Teleology in Jewish Philosophy: Early Talmudists till Spinoza

In Jeffrey McDonough (ed.), Teleology: A History. New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 123-149 (2020)
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Medieval and early modern Jewish philosophers developed their thinking in conversation with various bodies of literature. The influence of ancient Greek – primarily Aristotle (and pseudo-Aristotle) – and Arabic sources was fundamental for the very constitution of medieval Jewish philosophical discourse. Toward the late Middle Ages Jewish philosophers also established a critical dialogue with Christian scholastics. Next to these philosophical corpora, Jewish philosophers drew significantly upon Rabbinic sources (Talmud and the numerous Midrashim) and the Hebrew Bible. In order to clarify the unique as well as shared elements in the thought of medieval Jewish philosophers, we will begin this chapter with a brief study of some early Rabbinic sources on the purpose of the world, i.e., why it came to be and why it is sustained in existence. In the second part of this chapter, we will study Maimonides’ critique of the veracity and usefulness of the belief in (anthropocentric) teleology, and the critical reception of his views by later philosophers. The third part will address discussions of divine teleology in Kabbalistic literature. Our exposition will concentrate mostly on a specific early-eighteenth-century text that is one of the most lucid and rigorous presentations of Lurianic Kabbalah. The fourth and final section will elucidate Spinoza’s critique of teleology, its precise target and scope, and its debt to earlier sources discussed in this chapter.

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Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University


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