Syllabus contents:

Course Description

Assignments and Grading Policy


Class Schedule and Required Readings

Department of Philosophy Policies


Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy
Winter Quarter 2013


Instructor: Prof. Michael Rosenthal
Office: Savery 364
E-mail: rosentha@u.washington.edu
Phone: (206) 685-2655
Office Hours: .Tuesday 2-3pm; Wednesday 11am-12pm; and by appointment.
Course Times and Location:  TuTh 11:30am-1:20pm (DEN 307)

Course Description

The Enlightenment defined the course of modern Jewish philosophy.  It criticized traditional notions of revelation and it reconfigued the relation of the Jewish community to the nascent liberal state.  Radical figures like Spinoza claimed that prophecy was not a means to achieve philosophical wisdom but only a useful way of directing people to help each other in society.  More moderate thinkers like Mendelssohn thought that Judaism should be a voluntary community based on belief, which submitted to the authority of the state, rather than an independent political entity.  The idea of a normative symbiosis of Jewish thought with its surrounding culture reached an apotheosis in the early twentieth century neo-kantianism of Hermann Cohen.  Even those who rejected the enlightenment realized that it was impossible to avoid its influence.  Marx argued that the solution to the so-called “Jewish Question” was the complete elimination of religion that would come about through the Communist revolution.  Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists believed that assimilation was doomed to failure and that the Jews had to adopt the idea of a nation-state based on a homogenous population as a political goal.  In response to the alienation of the modern world Martin Buber crafted a romantic vision of religious experience based on creative readings of Hasidic stories.  After the debacle of World War I, Jewish thinkers called into question these now seemingly naïve utopian dreams, whether liberal or Marxist, and offered new ways of thinking based on sophisticated theories of language and politics.  But any hope that Jewish life could thrive in Europe was dashed by the rise of Nazism.  The very possibility of Jewish philosophy was confronted by the spectre of annihilation.  In this course, we will examine this narrative through critical reading and discussion of key philosophical texts.


Assignments and Grading Policy

Participation:  There are several basic skills involved in philosophy, including reading critically, writing argumentatively, listening carefully, and talking constructively about ideas.  If you do not attend class regularly you will not be able to participate and develop some of these skills, especially listening and talking.  Lack of participation may affect your final grade in a variety of ways.  If you miss class you will have less time to prepare your assignments. You will be less prepared to write your discussion response and papers.  It is in your interest both in terms of your grade and your education to participate regularly in class. 

Discussion Questions:  Each week there will be a set of discussion questions and you are required to type a response to two of them, one due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, the other at the beginning of class on Thursday.  You need to deposit your answers in the course Catalyst Tools “Collect it Dropbox” at this URL:  https://catalyst.uw.edu/collectit/dropbox/rosentha/25114.  The questions for the following week will be handed out in class on Thursday.  There will be ten sets of questions and nineteen responses.  Any answer that is deposited in the drop box after the start of class will be awarded a maximum of 2 points.  Each satisfactory response received by the deadline is worth 5 points.  The first time a response is judged unsatisfactory it will be given 4 points.  Each time thereafter it will be worth 2 points.  A satisfactory response shows an understanding of the question, some comprehension of the texts, and an effort to engage in critical analysis and discussion of the question and texts.  If you do not turn in a response you will be given 0 points.  I will award one point (up to a total of five points for the quarter) of extra credit for each response I judge to be excellent.  This assignment is worth a total of 100 points.  You need a total of 53 points to pass this assignment.

Midterm Exam:  You are required to complete a take-home midterm examination.  The questions will be distributed in class on Thursday, January 31st, and your answers will be due before the beginning of class on Tuesday, February 5th in the course dropbox:    https://catalyst.uw.edu/collectit/dropbox/rosentha/25114.  The exam will be worth a total of 150 points.  You need a minimum of 80 points to pass this assignment.

Final Exam:  You are required to complete a take-home final examination.  The questions will be distributed in class on Thursday, March 14th, and your answers will be due at noon on Wednesday, March 20th in the course dropbox:  https://catalyst.uw.edu/collectit/dropbox/rosentha/25114.  The exam will be worth a total of 150 points.  You need a minimum of 80 points to pass this assignment.

Final Paper Option:  Undergraduates are allowed with instructor permission and graduate students are required to write a final 10-12 page paper instead of writing the final exam.  All students must ask permission from the instructor at least three weeks before the end of the quarter.  Students who are given permission are required to submit a topic, abstract, and annotated bibliography at least two weeks before the end of the quarter and receive instructor’s permission to proceed to the final draft.  The paper will be due at the same time as the final exam would be due, i.e., at noon on Wednesday, March 20th in the course dropbox:  https://catalyst.uw.edu/collectit/dropbox/rosentha/25114.  The paper will be worth a total of 150 points.  You need a minimum of 80 points 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 the discussion questions and 80 points for the exams) in two of the three components of the course (i.e., the discussion questions, 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) This course will follow the policies established by the Jackson School as listed and explained in the attached handout.  If you have any questions regarding these policies, please do not hesitate to contact the instructor.



The following books are required.  You can either purchase them at the University Bookstore or check them out from the reserve collection at Odegaard Library: 

Benjamin, Walter.  Illuminations:  Essays and Reflections.  Schocken, 1969. (ISBN:  978-0805202410).

Buber, Martin.  I and Thou.  Free Press, 1971.  (ISBN:  978-0684717258).

Cohen, Hermann.  The Ethics of Maimonides.  University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.  (ISBN:  978-0299177645)

Herzl, Theodor.  The Jewish State.  Dover, 1989 (ISBN:  978-0486258492).

Mendelssohn, Moses.  Jerusalem.  University Press of New England, 1983.  (ISBN:  087451-263-8).

Rosenzweig, Franz.  Philosophical and Theological Writings.  Hackett, 2000.  (ISBN:  978-0872204720).

Spinoza, B. Theological-Political Treatise.  2nd Edition.  Hackett Publishing, 2001.  (ISBN:  0-87220-607-6).

Strauss, Leo.  The Early Writings:  1921-1932.  SUNY Press, 2002.  (ISBN:  978-0791453308).

The following book is recommended reading for the course and is also available at the University Bookstore and on reserve at Odegaard library:

Morgan, M., and Gordon, P., The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy.  Cambridge, 2007.  (ISBN:  978-0521012553).


Class Schedule and Required Readings

The following is a weekly guide to the discussion themes and reading assignment.  While I will generally stay on track, I reserve the right to move more quickly or more slowly or even change the assignments as the quarter progresses.

Week 1-2:  The Enlightenment

*The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that began in the late seventeenth century and that emphasized the rational critique of received beliefs, whether religious or political.  The Enlightenment affected Jews in several ways.  There was greater social and political toleration based on the distinction between belief and practice, which itself was a by-product of the Protestant Reformation.  Although the Jews held beliefs that were anathema to their Christian rulers, as long as they obeyed the sovereign in their actions they were to have equal rights.  There also began a movement among Jews to reform their beliefs and practices in accordance with a rational critique of tradition.  This week and next we will examine two important philosophical representatives of the Enlightenment:  Spinoza, who was expelled from the jewish community of Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century, and Moses Mendelssohn, who made a name for himself as the most prominent Jewish thinker in Berlin at the end of the 18th century.  Spinoza has always been a problematic thinker to the Jewish tradition.  On the one hand, he was deeply critical of many of the central theological tenets of Judiasm.  On the other hand, he offered a new and modern way of reforming the claims of religion.  Mendelssohn was critical of Spinoza but accepts some of his key points, especially in the domain of the relation of the Jews to the modern liberal state.

Tu 1/8 – Introduction; Spinoza, TTP, Preface, chapters 1-7. [Recommended: MJP, ch. 2]

Th 1/10 – Spinoza, TTP, chapters 14-20.

Tu 1/15 – Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, Section I (pages 33-75).  [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 3]

Th 1/17 – Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, Section II (pages 77-139).

Week 3:  The “Jewish Question”

*The Enlightenment did not have all its desired effects.  Even in those countries in which Jews were given citizenship they were not always treated as equals.  In eastern Europe things remained much the way they had been or in fact became worse as nationalist movements tended to squeeze the Jews even further to the margin of society.  In response to the perceived failure of the enlightened liberal state, Karl Marx—whose father was born a Jew, converted to Christianity, and had his children baptised—posed the so-called “Jewish Question,” and offered his response to it.  The Communist revolution would eliminate the conditions that produced the need for religion in the first place.  Judaism would evaporate along with other religions in a communist utopia.  The other response—developed by several thinkers, one whom was an early colleague of Marx, Moses Hess, and the most important of whom was a Viennese journalist named Theodor Herzl—was Zionism.  Jews should build their own state in their historic homeland and preserve their national autonomy with modern means rather than relying on the good will of others.

Tu 1/22 – Karl Marx, “The Jewish Question” (xerox). 

Th 1/24 – Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State.

Week 4:  Hermann Cohen and neo-Kantianism

*The Enlightenment ideal reached its intellectual zenith during the Wilhelmine Empire (1871-1918) in Germany.  In comparison with other countries, France, for example, German Jews were late to receive full citizenship rights, but when they did it unleashed a short, but intense period of social and intellectual activity.  Hermann Cohen is arguably the best representative of this acheivement.  He was one of the first Jews appointed to a university professorship and was the leader of the so-called Marburg School of the neo-Kantian revival.  He sought to show that the foundation of morality was best expressed in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which could be articulated rationally in terms of Kant’s moral philosophy.  He was a vociferous critic of Spinoza, who he thought had betrayed his own people out of spite.  He rejected Zionism as well, because he thought that the liberal social state offered the best hope for the Jewish people.  In the Ethics of Maimonides, we will see his attempt to articulate a Jewish Enlightenment, based on a platonic and Kantian reading of the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides.

Tu 1/29 – Cohen, The Ethics of Maimonides, chs. 1-2, 4 (1-48, 77-106) [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 5]

Th 1/31 – Cohen, The Ethics of Maimonides, chs. 7-10 (145-194) [Midterm Exam Distributed]

Week 5:  Martin Buber:  from the Mystical to the Dialogical

*In the period leading up to the first World War many Jews reacted against what they perceived as a dessicated synthesis with Kantian thought.  There was an increased interest in the irrational, mystical dimensions of Judaism.  After the debacle of the war this mysticism was tempered by social critique, though it still had its irrational elements.  In his own intellectual journey Martin Buber represents this transition.  In his early work he moved away from Kantian rationalism toward mysticism.  He wrote about the “oriental” sources of Jewish thinking and translated eastern European Hasidic stories for a German audience.  After the war he articulated the principles of a more socially engaged, “dialogical” style of philosophy, and he became a Zionist, albeit one who also recognized the claims of the Palestinians. 

Tu 2/5 – Buber, I and Thou,  First Part (53-86), Second Part (87-122). [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 6] [Midterm Exam Due]

Th 2/7 – Buber, I and Thou, Third Part (123-168).

Week 6:  Walter Benjamin:  between Marxism and Mysticism

*Walter Benjamin is not always read as a philosopher but more often as a literary critic.  While it is true that we do not find any systematic philosophizing in his writings, nonetheless, we can discover some important philosophical points.  There are two schools of interpreters:  one, led prominently by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, claims that Benjamin was a sort of modern Jewish mystic; the other, led by Theodor Adorno of the famous “Frankfurt School,” claims that he was a marxist.  It is indisputable that he went through clear phases of each, but in the end perhaps Benjamin is something else.  His obsessive commentary on literary texts, his sharp-eyed criticism of capitalist society, and his belief that language itself can intervene, messianically as it were, in history, marks him as a truly sui-generis thinker of Jewish modernity.

Tu 2/12 – Benjamin, Illuminations, “Franz Kafka” (111-140), “Some Reflections on Kafka” (141-146), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (217-252).   [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 9]

Th 2/14 – Benjamin, Illuminations, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (253-264).

Weeks 7-8:  Franz Rosenzweig:  Revelation as Orientation

*On the cusp of converting to Christianity Franz Rosenzweig rediscovered Judaism and went on to become one of its most important twentieth century thinkers.  Although he had been a student of the historian Friedrich Meinecke and wrote his dissertation on Hegel, he rejected the historicism that had prevailed in the study of religion and of Judaism in particular.  And, although he was an admirer, he did not follow Hermann Cohen’s Kantian rationalism.  Instead, based on his reading of the German Romantics—Schelling in particular—Rosenzweig developed a quasi-mystical system of idealism in which Revelation is the foundation.  In Frankfurt after WWI, Rosenzweig met Buber and the two later collaborated on a new German translation of the Bible.  He led the famous Lehrhaus until his death from progressive lateral sclerosis in 1929. 

Tu 2/19 – Rosenzweig, PTW, chapters I-II.   [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 7].

Th 2/21 – Rosenzweig, PTW, chapters III-V.

Tu 2/26 – Rosenzweig, PTW, chapters VI-VII.

Th 2/28 –  Rosenzweig, PTW, chapters VIII-X

Week 9:  Leo Strauss:  The Theological-Political Problem

*Strauss has earned a notorious reputation, mainly through his contemporary followers, but his own work is a serious contribution to modern Jewish thought.  There are really two main periods in his writings.  the time before and after his forced emigration from Germany to the US.  In the first period he sorted through the various options of Jewish life—assimilation to liberal society, an option represented intellectually by the work of Spinoza, the return to Orthodoxy, and Zionism—and found them all wanting.  In his mature period, inspired by the writing of medieval Jews like Maimonides, he insisted on a return to the classical natural law tradition grounded in an idiosyncratic reading of Plato.  We will focus on the early writings and examine Strauss’ critical engagement with medieval and modern Jewish thought before the Holocaust.

Tu 3/5 – Strauss, Early Writings, Part II, chapter II (“Zionist Writings,” 63-138).  [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 8]

Th 3/7 – Strauss, Early Writings, Part II, chapters III-IV (“Writings on Spinoza,” 140-172, and “Reorientation,” 202-224).

Week 10:  Jewish Philosophy after the Holocaust

*The systematic destruction of European Jewry profoundly changed not only the social and political life of Jews but also the intellectual landscape as well.  Theodor Adorno, the leading figure of the Frankfurt School, claimed that poetry after Auschwitz was impossible, and the same might be said of traditional philosophical and theological projects.  The idea that a benevolent God had allowed humans to inflict such evil on his “chosen people” or indeed the idea that such events could be part of any providential scheme both seemed anathema to reason.  Two philosophers who, although educated in the period before the war, nonetheless takes the catastrophe as a central theme of his work are Emil Fackenheim and Emmanuel Levinas.  We will read brief excerpts of their work to get a sense of how Jewish thinkers have responded to this enormous challenge.

Tu 3/12 – Levinas,  “Bible and Philosophy,” “The Responsibility for the Other,” “Ethics and Spirit” (xerox). [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 12]

Th 3/14 – Fackenheim, “On Philosophy after the Holocaust” (xerox). [Recommended:  MJP, ch. 13] [Final Exam Distributed]

We 3/20[Final Exam due at Noon in Catalyst  Collect it Drop Box]




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