Research Projects of MCAS Team
The Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies is staffed by the director of the Centre, along with two co-directors and three research associates. The staff members integrate their own research and thereby actively shape and consolidate the overall research objectives, taking responsibility for the successful implementation of the research programme.
Research Projects of MCAS Team (Second Funding Period: 2019–23)
Director: Prof. Dr. Giuseppe Veltri
(1) Popkin’s Letters on Jewish Scepticism: An Edition of the Letters with an Introduction and Commentary (together with Asher Salah)
In the learned books on scepticism by Richard Popkin, there is almost no discussion of Jewish thought. At the time when the first funding application was made, it was thought that this was perhaps because he had no interest in it. Now, some important letters have been discovered by MCAS fellow Asher Salah which show that Popkin’s interest in Jewish scepticism probably originated in his conversations with Rabbi Judah Goldin. In fact, his neglect of Jewish sources probably derived from his lack of knowledge of Hebrew (a suggestion made by Yosef Kaplan). Popkin’s personal papers and archives—now at the William Andrews Clark Library at UCLA—are of crucial importance for understanding the gap between his emotional involvement with Judaism and its absence from his studies. Giuseppe Veltri and Asher Salah will focus on producing an edition of the letters in the first year.
(2) Dogmatic Judaism: From Scepticism to Philosophy of Religion
The principal aim of this research project is not to discuss the validity and consistency of the philosophical preoccupation with religion in Judaism, but rather to outline the use of one particular expression in that century of philosophical research from the 1740s until the Shoah, a cruel and tragic period for Judaism in Europe. The coinage “the philosophy of the Jewish religion” was a natural consequence of the speculations on religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were critically directed against its ceremonial dimension and instead concentrated on universalising religious thought (Kant and Hegel) or on feeling or divination (Schleiermacher) towards a general human experience and history of the development of ideas. Jewish thought on religion then became a balancing act between the past and the present, between the tradition of customs, ceremonies, laws, and legal ordinances and the need to have a philosophy that went beyond the particular experience of the Jewish people.
(3) Scepticism, Doubt, and Binary Logic in Jewish Sceptical Philosophy
Historians of scepticism are mainly concerned with doubt in the early modern period; for example, the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie almost skips the entire Middle Ages, concentrating on the Renaissance and above all on the early modern period. Historians of the Halakhah and law (Shifman 1974) are familiar with how important doubt is in legal matters, and the role of doubt and doubting in the philosophy of Saadia Gaon or Al-Ghazali before Descartes is likewise well known. This book will be the result of research into the question of doubt and the principle of noncontradiction in Jewish philosophy, with a particular accent on the Middle Ages and the early modern period (Saadia, Sforno, Simone Luzzatto).
Co-Director: Prof. Dr. Stephan Schmid
Rationalism, Scepticism, and Falsity in Spinoza
Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) is well known for his epistemic optimism. In a famous letter (written by the end of 1675), Spinoza even declared that he knew that he had found the best philosophy “in the same way that you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.” This, Spinoza explained, is because “truth is the index of itself and of what is false” (thereby echoing proposition 43 and its scholium from part 2 of his Ethics).
This is a remarkable position and it is not surprising that scholars have wondered about its justification. While many have been rather pessimistic on this score and have even argued that Spinoza was confused about scepticism, I wish to develop a philosophically more promising interpretation. As I will try to show, Spinoza’s view that “truth is the index of itself and of what is false” is actually due to a demanding rationalist conception of ideas or acts of thinking. According to this conception, a mental representation of X only counts as a genuine idea (as opposed to a mere concatenation of images) if the representation of X makes intelligible why and how X obtains. In Spinoza’s rationalist conception of ideas, then, ideas are acts of understanding, and in this sense self-evident. (This is because it is impossible to understand why and how X is the case unless X is in fact the case).
My research during MCAS’s second funding period will be devoted to reconstructing this powerful anti-sceptical line of Spinoza’s thought, but also to exploring its philosophical implications. Two of these are particularly noteworthy. The first consists in the fact that Spinoza’s rationalist conception of ideas seems to be so demanding that it is hard to see how we could ever have genuine ideas as finite beings. The second remarkable and prima facie problematic implication of Spinoza’s rationalist conception of ideas consists in the fact that for Spinoza, ideas cannot really be false: as proper acts of understanding, they cannot fail to be true. Now, what is particularly worrisome about these implications is that they do not only appear to be problematic in themselves, but they even seem to undermine the anti-sceptical force of Spinoza’s anti-sceptical reasoning in the first place. The first implication seems to yield that Spinoza can only defend the possibility of knowledge for infinite beings, not for finite beings, as we are, and thus rather confirms sceptical concerns instead of refuting them. The second implication, by contrast, seems to show that Spinoza’s anti-scepticism overshoots the mark: instead of making the case for the possibility of true ideas, Spinoza seems to have argued for the necessity of true ideas such that there can be no false ideas at all. But how then shall we make sense of errors, which are typically analysed in terms of endorsing false ideas?
While the first part of my research project will reconstruct Spinoza’s anti-sceptical strategy as implicated by his view that “truth is the index of itself and of what is false,” the second part will defend the philosophical value of this strategy against the objection that it leads to self-defeating consequences, as sketched above. In particular, I will argue that Spinoza can avoid the first concern through his distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas and that he can escape the second by offering an epistemic notion of falsity or error based on his conception of inadequate ideas.
Co-Director: Jun. Prof. Dr. Racheli Haliva (2015–22)
Medieval Inter-Religious Polemics among Jews
The phenomenon of conversion was widespread in the Middle Ages. It could be suggested that many Jews converted to Christianity because they were facing an impossible option: either to convert to Christianity or to be exiled or killed. Several medieval Jewish thinkers also accused the converts of choosing an easier and more comfortable life under Christian rule.
Abner of Burgos, perhaps the most famous apostate in the Middle Ages, was the main addressee of criticism from Jewish thinkers from the thirteenth century onwards. One of these Jewish critics was Moshe ha-Kohen of Tordesillas, who devoted his book Sefer ha-ʿEzer (The Book of Support) to undermining Abner’s allegations against Judaism. Sefer ha-ʿEzer is divided into two sections: the first is called ʿEzer ha-Dat (In Support of the Religion), a short philosophical treatise that defends the Jewish principles, and the second is called ʿEzer ha-Emunah’ (In Support of the Faith), a long theological essay which aims to demonstrate the superiority of Judaism using Jewish sources, mainly the Bible.
The purpose of this research is to focus on how Jewish thinkers polemicised against former Jews. The question of why the Jewish converts left their birth faith plays a crucial role, for it determines the approach by which they were condemned. Clearly, it was easier to attack the converts for seeking a better social and political status; it was much more challenging to deal with the genuine doubts that the converts raised against Judaism.
Research Associate: Dr. Yoav Meyrav (2019–22)
Moses ha-Levi and the Crisis of Metaphysics
The enigmatic Jewish philosopher Moses ha-Levi is usually dated to the thirteenth century and is thought to have come from Seville. In his book Light of the Lord, the famous Jewish theologian and philosopher Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410) counted him among the “greatest philosophers.” Moses’s rarely studied and still unedited Metaphysical Treatise (composed in Arabic) is usually considered an anomaly in the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition, as he is a rare example of a Jewish Andalusian author who openly endorses Avicenna and rejects Averroes. The point of dispute in his treatise is whether Aristotle’s first mover is also the first cause, as the resolution of this question has many implications in metaphysical theology, especially concerning divine attributes, the notions of possibility and necessity, and the unity of God. Moses identifies the discordance between Avicenna and Averroes as a danger to the soundness of philosophical development and attempts to set metaphysics back on track.
This research project has three parts: (1) a preliminary study which focuses on Moses ha-Levi’s identity, dates, and surviving corpus, all of which are riddled with unfounded conjectures; (2) a detailed reconstruction of his metaphysical argumentation; and (3) an analysis of his presence in and impact on the works of subsequent Jewish authors, from Crescas onward.
Research Associate: Dr. Isaac Slater (2022–23)
Jewish Scepticism and Religious Humanism: Hermeneutics, Politics, and “Disputes over Words”
From its early stages, Judaism set political and divine authorities against each other while examining the absurdity of using mundane metaphors in religious language. Perhaps no one in the history of modern Jewish philosophy took this challenge more seriously than Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), who faced the challenge of holding to religious beliefs that some considered incompatible with the civil values of the state. This project explores Mendelssohn’s use of sceptical tactics to undermine the state’s authority in matters of religion and the ramifications this notion had for Jewish philosophers in the early twentieth century. It shows how Mendelssohn’s preference for practical knowledge over metaphysical enquiries supplied early twentieth-century Jewish religious humanists with the grounds for suspending judgement on metaphysical issues and focusing on the individual human condition.
The project focuses on two such thinkers. The first is Shmuel Alexandrov (1865–1941), who used Mendelssohn’s notion of a “living script” to escape the narrow restrictions of the “the dead letter” and that tasks the individual with the mission to interpret the Torah as he sees fit. Undermining the metaphysical validity of religious language and arguments, Alexandrov read heretical ideas into religious sources, thus reclaiming them as part of the ever-evolving Jewish tradition. The second thinker is Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869–1931), who built upon Mendelssohn’s rejection of God’s worship as an act directed towards the divine and his view of religion as a project aimed at bettering the human condition. Facing a resurgence in Jewish orthodox propaganda, Tamares undermined the language used by rabbinic figures and connected it to similar propaganda used by nationalists during World War I, claiming that both created “false idols” and distorted the humanistic nature embedded in pure faith.
Research Associate: Dr. Ze'ev Strauss (2020–22)
The Rabbis and the Principle of Noncontradiction: Tolerance and Scepticism in Mendelssohn’s Perception of Jewish Tradition
In his Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism (1783), Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) makes the following remark with reference to Batqol’s verdict regarding the difference of halakhic opinion between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai as depicted in a famous passage from the Babylonian Talmud (b. ʿErub. 13b: “Both are the words of the living God”): “I have seen many a pedant quote this saying to prove that the rabbis do not believe in the principle of contradiction. I hope to live to see the day when all the peoples of the earth will admit this exception to the universal principle of contradiction: ‘The fast day of the fourth and the fast day of the tenth month shall become days of joy and gladness if you but love peace and truth’ (Zech 8:19).”
This research project will analyse Mendelssohn’s appreciative assessment of traditional rabbinic literature. Its analysis will be formed of six thematic steps: (1) It will argue that for Mendelssohn―who is often wrongly considered a stringent adversary of rabbinic authority―rabbinic tradition actually embodies the animate, dialogical nature of Judaism in the truest sense of the word. In Mendelssohn’s view, Judaism’s nature is comprised of a unique link between scepticism and tolerance, and it is precisely in the rabbis’ unwillingness to tie themselves down to a fixed set of dogmatic opinions that their tolerance is found. (2) It will attempt to reveal Mendelssohn’s Christian opponents (the so-called many a pedant) and their sources, which draw on the Talmud and other traditional rabbinic writings in order to paint an image of Judaism as an incoherent, reprehensible belief system. (3) It will demonstrate how this perception of the rabbis relates to Mendelssohn’s critique of written language. (4) It will set out to examine whether one can trace Mendelssohn’s attitude towards the ancient rabbinic authorities in earlier, lesser-known Hebrew writings (such as his 1770 Commentary on Ecclesiastes) and explore whether it helped to shape the position of other Maskilim. (5) It seeks to disclose the significant role of Mendelssohn’s striking image of the rabbinic sages as promoters of universal ideas and values of the Enlightenment within his stance on the civil emancipation of Prussian Jewry and Jewish pedagogics. (6) It seeks to examine Mendelssohn’s idealised perception of the rabbis, through which it will point to the link between scepticism and doubt within his Jewish educational ideals and the efforts to reform them.
Research Associate: Dr. Sarah Wobick-Segev (2019–23)
Women and the Production of Judaism in Central Europe (1855–1945)
My current research project is an interdisciplinary investigation of Jewish women who served as public producers of Jewish religious culture in Central Europe from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. To this end, I explore the cases of women who openly or even tacitly challenged the roles assigned to women within Judaism, including: a young widow and mother of three from Moravia who in 1855 published a German-language book of prayers for Jewish women; a children’s book author who became the first woman to serve on the executive board of the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens and regularly advocated for Jewish girls’ education and women’s greater participation in the community; a ‘simple’ seamstress who revolutionized the world of religious education for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox girls in Krakow and throughout Central and Eastern Europe; and a young woman from Berlin who in 1935 became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi. As much as the accomplishments of Fanny Neuda, Else Dormizter, Sarah Schenirer and Regina Jonas were seemingly unique, the four case studies reveal a wider profile of Jewish women who argued for a public, female voice in defining and determining communal religious life.
Research Projects of MCAS Team (First Funding Period: 2015–19)
Director: Prof. Dr. Giuseppe Veltri
Scepticism. Strategies and History of (Jewish) Philosophy
Two significant research fields can be distinguished in my research on scepticism: a philosophical approach based on an analytical and diachronic historical perspective towards Jewish philosophy and an approach focusing on elements of sceptical strategies, contents, and attitudes (to be called “manifestations of scepticism”). This research will soon be published in a book divided into three parts.
My study takes its starting point in an ancient question, that of the relationship between Jewish culture, Greek philosophy, and then Greco-Roman (and Christian) thought in connection with the enquiry into the history and genealogy of wisdom and knowledge (Part One: Alienated Wisdom). It includes a section that will lead us to certain declarations of political, moral, and scientific principles, and then on to the birth of what is called philosophia perennis or, in Christian circles, prisca theologia. Objectively, perennialism amounts to an assertion of the possession of all wisdom, a theological and apologetic holism that leads to dogmatic absolutisms. A further topic included in the book is devoted to the new kind of research born within the academies and the private circles of the so-called “science of Judaism” (Wissenschaft des Judentums). This study—of particular authors, currents, ideas, and concepts—would be called “Jewish philosophy” by many, though not by all (Part Two: Jewish Philosophy, History of Definitions). Various theses exist about the genesis of this concept, and the one sustained in this study is that it acquires multiform denominations precisely because it is not a Jewish concept, but a Christian one, adopted for the purposes of simplification and emancipation. The last part is dedicated to Jewish scepticism (Part Three: Jewish Scepticism). In this part, I ask why scepticism was only rarely discussed within academic Jewish philosophy and what happens when this current of inquiry is placed at the centre of all speculation on the theme and system of philosophy. We will discover that intriguing discussions on the sceptical “nature” of Judaism originated contemporaneously in two different areas: in Northern Italy with special emphasis on Venice, and in some German Protestant universities. The main question among Jewish intellectuals was the authority of reason and human knowledge, while the focus of Protestant scholars on the definition of Jewish thought as scepticism mainly originated from the goal of disavowing the oral and written tradition, a question naturally intertwined with authority.
Co-Director: Prof. Dr. Stephan Schmid
Rationalism and Scepticism
A rationalist holds that reality is fully intelligible in the sense that there is a reason for everything. A sceptic, by contrast, holds that we can have no knowledge about reality or at least no knowledge about certain domains of reality. Baruch de Spinoza (1632-77) was a radical rationalist who sought to refute scepticism through rationalism. Nearly a century later, Salomon Maimon (1753-1800) followed Spinoza’s radical rationalism in criticising Kant's transcendental philosophy. As Maimon argued, Kant did not succeed in demonstrating that we can apply the forms of our understanding to our sensory intuitions. In opposition to Kant, Maimon pleaded for what he called "rational dogmatism" on the one hand and "empirical scepticism" on the other. According to this suggestion, we should accept that reality is fully intelligible such that knowledge of it is unquestionably certain. At the same time, however, we should admit that such certain knowledge of reality is not attainable for finite beings like us (and hence adopt scepticism when it comes to the question of the possibility of empirical knowledge). In this project, I examine the different arguments via which Spinoza and Maimon drew opposite conclusions concerning the relationship between rationalism and scepticism.
Co-Director: Jun. Prof. Dr. Racheli Haliva (2015–22)
Maimonides’ Aristotelianism was a solid ground for the study conducted by his direct and indirect disciples. In many cases, Maimonides accepted Aristotle’s theories, while in others he argued that Aristotle did not have demonstrative proofs for his claims and therefore, argues Maimonides, we ought to accept the opinions taught by our prophets. Jewish Averroists, mainly from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, utilised Averroes’ commentary on Aristotle in order to show that in several issues Maimonides unjustly adopted a sceptical view. My research focuses on the Jewish Averroists, in particular Isaac Albalag and Isaac Polqar (fourteenth century, Spain), who implicitly and explicitly criticised some of Maimonides’ sceptical attitudes. According to their view, applying an Averroist reading to Maimonidean texts could lead to certainty or approximate certainty. An example of an Averroistic reading of Maimonides is the question of the origin of the world. While Maimonides held a sceptical view in the Guide of the Perplexed, Albalag and Polqar argued that the theory of the eternity of the world could be proven from a philosophical point of view as well as from grammatical and Rabbinic perspectives.
Research Associate: Dr. Rachel Aumiller (2017–19)
Rachel Aumiller was working on a monograph that offers an ontology of self-certainty and self-doubt. She began with the figure of the midwife in the work of Aristophanes and Plato to locate a notion of subjectivity that arises out of the abortion of the object of art/philosophy. As Hegel argues in his analysis of the transition from the “art religion” of the Greeks to the “revealed religion” of Judaism and Christianity, the ancient world ends when the destructive spirit of scepticism merges with the equally destructive spirit of comedy. Comedy is an aesthetic stage that turns on itself, destroying its own object of aesthetic reflection; scepticism likewise destroys its own object of philosophical reflection. Although the parallel stages of comedy and scepticism seem purely negative, pure negativity engenders pure certainty. The negative ground of certainty may be seen as the condition for subjectivity. She developed this notion of the subject as something grounded in objective negativity by turning to contemporary psychoanalysis and Jewish thought with figures such as Benjamin, Lacan, Derrida, and Rose
Research Associate: Dr. Yoav Meyrav (2018–19)
Moshe ha-Levy and the Crisis of Metaphysics
Yoav Meyrav's project focused on editing, translating, and analysing the Metaphysical Treatise (Maqāla Ilāhiyya; Maʾamar Elohī) by Moshe ben Yosef ha-Levy (Mūsā b. Yūsuf al-Lāwī), a little known thirteenth-century (or slightly earlier) Jewish Andalusian philosopher from Seville who was held in high regard by subsequent thinkers, most notably Hasdai Crescas. The work survives in Arabic and in an anonymous Hebrew translation. The Metaphysical Treatise is a work that defends the distinction between the necessary existent and the first mover against Ibn Rushd’s attempt to equate the two, fearing that this would open the door for plurality in God and subsequently to heresy. In his attempt to uphold this distinction, whose most recent champion had been Ibn Sina, Moshe provides a series of arguments that exposes the deep divide within contemporary metaphysics concerning its most fundamental concept. Moshe’s explicit aim is to undo the damage that he believed Ibn Rushd’s reactionary approach had done to the organic development of metaphysical theory. Moshe’s project eventually backfired, as later religious authors used his work to facilitate their sceptical attitude toward philosophers’ abilities to attain the truth.
Research Associate: Dr. Bill Rebiger (2015–19)
Early Opponents of the Kabbalah and the Use of Sceptical Strategies in Their Argumentations
From the very beginning, the Kabbalah was neither totally undisputed nor flourishing without any opposition. Bill Rebiger presented a couple of case studies concerning the early opponents of the Kabbalah. The period in question stretches from the emergence of the Kabbalah around 1200 CE until the seventeenth century, when Leon Modena (1571–1648) composed the first full-fledged criticism of the Kabbalah, entitled Ari Nohem (“Roaring Lion”). The purpose of the research project was less to write a comprehensive history of the early opponents of the Kabbalah and more to focus on the sceptical, anti-sceptical, and non-sceptical strategies of argumentation used by selected authors and texts in specific discourses. Therefore, the aim of the research was twofold. Firstly, the relevant texts written in opposition to certain claims of the early Kabbalah were studied, translated, and discussed. Secondly, a systematic study of the different claims of the early Kabbalists and the arguments against them was undertaken in order to discuss the diverging sceptical, anti-sceptical, and non-sceptical strategies of polemics and disputes. The results were presented in a series of articles.