#81 A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy (3)

This Jewish Philosophy lecture explores the emergence of Neoplatonism in Jewish philosophical thinking. David examines the ideas and works of three Jewish philosophers living during the later years of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry:

  • Shlomo Ibn Gabirol
  • Baḥya ibn Paquda
  • Yehudah haLevi.

Going in-depth into the contributions of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, David discusses:

  • Keter Malkhut
  • Tiqun Midot haNephesh
  • Mekor Ḥayyim

looking at the philosopher’s exploration of:

  • Divine essence as primal cause
  • Matter and form
  • Divine will.

Watch the lecture here.

David delivered this Zoom talk in 2020 for Caulfield Shule in his capacity as scholar-in-residence.



If you recall in the first session we talked about Philo in the first century, the famous Middle Platonist, and his enormous contribution to getting this idea of Jewish philosophy off and running. I’ll remind us again: Jewish philosophy is primarily a reactive exercise to the tremendous intellectual products that come out of the world around us.

Philosophy is the discovery of what we can know through the mind and our rational speculations, logical and otherwise. And then in the second class, we looked at the enormous contributions of Saadia Gaon in the 10th century, in the nine hundreds. His embeddedness in the Kalam, which is Islamic philosophy, and how he was able to extract and adapt many of the major ideas, to find some important themes going forward in Jewish thought. And what people normally do when they discuss the journey of Jewish philosophy is they tend to jump to the 12th century, to the 11 hundreds because we see the return of Western thought to Aristotle as a result of the writings of the ancient Greeks having been carried over by the Arab world, now coming into Europe and meeting Christian Europe and Aristotle makes a big return.

So, what often happens is that there’s a little event that is skipped over and I want to focus on that today because we’re going to look at the 11th century, at the ten hundreds. And this is before we’re going to get caught up in Aristotle and Aristotelian is, and that whole journey that’s going to take us in other directions in the next session. But today I want to look at the very, very important thinkers who are coming from an intellectual background, philosophically speaking, that we call Neoplatonism.

Now Neoplatonism is a brand name that we give to a whole range of thinkers from a roundabout the third century – from around the two hundreds – almost for the next millennium. They would not have called themselves, of course, Neoplatonists, they would’ve called themselves Platonists. And let’s remind ourselves of what the problem with platonic thinking is if you are coming from the perspective of a revealed religion. Remember that the whole exercise is to grapple with these two truth systems. On the one hand, philosophy is telling us what the mind can know. And religion is telling us what is revealed by the word of God. And how do we reconcile these two?

But even without religion, Neoplatonists are trying to bridge the gap between the ultimate reality, which is indivisible, and perfect, and this one, which is pluralistic and corrupt, and so on. How do we bridge the gap?

And we looked at various solutions. We looked at the Middle Platonists. Philo’s logos is a classic example of an intermediary so is Saadia’s notion of the kavod. but the Neoplatonists are taking a slightly different direction – a very, very complex field of thought. What Neoplatonists are arguing is that there is an entire hierarchy of emanations that emerge from the higher reality. And we know that if already we are dealing with a perception that the true reality is the spiritual realm, then we’re already dealing in a platonic thought system. We’re already in Plato’s field, but we are bridging the gap by this process called emanation.

At the top of this tremendous hierarchy sits “The One.” And it has been remarked that where people have tried to say that God is The One, Neoplatonists would say that “1”, the number “1” is actually God. God is the one who is at the top of this hierarchy, completely devoid of attributes.

All our knowledge of attributes comes from perceived objects. So, the concepts that can be derived from perceived objects, we can’t derive them when we talk about the one. It is absolutely transcendent. But from the one emanates a great chain of being all the way down to earth in a gradual process of emanation where things become more and more materialised and more and more congealed.

Neoplatonic thought is very complex. Normally there are different types of entities. They’re often talking about a divine mind or a divine intellect, a world soul.

I’m going to show you an example. This is any particular Neoplatonic scheme, but I’m going to show you an example of what Neoplatonic hierarchy of emanations – all the way from the one, all the way down to earth.

One of the great metaphors that Neoplatonic thinking uses is the concept of light. So, whereas the one is the source of light and then with these various gradations as they come down all the way down to earth, the light gradually not only becomes congealed but becomes more hidden.

The Neoplatonists did not believe that evil had any independent agency but that, in fact, evil is simply the absence or deficiency of light. The Neoplatonists also have a notion of the soul – not just a world soul, but individual terrestrial souls. And that the soul is on a journey where it is here in this world, but it is constantly yearning to return to the one. If you talk about the one, and you talk about emanation, you are already in the Neoplatonic universe.

Now I want to focus on three thinkers, one main one, that is coming within that tradition and is making, once again, incalculable contributions to the stream of Jewish thought. I want to place this person – or these people – historically.

I don’t know if you heard about it, but we had an amazing community in Spain in the 10th and 11th and to some extent the 12th centuries, which we call the Golden Age of Spain because Jews in Spain, under the Cordovan Caliphate and so on, were able to aspire to the highest levels of culture and art and literature and philosophy and so on. And it didn’t take us long to produce some amazing thinkers in that environment.

I’m just going to show you now what I’m talking about. Those of you who’ve done my history course will be familiar with this. So, let’s look at this. You can see the Golden Age of Spain is here. And I just want to embed these thinkers in their historical environment.

Shlomo Ibn Gabirol

The first person I’m going to talk about, of course, is Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. And you can see that Ibn Gabirol is living smack in the Golden Age of Spain. He is a classic exemplar of that. He’s a contemporary of Rabbeinu Gerson and RaSh”Y and to some extent the RY”F if we are talking about the great Rishonim of Spain.

If we get time, I’m going to talk about the other two Bahya Ibn Paquda and Yehuda HaLevi who come one after the other and they’re all – particularly Ibn Gabirol and Bahya Ibn Paquda – strong examples, classic examples of, Neoplatonic thought and how Neoplatonic thought emerges into Judaism.

Now, I know that some of you are sitting here going: “But I’m Jewish and I have thoughts and I’m running. What do I need to know about Neoplatonism? What is Neoplatonism done for me?”

But you’ll see that in the ideas that we’re going to discuss, particularly in relation to someone like Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, that his insights and his attempt to synthesise Jewish thought with Neoplatonic thinking have had such an incredible influence that he’s introduced concepts that we for the last thousand years have almost taken for granted.

He was born in Malaga in Spain in the 11th century, and he was of course famously a poet. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda HaLevi, they’re all poets. They’re not just streets in Tel Aviv. They are incredible poets.

Shlomo Ibn Gabirol is regarded possibly as the most sublime of all the poets of the Golden Age of Spain. In fact, one of his most famous poems called Keter Malkhut is a huge philosophical Neoplatonic poem. Ibn Gabirol’s biography is fascinating. But, where I want to take our starting point, philosophically speaking, is that he obviously immersed himself in the philosophy of the day.

What we have to understand about Neoplatonic thinking – this kind of spiritual, almost mystical underpinning for philosophy – is that Islamic countries are now ruling over far greater territories than they were before, including parts of the world that are much more exposed to Eastern thinking. And this is why some of the ideas of Neoplatonic thought have great similarities with the East. But Shlomo Ibn Gabirol grows up in that particular environment and he is reading widely, and he is infused by Neoplatonic thinking.

The first book I’m just going to look at quickly, and some people might say it’s not strictly speaking philosophy, but I think it is. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that the purpose of philosophical thinking is not always to speculate about the big ideas out there. Meaning, the creation and the reality, and all the different relations between objects and concepts, and so on.

But very often there is a whole aspect of philosophy where we are looking at the inner self and we are looking at ethics, and we are looking at how to behave – what can the human mind tell us about how to behave as human beings? The whole subject of ethics.

And as a young man, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol wrote a remarkable book called Tiqqun Midot HaNefesh, the correction of the attributes of the soul is a clunky but accurate translation. And he wrote this in his early twenties. I mean, can you imagine someone writing in the early twenties a book about how to be a more refined and better person? It’s not a very usual thing. And he gives himself away as a Neoplatonist because the introduction to the book refers to God as “HaEchad, HaKadmon, HaRishon” – the One, the Eternal, the Primordial, the First. And already we can see that he is edging towards this Neoplatonic perspective, not only calling God nothing but the One, but that also God has essential attributes – perhaps the idea of HaKadmon – and active attributes, which means how the One emanates in relation to creation, in which case, the One is not going to be just the One but is going to be the First.

And in this text, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol does something very interesting. And I’m going to highlight this because it’s a fascinating aspect of the two books that we’re going to look at. Here is a text on morals and ethics that has no overt reference to Judaism or any other religion. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol writes a book that is fundamentally a universal text. It could be read by anybody. It just simply focuses on how to be a better person, and it takes as its basis the idea that the human being is a microcosm of the universe. The human being is a microcosm of the universe. The universe is macro, and the human being is a micro reflection of that. It’s a very, very big idea that’s going to come again into Jewish thought later, particularly in kabbalistic thought.

But he’s taking this in a purely philosophical sense. And what he wants us to do is he wants us to perfect the human through the things that make us human. And one of the things that is particular about being human – and about being an animal in any sense – is the senses.

The sensors for him are not simply part of the natural world that we have to grapple with. The senses themselves are emblems of a perfect creation and they have their true essence. And what we have to do as human beings is recover the true essence of how to use our senses and each of the senses – sight hearing, smell, taste, touch – are all connected. And he connects them all with about 20 or so different attributes, good and bad, that a person needs to perfect in order to uncover the true use of that sense. And I’ve got a graphic here I’m going to show you to demonstrate that.

So, if you can purify and reify each of these senses, you are restoring them to their absolute emblematic reflection of the universe, of the macrocosm, and you are returning, in a sense, to your true essence. And you can see that each of these senses has an aspect to it – positive and negative aspects for attributes associated with each one.

One of the things that the Neoplatonists are very concerned with is this idea of the return of one’s individual soul towards the One. And you don’t do that by escaping from your senses, you do that by purifying your senses, by elevating them, by turning them into emblems of the true reality, the true spiritual reality. So, he allies behavioral attributes to a notion of the underlying spiritual reality behind the universe. It’s a very, very deep book, although sometimes not always given the weight that I think it has within Jewish thought. And he wrote that in his early twenties, and that’s unusual as well.

But the main book I want to talk about today – and all of this is really by way of introduction – is an astonishing work, which for most of the past millennium we did not know was written by a Jewish thinker. There was a Latin text that passed through the Middle Ages and beyond called Fons Vitae, which means the source of life. And it wasn’t until the 19th century that scholars such as Solomon Munk and others realised, through finding manuscripts and all of their research, unequivocally discovered that this Neoplatonic text called Fons Vitae, which was regarded by Christian and Muslim scholars right throughout the Middle Ages as a really classic and amazingly pure statement of Neoplatonic thought – and Christians thought maybe it was a Christian, Muslims thought maybe it was a Muslim. But scholars in the 19th century discovered that Fons Vitae was in fact, the Makor Haim of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. Fons vitae means the source of life.

And Makor Haim is a remarkable book because Shlomo Ibn Gabirol clearly challenged himself to write a philosophical text that – and listen to what I’m saying because it’s remarkable, people just don’t easily do this today – was both completely universalist meaning it could speak to anyone. But was it at the same time it was completely consistent with Jewish thought and values? And that’s not simple, because as you might have heard, Judaism often gets very caught up in particulars – in the particularity of the Jewish people, in the particularity of what we have to do in the world, in the particularity of the Jewish journey. Judaism has many, many universal statements, but it’s not easy to write a philosophical text that’s consistent with Jewish thought and at the same time will speak to everyone. That’s an interesting facet. There are no quotations from the Bible; there are no overt references to Judaism; the only philosopher mentioned is Plato. And it is a pure analysis of the Neoplatonic view of reality.

And here’s what’s unique about it. First of all, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol wants us to understand that in his philosophical speculations, there are three really important topics that we need to understand. One is the divine essence, which could also be called a primal cause. And I’ve got to tell you that as strange as this might sound, the divine essence is not entirely synonymous with the One. It kind of is, but if we are talking about a concept called the divine essence, we’re already saying something about the One. So, we’re already at the first level of emanation when we talk about divine essence. But it’s a very important topic Shlomo Ibn Gabirol wants us to understand.

He also wants us to understand the concept of divine will, which is the next emanation after essence. But the really, really, really big subject he wants us to get our head around – and in the time we have today, it’s not going to be that simple – but it’s the concept of matter and form. Everything in the universe is composed of matter and form.

Now you might come and say, David, well that’s hardly new. We knew that. But Shlomo Ibn Gabirol takes this subject, takes this concept of everything in the universe is composed of matter and form – it’s a fundamental dualism grappled with by Aristotle, by Plato, and we looked at this in the first session. Where exactly do you place the introduction of the concepts of matter and the concepts of form? Are they eternal? Where do they join? And so on.

For Aristotle, for example, there is no mixing of matter and form except here. All the different levels of form only emerge in matter in this corporeal world. For Plato, as well, matter and form do have some kind of sublime combinations, but they are only happening in relation to this particular reality.

Shlomo Ibn Gabirol develops a thing that later scholars called universal hylomorphism, meaning that all of reality – matter material, spiritual, everything – is really only one substance. And that substance is a combination of matter and form. Now, I’m going to show you a graph because I’m going to show you where that merging of matter and form come about.

Matter and form are two dual starting points for all of reality. And what holds them together is the divine will. The divine will – even before we get to the divine mind, the divine intellect, even before we arrive at that in our scheme of emanation – divine will is combining form and matter.

And as you can see here enough, it’s a complex graphic because – and you won’t see this anywhere else, but I have distilled this idea from Makor Haim – really on another level, matter is a consequence of divine essence. It’s divine essence that creates matter and divine will creates form. Divine will then holds matter and form together.

And the entire chain of being is going to be gradations of the combinations of form and matter. Now, why is that important? That’s important it is because it is divine will – or divine desire as Shlomo Ibn Gabirol sometimes wants us to understand it – that is holding matter and form together at every single level, which means that divine will is the permeating force behind everything in reality.

It’s not just the case that the divine will is up there and we are all consequences down here, but that divine will permeates through reality, right down to every single conceivable object and entity in the universe is combined of form matter, and that form matter is held together by divine will.

Shlomo Ibn Gabirol is also talking about the soul because the soul wants -in classic Neoplatonic fashion – the soul wants to return to the One. And that is humanity’s ethical imperative. Humanity is given – and he comes back to the ideas in Tiqqun Midot HaNefesh – a human being, the soul of a human being is given access to the senses in order to attain the knowledge of forms. And by the knowledge of forms in matter, we reify our souls and return to our true essence. Not like the Gnostics would say that we have to escape this reality, but within this reality, we can become more and more our true selves. Humanity is a direct reflection of the macrocosm and has a direct royal road, if you like, to connecting to the one, to connecting to the divine reality. And we do that through our senses, through purifying our senses, through reflecting upon how the various senses of the human being can be conduits for that divine reality.

So Makor Haim is a very, very complex book. Sometimes this idea of form and matter can get away from people. I mean, Keter Malkhut once again, is an immense poem that is reflective of these ideas.

One way of understanding is that Ibn Gabirol gives us an analogy, gives us a mashal, inside Makor Haim where he talks about how creation is spoken. He doesn’t refer to the biblical or Jewish thought idea specifically about the universe being a creation of God, but he uses voice as an analogy. The divine speech whereby, for example, the notion of voice would be matter, and the words and letters that form words would be the form. And the meaning of what’s being said would be the resultant divine intellect or the noose could be understood in relation to that combination of voice and words – or the sound patterns that are imposed on voice, the form coming into matter deriving meaning. But that’s just an analogy he gives us. I’m trying now to clarify this. It’s not easy to talk about Shlomo Ibn Gabirol too extensively in a session of this length.

But if we understand the notion of the One, if we understand the notion of emanation and particularly understanding the notion of form and matter and divine will permeating all of reality. I know that scholars are always saying, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol didn’t really influence the Kabbalah, but everywhere you look in kabbalistic thought, you can see ideas that are reflective of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol’s picture of the world.

So, Neoplatonism is a very, very heavy influence inside kabbalistic thought, and I don’t need to tell an intelligent and good-looking audience like this, just how pervasive and influential kabbalistic literature is.

Bahya ibn Paquda

I’ve got a few minutes. The next person I wanted to talk about is very, very interesting and that is Bahya ibn Paquda. We can see that Bahya ibn Paquda is sitting between Shlomo Ibn Gabirol and Yehuda HaLevi. As you can see, everything’s about to change in Spain. Bahya is already living through the first Reconquista. The Almohads are around the corner. Yehuda HaLevi is going to be living in that time between the reconquistas. That’s going to define his intellectual projects and concerns.

But Bahya ibn Paquda is a classic Neoplatonic thinker who is concerned primarily with ethics. And that’s what makes someone, at the end of the day, a Jewish philosopher. At the end of the day, we live in this world and how can we be better people? How can we create an inner self that is more reflective of the divine, that is a better person?

And he writes a book, a famous, famous text called Chovot HaLevavot, the Duties of the Heart, well, that’s what it ended up being called in its Hebrew translation, he wrote it in Arabic. He took a lot of the forms and styles there from similar literature in the Islamic world -that wasn’t seen as an issue, they had some very, very high-level literary forms.

He’s concerned very much with the concept of the unity of God, meaning trying to abstract God from anything of the adjectives or attributes that we can say about the divine. And in doing so, he distinguishes between two different types of attributes. Those which are essential. Really, where we can’t talk about God at all – God’s essential attributes and active attributes, that is the way that God interacts with react with creation. This is a basic distinction that had already been made by Saadia Gaon and how we can understand problems of anthropomorphism and descriptions of God, and now we can even talk about God and so on.

What Bahya ibn Paquda’s great contribution was in Chovot HaLevavot, in my humble opinion, is to take that perspective on the divine and relate it to the human being through the commandments of the Torah. The Torah has different types of commandments. It has commandments that are to do with how relate or, or how we act – whether they’re ritual commandments or social commandments – they involve us interacting with the world and other people. But there are also commandments that are purely internal. When the Torah says to you: don’t bear a grudge, or don’t take revenge, or don’t lust after things, or don’t hate people. These are internal, emotional, attributes of an individual that are still nevertheless commandments of the Torah.

Bahya ibn Paquda gives us a tremendous insight and it’s this: in relation to all the different other ritual and social commandments – you can understand them, or you could not understand them, they might lend themselves to rational comprehension or not – but all of the duties of the heart, all of the things that we need to do as human beings and we are commanded to do by God, that involve internal processes are all rooted in the intellect. They are all capable of reason. They’re all capable of arriving at philosophically, and therefore we have a duty to arrive at them rationally and reasonably and to work with our minds to understand the importance of fixing those attributes and purifying ourselves as human beings. It’s a huge insight.

In other words, regardless of how many commandments of the Torah you understand, you are perfectly capable of working with your mind rationally to improve yourself as a human being in terms of your inequalities. This is a huge insight. Chovot HaLevavot is an enormous text. It feels almost obscene to summarise it in just a few minutes. He goes into almost every aspect of moral behavior and so on. It is a classic of Jewish thought. But its perspective on the world is grounded in Neoplatonic thinking. And Neoplatonic thinking which had evolved first of all from Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus – I didn’t mention this before, the great thinkers of the Neoplatonic tradition – but they are all there on the bookshelf and you’re welcome to read them. I always recommend people go back to Plotinus every few years, especially people who don’t take mind-altering substances, who probably could do with a bit of Plotinus because it’s a good substitute for that.

Yehuda HaLevi

Now, the third thinker I just want to briefly touch upon is the third in that series and that is Yehuda HaLevi. In some ways, Yehuda HaLevi doesn’t need any introduction, but we’ll introduce him, nonetheless. He’s an enormous poet living right at the end of the Golden Age of Spain. He is going to witness the Almohads sweeping through, and he’s going to try and go to Israel, and he’s got a whole legendary history as well. Why he’s of interest to us as a philosophy in a course on philosophy is – apart from the fact that he has his own Neoplatonic perspectives – as you will be aware Yehuda HaLevi wrote a famous, famous book called The Kuzari.

In the Kuzari he romantically envisages a discussion that had happened several hundred years before when Bulan, the king of the Khazars in the eighth century had converted his state religion to Judaism. In advance of this, in the speculative romance of Yehuda HaLevi, he had invited to discuss with him, – the king had had a dream that God said: Oh, I’m happy with your intentions, but I don’t like your actions, you need to find yourself the right path – a Christian priest, an Islamic imam, a rabbi, and a philosopher. And he has discussions. And of course, the vast majority of the text is involved in his discussions with the rabbi because eventually, he converts to Judaism, but in the first few pages, he’s dealing with everything else.

Yehuda HaLevi’s philosopher presents very, very cogent arguments, and even in the couple of pages that the Kuzari is dealing with philosophy, you can see that the classic philosophical position that Yehuda HaLevi is presenting on behalf of philosophy is fundamentally a Neoplatonic position because that would’ve been the guiding philosophical picture in Spain in the Golden Age, with the addition by the way of, because now we’ve had Avicenna and we’ve had other thinkers who have started to introduce a little bit more pure Aristotelian into the medieval picture – so he’s already talking about a concept that we’re going to be talking about in a couple of weeks, the concept of the active intellect – very big for the Rambam and so on. And already that’s just starting to creep into the picture.

And it’s interesting because the philosopher’s arguments are basically agreed to by the king as a picture of reality, but they are refuted because they do not contain any guidance for life. They don’t really tell the king what he is meant to do. And also importantly, and this is big for Yehuda HaLevi, philosophy cannot arrive at prophecy. In other words, you can perfect yourself as much as you can as this philosopher in the book had, but philosophy doesn’t produce prophets. He doesn’t produce people who are direct expressive conduits of the divine will. And we are going to see this in the next century, with the welding of Aristotelian thought into Jewish thought, we are going to try and define what prophets are because Judaism is so dependent upon its prophetic tradition for the revealed word of God.

So how does prophecy fit into this picture of the universe? It has to be explained rationally. And because philosophy couldn’t account for prophecy, as well as the fact that it couldn’t even really tell the king what he should be doing as an active practice in the world, is that ultimately philosophy was rejected by the king. But the picture presented by The Kuzari – and I urge you all to read The Kuzari because it’s a foundational text of Jewish thought – is nevertheless Neoplatonic and a classic picture of the way in which philosophy progresses throughout the Middle Ages.

So, what I wanted to do today was to cover the Neoplatonists. I wanted to look at Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Paquda, and Yehuda HaLevi as making foundational contributions to the journey that we’re going to go on. It’s very difficult to understand subsequent Jewish thought unless we take account of those thinkers and I’m very pleased we have the opportunity to do that today.

I know that I have been very, very summary in my discussions today, but hopefully we’ve opened the door to further thought because I think there will be a return to the thought of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol in Jewish thought. I don’t think that we have fully absorbed and accounted for his incredible picture, as outlined in Makor Haim. And it does show, and I’ll just finish on this point, that Judaism is perfectly capable of producing universalist statements that can speak to all of humanity but are grounded ultimately in the Jewish idea that at the end of the day, we have to improve ourselves as human beings in the world.

So, thank you for listening to that, and I will see you soon.