Commentary Magazine

The Story of Jewish Philosophy, by Joseph Blau; and The Jewish Mind, by Gerald Abrahams

Exploring the Jewish Mind

The Story of Jewish Philosophy.
by Joseph L. Blau.
Random House. 322 pp. $5.00.

The Jewish Mind.
by Gerald Abrahams.
Beacon Press. 420 pp. $6.00.

It is encouraging that serious scholars, who do not specialize in Jewish studies, should turn their attention to Jewish thought. Mr. Blau is a distinguished American author and teacher in the field of philosophy, and Mr. Abrahams is a highly respected British barrister and legal scholar. Both men approach their exposition of Jewish modes of thinking and philosophizing affirmatively and respectfully. One finds in their books none of the sneering, petty closed-mindedness or supercilious intellectual arrogance which frequently characterize the comments of contemporary intellectuals when they deal with Jewish topics.

But in spite of their good intentions and appreciative responses, neither author has succeeded in his task of exploring Jewish thought. In part, at least, each is the victim of his own decision to write a popular book. The subject matter does not readily lend itself to popularization. The very term “popular philosophy” borders on the self-contradictory, since philosophy has never been and cannot be an activity of the “people.”

In a little more than three hundred pages Mr. Blau undertakes to discuss the development of Jewish philosophy from the Bible to Mordecai Kaplan. He includes much material of questionable philosophic interest and value, while omitting a great deal that is important. There is, for example, a somewhat extended discussion of several Karaites, who are hardly in the main stream of Jewish thought, while he is entirely silent about so striking and original a figure as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and barely mentions Ahad Ha’am. Abraham Geiger and the “lesser lights of Reform Jewish philosophy” rate seven pages; but Hermann Cohen gets only two paragraphs and the Conservative movement is dismissed in less than a sentence.

The book begins with a cursory examination of some theological and moral ideas in the Bible. It contains brief conventional discussions of the idea of God and the good life in the Pentateuch and some of the Prophets. The interpretation is often arbitary, and sometimes self-contradictory. Thus, we are told that in Exodus and Deuteronomy the Jews were taught to obey God and his law “in thankfulness and love rather than in fear.” But a bit later we learn that in contrast with Jeremiah’s new covenant with God, which was based on love, “The Law, the covenant of the wilderness, consisted of obligations that the people were, in effect, forced to accept out of fear of God.” This confusion is the more remarkable since there are equally familiar texts in the Pentateuch which command love and which command fear of God.

Ecclesiastes, Job, and Philo exemplify what Blau calls the Judeo-Greek temper. His exposition of rabbinic thought concentrates on a few scattered ideas, but he fails to understand the philosophical import of Halakhah, the greatest and most characteristic product of the intellectual effort of the rabbis. Discussion of the philosophic significance of the Halakhah is limited to a presentation of some rules of rabbinic logic and rhetoric, concluding with the questionable claim that Rabbi Ishmael’s version of these rules is included in the daily prayers because of their great authority. With respect to the rabbinic ideas of God, Blau asserts that “there is no attempt in the vast body of rabbinic literature to prove that God exists,” though earlier he cites a Mid-rash which has a version of the argument from design.

In his discussion of Gnosticism and Cabbala Blau generally follows Gershom Scholem, but presents such compressed statements that only a specialist could possibly make sense out of them.1 When he turns to the major medieval Jewish philosophers he becomes more expansive. Saadia, ibn Gabirol, Bahya, Halevi, and especially Maimonides are treated in more extended and more responsible fashion. But even where Mr. Blau is on his surest ground, he omits basic topics. Typical is his failure to discuss Maimonides’ ethics, his conception of man’s freedom, or his treatment of the problem of evil.



In The Jewish Mind Mr. Abrahams has not given us a book so much as an interesting melange of comment and interpretation on various aspects of Jewish thought and experience. He explores the modes and backgrounds of Jewish identity, proceeds to an examination of the place of the Bible and Biblical exegesis in Jewish thought, and comments on the traditional Jewish detachment from nature and the aesthetic. He analyzes the methods and structure of Halakhah, remarks on the ways in which it was made authoritative, and summarizes the theology of Jewish philosophers from the prophet Ezekiel to Moses Mendelssohn. He discusses the ethical standards of Judaism and Christianity, the relationship between Judaism and Socialism, the grounds of anti-Semitism, and Jewish self-hatred. He evaluates types of contemporary Jews, including the “professional” Jew (whom he dislikes intensely), and the literary Jew, from Glückel of Hamelin to Herman Wouk. Finally, he adds some notes on Jewish humor, and a strong statement in favor of Zionism and the State of Israel.

Throughout, Mr. Abrahams is not so much the detached scholar, analyzing, explicating, and expounding, as he is the committed knowledgeable Jew, who loves his people and its traditions. Jewish jokes amuse him; the peculiarities of Jewish exegesis titillate his intellect; Jewish achievements and Jewish ideals inspire him; and attacks against Jews (except his own) evoke a bristling defense or regretful apologetics. So many topics could not possibly have been dealt with thoroughly in any one work; nor does Abrahams claim that he has done so.

Yet, there is a sense in which this book mirrors the Jewish mind far more successfully than Blau’s history of Jewish philosophy. Blau systematizes; Abrahams responds to impressions. Blau centers on the philosophers, and struggles to make philosophers of those who were far removed from philosophic concerns; Abrahams concentrates on the rich rabbinic tradition. He is unsystematic—perhaps deliberately, in order to reflect a typical Talmudic pattern. To all but the most skilled readers, the rabbis, too, seem to fly from topic to topic, almost in the manner of free-association. Along with this evocation of the rabbinic mode of thought, Abrahams manages in his discursive way to give his readers something of the flavor of characteristically traditional Jewish thinking. One senses in his book how the tradition approached the analysis of a sacred text, and how the great Halakhists developed a coherent and authoritative body of law. This is the Jewish mind at work with its own methods and in its own milieu. The ultimate source of Jewish philosophy is to be found with far more certainty in rabbinic texts than in works of metaphysics or theology. There can be no responsible approach to Jewish thought except through this gate, and even the most systematic Jewish philosophers, like Maimonides, cannot be grasped as Jewish unless we understand them in their relationship to the rabbinic tradition.

Blau, in conventional Western philosophic fashion, has missed this point, while Abrahams, for all the defects of his presentation, has caught it. Sometimes he goes too far, as when he asserts that Jewish philosophy from Saadia to Maimonides “. . . does not seem to belong to the continuum of Jewish tradition, and leaves little mark on the subsequent generations.” Like most students of the major medieval Jewish philosophers, he has failed to see their close connection with the rabbinic tradition and their dependence on rabbinic sources that lie beneath the Greek surface of their thought. But Abrahams has seen the basic point, namely, that “the Jewish heritage is a tradition dominated by the Book, ironically an unmetaphysical book”; consequently, he is on sound ground when he asserts that, “the history of Jewish thought is largely, then, the history of exegesis.” He is aware that we cannot get at Jewish thought or formulate a Jewish philosophy except by way of the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrashim, the Codes, the Responsa, and the Commentaries and associated literature—joined with the systematic work of the Jewish philosophers. The subject is an enormously complex one, requiring not only mastery of a vast literature, but also the discovery in that literature of new philosophic categories and modes of thought. Mr. Abrahams merits our gratitude for making us aware, in his oblique way, of how much we have yet to do in order to understand the Jewish mind in its own setting, rather than as a reflection of responses to hostile philosophical and theological challenges.



It is a pity that Mr. Abrahams’ work is marred by infelicities of style, numerous inaccuracies, and other obstacles which will deter and irk many readers. He writes, at times, with a kind of maddening ornateness which only serves to obscure his thought. (He begins one chapter as follows: “To the poets of this latter day century, inhaling the culture that pervades the blossoms of leisure, and exhaling the sense of freedom which fills the nostrils of the emancipated, the Bible flowers call greeting from Canticles.”) Though his book is explicitly addressed to a general as well as a Jewish audience, it has many undefined Hebrew and Yiddish expressions which will convey nothing to non-Jewish readers and, unhappily, will pass by most Jewish readers as well.

What is more, the book abounds in unclear and inconsistent forms of reference, especially to the rabbinic texts which are least known to Mr. Abrahams’ readers, and, therefore, require the most careful identification. On the other hand, readers who possess even minimal Jewish learning will be irritated by the curiously inconsistent transliterations from Hebrew to English, and appalled by such mistakes as “Soteh” for “Sotah,” “Mapach” for “Mapah,” “Sagin Or” for “Sagi Nahor.”



The popularization of the story of Jewish philosophy or of the contents of the Jewish mind may be, as we have suggested, an impossible undertaking. Considered, however, apart from their attempts to popularize, it is clear that Mr. Blau has served only to repeat in obscure fashion a story which has already been told far more successfully. The works in English of Husik, Scholem, and other writers are as intelligible as Blau’s, while managing to be both more learned and more comprehensive. And the over-all effect of Mr. Blau’s cursory and arbitrary presentation of Jewish thought is to keep his readers always on the outside looking in. Mr. Abrahams, on the other hand, though he spends much time fumbling for the keys, manages to open some doors through which one can pass into the inner chambers of the Jewish mind.




1 For example, in his explanation of Bahya's treatment of the divine Unity, Blau writes, “There is a Unity which is essential, not accidental. This is of two types: numerical and concrete. Numerical Unity is the number one, which is essentially an instance of Unity, but Unity of a subjective or mental kind; it is a Unity which must be grasped in thought and cannot be experienced. It is true Unity, but differs from the second type of absolute Unity, the absolute unity of God which is concrete and existent.” There are many such passages throughout the book.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.