Charles Harry Manekin, ed. Medieval Jewish Philosophical Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xli + 256 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-84023-1; $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-54951-6.
Reviewed by Aaron Hughes (Department of Religious Studies - University of Calgary)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
An Anthology of Primary Sources
Although scholars working in medieval Jewish philosophy have long appreciated both the quality and quantity of the writings that emerge from this field, those working in the larger area of medieval philosophy are not always aware of the breadth and depth of these texts. How many times, for example, must we encounter a survey of medieval philosophy, wherein Maimonides, functioning as the metonym for Jewish philosophy writ large, receives a brief section in a larger chapter devoted to Islamic philosophy? Perhaps as a way to begin to overcome this lacuna, the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy series has released an anthology of medieval Jewish philosophical writings. However, if other Cambridge anthologies that have appeared deal primarily with specific individuals (e.g., Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche), the series still prefers to group individual Jewish philosophers under the generic, and as Charles Harry Manekin argues, misleading term “medieval Jewish philosophy.”
Manekin has done an excellent job of assembling together eight texts that are representative of the geographical and temporal parameters of medieval philosophical writings penned by Jews. These texts are primarily a series of selections from: Saadia Gaon’s The Book of the Beliefs and Conviction (c. early 930s); Shlomo ibn Gabirol’s The Source of Life (c. 1040s); Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (c. 1190); Isaac Albalag’s The Emendations of the “Opinions” (c. 1292); Gersonides’ Wars of the Lord (1317-29); Hasdai Crescas’s Light of the Lord (1410); and Joseph Albo’s The Book of Principles (c. 1415-25). In addition, Manekin has also translated the complete Treatise on Choice (1362) by Moses Narboni, a text written in response to the strict determinism of the apostate to Christianity, Abner of Burgos.
Half of these selections have been translated before (e.g., texts by Saadia, Maimonides, Gersonides, and Albo), and Manekin states that, with such texts, he has taken “the middle path of revising translations ... to achieve uniformity of terminology and of translation practice” (p. xl). Of those with preexisting translations, he adopts the Guide of the Perplexed and The Book of Principles “with relatively slight terminological revisions and updating”; whereas the others “are either newly translated or significantly revised” (p. xl).
In addition to the treatises, Manekin provides the reader with a short, but strong, introduction to the texts, offering some historical and intellectual context, including a summary of their contents. He also provides a very brief, I think too brief, chronology; information on the translations that he has used; and suggestions for further reading.
It is always difficult to review an anthology of texts, especially those written between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. Rather than focus on the content of such texts, or even the quality of their translation, I wish instead to reflect on the choice of texts. These reflections, on one level at least, might be seen as part of a larger rumination on the status of the study of medieval Jewish philosophy as a discipline. As significant as Saadia, Maimonides, and Gersonides are for understanding the importance of medieval Jewish philosophy, their main texts are already and easily accessible in English (whether in full translations or in other anthologies, including one that Manekin has edited with Oliver Leaman and Daniel H. Frank, entitled The Jewish Philosophy Reader ). It, thus, might have been more useful if Manekin had translated other texts, for example, along the lines of Narboni’s Treatise on Choice. Such texts, inaccessible to students who do not know Hebrew, are essential to filling in the larger picture of medieval Jewish philosophy. So, rather than one more set of selections from such well-known figures as Maimonides, I would have liked to have seen a greater variety that included more “marginal” writings that, in turn, would wonderfully supplement the “great” texts already available in translation. Examples of other such texts might have included selections from Isaac Polleqar’s Ezer ha-Dat (c. 1350), and perhaps even something from what are increasingly considered to be the important and influential writings of the apostate Abner of Burgos. On a related note, Manekin’s translation of a selection from Albalag’s The Emendations of the “Opinions,” a text not readily available in English translation, is only two pages long (compare this, for example, with his twenty-page selection from Saadia).
Another, and related, question is: why these texts? One could perhaps argue that Saadia’s influence on later Jewish philosophical writing was marginal. Why, however, does Manekin not include a selection from Judah Halevi’s Kuzari (1140)? Halevi, who had a much larger influence on subsequent Jewish thought, as the work by Adam Shear has recently demonstrated (The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167-1900 ), might have been a better choice. Moving to the other end of the temporal spectrum, why did Manekin not select anything from Isaac Abrabanel or even his son, Judah?
On the topic of text selection, Manekin also works with a fairly narrow definition of philosophy. There exist no excerpts, for example, from the genre of philosophical biblical commentaries (on the importance of which, see James T. Robinson’s Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes ); from texts that play with the intersection of philosophy and literature (e.g., Abraham ibn Ezra’s Hay ben Meqitz (c. mid-twelfth century, before 1160); from those who deal with the interface of philosophy and mysticism (e.g., Nahmanides); or even from texts, other than Crescas’s Light of the Lord, that are critical of philosophy.
Certainly none of these criticisms are meant to distract from the overall importance of this anthology, whose main audience, I would imagine, would be undergraduate students. Taken as individual philosophers, as opposed to the generic title that the Cambridge series gives them, this book will introduce something of the beauty and dynamics of medieval Jewish philosophical writings to a new generation interested in philosophy but with no background in Judaism and vice versa. If the anthology succeeds in doing this, as I am sure it will, Manekin is to be congratulated.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Aaron Hughes. Review of Manekin, Charles Harry, ed., Medieval Jewish Philosophical Writings.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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