Jewish Thought, Philosophy, and the Efficient Slaying of Multiple Birds

BY: Alex Ozar.

Reviewed Book: David Shatz, Jewish Thought in Dialogue: Essays on Thinkers, Theologies, and Moral Theories (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009). Price: $65.00

I am not aware of any discipline which exhibits more anxiety about whether or not it exists than does Jewish Philosophy.[i] I have it on good word, in fact, that before embarking on their careers, all professors of Jewish Philosophy take a solemn oath (with their right hand resting on a copy of The Guide, of course) that they will never begin teaching a course without first discussing the question of just what Jewish Philosophy is and whether there is any such thing at all.  Like Dr. Shatz in Jewish Thought in Dialogue: Essays on Thinkers, Theologies, and Moral Theories,[ii] I will avoid addressing this issue per se; but, also like Dr. Shatz in this book, I would like to explore some closely related matters.  According to Aristotle, the “good – the doing well – of a flute-player, a sculptor, or any practitioner of a skill, or generally whatever has a characteristic activity or action, is thought to lie in its characteristic activity.”[iii] If so, called upon as I am to evaluate Dr. Shatz’s work in this book, or whether that work is “good” or “done well,” it would be helpful to determine just what sort of practitioner Dr. Shatz is in regard this book, and what is his characteristic activity.  And so I ask: is Dr. Shatz a Jewish philosopher?  A Jewish thinker?  An analytic philosopher?

In the book’s introduction, Shatz discusses the “putative dichotomy”[iv] between thinkers and philosophers, attempting to narrow the gap between the camps, at least in regard to how we relate to their usefulness.  I propose that Dr. Shatz is both a philosopher and a thinker, and therein lie his uniqueness and his characteristic activity.  Shatz claims that “philosophy is not the exclusive province of those who meet the alleged criteria for ‘philosophers.’”[v] In parallel, I am claiming that Thought is not the exclusive province of those who do not “show a proper level of familiarity with certain vocabularies and methods…;”[vi] I believe that even well trained, duly appointed academic philosophers can sometimes be Jewish Thinkers.  Of course, if being a Jewish Thinker just means being a poor philosopher – and the term is certainly used that way – my claim seems rather dubious.  So, to avoid any dispute or confusion, I will simply stipulate a definition: to be a Jewish Thinker is to engage in intelligent discourse of meaning to, and resonance with a Jewish soul.

Analytic philosophy is characterized by its rigorous use of formal logic in its argumentation, its painstaking attention to detail, and its commitment to clarity of expression and precise definition.[vii] These constitute the virtues of analytic philosophy.  Precisely as a consequence of these virtues, though, analytic philosophy is often difficult, tedious, and just plain boring, much like mathematics, or bricklaying.[viii] Shatz describes the “characteristic idiom” of analytic philosophy as “technical, dry discourse, inaccessible to all but the philosophically trained.”[ix] Compounding the difficulties arising from its style, much of analytic philosophy is devoted to topics which most people simply do not find intriguing, or even find outright repelling; the thesis that there are no chairs,[x] the question of whether water’s identification with H₂O holds in all possible worlds,[xi] and the question of “trans-world identity”[xii] are some of the less confounding, more accessible discussions to be found in recent analytic philosophy.  In sum, analytic philosophy has the virtues of rigor, clarity, meticulousness, and precision, but also the vice of bearing little relevance to actual human living.

Jewish Thought, on the other hand, is often written in a flowing, accessible, and engaging style.  Its argumentation, however, is at times shoddy, its interpretations of sources somewhat liberal, and its expression less than fully transparent.  Works of Jewish Thought often achieve significant popularity among a broad spectrum of readers, including many who are not academically inclined or intellectually sophisticated.  I take it that the primary explanation for this phenomenon is that the average Jew finds Jewish Thought meaningful and spiritually edifying; Jewish Thought speaks to the Jew’s heart and resonates in harmony with the strings of the Jew’s soul.  To be sure, being religiously meaningful is not a necessary condition for being Jewish Thought; there is no shortage of low-quality Jewish Thought.  Stated precisely, then, my claim is this: Jewish Thought is the sort of thing that is usually spiritually edifying.

Dr. Shatz’s work represents  a special marriage of analytic philosophy and Jewish Thought.  What he does is analytic philosophy, because his reasoning is sophisticated, rigorous, and clear; his argumentation is explicit and logically sound; he critically evaluates his assumptions; and, least importantly, because his language, tone, and overall style are recognizably that of modern analytic philosophy.  But what he does is also Jewish Thought, because it bears significant religious Jewish import, is spiritually meaningful and edifying, engages and works with uniquely Jewish premises, and because his language, tone, and style bear the mark of a distinctly Jewish idiom and modus operandi.  And, more than just killing two birds with one stone, this union of analytic philosophy and Jewish Thought allows Shatz to murder each bird in a qualitatively superior manner than were he to slay each independently, precisely because the virtues of each address and correct the vices of the other.  Analytic rigor and clarity are brought to bear on Jewish Thought, and a healthy dose of Jewish meaning is injected into analytic philosophy.

These benefits do not come cost-free.  For the gain of analytic clarity and rigor, there is a price to be paid in difficulty and, alas, tediousness.  Thorough, careful reasoning takes time and effort, and the reader must be willing and able to devote himself accordingly.  As someone with training in the relevant disciplines and a strangely inordinate level of excitement and interest for this material, and as someone who on the whole thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I admit to occasionally finding the going rough, getting bored, and losing interest.  More importantly, I often had to read and reread paragraphs, making sure I had followed the argumentation.  In short, this book is not a light, easy read, and I am unsure of how much a philosophical non-initiate would get out of it.  However, the other side of that coin, of course, is that anyone willing to devote the requisite time and effort will likely be richly rewarded for it.

One limitation attending analytic philosophy is that the claims it produces often have to be cautiously formulated, modified, and tightly qualified in the face of objections, real and potential, which results in the claims being considerably less exciting.  Analytic philosophers must always be on guard, and so it is rare to find them making grand, sweeping assertions.  In his essay “Is Matter all that Matters?,” Shatz explores various ways in which traditional Judaism could make peace with Materialism, which, in his usage, refers to the thesis that Man is a material thing and is often taken to have as a consequent that Man does not posses free will.  One of the approaches he takes involves combing Jewish sources for views that either devalue free will or deny it altogether.  One such source he finds in the writings of certain Hasidic thinkers, who deny any agency to Man, instead asserting that all actions are caused by God; Man has but the freedom to acknowledge this truth.[xiii] Shatz argues that holding such a view carries positive religious values, like humility and subordination to God, and so concludes that “for followers of the approach under discussion, there is religious value in denying free will.”[xiv] This is interesting, but it is not clear whom it is intended to help.  Most of Shatz’s readership, and those who are concerned with the problem of Materialism, are not followers of the Hasidic, anti-free will approach.  Those who are followers are likely unconcerned with Materialism and anyway do not need any encouragement to maintain their view.  It is certainly intriguing to know that such a view exists within the broader field of Jewish thinking, and also that, were it to turn out that we had no free will, there would be some positive religious value in things being so, but this really does not say very much.  To be clear, it is not as if Shatz claims to do any more than he actually does; on the contrary, he is painstakingly precise in that regard.  It simply reflects the price to be paid for doing things well.

At times, in place of highly qualified assertions, we find claims that are highly general and inclusive.  The essay “The Bible as a Source for Philosophical Reflection,” coauthored with Rabbi Shalom Carmy, attempts to “mine the Bible for philosophical ore,” in apparent hope of determining the Bible’s view on classical philosophical issues.[xv] In regard to the question of providence and free will, a topic on which many a thinker has not been afraid to assert that the Bible’s view is precisely his own, Shatz and Carmy write, “Our approach recognizes that the biblical metaphysic is as complex as it is enigmatic.  Such concepts as providence, history, and responsibility are grasped by human beings in a variety of contexts.  Sometimes, God is depicted as in total control of events; sometimes, He appears to relinquish the initiative.”[xvi] Again, this is not a very strong or ambitious claim.  However, again it has that most wonderful of philosophical virtues, accuracy.  Moreover, it is not philosophically insignificant that the Bible’s view on these matters is a complex, variegated thing; at the very least, it constitutes an impetus for further philosophical reflection on why it is so.  In fact, though they do not develop it, Shatz and Carmy seem to be hinting at a philosophical approach to this problem when they say, “Such concepts as providence, history, and responsibility are grasped by human beings in a variety of contexts.”[xvii] Rather than reflecting a confused, jumbled philosophy on the part of the Author, or a simple lack of philosophical thinking altogether, the Bible’s varied stance on these issues is intended as a sensitive response to the real ways in which human beings experience them.  That God would choose to so author His Bible is surely grounds for some fascinating philosophical reflection.  And so, sometimes what would seem a non-answer turns out to be the answer which is the most profound.

A particularly interesting and unique outgrowth of his analytic approach is that Shatz often asks the sorts of questions that no one ever asks but which everyone wonders why he did not upon hearing them.[xviii] Often Shatz interrogates the reflexive assumptions and entrenched, regnant positions of his colleagues and fellow Jews.  Many Modern Orthodox Jews take for granted that Rav Kook serves as a paradigmatic champion of openness in general, and specifically of the ideal of integrating Torah and culture.  Shatz, in a pair of essays on Rav Kook, carefully analyzes this position, with the result of a considerably more complex and nuanced view of the matter.  Shatz provides a precisely formulated account of Rav Kook’s concept of ihud kodesh ve-hol, according to which “kodesh is “a controlling vision” which serves as the “form” (tsurah) which shapes and structures the “matter” of “hol,” where hol is understood as referring to the facts of certain historical developments.[xix] The divine, revelatory kodesh perception can and should shape an understanding of the development of evolutionary theory, for instance.  Importantly, though, hol here does not refer to “limmudei hol, the teachings, or contents, of particular disciplines.”[xx] Now, just what Rav Kook’s position was on the study and acceptance of secular and heretical teachings is not a simple matter.  Rav Kook at times seems radically open to evaluating the truth claims of Torah, as when he states that biblical accounts do not need to be factually correct, but at other times seems radically conservative, as when he refuses to admit the possibility that metsitsah carries a health risk, per the counsel of modern physicians but against Hazal.[xxi] Shatz states that this and other points diminish Rav Kook’s “contribution to and impact on contemporary discussions of Orthodox Jewish confrontation with modernity,”[xxii] notwithstanding the regnant perceptions.

Similarly, in regard to Rav Kook’s purported “openness” to culture, Shatz shows that a careful reading reveals that it may not be what Modern Orthodoxy is looking for, and this in two ways.  If we take a “bottom-line” approach in evaluating openness, then many of Rav Kook’s positions, such as his rejection of women’s suffrage, many of his halakhic rulings, and his numerous disparaging remarks about then-current science and culture, seriously call into question his openness.  And even if we reject the bottom-line approach, looking rather to the broader theory and principles which produce the bottom line, here, too, Modern Orthodoxy may not get what it is looking for.  For one, Rav Kook’s thought is rooted heavily in Kabbalah and 19th-century Progressivism, neither of which Modern Orthodox Jews are comfortable with.  Further, what intellectual and cultural openness he has is predicated on a conception of the dialectical, progressive development of truth, which does not accord well with the Modern Orthodox desire for harmonious integration and synthesis and also results in a dismissive attitude toward the actual contents of current theories. This mini-excursus on Rav Kook was meant to exhibit Shatz’s talent for asking important questions on matters others just take for granted and also the fruit of employing analytic rigor in Jewish Thought.  He clarifies a number of concepts and presents his argumentation in a clear and organized manner, which is especially important given the nature of the subject matter, for which knockdown proofs of anything are all but non-existent and thus the risks of shoddy argumentation are raised.  Shatz, then, will not pretend he is proving anything, but rather makes explicit what considerations are involved, how they work, and how they interact.  The result is that one is left to choose for himself to which considerations he will give the most weight, but this choice will be a well educated and guided one; he will know just what he is gaining and what he is giving up.

Perhaps, the aspect of Shatz’s argumentation that people will find most intriguing is the way in which he employs religious and moral considerations; a position’s consonance with moral religious values counts as an argument for that position, and dissonance as an argument against.  So, whereas most modern people would object to Occasionalism, the thesis that every natural event is caused directly by God, on rational and scientific grounds, Shatz frames the issue in terms of “religious sensibilities.”[xxiii] For example, the merit of Occasionalism is argued for on the grounds of its providing for a good account of the Jewish value of bittahon;[xxiv] if everything is caused directly by God, and none of our actions have any causal efficacy, it is quite clear why we should place our trust in Him.  This, however, is countered by the problem of hishtaddelut, which becomes especially acute when in regard to helping others; if Occasionalism is true, none of my actions are causally efficacious, and so there is no reason for me to devote myself to other’s welfare.  However, helping others represents a religious value; therefore, there is something wrong with Occasionalism.  This sort of philosophical argument is far from unique to Shatz, but I think it will be new and exciting to many of his readers.  Anyhow, it again indicates the seriousness and sensitivity with which Shatz relates to his religion.


I started by asking what it is that Dr. Shatz is doing in this book so that I could evaluate how well he does it.  The answer is that he is doing Analytic Jewish Thought, and that he does it quite well.  He engages meaningful Jewish issues in a meaningful Jewish way, which turns out to be coextensive with a rigorously analytic, intellectually productive, and exciting way.

Alex Ozar is a second-year semikhah student at RIETS and is an Editor Emeritus for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Whether or not Descartes’ cogito could be employed here to reassure Jewish Philosophy that it does, after all, exist – surely its very doubting of its own existence is proof that it is around to doubt – I think it depends on whether “Jewish Philosophy” is understood as a Russellian definite description or as a Kripkean rigid designator.

[ii] See David Shatz, Jewish Thought in Dialogue: Essays on Thinkers, Theologies, and Moral Theories (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009), p. xxvi.

[iii] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[iv] Shatz, p. xiv.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] This is not to say, of course, that these criteria represent an ideal always achieved.

[viii] I should note that analytic philosophical writing is often witty, clever, and at times outright hilarious. Peter van Inwagen, or David Johnson for that matter, could have been standup comedians.

[ix] Ibid., p. 393.

[x] See Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990)..

[xi] See Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 128.

[xii] See Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1974).

[xiii] Shatz, p. 229.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., p. 39.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 18.

[xvii] Emphasis mine.

[xviii] In the introduction to his book on the deeply entrenched institution of peer review, Shatz writes, “Surprisingly, this is the first book-length study of peer review that utilizes methods and resources of contemporary philosophy” [David Shatz, Peer Review: A Critical Inquiry (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), p. 4]. I would just add that it is not surprising that Shatz was the first to publish such a book.

[xix] Shatz, p. 95.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] See ibid., p. 104.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 106.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 179.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 186.