Syllabus contents:

Course Description

Assignments and Grading Policy


Class Schedule and Required Readings


PHIL401 Summer Quarter 2007
Introduction to Jewish Philosophy


Instructor: Prof. Michael Rosenthal
Office: Savery M252
E-mail: rosentha@u.washington.edu
Phone: (206) 685-2655
Office Hours: Wednesdays 2:30-3:30pm; and by appointment.
Course Times and Location:  M-F 12-2:10pm (Savery 341)

Course Description

The purpose of this course is to acquaint the student with the central concepts of traditional Jewish philosophy.  It is during the medieval period, for the most part in the Islamic world, that Jewish philosophy first developed and flourished.  It was through the work of the great Islamic philosophers (such as Averroes, Avicenna, and Al-Ghazali) that Jewish thinkers rediscovered ancient Greek philosophy, which in turn had an enormous impact on how they conceived their own tradition.  We shall look at how the most important Jewish philosophers of this age--Saadia Gaon, Judah Halevi, Moses Maimonides, and others--used philosophical ideas and arguments in order to understand and defend the fundamental tenets of their own religion.  After having discussed the problem of the relation between reason and revelation, we shall proceed topically, examining such central issues as proofs for the existence of God, the nature of miracles, the problems of free will and evil, and the question of Jewish ethics.  Although our discussion of each topic will focus on Jewish thinkers in the medieval period, we will also consider modern critiques of these canonical views, and ask whether catastrophic modern events, such as the Holocaust, might force us to reevaluate the answers to central philosophical questions of religious belief formulated in earlier times.


Assignments and Grading Policy

The course requirements are as follows.  All students are expected to have read the assigned material in advance of the class period in which it will be discussed.  I will base on your grade on the three following assignments:

1) DAILY READING RESPONSE PAPER (100 points total):  Each day at the beginning of class on Thursday you will hand in a typed response to one of the questions listed under the topic heading for each day’s assignment.  (Since we are spending more than one day on several topics, you can write your second or third response on a different philosopher.)  You ought to consider the response of one or two of the philosophers we have read that week.  You must refer to the readings as part of the response.

Each response paper will be graded as either “good” (5 points), “satisfactory” (4 points), or “unsatisfactory” (2 points).  You will receive a satisfactory grade on each assignment if you:  (a) write a minimum of 250 words; (b) present the material systematically (i.e., state the problem and the response to it) with reference to the readings; and (c) show a minimal degree of comprehension.  The first time that you turn in an unsatisfactory guide I will give you the opportunity to rewrite it (within two days after it has been handed back) in order to receive a satisfactory grade.  Each time that you do not turn in a study guide you will receive 0 points.  Except in the case of documented illness late papers will receive a maximum  of 3 points.  You can turn in a late paper up to two days after the original due date.  After that point I will no longer accept them.  There are 20 papers due for a possible total of 100 points.  A minimum overall score of 53 points is required to pass this assignment.

2) MID-TERM TAKE-HOME EXAM (150 Points):  You will be required to answer several questions in short essay form.  The exam questions will be distributed in class on Friday, June 29th, and will be due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, July 3rd.  This will be an open-book exam.  Late exams will be penalized.  A mininum of 80 points is required to pass this assignment. 

3) FINAL IN-CLASS EXAM (150 Points):  The final exam will take place on Wednesday, July 18th, in Savery 341.  It will cover material from the whole course but will focus on material from the second half of the course (i.e., after the midterm).  This will be a closed-book exam.  A mininum of 80 points is required to pass this assignment. 

Final Grade:  Your final grade will be computed on the basis of the assignments you have turned in.  There is a total possible point score of 400 points.  Below you will find a conversion table.  The first column represents total points for the course.  The second column represents the grade for total of weekly papers.  The third column represents the grade for either the midterm or the final exam.  The fourth column represents the approximate letter grade equivalent.  And the fifth column is the UW grading-scale equivalent.  (Please note that while I will use this table as a basis for the final grades in the course I reserve the right to make adjustments to it in the service of fairness.)

392-400                   98-100           147-150                A+                                  4.0
372-391                   93-97             140-146                A                             3.9-3.7
356-371                   89-92             134-149                A-                            3.6-3.5
340-355                   85-88             128-133                B+                           3.4-3.2    
324-339                   81-84             122-127                B                             3.1-2.8
308-323                   77-80             116-121                B-                            2.7-2.5
292-307                   73-76             110-115                C+                           2.4-2.2
276-291                   69-72             104-109                C                             2.1-1.8
260-275                   65-68              98-103                 C-                            1.7-1.5
244-259                   61-64              92-97                  D+                          1.4-1.2
228-243                   57-60              86-91                   D                            1.1-0.8
212-227                   53-56              80-85                   D-                           0.7
0-211                         0-52                0-79                   F                             0.0

Nota Bene:  (1) In order to pass this course students are required to:  a) have enough total points (i.e., at least 212 points); and also b) pass (i.e., receive at least 53 points in) in two of the three components of the course (i.e., the weekly response paper, the midterm exam, and the final exam).  If you have enough total points to pass but do not pass two of the three components you will fail the course.  Absolutely no exceptions will be made to this policy.

(2) In some cases, when I calculate the final grade, I will also consider such factors as improvement and class participation.

(3) Academic Misconduct.  Cheating in any form (including plagiarism, of course) will result in automatic referal to the Dean’s office.  You are assumed to understand the university rules concerning inappropriate academic conduct, including what constitutes plagiarism.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the instructor.

Disabled Student Services.  If you would like to request academic accommodations due to a disability, please contact Disabled Student Services, 448 Schmitz, (206) 543-8924 (V/TTY).  If you have a letter from Disabled Student Services indicating you have a disability that requires academic accommodations, please present the letter to me within the first week of the course so we can discuss the accommodations you might need for the class.



There are three required texts for this class and they are on sale at the University Bookstore.  

1)  D. Frank, O. Leaman, and C. Manekin (eds.), The Jewish Philosophy Reader, Routledge (ISBN:  0-415-16860-0) [abbreviated JPR].

2) H. Lewy, A. Altmann, and I. Heinemann (eds.), 3 Jewish Philosophers, Toby Press (ISBN: 978-1592641475) [abbreviated TJP]

3) I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, Behrman, (ISBN: 0-87441-206-4) [abbreviated MR].


Class Schedule and Required Readings

The reading and lecture schedule will be roughly as follows.  The week's topic is listed first with some questions that we will discuss and to which you will respond in your weekly assignment.  Next to the topic are the tentative dates when this topic will be discussed in class. 

1. INTRODUCTION:  What is Jewish Philosophy? (June 18)
-Jewish Tradition and modes of interpretation.
-Jewish Philosophy and Gentile Philosophy

-What is the relation between reason and revelation?  Are the two compatible or do they conflict?  Why were Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles" controversial?

a) Saadya:  p. 25-47 (TJP)
b) Maimonides

--Mishnah Torah (in MR):  pp. 35-48, 65 (sec. 11-12), 71-76, 83-85, 95 (Mezuzah 6:13), 145-6 (Trespass 8:8), 149-50 (Substitute 4:13), 154 (Immersion 11:12), 112-3 (New Moon 17:25).

--Commentary on Mishnah:  Helek (in MR):  pp. 401-423.

--Guide:  Dedication and Introduction (MR: 234-246), III: 51-2 (MR: 341-350), I: 31-35 (MR:  252-265)

c) Halevi:  Bk. I (all), IV:  sections 1-23, V:  15, 21 (TJP).
d) Leo Strauss “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy” (JPR, 570-582).

-Is it possible to prove that God exists?  What kind of being must God be?   What are the central arguments advanced by medieval philosophers?  Are they successful?  What is God's relation to time?  How is creation possible?

a) Saadya:  pp. 49-73 (TJP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide, II: 13-16, 25, 27, 29, 31 (MR:  278-291).
c) Halevi:  I: secs. 10-25 (pp. 33-35, TJP), 62-79 (pp. 37-41, TJP).
d) Creation:  Divine Power and Human Freedom (JPR, 7-38)

4. GOD'S ATTRIBUTES  (June 22, 25)
-What are the principle attributes of God?  Why must God be incorporeal?  What is the status of passages in the Bible that are clearly anthropomorphic?  Why is it important that the attributes form a unity?  What kind of knowledge can we have of them?  What are they?  What is negative theology?

a) Saadya:  pp. 75-92 (TJP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide, I: 1-2, 17, 31-35 (252-265), 54, 59, 71 (MR:  246-277); III, 54 (MR:  352-358).
c) Halevi:  II: secs. 1-8, IV: secs. 1-23 (TJP).

-How is God's will revealed to man?  What is the epistemological status of prophecy?  Is the prophecy of Moses unique?  What are the political implications of prophetic knowledge?

a) Saadya:  pp. 93-114 (TJP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide:  II, 39-40 (MR:  291-296)
c) Halevi:  II, sections 9-24 (pp. 64-70, TJP).
d) Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (JPR, 309-318)
e) Prophecy and the Community (JPR, 461-476)

6. MIRACLES  (June 28-29)
-Are miracles consistent with natural law or are they exceptions to it?  Are we justified in believing miracles?

a) Saadya:  pp. 105-108 (TJP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide:  III, 32, 34 (MR:  327-335); also Eight Chapters, p. 383 (MR).
c) Halevi:  I, sections 1-95 (pp. 27-45, TJP).
e) Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (JPR, 327-331)

-Is God's omniscience (which implies foreknowledge of all events) compatible with human freedom?

a) Saadya:  pp. 115-125 (TJP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide, III: 16, 19-21 (xerox).
c) Halevi:  (xerox)
d) Free Will and Divine Foreknowledge (JPR, 120-125).

-If God ordains all things, and God is benevolent, then how is evil possible?  How does this affect the notion of reward and punishment, in this world or in the next?

a) "The Book of Job," in the Bible.
b) Saadya:  pp. 127-39, 148-54, 181-91 (TJP).
c) Maimonides:  Guide, III:  8, 12, 24 (MR:  299-310); 22-3 (xerox)
d) Halevi:  Halevi:  pp. 45-49, 72-75, 98-101, 120-21 (TJP).
e) Job and Divine
Providence (JPR, 60-86).
f) Evil and Suffering (JPR, 489-509).
g) Holocaust (JPR, 538-551)

-To what extent can we rationally justify the commandments of the Torah?  Why is this useful or important?  What is the role of philosophy in this enterprise?

a) Saadya:  pp. 93-105 (TJP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide, III:  26-36 (MR:  310-340).
c) Halevi:  pp. 70-72, 75-79, 85-90 (TJP).
d) The Aqedah (JPR, 39-45)

10. ETHICS AND POLITICS  (July 12-13)
-Is there a Jewish ethics that is distinct from Jewish law (halahka)?  In what way are reward and punishment significant? 
-What are the political implications of Jewish messianism?
-What is the role of
Israel and modern Zionism? 

a) Saadya: pp. 167-79 (3JP).
b) Maimonides:  Guide, III, 31 (MR:  326-7); The Eight Chapters, pp. 361-386 (MR); Mishnah Torah, pp. 135-139 (Seeds), pp. 215-227 (Judges).
c) Halevi: Bk. III (TJP).
d) Justice (JPR, 90-104).
e) The State of
Israel/Zionism (JPR, 552-569).

11.  PRAYER  (July 16)
-What is the purpose of prayer for each thinker? What conception(s) of God is (are) implicit in the practice of prayer?  Why might this lead to mysticism?  What is the importance of repentance in Judaism?

a) Maimonides:  Guide, III, 51-54 (MR:  341-358); Mishnah Torah:  Adoration, pp. 87-100 (MR).
b) Halevi:  pp. 86-89, 95-101 (TJP).
c) Prayer and Faith (JPR, 105-119).
d) Belief (JPR, 583-605).

-We will discuss various themes that we have treated in the course and return to the initial question about revelation, tradition, and reason.




 Last Updated:

Contact the instructor at: rosentha@u.washington.edu