Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 1 August 1969, p. 19.
Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism. By A. Altmann. Routledge & Kegan Paul. £3.
The many friends and admirers of Dr Altmann in this country will welcome this collection of his profound scholarly articles on religious and philosophical themes with particular reference to their appearance in the history of Jewish thought.
The recurring theme, as Dr Altmann observes in his introduction, is that of “Images of the Divine.” The study of how the notion of man as created in God’s image assumes many guises in the religious thought of the past affords many fascinating insights and is a very solid contribution to the history of ideas.
An examination of the full range of the learned author’s thought cannot be undertaken within a short review but reference should be made to the essay of “The Delphic Maxim in Medieval Islam and Judaism.” Published originally six years ago this has already become the classic exposition of the history of the idea that man can know God through a deep knowledge of himself.
Dr Altmann points out that the Karaite authors who quote: “From my flesh I behold God’ (Job 19, 26), a text that is interpreted to mean: man knows God through reflection on the depths of his own being.
The text is persistently applied in this way in Jewish literature right down to the days of the Chasidic movement. It is, for instance, a favourite Habad text. (Dr Altmann takes the theme down to the end of the Middle Ages only.) All this is surveyed with astonishing erudition in Greek, Islamic and Jewish sources and with the keenest analysis of the various motifs. The other essays are of the same calibre and make the book one to be prized by scholars.
It is difficult to fault the author, but it is a little surprising to find him virtually approving of William Wollaston’s translation of avak leshon ha-ra, as “to throw dust upon a man’s reputation y innuendoes, ironies, etc.” The meaning of the rabbinic expression is, of course, that a trace of slander is present even in cases where the full offence has not been perpetrated, as in the parallel expression, avak ribbit, “the dust of usury”.