Review: An Introduction to medieval Jewish philosophy

A friendly guide to a world of ideas

By Rabbi Harvey Be..., July 30, 2009

By Daniel Rynhold
IB Tauris, £16.99

In this erudite, yet accessible, work, Daniel Rynhold of Yeshiva University (and previously of King’s College London and the London School of Jewish Studies), introduces the primary medieval Jewish philosophers and their main ideas.

Early Jewish thinkers such as Sa’adia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi (author of the Kuzari), Maimonides and Gersonides, wrote extensively on such fundamental issues as the existence of God, freewill, good and evil and the purpose of Judaism. But they often disagreed about basic beliefs: the function of mitzvot, how to understand the suffering of the righteous and even the nature of God were matters of dispute.

Following an introduction to the subject, Dr Rynhold covers eight key topics, including prophecy, divine omniscience and creation. He excels at selecting representative excerpts from the original texts and using them to explain cogently the delicate distinctions between diverse opinions. His writing also conveys an infectious and Maimonidean enthusiasm for combining religious commitment with “an unyielding commitment to the pursuit of truth”.

Despite the complexity of many of its ideas, the book moves at a good pace: it succeeded in maintaining my interest throughout. I particularly liked the balance between the relaxed and chatty style of the prose and the excerpts of the texts under discussion, which are presented in a more formal, slightly distant translation.

He also cleverly bridges the gap between academic literature and more popular works by assuming that the reader has no prior knowledge, but is capable of progressing quickly to a sophisticated appreciation of philosophical subtleties. Another impressive touch is the way in which the author avoids digression within the main text, yet balances this with a further reading list at the end of each chapter. This is destined to become a standard reference work.

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green United Synagogue

Last updated: 3:35pm, March 3 2010