Review of The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy by Aaron W. Hughes

Posted on April 2, 2008 in Default

Whether for the purpose of heartening the faithful to resist pressure to convert or assimilate, or to demonstrate the essential harmony of faith and reason, the philosophic dialogue has a long and distinguished history. A Canadian academic from the Religious Studies Department of the University of Calgary, Aaron W. Hughes gives a well-structured overview of its function and form within Jewish philosophy. Beginning with the towering mediaeval figure of Yehudah ha-Levi and concluding with the Enlightenment grandee, Moses Mendelssohn, he compares a variety of strategies used over the centuries for both internal and external consumption.

In the environment of eleventh-century Moorish Spain, the pressing issues at the forefront of Jewish intellectual-spiritual inquiry were the challenges of Aristotelianism and Islamic triumphalism. Hughes attempts with considerable success to place the Kuzari’s impassioned and unembarrasedly élitist defence of Judaism within its cultural and historical context, evidencing a relatively open market for competing subcultures, from philosophy to Isma’ilism and showing how its poetic and literary qualities were able to enhance its appeal in contradistinction less fully characterised works by ibn Gabirol and Bahya ibn Paquda.

In the wake of the Maimonidean controversies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the gulf between religious traditionalists and philosophical inquiry grew greater and was magnified by continuing tensions between the philosophical rationalism of the Sephardim and the Talmudic legalism of the Franco-German communities. Hughes chooses the dialogues of Shem Tov ibn Falaquera of Provence to illustrate that at least some thinkers considered that the relationship between religion and philosophy need not be one of mutual antipathy. In the precise, well-researched style that is a hallmark of the book, he is able to demonstrate the effects of the mediaeval Kulturkampf that took place between competing visions of Judaism. In fact, it becomes abundantly clear that today’s struggle for the right to dissent from the Microsoft-like advance of monolithic Artscroll orthodoxy is not so much a new phase as it is a case of history repeating itself. Ibn Falaquera is sympathetically presented as an idealist who is seeking to reconcile two assertive and principled stances to produce something which is more than the sum of its parts.

By the fourteenth century, the Jews of Christian Spain were under sustained attack from the Church in forms that included Christian preaching during synagogue services and public (i.e. forced) debates, such as the famous disputation of Barcelona, in which Nachmanides himself was compelled to participate. In many cases, the Christian accusers were Jewish apostates who used their knowledge to attempt to justify their conversions and vilify those who, in their view,  continued to be intransigent. Hughes examines the work of Isaac Polleqar, who fought a decades-long literary battle with his former teacher, the convert Abner of Burgos, who deployed astrological, kabbalistic, philosophical and aggadic elements to undermine the faith of his former co-religionists. Outlining a “dialogue of disputation”, the author draws a convincing portrait of a rationalist and faithful Jewish thinker engaged in a literary struggle against all enemies foreign and domestic, creating characters that express his own views with humour, poetry and sarcasm and scoring Pyrrhic, rhetorical victories that would not have been permitted in the kangaroo court of Christian public opinion.

As the mediaeval period gave way to the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the classical sources and the rise of new forms of philosophy and aesthetics brought a new set of challenges to the Jewish exiles from Spain newly arrived in Italy. Hughes analyses the figure of Judah Abravanel, the author of the Italian work Dialoghi d’amore, showing him to be not only a great populariser of Renaissance philosophy, but also a subtle defender of Judaism against new pressures of Christianisation from such towering figures as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

The work of Moses Mendelssohn is chosen by Hughes to demonstrate an ultimately doomed attempt to show Judaism to be the “religion of reason” beloved of Enlightenment philosophers, using the pre-Christian figure of Socrates as an uncontroversial stalking-horse. Unfortunately, as the author makes evident, Mendelssohn’s fragile synthesis did not survive him and despite his attempts to be accepted on his own intellectual ability, Jews were subsequently accepted into the society of reason once they had submitted to conversion.

Hughes’ forceful and lucid exposition paints a precise and well-footnoted picture fate of the dialogue format within Jewish philosophy. For a text by an academic it is notable for its clarity of language, only occasionally succumbing to linguistic technicality, which remains for the most part confined to a densely written introduction no doubt intended to satisfy his more scholarly readers and an epilogue which nonetheless raises some interesting points about the essentially static nature of a philosophical text when compared to the face-to-face encounters increasingly possible beween individuals.

In many ways it is this last point that has much to say to the modern practitioner of dialogue, whether between faiths or between different political and philosophical points of view. Modern dialogue is neither pre-scripted nor is the outcome predetermined by one controlling author, although it may of course still be used to caricature the positions of one’s opponents through selective and tendentious editorial control, as in the case of Professor Richard Dawkins’ recent anti-religious documentary “The Root of All Evil?”. It may no less still be intended by one or more of the parties to convince, convert or defend an ideological agenda, as demonstrated by the recent “dialogic encounter” book, “Letters to a Buddhist Jew”. Nonetheless, a record of a dialogue may still be used to show how different points of view can be reconciled into a harmonious whole, as it is in Rodger Kamenetz’s account of rabbis meeting the Dalai Lama, “The Jew In The Lotus”. However, the most free-wheeling, no-holds-barred encounters are now possible in the age of the blogosphere and web forum, which allow people from radically different cultures, walks of life and above all religious, philosophical and political outlooks to interact, debate, argue, banish ignorance and change minds in a frank exchange of views with little historical precedent.