guilty of confusing his aim as a historian with his own personal position as a believing Jew. It is Mr. Wieseltier who is guilty of this confusion.
Mr. Wieseltier supposes that Wolfson “represent[s] the center of the Jewish tradition by Philo . . . and by Maimonides,” and suggests that, according to Wolfson, “the Maimonídean synthesis” is “Judaism par excellence.” He then allows himself the wry comment that “Wolfson’s highly intellectualist view of Jewish tradition is not quite what most Jews mean and have meant by Jewish tradition.” Next, he accuses Wolfson of having “fallen victim to . . . the tendency to ideologize Judaism, to defend it as essentially a world view, or feeling, or attitude, or creed.” Finally, he sums it all up: for Wolfson, “the philosophical profession of faith seemed a sufficient guarantee of the Jewish tradition.”
All of these suppositions and charges are false. Mr. Wieseltier has confused Wolfson’s view of the history of philosophy with Wolfson’s view of the Jewish tradition. And it is this confusion which, in turn, enables him to confuse Wolfson’s aim as a historian with Wolfson’s own personal position as a believing Jew.
In an important early essay, “The Needs of Jewish Scholarship in America” (an essay, incidentally, quoted several times by Mr. Wieseltier), Wolfson explains with characteristic precision his aims as a historian of philosophy and the connection between these aims and his own Jewish commitment:
I do not mean to imply that I consider medieval Jewish philosophy to be the most important field of Jewish study. Hardly that. For I believe, just as our pious ancestors believed, though for different reasons, that the Talmud with its literature is the most promising field of study, the most fertile field of original research and investigation. But I believe that medieval Jewish philosophy is the only branch of Jewish literature, next to the Bible, which binds us to the rest of the literary world. In it we meet on common ground with civilized Europe and with part of civilized Asia and civilized Africa. Medieval philosophy is one philosophy written in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, and among these Hebrew holds the central and most important position. In it we have the full efflorescence of Arabic thought and the bud of much of scholasticism. It is in the interest of general culture and general scholarship that these hidden Hebrew treasures should be brought to light, carefully edited, properly indexed, equipped with the necessary glossaries, with a system of cross-references and with all other critical apparatus, so that the world may readily recognize their value for a reconstruction of the history of philosophy. For the time will come when the history of philosophy, medieval as well as early modern, will have to be radically rewritten, and rewritten it will be as soon as the contents of these writings become more widely known.
Wolfson did not believe that Jewish philosophy wasthe renter of the Jewish tradition: he dedicated his lite to proving that is was the center of the philosophic tradition—or at least of the philosophic tradition from Philo to Spinoza. Far from arguing Judaism’s identity with the philosophic tradition. he argued the latter’s debt to the former. He could never have agreed that the philosophical profession of faith is a “sufficient guarantee of the Jewish tradition,” for to his mind the “philosophical profession of faith” is not what is unique to Judaism, but indeed what is—or was until modern times—Judaism’s “common ground with civilized Europe and with part of civilized Asia and civilized Africa.” . . .
On the basis of his recurring confusion of the Jewish and philosophic traditions, Mr. Wieseltier builds his theory about Wolfson’s personal religious views. He interprets Wolfson’s famous self description as a “non-observant Orthodox Jew” as equivalent to confession of some “philosophical” or “ideological” Orthodoxy without halakha To be sure, Wolfson—who profoundly understood the genius of the Jewish tradition—would have criticized such an “Orthodoxy” no less vigorously than does Mr. Wieseltier. The expression “non-observant Orthodox Jew” no more suggests a new kind of Orthodoxy than does “non-practícing physician” suggest a new kind of medicine. Those curious about why Wolfson became “non-observant” will find better clues in his youthful essays about Jewish life in early 20th-century America than in his scholarly works on the history of philosophy.
However, one need not delve into Wolfson’s personal religious life in order to appreciate the regret of his last years. As a scholar, he had set two goals: immediately, to publish and analyze medieval Hebrew philosophic texts; ultimately, to rewrite the history of philosophy in their light. His Crescas’ Critique of Aristotle (1929) was a sure step toward the immediate goal, but only a step. Students of Jewish philosophy were now awaiting not only Wolfson’s complete critical text of Crescas’ Light of the Lord, but also the second part of his study on Crescas, which owing to “a regrettable last-minute decision” was not published in Crescas’ Critique. Suddenly, however, Wolfson interrupted this work toward his immediate goal, intending to concentrate for just a few years on the ultimate goal. But by the time he had written Spinoza and Philo, it was already 1947. It now seemed to him necessary to supplement Philo with two concise mongraphs on the Philonic elements in early Christian and Muslim theology. He did not suspect that these two monographs would grow into enormous opera which would exhaust his remaining years, barring him from resuming the interrupted work toward his immediate goal. It is this failure to return to those “hidden Hebrew treasures” which was his most potent source of regret—and shall remain a source of regret to students of Jewish philosophy.
Warren Zev Harvey
Leon Wieseltier writes:
Harry Wolfson was a complicated man with numerous—and not always compatible—interests and commitments. He was a historian of Western philosophy, a historian of Jewish tradition, a fervent Jew, a troubled Jew. My claim was simply that all these roles had much to do with one another, that the man and his work were of a piece. This Warren Zev Harvey disputes. There was no connection, he maintains, between Wolfson’s view of Western philosophy and his view of the Jewish tradition. Neither, he continues, was there any connection between Wolfson’s view of Jewish tradition—even of Jewish philosophy—and his personal religious life. The Wolfson depicted by Mr. Harvey’s cautious and literal approach is an excessively fragmented and dissociated individual, a self split into discrete moments with nothing to bind them. To my mind such an approach—to any writer or scholar—is a simplistic one.
Wolfson was indeed not writing a history of Jewish thought—neither, for example, is Gershom Scholem. But just as Scholem’s specialized concerns have nourished a more general appraisal of Judaism, so too did Wolfson’s essays in Jewish philosophy furnish him with a framework for a broader understanding of the Jewish tradition. Such expansions of a scholar’s attitudes are inevitable—certainly for scholars of such stature—and so are the limitations and exaggerations which attend them. This is not to say that Wolfson fabricated a view of Judaism entirely from his work; of course he arrived at his texts with the axioms of Orthodoxy. But instead of divorcing personal presuppositions from scholarly conclusions, as Mr. Harvey proposes, the student would do better to study the influence of the latter upon the former. Does Mr. Harvey really believe that a man can labor fifty years at some of the major sources of his tradition without these labors’ affecting his view of it? (Neither I nor Wolfson, incidentally, ever discussed the uniqueness of the Jewish tradition among others; that is a question logically separate from the problem of identifying the tradition itself.)
As for the relation of Wolfson’s view of Jewish thought and tradition to his personal behavior, if Wolfson’s self-description does not satisfy Mr. Harvey, he might take a closer look at the passage he himself cites. There the nature of Wolfson’s interests in Judaism stand clear: instead of the Talmud, “the most promising field of study” in Judaism, wolfson chooses texts ostensibly less indigenous ready accommodating the pressures of non-Jewish thought and culture. No man chooses his life’s work offhandedly or disinterestedly, and there is a great difference between lernen and Wissenschaft.
What disturbs me most about Mr. Harvey’s letter, however, is its tone, in which I detect the faint echoes of a partisan Orthodoxy. and a rush to its defenses. I never charged or accused Wolfson of anything, least of all a lapsed or ambivalent Orthodoxy; in that respect I am not the one to cast the first stone. Nor did I speak of a “new . . . Orthodoxy,” whatever that means. What interested me about Wolfson’s religious position was rather that, it seemed to embody dramatically the predicament of the disenchanted Orthodox, a group that is now growing. Marshall Sklare—coincidentally using almost Wolf-son’s exact words—has labeled such people “the unobservant Orthodox”: they are Jews, raised in an Orthodox ambience and schooled in its yeshivot. who unable to remain in that world for any number of elevated and not-so-elevated-reasons, still know too much about Jewish history and have too much feeling ever to deny Orthodoxy as the touchstone of normative Ludaism. For these Jews. Conservative or Reform Judaism will never be meaningful alternatives: they can live neither with nor without the Orthodox community. Wolfson was such a man, and for that reason I was drawn to study him. For that reason too I came to his religious difficulties with nothing but sympathy.