Type of course: Lectrue Year of Studies


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Date: March 2010

Course Name and Number:

Topics in Jewish Philosophy



Type of course: Lectrue

Year of Studies: 2010-2011 Semester: Fall &Spring Hours/credits: 2

Course Description:

The course will approach fundamental questions of Jewish meaning and identity, drawing on classic sources from Hazal and Medieval thinkers to Jewish mystics, to contemporary Jewish theologians. A number of central questions to Jewish life will be discussed, such as: Who is a Jew? What is Israel’s role in the world? Is G-d still a meaningful concept? Do Torah and science conflict? What are the roots of anti-Semitism? What are the major elements of Jewish life (kashrut, holidays, mitzvot)? And what is the mesorah? The student will come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the history goals of the Jewish religion and the meaning of being Jewish in the world today.

Detailed Lesson plan:

First Semester

Topic 1. Question of Identity: Who is a Jew?

A discussion of the various terms for the Jewish people: Abraham (Ivri), Jacob (Yaakov, Israel), Mordechai (Yehudi). In addition to primary sources from Tanach and Midrashim, we will read Rabbeinu Bachaya, R. Nachman of Breslov, and the Malbim. The Jew in the eyes of the non-Jew will also be discussed, including reading from: Jean Paul Satre, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

2. Questions of Purpose: Man’s role in the world

Is there a religious and secular perspective of the human being? What is the Tanach’s understanding of man. Is there biblical mussar? What does the story of Adam in the Garden tell us; that of Cain and Abel?

Sources: Maimonidies, Guide 1:2; Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; R. Hayim Vital, Sha’arei Kedusha, chap. 1; Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 1:3.
3. Questions of Purpose, part 2: The Role of Israel in the World:

What does it mean to be a light to the nations? The Jew as social instigator, as reconciler, and as visionary. Primary readings: Exodus 19:6 (“priestly nation”), Vayikra Rabbah 36:4;

In addition to primary readings: Martin Buber, On Judaism; Franz Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, S.R. Hirsch, Horeb.

4. Questions of Questions: The Role of Jewish Philosophy:

What is Jewish philosophy? On the importance of questioning the tradition and oneself. Waking up spiritually. Readings from Saadya Gaon, in Three Jewish Philosophers, pp. 25-47, 93-105, 167-79from A.Y. Heschel, G-d in Search of Man; Jonathan Omer-Man, “The Study of Torah as Awakening” (Parabola Magazine 7:1);

5. The Jewish Soul

A discussion of the nature and uniqueness (or lack of it) of the Jewish soul. The influence of the soul in the world. Kabbalistic definitions of the soul and its levels. Approaches to the question of Jewish choseness. R. Yehuda HaLevi, Kuzari; Maimonidies, Iggeret Teiman; R. Nachman of Bratslav, Likutey Moharan I:21.

6. The Written and Oral Torah

How was the Torah written? Why do we need a written guide to behavior? What is the relationship between the two Torahs? Was everything given at Sinai? Is there room for creativity in Torah? Primary and Secondary reading: Sa’adiah Gaon, Emunah v’De’ot III:1-3; Maimonidies, Introduction to Mishnayot; R. Hirsch. Horev (with introduction by Dayan Grunfeld); R. Eliyahu Dessler, Strive for Truth; Nathan Cardozo, The Torah as G-d’s Mind.

7. Chanukah

The history of Chanukah. The nature of and response to the miraculous in the Jewish Tradition. Texts for discussion: Historical – Sefer HaMaccabim 1; Josephus. Philosophical – Maimonidies, Ramban, Maharal. R. Zadok.

8. Faith vs. Reasoning (Chanukah, part 2)

Is there a mitzvah to believe in G-d? Can G-d be proven, experienced? Does it matter? Discussion of proofs (and rebuttals) of G-d's existence. Primary Sources: Makot 23b; Rambam Sefer HaMitzvot - first mitzvah with commentary of the Rambam; Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 1:6; Hilchot Gedolot; Hasdai Crescas, intro to Ohr Hashem. Secondary literature: Kellman, Permission to Believe; Schuster, The Road Back.

9. Miracles

Are miracles indispensable to our belief in G-d? Do miracles still exist? How do they operate? Why are they disapproved of in the Talmud? Sources and readings:; Exodus 14; Joshua 10; Rashi on Numbers 26:10; Ramban on Exodus 13:16; Ramban on Genesis 6:19; R. Zadok, Divrei Sofrim 5; Shabbat 53b Eliezer Shore, “The Milk of Miracles,” Parabola, 1997

10. The Eternal Meaning of Sabbath

Biblical source of the Sabbath. Talmudic discussion of the 39 melachot – what are they, how are they derived, avot and toldot. A discussion of the talmudic story of a man lost in the desert as a paradigm for understanding the Sabbath. Other sources: Shemot 16:22-27, 19:8-12; Devorim 5:12-17; Isaiah 58:13-14; Jeremiah 17:19-22; Grunfeld, The Sabbath,

On the relevance of Sabbath observance in our day, based upon the Sefer ha-Hinuch (mitzvah 31,32); Heschel, The Sabbath, R. Kook, Rosenzweig.

11. The Jewish Calendar

What is the social-religious purpose of the Jewish holidays? Examination of the calendar itself, determining the holiday dates (keviyat ha-hodesh), the nature of the holidays according to the Maharal, Rosenzweig, R. Kook. The purpose of the holidays – in the time of the Temple and today. The nature of time as cyclical. Past influencing future (R. Zadok).

Sources: BT Berachot 63b-64a; Rambam, MT Zmanim, Humetz v’ Matzah 5:1-2, 6:1-4; Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, chap. 8; Rosenzweig, Star, part 3, chap. 1; Passover: Mishnah, Pesahim 10: SukkotJ. Rubenstein, “The Symbolism of the Sukkah” (parts 1 and 2), Judaism 43, pp. 371-87, and 45: 2 (1996), pp. 387-98 (available online); Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1; Mishnah Yoma.

12. Laws and Reasons for Kashrut

What is the purpose of the unique Jewish “diet”? Scientific proofs for the validity of shechita. A discussion of R. A.I. Kook’s approach to kashrut and vegetarianism, from his discussions on the topics of kisui dam (Lechai Roi, 5), kashrut (Hazon ha-Tzimchanut v’ha-Shalom, 4), and the prohibition of meat and milk (T’lalei Orot). Primary sources: Genesis 2:16-17, 4:4, 9:2-3 (with Rashi, Seforno, Ramban), Numbers 23:19, 34:27, Leviticus 11:1-3, 17:13, Deuteronomy 14:20-21, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 89.

Second Semester

1. Jewish Community: Open or Closed

Does Jewish community still exist? If so, what are its values and limitations? Can it still offer a meaningful structure for individuals? What demands can it place on individuals, and what is the responsibility of the individual to the community. A discussion of community functions (synagogue life, family celebrations). Does the concept of mamlechet cohanim – a nation (community) of priests still have any meaning? Maimonidies, Mishnah Torah, De’ot 6:1; R. A.I. Kook, Midot Ha-Raya, Ahavah 10, Shu’ot Reiyah vayeshev 1930; R. Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Beit HaLevi, Shemot. R. naftali Zvi Berlin, Ha-Emek Davar, Bamidbar 23:9.
2. Reasons for the Mitzvot

Discussion: Why were the mitzvot given, for man or for G-d? Does one need to feel something in the performance of mitzvot? Levels of performance: ethical (Sefer ha-Mitzvot), symbolic (Hirsch), mystical (Tanya, Ramchal). A discussion of the argument between Hasidim and Mitnagdim over the performance of mitzvot.

3. On the Efficacy of Prayer

Why pray? Who instituted prayers? Is it possible to write down prayer? Do prayers change G-d’s mind? Prayer as a path to devekut. Sources: The source of prayers in the Talmud (Berachot 26b). The controversy between Maimonidies and the Ramban on the obligation to pray (Mishnah Torah, Tefilah 1:1-6, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 5, with hasagot ha-Ramban. R. Kook on prayer (intro. to Olat Reiyah). Hasidim on prayer.

4. Freedom, Foreknowledge, and Astral Determinism

Are our actions predestined? Can we change the future? To what extent, if any, do we have free will? Sources: Genesis 15:5-8; Ramban on Deuteronomy 18:9; Berachot 10a; Shabbat 156a; Nida 16b; Moed Katan 28a; Ta’anit 25a; R. Tzadok, Machshavot Charutz; R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, Beniyahu ben Yehoyda, Abner of Burgos, "Treatise on Predestination", Sirat, pp. 302-322.

5. Hashgacha Pratit – G-d's involvement in our lives.

How does G-d direct our lives? Is He involved in the details? Does He direct the rest of creation similarly? Can we increase the level of hashgacha He shows us? A discussion of the different approaches: Maimonidies, Hasdai Crescus, Hasidism (Sefer Ha-Tanya, Mei Shiloach), Galei Raza.

6. Trust vs. Effort: How much effort must be made into making a livelihood.

What restrictions does the Torah place on earning a living, and why? How much trust in G-d is too much, not enough? Sources: Berachot 60b; Mishnah Berachot 5:54; Mo’ed Katan 18b; Rabbi Yeshayahu Karelitz, Emunah v’Betachon; R. M.M. Schneersohn of Lubavitch; R. Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, Shiurei Daas.Vol. I., chap. 3; R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, Toldos Yaakov Yosef.

7. Anti-Semitism:

Is it universal? What are its roots? What are the various possible reasons for it? How can it be overcome? Sources

Readings from Walter Laqueur, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Oxford University Press, 2008; D. Prager and J. Telushkin, Why the Jews? (Touchstone, 2003).

8-9. The Holocaust and Human suffering (two classes, before and after Yom Ha-Shoah)

Can we implicate the Divine in human suffering? Theories of Theodicy. Reasons for the Holocaust. Sources and readings: Ketubot 111a-b; Birnbaum, D. G-d and Evil, (Ktav, 1989); R. Yoel Teitelbaum, Vayoel Moshe; Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Anchor, 2004), Berkowitz, Faith After the Holocaust (Ktav, 1973)

10. Belief in Life after Death

What allusions are there in the Torah to life after death. Why is it not written explicitely? Sources from the Tanach, with Medieval and Kabbalistic commentators. Maimonidies, Introduction to perek Helek; kitvei Ramchal, sources from the Zohar.

11. Before Shavuot: Prophecy: Is G-d still talking to us?

What is the nature of prophecy? What was its function in ancient Israel. When and why did it cease? What are the criteria for achieving it. What has taken its place (ruach ha-kodesh, intuition)? Does G-d still talk to us directly. Sources: Berachot 57b; Baba Batra 12a; Maimonidies, Guide II:37; Kuzari, Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu, Baal Shem tov; R. Kalonymous Kalman of Piaseczno, Derech HaMelech.

12. After Shavuot: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism

What is mysticism? Is it real? Is it a universal phenomena, and if so, how does Jewish mysticism differ? A discussion of two types of mysticism: theurgic and ecstatic. Examples of meditative techniques. Dangers inherent in mysticism and restrictions placed on its study. Is the current popularization of Kabbalah legitimate?

Readings from: Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose; Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Kabbalah; Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.
13. Review, Final Questions.
Course requirements

  • Attendance and Participation. Participation includes: reading the material carefully and raising questions about it in class or on the electronic bulletin board, communicating with me outside of class, etc. (If you need to be absent from a class session, please let me know.)

  • Three papers, one each month, 4-5 pages each, analyzing the topic under discussion, based upon classroom discussion, handouts and students original thoughts.

  • Final Exam Option. For those who prefer it, a final exam may be taken in lieu of the final paper.

Grade Components (Number grade or pass/fail)

Short papers 35%,

Attendance and participation 35%,

Papers 30% Work handed in late is subject to grade reduction.

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