When Harry Austryn Wolfson died in September 1974 at the age of eighty-seven, he left behind him a reputation for personal and professional eminence that bordered on legend. As professor of the history of philosophy at Harvard University—where he was known as Harvard’s “resident sage”—Wolfson had become universally recognized as one of the greatest scholars of his generation. In a body of work which spanned over half a century, he erected what is certainly among the most subversive interpretations ever offered of the philosophical development of the West. This achievement, a propitious alliance of penetrating critical acumen and intimidating erudition, was, however, much more than merely a stunning contribution to the history of a discipline: it amounted, in fact, to a daring new lease on Western thought. Wolfson’s work has had implications for intellectual and cultural historians, for philologists and historians of religion, for philosophers of religion and theologians.

As an author and teacher Wolfson raised the discussion of the history of ideas to new and distinguished heights, not only of intellectual probity, but of intellectual concern as well. When still a young man he came to his academic career as much out of a commitment to help clarify and resolve the crisis of contemporary Judaism as by his almost instinctive love of learning, and never afterward during his extensive labors in the academy did he lose sight of his larger purpose. Deeply cognizant of the quandaries of attempting to articulate a Jewish identity in an open and non-Jewish secular society, Wolfson believed and taught that the necessary condition of any religious or cultural position was knowledge: the blurred meaning of the present could be focused only by a fastidious consciousness of the past. He is among that handful of Jewish scholars in our time—men like Gershom Scholem, Saul Lieberman, and Salo Baron—who have altered the understanding of Jewish tradition by liberating its ancient and medieval episodes from the dross of ideology and neglect, and made it accessible and compelling to their contemporaries. This Wolfson accomplished not only in his published works and in his teaching—he was renowned as a man of infinite kindness and understanding—but likewise in his active participation and support of such institutions as the American Academy for Jewish Research. In this and other capacities, Wolfson was a founding father of Jewish studies in America.

Wolfson possessed an essential confidence that Judaism was still a match for these times, and every detail of his intricate work bespeaks a traditional religious intention. But Wolfson himself was a complicated man, the conflicted product of two antagonistic cultures and the trenchant critic of both. In Wolfson’s attempt to translate tradition in an epoch wholly uncongenial to it, tradition did not quite survive intact. Herein lies the dramatic resonance of Wolfson’s life and work: not only because of his commanding position in the general intellectual community, but also because in his person he broaches some of the most pressing issues of Judaism in modernity, the case of Harry Wolfson deserves close and sympathetic scrutiny.



Wolfson was born in Byelorussia in 1887. He received his early education at the famous yeshivah of Slobodka, and the rigorous training of the yeshivah persists in the analytic cast of his writings. As a young man he emigrated to the United States, and took his B.A. at Harvard in 1911. (His first published paper, a study of the attitudes of Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi toward Greek philosophy, was a prize-winning undergraduate essay.) For the next two years he held a traveling fellowship, and while in Europe undertook to exhume and examine the abandoned troves of Hebrew manuscripts in the libraries of Paris, Munich, Vienna, Parma, the Vatican, the British Museum, Oxford, and Cambridge. The arduous philological and textual work of those years, pioneering labors in identification, annotation, and comparison, laid the foundations for the magisterial scholary edifice to follow. “The study of a text is always an adventure,” he wrote shortly afterward; “there is sleuthing in scholarship as there is in crime.” The young detective took his doctorate at Harvard in 1915—Josiah Royce and George Foot Moore were among his examiners—and subsequently joined the Harvard faculty. Ten years later he was appointed to. the new chair in Hebrew Literature and Philosophy established by Nathan Littauer, a position which he occupied until his retirement in 1958.

Wolfson’s forceful scholarly will and imagination—he was hardly Henry Adams’s docile Harvar type—quickly placed and thereafter kept him in the front ranks of the academic world. The scope and authority of his scholarship were dazzlingly established by his first work, Crescas Critique of Aristotle (1929), a classic model of textual study and a seminal work of Jewish scholarship in this century. This prodigious debut was followed by The Philosophy of Spinoza (1934); Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1947); and The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (1956). The Philosophy of the Kalam, a product of twenty-five years of persistent labor at the most corrupt and refractory texts he ever faced, will be published posthumously. These works, all of them signal contributions to their own historically and philosophically disparate fields, comprise a larger unity, which Wolfson entitled The Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Plato to Spinoza, a highly original reconstruction of the history of philosophy.



To grasp the design of an undertaking such as this, one must have a sense of how utterly foreign the style and content of late ancient and medieval philosophy are to the 20th-century mind. Unlike modern philosophy, in its willingness to rest content with small truths definitively apprehended, medieval and late ancient philosophy is thought on a grand scale, dedicated to describing the essential nature of God, man, and the world, to arriving at ultimate truths. And in contrast to modern philosophers, for whom the beginning of wisdom is the workaday clarity and familiarity of common speech, medieval philosophers, in accordance with their conception of themselves as the vanguard of the religious spirit, cultivated a certain inaccessibility. Medieval philosophy draped itself in an argument-studded style, a meticulous and hermetic code that under the name of scholasticism has become synonymous with impenetrability, hair-splitting detail, and a general reluctance to oblige the common reader. (Modern philosophy becomes similarly rough-going only as it approaches or subsists within the domain of formal and mathematical logic.) Finally, unlike the contemporary philosopher who believes that a philosophical problem is, like logical truth, ahistorical, and does not necessarily require a chronicle of previous opinions for its unraveling, the medieval philosopher worked within a philosophical ambience circumscribed on all sides by sacred texts, whether they were those of Aristotle or those of the Old and/or New Testaments. The medieval philosopher was bound not only by the truths of these texts but by their canonical authority, and his own work was in that respect the work of exegesis and commentary.

Late ancient and medieval philosophy does not yield its secrets easily; the explorer must be indefatigable, and come very well equipped. When Wolfson arrived on the scene, not much adequate equipment was available; it was he who, like a kind of archeologist, dug down by hand to the treasures below. “There is an earthly basis to the development of philosophic problems in the Middle Ages,” Wolfson wrote, “and that is language and text.” Wolfson excavated this earthly basis with a sophisticated method of relentlessly precise reading, according to which a term is analyzed in all its literal and implied meanings and its various strands of historical influence are separated out and identified. In archeological fashion, the scholar in Wolfson’s view seeks to arrive at the most primitive signification of any given term or idea, and in this search he leaves no stone unturned. Wolfson called his method “the hypotheti-co-deductive method of text-interpretation,” and explained that “it is nothing but the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.”

In truth it is also nothing but the talmudic method of exegesis, a scrupulous procedure which analyzes the tantalizingly elliptical dicta of the rabbis in order to determine, in one of Wolfson’s favorite phrases, “the latent processes of their reasonings.” This method, known as pilpul, reached its perfect and most penetrating form precisely in the Lithuanian yeshivot where Wolfson was first trained. The Israeli scholar Gedalyahu Alon has observed of it:

The pilpulistic method of study commonly used in the Lithuanian yeshivot consisted of a classification of halakhic terms and an analysis of their fundamental characteristics. This was necessary to distinguish between texts which appeared to be similar but were, in fact, contradictory. It also enabled the students to analyze various details of many scattered and complex halakhot, to join them together and establish general rules.

This is exactly the spirit of Wolfson’s method. The text, approached in an attitude of respect bordering on reverence, is the final arbiter of interpretative validity: however fresh or convenient the scholar’s suggestion, it must, like the scientific proposition it purports to be, constantly submit to the experimental trial of compatibility with the text.

Underlying such an exhaustive approach is an exegetical article of faith in the purposiveness of language. For Wolfson there is nothing fortuitous in a text—every term, reference, and illustration has been chosen by the author intentionally, both for what it says and for what it does not say, and this plenitude of meaning it is the scholar’s responsibility to fathom and articulate. In this respect Wolfson’s attitude toward language bears a striking resemblance to Freud’s view of the language of his patients, whose “colloquial speech,” Freud says, “is certainly no matter of chance but the deposit, as it were, of ancient knowledge.” Similarly, Wolfson tells us that “statements are not significant for what they actually affirm but for the denials which they imply; words in general, by the very limitation of their nature, conceal one’s thought as much as they reveal it . . . they are nothing but floating buoys which signal the presence of submerged unuttered thoughts.” Like the psychoanalyst, the scholar is engaged in the decoding of what Wolfson calls a “system of mnemonic symbols,” and the end of both disciplines is the same: the disclosure of a meaning that is already there.

Wolfson’s method is, then, a scholar’s empiricism—“Let us set sail on some Beagle of our own in search of philosophic specimens . . . let us study their internal structures . . . let us try to learn something about the origin and classification of their species”—and its success is amply demonstrated in his books as well as in the scores of authoritative papers, many of them of monograph length, which he published over the years. Wolfson’s study of Crescas, for example, enlisted all his immense powers as a philologist, translator, and interpreter against the notoriously recondite text of that late 14th-century Jewish philosopher, and the result is a clear and complete explanation of everything from the terminological origins of Crescas’ theory of magnetism to his place in the intellectual revolution of the Renaissance. Wolfson’s next project, the amplification of the terse and suggestive language of Spinoza’s Ethics—an idiom ironically as succinct and elusive as that of the rabbis themselves—was detailed almost to a fault, and for its comprehensiveness proved to be at once a history of medieval Jewish philosophy as well. These two works, together with his Philo and his many classic papers on Maimonides, Halevi, and Saadia, are a trove of critical research for future students of medieval philosophy.




Indeed, the fruits of Wolfson’s analytic method go beyond explication to interpretation and critical synthesis. Spinoza’s Ethics, the subject of Wolfson’s first full-length study, is as expansive and abstruse a work as the medieval tradition to which Spinoza fell heir. The story of Spinoza’s life is well known. Educated within the Jewish community of 17th-century Amsterdam—Rembrandt’s Amsterdam—the brilliant young Spinoza began posing questions about the nature of religious faith which bespoke an unhealable philosophical estrangement from Judaism. Private doubt soon became public conflict—the Jews of Amsterdam, still smarting from the scars of the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions and eager to please their watchful Dutch hosts, reacted to the maverick in their midst with ostracism and, eventually, excommunication. The banished Spinoza then translated his Hebrew name Baruch into its Latin equivalent Benedict, and left the house of his fathers for the fatherland of philosophy, where only universal truth would command his allegiance. The bite noire of the traditionally pious, Spinoza became the inspiration, almost the patron saint, of many a future freethinker.

Yet Spinoza also remains a thinker about whom everyone speaks but whom few understand: it is doubtful that many of his accusers or his disciples ever sweated through the gnomic works themselves. This is what Wolfson set out to do in his lengthy and methodical study, The Philosophy of Spinoza. What, he asked, was so audaciously new in Spinoza; wherein lay the precise philosophical content of his heresy? Wolfson’s answer is simple: “The truth which was established by the daring of Spinoza was the principle of the unity of nature.” For the religious philosophers of the Middle Ages, the unity of nature is broken by both the freedom of God and the freedom of man. However deeply the medievals may have felt the “logical anomaly of asserting the uniformity of the laws of nature, on the one hand, while on the other hand, asserting the autonomy of man within nature and the suzeranity of God over nature . . . all they did toward overcoming this difficulty was to try and patch it up somehow, never daring to cross the boundaries set up by tradition. It was Spinoza who first dared to cross these boundaries, and by the skillful use of weapons accumulated in the arsenal of philosophy itself he succeeded in bringing both God and man under the universal rule of nature and thus establishing its unity.” This was Spinoza’s redirection of philosophy, says Wolfson, and his affront to the religious tradition.1

Wolfson’s next major work, Philo, treated of still another Jew adjusting to the intellectual pressures of a variegated non-Jewish reality, but his subject this time was a preacher who turned to philosophy not to undermine but to accommodate Judaism to it. Very little is known of Philo’s life. He appears to have been born around the year 20 B.C.E. in Alexandria, and as late as 40 C.E. was a member of a delegation to Rome petitioning the Emperor Caligula to relax the harsh treatment of Alexandria’s Jews. He is also known to have authored an apologetic tract defending his fellow Jews against charges leveled by one Apion. But perhaps the most significant thing about Philo’s life was the sheer fact of where he lived, the melting pot that was Alexandria in the twilight of the Hellenistic world. Alexandria was in those years a chaotic and florid welter of all sorts of North African, Mediterranean, and Levantine cultures, and the Jews who lived in that exotic world were people in whom religious piety underwent constant assault by an attractive assortment of Greek philosophies, Egyptian popular religions, and Hellenistic mysteries.

The paucity of biographical detail about Philo is amply compensated for by the generous number of his works which have survived. Philo’s texts are almost entirely exegetical in method—he develops his arguments in the form of commentaries on various scriptural episodes such as the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, the lives of Moses, of Joseph, of Abraham, etc. As in most homiletical literature, Philo’s style is hortatory, effusive, occasionally repetitive, more concerned to make itself understood than to score conceptual points. The obstacle to the student is not the language, however, which is comparatively clear, but the plethora of images, metaphors, and illustrations drawn largely from the extravagant, mixed, and lost world of Hellenism. Wolfson’s book unpacks these allusions, identifies them historically, and clarifies their meaning, disentangling the Philonic pastiche into its various component parts. Again, Wolfson asks his favorite question: what is new in Philo? His answer: the joining of Greek thought to Scripture, resulting in religious philosophy as we know it from the ancient world until the birth of modern thought in the 17th century, with Spinoza.



Wolfson’s ensuing works were concerned not so much with individual thinkers as with schools or periods of thought—the Church Fathers, the Kalam, medieval Jewish philosophy. They are all models of virtuoso scholarship, of luminous explanation, but in them all Wolfson was aiming at something more than sustained clarification. The Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Plato to Spinoza is a highly original and provocative reconstruction of the entire history of philosophy.

The general pattern of that history as Wolfson understands it was elaborated by him in Philo roughly as follows. Philosophy begins, needless to say, in Greece, but it takes its most crucial turn in 1st-century Alexandria, with Philo’s dramatic joining of Greek thought to Scripture for the first time. The religious philosophy which Philo concocted, according to which religion was “a certain set of inflexible principles, of a decidedly revealed origin, by which philosophy, the product of erring human reason, had to be tested and purged and purified,” consisted of the systematic treatment of such problems as the relation of faith to reason (here the allegorical method of Scriptural interpretation is pressed into service); prophecy; creation; causality, miracles, and free will; and ethics and religious law—it was, in short, a system profoundly medieval in letter and spirit. It was from Philo that the Church Fathers learned this synthesis, and they in turn transmitted it to the Kalam (early medieval Islamic philosophy), whence it matured into its most rigorous and sophisticated formulation in the full flowering of medieval philosophy, particularly in Maimonides. From this height it was, by way of Crescas’ devastating arguments, entirely razed by Spinoza, who turned the hard logic of the medievals against them and opened an unbridgeable chasm which proved fatal to the venerable synthesis of religion and philosophy.2

At first glance such a historical scheme seems curious indeed. Many philosophers and historians have pointed to antiquity for the deepest and most definitive articulation of philosophy—we may recall Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato—and have accepted Greek terms as their criteria of philosophical and historical interpretation. Others, notably Hegel, have insisted that, on the contrary, “it is the latest, most modern, and newest philosophy that is the most developed, richest, and concrete.” Wolfson’s is the surprising perspective of the middle, the organization and evaluation of the history of philosophy under a medieval aspect. In his analysis, Philo and Spinoza assume decisive importance precisely in their capacities as parameters of the medieval tradition; Philo is understood in terms of what came after and Spinoza in terms of what came before. Greek philosophy is also considered in a predominantly adumbrative role—Plato and Aristotle are examined for such distinctively medieval issues as the unity and incorporeality of God, or the eternity of matter and creation ex nihilo, (A huge work on Greek philosophy exists among the many unpublished writings which Wolfson left at his death.) And modern thinkers such as Leibniz, Hume, and Mill are likewise explicated in terms of their development of medieval opinions.

How persuasive is Wolfson’s winding chain of philosophical development? Certainly its most speculative link is its first one, the grandiloquent claim made for Philo. In Philo, Wolfson undertook to write about one of the most arcane and evasive figures in the history of philosophy. Unlike the punctiliously systematic writings of the medievals and Spinoza, thinkers whose avowedly methodical intentions justified Wolfson’s confidence in their ultimately logical structure and development, Philo’s texts—all thirteen volumes of them—are ruminative sermons delivered for instruction in the synagogue. They are not arguments but highly imaginative descriptions, exegetical forays into an opulent mystical cosmology. Wolfson, however, boldly declared that Philo was “a philosopher in the grand manner,” the first great exponent of what became, with very little overhauling, medieval philosophy. Almost impudently Wolfson dubbed the entire medieval tradition “Philonic.” Not everyone was convinced. Erwin Goodenough, the dean of all students of Hellenism, concluded, for example, that “the systematically organized mind in Wolfson’s Philo seems to be the mind of Wolfson, not of Philo himself.”

Whether or not the characterization of medieval philosophy as Philonic withstands critical scrutiny, there are other weaknesses in Wolfson’s inveterate medievalizing. Much of modern philosophy, for example, falls beyond the reach of such a perspective; to describe 18th- or 19th-century thought as “post-Philonic” is not really to say very much about it. Wolfson’s assertion that “while it is to be granted that the climate is different, the storms and thunderings and lightnings are the same” misses what is so unnervingly new about the disparagement of religion in modernity.

Yet none of this is meant to imply that Wolfson’s reconstruction is merely a historian’s eccentricity. There is a philosophical premise to his historiographical plan. At the ground of his revisionism is a prior, almost theological, axiom—that philosophy acquired its deepest meaning in its encounter with religion, and that the most penetrating comprehensions of the philosophic mind are achieved when an instinctive naturalism is corrected by the requirements of theistic faith. The periodization of the history of philosophy from the perspective of the medieval synthesis is at bottom the consideration of movements of thought in terms of their relation to revealed religion. Despite the heroic conceptual and methodological strides of the ancients, philosophy for Wolfson remained impoverished and incomplete until it acknowledged transcendent reality. Wolfson the historian is himself very much a votary of the “double-faith” theory he illuminates in his works, the theory according to which truth is a collaboration of revelation and reason.




The historiographical idée fixe of Wolfson’s writings must be viewed, then, not as a stiff and coercive periodic classification but as itself a philosophical affiliation. Both the paganism of the ancients and the skepticism of the moderns ring hollow for Wolfson before the infinitely more resonant marriage of philosophy and religion exemplified by the medievals. But there is more to Wolfson’s position than this. If, for him, medieval tradition, medieval culture, is the fulcrum of Western intellectual history, the central place in medieval culture itself is held by the Jews. Not only did a Jew, Philo, inaugurate the medieval tradition, and another Jew, Spinoza, end it, but medieval Jewish philosophy was its finest flower. As Wolfson put it in an early essay: “Medieval philosophy is one philosophy, written in three languages, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, and among these Hebrew holds the central and most important position.” It is the emphasis on the centrality of Jewish thought which makes Wolfson’s work, in addition to being a major contribution to scholarship, a significant chapter in modern Jewish intellectual history.

Modern Jewish scholarship was founded in the early decades of the 19th century as a weapon in the social and political struggles of the Jews in Western Europe. The gradual, sobering realization that the secularization of the European states had left intact the Christian character of European culture, and that political emancipation alone was not going to abolish the marginality of Jews to that culture, motivated scholars like Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, and Heinrich Graetz to assert the historical legitimacy of the Jewish tradition before a skeptical European intelligentsia. The sanguine universalism of these scholars was brutally belied by subsequent history, as virulent anti-Semitism arose in the very countries in which their discipline, Jüdische Wissenschaft, had flourished. Disillusionment was followed by the growth of a mass movement, Zionism, devoted to the affirmation of Jewish life and culture. A mounting Jewish confidence became the climate for Jewish scholarship in this century. The new generation of scholars, disabused of what Gershom Scholem called “those infinitely yearning and furtive glances” at European culture, came motivated instead by a kind of pride in the sources themselves, whether that pride was “religious,” national-cultural, or overtly Zionist in kind. To this generation Harry Wolfson belonged. Both the method and substance of his work formidably challenge not only the dependence of Jewish thought upon its Christian milieu, but, in a sort of counter-offensive, the Christian interpretation of Christian intellectual history itself. The real critical thrust of Wolfson’s work is toward a reassessment of the place of Judaism within Western culture.

Wolfson himself confessed to his motivations in a series of articles which appeared in 1921 in the Menorah Journal:

Once, in a great library, I was walking through the narrow aisles between long rows of bookshelves stocked with the works of the Church writers. Every great thinker of the Church whose teachings helped to mold Christian thought and tradition was represented there by his writings. . . . Hundreds upon hundreds of volumes, the choicest products of the printer’s art of Venice, Basel, Leipzig, Paris, and Rome, bound in pigskin and morocco leather, with gilded backs and bronzed corners, all were gathered together, standing there in the open shelves, offering themselves for use and for study. And looking at that wealth of magnificent volumes, I thought of those shabby tomes which incarnate the spirit of Saadia, Halevi, and Maimonides, of those unpublished works of Gersonides, Narboni, and the Shem-Tobs, scattered all over the world and rotting in the holds of libraries; and I was overcome by that feeling of sadness and sorrow which to our forefathers was ever present throughout their exiled life amid the foreign splendor of European cities. . . .

Wolfson was moved to study by pain, but his campaign was one of revival, of rediscovery, of scholarly redress. In the name of “love and devotion to Judaism” he sought to break the centuries-old hold which Christian theology had upon historians of thought and culture.

In the modern age, the Christian understanding of the history of philosophy was nurtured under the aegis of Hegel, and it is with that singularly powerful opponent that Wolfson had to take issue. Hegel adheres completely to the Augustinian view that the life and teachings of Jesus are at the center of history—whatever came prior to Christianity is considered by him preparatory to it, and whatever existed outside of it is considered tributary to it. For Hegel, Christianity is a “revolution,” “the regeneration of the world”; philosophically speaking, it is the first awakening of self-consciousness, the primal, self-impelled projection of consciousness away from the subjective immediacy of nature to the objective truth of spirit. Christianity is a decisive event in the history of mind, mind’s very coming-of-age.

The history of philosophy is elaborated by Hegel in terms of this Christian touchstone. Greek philosophy, “which found its place in the religion of the heathen,” registers the metaphysical achievements of Plato and the methodological achievements of Aristotle and concludes with the overcoming of the skeptical subjectivism of the Stoics and Epicureans by the proto-Christianity of Plotinus. (Philo, a “learned Jew,” is consigned to the wings of this scenario.) Medieval and modern philosophy are both already “within Christendom,” and are subsumed beneath the rubric of the Christian idea. Philosophy is eventually realized with the “Teutonic” delineation of philosophical and historical self-consciousness in German idealism. As for medieval thought, it is for Hegel still very much a child of the Dark Ages; scholasticism is strongly condemned for deflecting the Christian campaign for actualized spirit into a maze of picayune and lifeless abstractions, and Jewish and Islamic philosophy is summarily dismissed as “to be noticed only in an external and historic way.” The Jews and Arabs are important only as transmitters of Aristotle to the Christian West.

This denigration of the innovative richness of Jewish and Muslim thinkers survived among later historians of philosophy (like Bertrand Russell) who were perhaps oblivious to its decidedly Christian prejudice. Yet Wolfson had studied the Jewish and Islamic works themselves, and not only enthusiastically endorsed their philosophical competence and originality, but insisted further that they were, in fact, the pivot upon which the entire history of philosophy turns. They are at the summit of medieval philosophy—and medieval philosophy is at the summit of philosophy itself. What was transmitted to the Christians was not merely Aristotle, but a painstaking record of the juxtaposition of Aristotle with religious faith. Wolfson’s implied critique of Christian scholasticism is not that it is abstract or incorrect, but, more devastatingly, that it is, in all its essential features (save such uniquely Christian problems as the philosophical implications of the Trinity), derivative. The Alexandrian moment in the history of philosophy was crucial—but in its Philonic form: it was Philo, the “learned Jew,” who founded two millennia of thought, not the ecstatic Plotinus who is central for Hegel but in Wolfson’s scheme remains only a chapter in the history of Platonism.3

But what is one to make of an interpretation of Christian thought—indeed, of ecclesiastical thought—which insists that it is, at bottom, Jewish? Or of a view of Western intellectual history which finds its turning point in Philo, a Jewish preacher of 1st-century Alexandria, and its climax in Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of 12th-century Fostat? Is not a Jewish philosophy of history as distorting as a Christian one? Wolfson’s reconstruction, when pressed to its logical conclusions, would seem to imply that the Christian cast of Western thought—a virtual tautology—is in some sense a peripheral quality, that the splendid edifice of Christian scholasticism is no more than a species of a Jewish philosophical genus. Although Wolfson’s attitude toward Christian thinkers is in no way derogatory of their genius, like any historical account which aspires to exhaustive explanation, his at times falls victim to the dangers of reduction. Wolfson is occasionally unfair to the complexity of his subject by defining it solely in terms of origins. For example, he concludes each chapter of Philo with a tidy discussion of the “anticipations and influences” of Philo’s various notions, but in many such cases of anticipation and influence it is not the similarity to but the difference from Philo that is philosophically interesting. Wolfson’s work, that is, betrays the weaknesses of its own strengths: though the consciousness of Jewish origins can prove a forceful corrective of ideological pretensions to exclusiveness, it is itself sometimes flawed by simplification.




Wolfson’s aims as a historian, however, must not be confused with his own personal position as a believing Jew: it is a confusion of which he himself was never guilty. His illumination of the Jewish origins of Christian thought was meant to erase a long-standing factual error and the excesses of a historiography that would have made that error indelible; it is ultimately an expression of the real philosophical unity of Western religious experience. Still, his exposé must inevitably mean something special to the Jewish reader, and even more so to the Jewish scholar. For Wolfson, the general historian who neglects the Hebrew and the Arabic because of a personal commitment to the Latin, knowingly or otherwise, is guilty of violating the first principle of scholarship. But the Jewish scholar who uncritically accepts such a reading is culpable not only as a scholar but as a jew: his ignorance of the relations among Jewish, Islamic, and Christian culture amounts to an exercise in intellectual self-effacement.4

The problem of Jewish identity in a non-Jewish environment was one that exercised Wolfson all his life. “We are gradually drifting,” he wrote many years ago, “toward an uncritical adulation of Christianity at the expense of our esteem for Judaism.”

It is a fact of common observation that many educated Jews entertain a Christian point of view in their historical estimate of Judaism, Christianity, and their relations. The cause of this is not far to seek. They absorb it with the rest of their knowledge from books written by Christians; they accept it as uncritically and indisputably true. In part this condition can be combated by the publication of scholarly works setting forth the Jewish view on all such controversial matters.

What was, then, a historical discovery of no mean interest to the general historian was simultaneously, for Wolfson, a polemic of liberating relevance for the Jew enmeshed in cultural assimilation.

Wolfson optimistically suggests that it is possible for traditional Judaism to attain creative heights even within the confines of a foreign culture, and that a Jew may critically absorb the greatest achievements of his host culture without putting his Judaism into question. This issue is most clearly drawn in his interpretation of Hellenistic Judaism and of Philo. Erwin Goodenough maintained that Philo’s thought represented but one manifestation of a prevailing Hellenistic mystery religion, “predominantly an expression of . . . the Greek genius as it survived in the Hellenistic world.” Wolfson contested the validity of this interpretation, for its implicit downgrading of the Jewish dynamic in Philo and for its suggestion that the effect of external cultural influence on the Jews is inevitably to alienate them from Judaism:

With the example of Scripture before them [the Jews] were not afraid to make use in the description of their own religion of terms used in the description of other religions, but whatever common terms they used, the difference was never blurred for them between truth and falsehood in religious belief and right and wrong in religious worship.

To describe cultural influence as alienation is, for Wolfson, to miss the flexibility and absorptive capacity of the Jewish tradition, a flexibility most tellingly demonstrated by medieval Judaism and one which Philo first brought to the fore. To be sure, not everyone in Jewish Alexandria discerned the Philonic strategy: even then, according to Wolfson, there was widespread apostasy, there were defections by “the weak of flesh,” “the socially ambitious,” and, most strikingly, “the intellectually uprooted.” The colorful portrait which Wolfson paints of the Jewish community of Alexandria—one of the most fascinating and, unfortunately, least documented segments of his entire work—is, in effect, that of any Jewish community in an open and vibrant cultural environment; his Alexandria might as well be 19th-century Berlin or 20th-century New York. But within this teeming chaos of cultures there always remains Philo’s alternative, that of incorporating foreign methods and insights into a Judaism sufficiently strong and cherished to contain them.

Wolfson’s solution for the Jew in Western culture is, then, a kind of liberalism, but a liberalism with a difference—the liberalism of a protean tradition which knows its own strengths. Wolfson’s optimism is based not on secular ideologies of universalism but upon the dynamic character of the Jewish tradition. And by positing Judaism as axiomatic, Wolfson’s optimism aspires to a kind of cultural and religious realism as well. Jewishness is for him an ineluctable datum of experience; it would be as impossible for a Jew to do away with this social and cultural inheritance as to do away with a physical inheritance, and futile and self-destructive to try. Alienation is unnecessary, puerile, even pathological: maturity is acceptance and participation, the recognition of the spiritual and cultural limits of one’s own existence.



An earlier historian of medieval Judaism, Israel Abrahams, categorically asserted in 1896 that “the Jewish nature does not produce its rarest fruits in a Jewish environment”—a faith in the Diaspora with which Wolfson’s more candid optimism must not be confused. Yet that Abrahams could quite plausibly point to Philo, Maimonides, and Spinoza—Wolfson’s own evidences—as proof of his assertion serves to highlight the possibly tenuous character of Wolfson’s view of Jewish tradition. How legitimate is it to represent the center of the Jewish tradition by Philo, a mystic drenched in Hellenistic religion—an idolatry if there ever was one—and by Maimonides, a philosopher drenched in Aristotle? Even if the Maimonidean synthesis may in principle be regarded as Judaism par excellence, it was a synthesis that was hardly accepted or internalized by the majority of the Jewish community. Wolfson’s highly intellectualist view of Jewish tradition is not quite what most Jews mean and have meant by Jewish tradition.

This brings us finally to the sensitive question of the nature of the religious commitment which informs Wolfson’s work—a question that in his lonely last years caused the aging scholar profound personal suffering. Wolfson never tired of insisting that Judaism’s greatness should be sought in its Orthodox tradition. (He once called Reform Judaism, with its “excessive craving for modernity, formality, and respectability,” a “disembodied ghost of a religion.”) But at the same time there was in Wolfson the man, and in Wolfson the scholar, a deep ambivalence toward Orthodoxy. Wolfson had worked free of the distorting insecurities of apologetics, but for all his “national pride,” and his passionate commitment to traditional Judaism, he may be said to have fallen victim to what is perhaps modernity’s greatest disruption of Jewish thought—the tendency to ideologize Judaism, to defend it as essentially a world view, or feeling, or attitude, or creed.



Traditional Judaism has been separated out in the modern world into a dualism of theory and practice, but it is just such a distinction which Orthodoxy cannot abide. The Orthodox understanding of Judaism is of a pristine and indivisible unity of faith and practice. Jewish concepts are delineated and completed in the structure and content of Jewish law, and the practice of the law bestows upon these concepts their meaning and urgency. Alone, wrenched from their natural habitat of the commandments, they are characters in search of an author—they are only an ideology. There is one compromise which no liberalism, however armed with the verstehen of faith, can elicit from the Jewish tradition without asking it violently to transform itself—and that is the compromise of observance.

This is the compromise which Wolfson made. In a tone of self-irony—and certainly not without a touch of bitterness—Wolfson once called himself “a non-observant Orthodox Jew.” His work reflects this self-description. What so engaged Wolfson in medieval Jewish philosophy was its metaphysics, its theories of creation and prophecy and natural law and providence, not its delineations of halakhah or its theories of the commandments. He set the medieval Jewish philosophers against a background of Greeks and of Hellenistic commentators of Aristotle, not of the Rabbis or the Geonim. He put Philo at the beginning. The ideological nature of his Orthodoxy is nowhere reflected more clearly in his scholarship than in his treatment of Maimonides: the Guide of the Perplexed, a work of theory, is raised to an indisputable centrality in Jewish (and Western) thought, but at the price of virtually the entire Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law.5

The medievals were wary of the impulse to codify Jewish dogma and to rationalize the commandments. No formulation of dogma in Judaism—and there were many—ever achieved canonical status, and as for the rationalization of the commandments, even Maimonides, for whom philosophical knowledge was the goal of human life, insisted that the abiding preconditions of such knowledge were the ritual, ethical, and social imperatives of the law. In this respect Wolfson did not approximate his medieval models—for him the philosophical profession of faith seemed a sufficient guarantee of the Jewish tradition. He was, then, very devotedly, but no more than, Orthodoxy’s learned friend.

Wolfson the man could live neither with nor without the faith of his fathers. Tradition was in his blood, but he remained caught, even willingly caught, in the throes of secular modernity, which could not conquer but would not free him. This was his life’s trap, but it was also the source of his greatest power as a critic and historian of philosophy, and it is the element in him that lends the story of his career its poignancy. In the last year or so of his life Wolfson used to give voice to a sense of disappointment and deep regret. He should, he said, have lived a life of observance, consistent with his most cherished convictions. He should have written his books in Hebrew. He had, he felt, amounted to less than the ideal which had inspired him in his youth when he wrote, “What is really necessary for our happiness, and even for our intellectual satisfaction, is an abiding sense of loyalty to one supreme interest and a willingness to resign ourselves to that loyalty.” Yet this much is certain: had Wolfson in fact restricted himself to the homogeneous ideal of his youth, had he confined himself to the world of Orthodoxy alone, had he written his works in Hebrew, he would not have been Harry Wolfson. His conflict not only tormented him, it also defined him, and without its creative tension he would never have been able to speak so persuasively to Jews of non-Jews, to non-Jews of Jews. Above all, he would not have had the mature and daring vision which forced tradition’s secrets out of its most perplexing texts and charged them to address modernity. Harry Wolfson loved the Jewish tradition in an exemplary way, and for this, too, his memory is blessed.

1 Spinoza’s affront to Judaism did not stop there. In his other major work, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza fathered the higher criticism of the Bible, denied that revelation is a source of truth, advocated the divorce of philosophy from religion, and, most importantly perhaps, formulated for the first time the fateful ideal of a secular state in which religious conviction would be entirely the individual’s private affair. This challenge was in many respects much graver than the cerebral pantheism of the Ethics, but lies beyond the scope of Wolfson’s interest. For an admirable treatment of it, see Milton Himmelfarb’s “Varieties of Jewish Experience,” COMMENTARY, July 1967.

2 Like Etienne Gilson in his study of Descartes, Wolfson has thus simultaneously demonstrated the medieval well-springs of modern thought.

3 Since Christian historiography considered Platonism the mainstream for the development of philosophical ideas, it is not surprising that Wolfson’s strategy as a historian is primarily an “Aristotelian” one, the attempt to present Hellenistic and medieval intellectual history against the background of Aristotle. Many of his most daring, and sometimes unconvincing, leaps of interpretation—such as his treatment of Philo’s groundbreaking logos—are risked in this attempt. Beyond its polemical implications, it is also possible to see in this fluency with the Aristotelian tradition the response of a sensibility spawned in the Lithuanian ambience toward a temper of mind more congenial than the intuitive and emotional flights of Platonism.

4 Wolfson’s critical mantle has lately been picked up by Emil Fackenheim, who has sought to correct our understanding of modern philosophy precisely as Wolfson has corrected our understanding of medieval philosophy, and for similar reasons.

5 Interestingly, the one-sidedness of Wolfson’s treatment of Maimonides—a trait shared by almost all studies of Maimonides in this century and the last—has been challenged by his successor at Harvard, Isadore Twersky, who has persuasively demonstrated the integral unity of Maimonides’ halakhic and philosophical thought.

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