Upon reflection, many things seem to be less certain than they initially appear. Can we really be sure that things are as they appear to us? Can we trust the testimony of others? Can we rely on our senses? Or can we have any certainty in trusting our intellectual capacities? Scepticism, or the harbouring of doubts, is an anthropological constant found among all humans across all historical periods and cultures. Yet throughout history, our doubts and the critical investigations they give rise to have been moulded into different forms and formats. Scepticism is exhibited in various ways.
One mode of these manifestations of our inclinations towards doubt and questioning what we usually accept as unproblematic is philosophical scepticism, or scepticism in the narrow sense. This was first developed in ancient Greek philosophy, whose concept of skepsis (i.e. investigation) has influenced philosophical thinking ever since. One strand of ancient scepticism is Pyrrhonian scepticism, according to which we should withhold our judgments about the nature of things because we cannot conclusively rebut our doubts about any proposed hypothesis concerning them. Another strand of ancient scepticism is Academic scepticism, which asserts that we can at least be sure that we do not know anything because we have no tenable criterion for truth. In later periods of the history of philosophy, we can identify further varieties of scepticism. In Descartes, for instance, we find all-embracing doubts about the existence of the external world, while Hume cast doubt on our certainty about our concepts and the reliability of reason.
In addition to the philosophical scepticism described above, we also find cultural expressions of our inclinations towards doubt and questioning things. Such cultural expressions of scepticism (or scepticism in a wider sense) consist in practices of questioning authorities and/or political structures and in the adoption of strategic doubts in order to undermine these authorities.
The philosophy of religion in general, and that of Jewish thought in particular, brings forth unique tenets when tackling doubt. In comparison with the other two main monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, Judaism is mostly perceived as an undogmatic religion insofar as it does not contain a classical doctrinal theology, but is characterised by a culture of perpetual learning. The main goal of Jewish teaching is conveying the ability to ask the rabbinic authority the (right) question in order to illuminate the necessity of finding weak points in one’s argumentation. Due to this undogmatic nature of Judaism, the two aforementioned forms of scepticism—the philosophical and the cultural—are particularly present in Jewish thought and religion. The main goal of the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Study: Jewish Scepticism consists in exploring the various manifestations of scepticisms in Judaism.
It would be naive to believe that the various strands of scepticism in Judaism could be studied in an autonomous Jewish discourse. As already mentioned, scepticism in the broad sense, i.e. the tendency towards doubt and questioning, is a universal human inclination, which has taken many forms in the thought and culture of the last three millennia. In order to capture the distinct Jewish manifestations of the tendency towards doubt, it is thus essential to study Jewish scepticism in a plethora of contexts, most importantly in philosophical discussions and in the theological frameworks of Christianity and Islam.
As a field of inquiry, Jewish scepticism at the Maimonides Centre is thus not only concerned with the investigation of sceptical tendencies within Jewish thought and religion, but also with exploring these trajectories in and with relation to various contexts, particularly, but not exclusively, in those which projected inwards, thereby influencing Jewish thought, and those projecting outwards, that is, those which were influenced by Jewish thought.