Originally published in November 1981.
Jewish Intellectual History. By Alexander Altmann. University Press of New England. £12.50.
Although it is more than 20 years since the author of this profound work of scholarship left these shores, we still cannot help thinking of him as our Dr Altmann who was so influential when many of us had the privilege of sitting at his feet. The articles, previously published in learned journals, which make up this volume, have as their theme the response by Jewish thinkers in each age to the particular thought-patterns of that age.
The selection is not a random one. Rather the essays were chosen to highlight the variety of ways in which Jews reacted to the cultures to which they were exposed during two thousand years of intellectual history from the early rabbinic period down to the 20th century. What emerges clearly from the investigation is the astonishing openness with which the Jewish mind encountered each period and assimilated what was suitable, with the result that, as Dr Altmann observes, new modes of human thought were articulated.
For instance, it is skilfully shown how midrashic homilies subtly employ features of the Gnostic doctrines in order to refute those very doctrines. It is not so much a case of if you can’t beat them join them as of if you can’t beat them then join them to beat them. So, too, the mediaeval Jewish thinkers utilised the Arabic Kalam when discussing such problems as the relationship between God’s omnipotence and omniscience and man’s free will and autonomy.
In the Italian Renaissance, Jewish theologians brought to bear the newly-stressed art of rhetoric on their interpretation of Judaism. A new style of Jewish preaching, based on Christian models, was developed by Mannheimer, Zunz and others in 19th century Germany, one that is now the norm among Westernised Jews.
As the foremost world authority on Moses Mendelssohn, Dr Altmann naturally devotes much space to this thinker’s views on miracles, his proofs for the existence of God, his attitude to miracles and his dislike of the cherem.
The riches of this book cannot be conveyed in a brief review but anyone interested in the history of ideas will find it totally absorbing. If such is needed, an extra bonus is provided by the demonstration that Jewish ideas also have a history and did not drop down ready-made from Heaven.