Shlomo Pines: The Jewish Philosopher Who Presupposed Nothing

Even at the Hebrew University at mid-century, when the likes of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem walked the halls, Pines stood out for his prodigious knowledge of everything.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1941. ullstein bild via Getty Images.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1941. ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Observation
May 31 2022
About the author

Warren Zev Harvey is professor emeritus of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has taught since 1977.

To English-language readers, the scholar Shlomo Pines (1908-1990) is undoubtedly best known for his superb English translation of Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (1963). Some may also be aware of his uncanny fluency in dozens of ancient and modern languages and his extraordinary familiarity with the history of philosophy, science, and religion. Still others may have heard about his reputation as an absent-minded professor who would shuffle into his classroom at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem clutching a crumpled newspaper, proceed to lecture brilliantly without notes in a gentle monotone while staring at the floor or the ceiling, and, if asked a question, smile softly, turn around, scribble two or three sentences on the blackboard in Greek, Arabic, or Latin, and, forgetting occasionally to turn around, resume his lecture while addressing the blackboard.

At the Hebrew University, known in the mid-20th century as the home of such leading intellectual lights as Yitsḥak Baer, Martin Buber, Leah Goldberg, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Jacob Katz, and Gershom Scholem, Pines was legendary not only for his prodigious knowledge of everything and his enormous contribution to the study of Jewish philosophy but also for his quiet humility and wholehearted dedication to his students, to whom he was always available for conversation and advice.

Who was this remarkable figure, and wherein lay his distinctive approach to Judaism, to philosophy, and to Jewish philosophy? Revisiting his life and career today is an especially valuable exercise, not least because his rigorously objective approach to scholarship itself is so refreshingly different from the identity politics so regnant on university campuses today.

 

Born in 1908 in the Paris suburb of Charenton-le-Pont, young Shlomo was a scion of the distinguished Pines (pronounced Pinéss) family of Ruzhany in today’s Belarus. Among his relatives were outstanding rabbis, scholars, writers, and activists who had contributed variously to Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian culture. They included Rabbi Yeḥiel Michel Pines (1824-1913), famed leader of the Ḥibbat Tsion (Love of Zion) movement, and Shlomo’s father Meyer, who had participated in the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel in 1905 and by the time of his son’s birth was at the Sorbonne researching a doctoral dissertation on the history of Yiddish literature.

When Shlomo was nine months old, the family returned to Eastern Europe, at first to Riga in Latvia and then north to Arkhangelsk, a port city near the White Sea. The boy was given a private tutor in Hebrew, a language he spoke, alongside Russian and Yiddish, by the age of six.

In 1919, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, the family fled Russia and settled in London. The young Pines loved England, the English language, and the London school where he quickly mastered Latin. But after two short years the family migrated once again, this time to Berlin where, by contrast, he loathed his school and took no pleasure in speaking German.

During these years, he learned Greek (in school) and Arabic (outside of school), but then dropped out to study on his own for the high-school matriculation exams. In 1925 he enrolled at the University of Heidelberg concentrating in philosophy and Arabic but transferred a year later to the University of Geneva where he majored in linguistics and French literature, and thence, in 1927, to the University of Berlin where he studied philosophy as well as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Sanskrit and would eventually be awarded his doctorate for a groundbreaking dissertation on medieval Islamic atomism (1934).

Pines’s close friends during his early Berlin years included the Arabist Paul Kraus and the political philosopher Leo Strauss; decades later, Strauss would collaborate with him in preparing his edition of Maimonides’ Guide. The three friends discussed philosophy, Semitics, and the fate of the Jewish people.

In 1932, while writing his doctorate, Pines relocated to Paris, the city of his birth. In eight productive years there, he published more than a dozen scholarly studies in the field of medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy, including the first in a series of essays on Abuʾl-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (1080-1165), a radical anti-Aristotelian Jewish philosopher who in his old age converted to Islam. From 1937 until 1939, he taught at the Sorbonne on the history of science in the Islamic world and became friendly with the Hebrew poet and radical “Canaanite” ideologue Yonatan Ratosh. He also married; his bride, Fanny Rirachowsky, a native of Basel with a high-school diploma from the famed Herzliyah Gymnasium in Tel-Aviv, was by 1938 a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1940, the young couple and their son succeeded in fleeing Europe; they arrived safely in the Land of Israel on the last ship to leave Marseilles before the German invasion of France.

 

During World War II, Pines worked in the office of the British imperial censor in Jerusalem while continuing his academic researches. His first scholarly essay in the Hebrew language—on a text by the heterodox Muslim philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (865–925)—was published in 1945 in the prestigious journal Tarbits. In 1948, with the proclamation of Israeli statehood, he began to work as an Iran specialist in the ministry of foreign affairs while continuing to publish scholarly articles on Islamic and Jewish philosophy.

In 1950, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem initiated a search for a worthy successor to the recently deceased Julius (Yitsḥak) Guttmann, a renowned historian of Jewish philosophy. The position was offered to Georges Vajda, an eminent scholar of Semitics at the Sorbonne, who replied, in effect: “You already have living in Jerusalem the best man in the field.” Thus, in 1952, Shlomo Pines at the age of forty-four was appointed a lecturer in the department of philosophy and the department of Hebrew philosophy and kabbalah, and by 1961 was promoted to full professor.

After years of working in government offices, Pines was reinvigorated by his academic appointment and began to publish widely. The eight studies he had produced in the decade between 1941 and 1951 were followed by more than 170 new ones in the decades before his death in 1990. We can break them into segments.

From the 1950s until the early 1960s, Pines’s work focused almost exclusively on medieval philosophical and scientific texts written in Arabic. His output comprised philological studies of lost Greek works that had survived only in rare Arabic fragments; analyses of such great Muslim and Jewish thinkers as Avicenna, Abuʾl-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, Averroes, and Maimonides; and of course the English translation of the Guide of the Perplexed.

From that point onward, the borders of his research expanded rapidly. In the four-year period 1964-68 he composed lengthy monographs on three 13th- and 14th-century Jewish philosophers (Joseph Kaspi, Jedaiah Bedersi, and Ḥasdai Crescas) who lived in Christian Europe and an additional trio of essays on Jewish Christians in the years following the death of Jesus. In 1968, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his exceptional contribution to the humanities.

The next two decades produced works on Slavic, Persian, and Sanskrit religious texts as well as a monograph on the mystical Hebrew book Sefer Yetsirah (“The Book of Creation”); studies of maggidim (heavenly voices speaking to or through earthbound kabbalists); analyses of Renaissance philosophers like the Italian Jewish Leone Ebreo and the French Catholic Jean Bodin; and treatments of such early-modern and modern philosophers as Barukh (Benedict) Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Franz Rosenzweig. In, for example, a 1984 essay on “The Historical Evolution of the Concept of Freedom,” Pines traced a course from ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome to the modern era (Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Sartre), in the process calling attention to the special Hebrew meaning of “freedom” (ḥerut) as national liberation.

Indeed, the area encompassed by Pines’s scholarship became all but limitless; his accumulated studies reflect a singular combination of intimate familiarity with many languages and literatures, deep and wide-ranging erudition, and keen analytic powers free of bias or convention. His place, in short, is among the giants of modern scholarship.

What, however, was his view of Jewish philosophy in particular? How did he define it? And how did he understand the relationship between Jewish and Gentile thought? Finally, how did he conceive the role of scholarship in these areas? To such questions we now turn.

 

At a symposium on the nature of Jewish studies held at the Hebrew University in 1956, the then-forty-eight-year-old Pines chose to introduce a highly unorthodox note. Looking at Jewish history, he said, one is struck by the number and variety of “cultural spheres” occupied by Jews in different times and places. Thus, if during the early rabbinic period most Jews belonged to the Greco-Roman sphere, by the early Middle Ages most belonged to the Arabic sphere and then, by the late Middle Ages, to the Christian-European sphere. That being the case, he concluded, why did scholars tend to speak about “Jewish culture” itself as if it were a single continuous phenomenon?

His words caused a stir. He was accused of denying the very existence of Jewish culture—a worse heresy, for some of his secular colleagues, than denying God. Correcting the record, Pines reminded his critics that he had simply pointed out that the issue in need of further investigation was not the existence of Jewish culture but its supposed “wholeness” over the centuries. True, Jews had long seen themselves as a special nation, “a people that shall dwell alone” (Numbers 23:9). This self-perception, however, had made it difficult for them to take in and to contend with the historical fact that in different times they had belonged to different cultural spheres and were thus by no means entirely “alone.”

Returning to this theme two decades later in the introduction to a Hebrew collection of his essays (Between Jewish Thought and the Thought of the Nations, 1977), he pointed to another distinctive fact: eminent members of the Jewish nation had not only lived in diverse “cultural zones” but had done so at the very height of the latter’s flourishing. Their own active participation in these cultures, he suggested, should be seen not as a regrettable loss to Judaism but rather as a gift and a blessing.

Jewish culture, Pines argued, had been gloriously cosmopolitan, pluralistic, and multilingual—speaking not only in Hebrew and in such other specifically Jewish languages as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Ladino, and Yiddish but also in Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Russian, English, and still more. Throughout history, indeed, even as Jewish thinkers and writers willy-nilly saw themselves de jure only as Jews, and their culture as Jewish and only as Jewish, the abundant numbers of works created by them also represented de facto the different cultural zones in which they dwelled.

Consider, for example, the transfer of Jewish philosophy, at the beginning of the 13th century, from the Arabic cultural zone to the Christian-European cultural zone. This revolutionary move involved a change of venue, a change of language, a change in the Jewish philosophical canon, and a change in Jewish modes of thought. Understandably enough, these changes went unacknowledged by the great Jewish philosophers themselves. Today, however, a historian of Jewish culture who remained unaware that such 13th-century paragons as Samuel ibn Tibbon, David Kimḥi, and Moses Naḥmanides lived in a completely different cultural sphere from that inhabited by such 12th-century predecessors as Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides would necessarily misread the relevant texts and be led to distort history.

What a paradox! The Jews, according to Pines, had sought to be the most particularistic of all peoples. In fact, they were the most multicultural and multilingual of all peoples. Arch-particularists de jure, they were arch-universalists de facto.

 

When it came to Jewish philosophy, Pines had no interest in defining the essence of “Judaism,” or of “philosophy,” or of “Jewish philosophy.” Rather, his interest lay in understanding the phenomenon of Jewish philosophy, both culturally and historically. When, where, and why had it appeared on the scene? What were the conditions of its appearance?

In pursuit of answers, he pointed to some important features common to both the Jewish and the philosophical traditions. Just as the philosophical enterprise, having begun in Greece with Plato and Aristotle, then circulated among different nations, cultures, and tongues, assuming in each a new form, influencing each, and being influenced by each, so Judaism, having begun in the Land of Israel, then spread throughout various lands and tongues, taking on new forms and at once contributing to and being influenced by its new cultural environments.

Occasionally, by coincidence, philosophy and Judaism flourished in the same place at the same time: for example in 1st-century Alexandria, 10th-century Baghdad, 12th-century Cordoba, and 18th-century Berlin. Thus, we find outstanding Jewish philosophers like Philo Judaeus in 1st-century Alexandria, Saadya Gaon in 10th-century Baghdad, Maimonides in 12th-century Cordoba (Spain) and Fustat (Egypt), and Moses Mendelssohn in 18th-century Berlin. By contrast, a Jew living in Berlin in the 10th century could not be expected to have become a philosopher since Berlin was itself not then a philosophical center; nor, for the same reason, could a Jew living in Baghdad in the 18th century. In evaluating the conditions for the appearance of Jewish philosophy, both time and place were critical. If you wanted to be a Jewish philosopher, you had to be born in the right place at the right time.

The lesson for present-day scholars and would-be scholars? In studying the Jewish philosophers, one does well to begin with the cultural zones in which they lived, paying special attention to the forms of philosophy found in those zones in those eras. Philo’s books are first to be read against the background of Hellenistic or Greco-Roman philosophy—and read, of course, in their original Greek. Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed is first to be read against the background of Arabic Aristotelianism—and read in its original Arabic. Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem is first to be read against the background of the German Aufklärung (Enlightenment)—and read in its original German.

Only after having examined Mendelssohn’s philosophy in the context of his own cultural sphere should one seek to clarify its connection, real or fanciful, to the philosophies of Philo, Saadya, or Maimonides.

 

For an example of Pines’s method at work, consider, in his Translator’s Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, his survey of Maimonides’ own philosophical sources. Pines devotes long discussions to Alfarabi (fourteen pages), Avicenna (ten pages), Ibn Bājja (five pages), and Averroes (fifteen pages); all four were non-Jewish Aristotelians who lived, like Maimonides, in the Arabic cultural zone. By contrast, he devotes only one tiny discussion (two pages) to three post-talmudic Jewish authors (Saadya Gaon, Judah Halevi, and Abraham ibn Daud), each of whom also happened to live in the same cultural zone.

Lopsided as Pines’s emphasis may seem to a modern reader, it reflects Maimonides’ own emphasis. The two medieval philosophers cited the most by name in the Guide (six times apiece) are the Muslims Alfarabi and Ibn Bājja. In the entire Guide, not a single post-talmudic Jewish philosopher is cited by name. Evidently, then, Maimonides saw his own place as more in the Arabic Aristotelian tradition of Alfarabi and Ibn Bājja than in a continuous Jewish philosophical tradition.

A second example: in a 1980 monograph, Pines explored the sources cited by the immortal poet Judah Halevi (1075-1141) in the Kuzari, an anti-Aristotelian dialogue. Written in Arabic in Andalusia, the work, like Maimonides’ Guide, is again representative of the Arabic cultural zone. What is more, although Halevi—unlike Maimonides—is often said to be a purely Hebrew thinker whose sources are wholly within Jewish tradition, Pines shows that many of the Kuzari’s major terms and concepts are borrowed directly from Muslim authors. This includes the terms used by Halevi to describe the uniquely exalted status of the Jewish people within the divine order, which can be properly understood only against the background of Shiite theology.

A third example is The Light of the Lord, a Hebrew philosophical work by Ḥasdai Crescas (c. 1340-1410/11). Presenting a powerful critique of the Aristotelianism of both Averroes and Maimonides, Crescas offers a brave new conception of the physical universe. Like Judah Halevi, Crescas is often described as a thinker influenced by Jewish sources alone. But in a 1967 monograph, Pines demonstrated the clear affinities between Crescas’s revolutionary physics and the “new physics” of Nicole Oresme and other Christian scientists at the University of Paris. Crescas’s contribution to the history of science—for Pines, he was “undoubtedly one of the outstanding men in a physical current which brought about the disintegration of medieval Aristotelianism and paved the way for the new philosophy and physics” later associated preeminently with the names of Galileo and Isaac Newton—can thus be properly appreciated only in connection with, and as an integral part of, the scientific revolution taking place in the Christian-European cultural zone in which he lived.

 

Unlike his Jerusalem colleague Gershom Scholem, the towering authority on Jewish mysticism, Pines saw neither the history of philosophy nor the history of Judaism as reflecting any clear continuity, let alone any clear direction; as for the history of Jewish philosophy, he considered it, as we have seen, the result of a series of serendipitous encounters between the Jewish and the philosophical traditions. Yet this fragmented history was neither disappointing nor dull; to the contrary, it was both intriguing and wholly marvelous.

First, many of those encounters took place, as we have seen, in the then-foremost centers of philosophical thought: exciting places for a philosopher to be in. But that is not all. Far from being less original or less profound than their Christian or Muslim counterparts, the reverse has been true of the Jewish philosophers. Maimonides, for Pines, ranks among the greatest philosophers in the Arabic Aristotelian tradition, Crescas ranks among the greatest philosophers in the 14th-century school of the new physicists, and Spinoza ranks among the greatest European philosophers in the early modern age.

Nor is that all. For Pines, of all national philosophies, Jewish philosophy is the most exciting—which is precisely why he dedicated his life to studying it. Discontinuous, heterogeneous, not given to neat delineation, Jewish philosophy exercises a fascination in being both cosmopolitan and in the best sense multicultural: a fascination unmatched by other national traditions. After all, to be a historian of Greek philosophy, one has only to know Greek; to be a historian of German philosophy, one has only to know German; to be a historian of American philosophy, one has only to know English. To be, by contrast, a historian of Jewish philosophy, one must be . . . Shlomo Pines.

 

In a Hebrew memorial volume that appeared after Pines’s death in 1990, the Israeli philosopher Aviezer Ravitzky recalled two of his teacher’s salient qualities. Pines, he wrote, “was more curious, and more skeptical, that any individual I have ever met.” Indeed, Pines used to say that a scholar must approach his or her text “with no presuppositions,” be ready to cast doubt on all commonly accepted opinions, be open to hear something unexpected, and be prepared for surprises.

Moshe Idel, the noted savant of Jewish mysticism, was also a student of Pines, from whom he learned a skeptical distrust of theories. As Idel explained in a recent interview, a scholar attempting to read a text in the light of a theory, any theory, especially one to which the scholar subscribes, will compromise his or her freedom to focus on the text itself and thus “necessarily do violence” to that text.

As a good skeptic, Pines was wary of all dogmatisms, all ideologies, and all grand theories of history. The task of the scholar, he was fond of saying, is not to create new theories but to destroy the old ones—a point he made in his talk at the 1956 symposium on Jewish studies to which I alluded earlier:

When one enters into science, one moves outside the framework of one’s naïve faith. . . . It seems to me that to the degree that one is involved in scientific inquiry, one has an interest . . . that may be called destructive.

In keeping with these words, Pines was especially enthralled by authors who were themselves bold skeptics, unafraid to cast doubt on all conventional wisdom and daring to challenge all accepted presuppositions. In this connection, he often cited three authors in particular: Maimonides, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. On Maimonides’ “critical” philosophy he wrote often, approvingly, and at great length, while to the “psychology” of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche he devoted a single stunning paper (1986). Among these three heroes of doubt, Maimonides held pride of place as a radical, unfettered, and original thinker.

In calling Maimonides’ epistemology “critical,” Pines meant to distinguish him from a harmonizing theologian like his great near-contemporary Thomas Aquinas. Similarly, in the realm of metaphysics, Pines pointed to Maimonides’ strict via negativa, according to which all descriptive adjectives must be denied of God, Who is absolutely unknowable and ineffable. In the realm of ethics, finally, Pines assigned particular importance to Maimonides’ unprecedented opinion that the concepts “good” and “bad” are not among the “intelligibles” and cannot be known by the purely rational and free human being. As he explains in the Guide of the Perplexed, Adam, in his pristine state, could have had no notion whatsoever of the concepts of “good” and “bad.”

Pines expounded this extraordinary opinion of Maimonides in several studies, including a long 1990 monograph on the subject. There he noted that Maimonides’ opinion was appropriated by Spinoza and in turn borrowed from Spinoza by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil and The Will to Power. Thus did Maimonides’ fecund influence find its way over the centuries into the work of two successors.

 

One of Pines’s first students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was the late philosopher, educator, and Zionist theoretician Eliezer Schweid. In the 1990 Pines memorial volume, Schweid related why he had chosen Pines as his doctoral supervisor. As a young kibbutz member with a strong Zionist ideology, he had enrolled at the Hebrew University in 1953 with the intention of finding support for his political affinities in classical Jewish sources. He had success with two of his three main teachers, the historian Yitsḥak Baer and the professor of kabbalah Gershom Scholem: men who in this respect were like him.

But he couldn’t fathom his third teacher, the professor of Jewish philosophy Shlomo Pines, who did not seem to be driven by any sort of ideology and wasn’t seeking his worldview in the sources. Rather, he seemed motivated by an innocent “curiosity” and a pure love of learning. And yet, although Pines was the “furthest” of the three mentors from the kind of engaged learning he sought, Schweid soon realized that this man alone empowered him with the intellectual freedom he would need for the dissertation he hoped to write.

In the Jewish tradition, Pines’s non-dogmatic and non-ideological approach is called Torah lishmah: that is, learning for its own sake, the noble educational goal that has characterized talmudic academies since the days of the earliest rabbis. One studies not as a means to some end but as an end in itself; which is to say, one studies out of love.

Today, a significant number of the professors of Jewish philosophy in universities throughout the world are either students of Pines or students of his students. To be sure, none of them has mastered as many languages as he did; none commands as much knowledge of philosophy, science, and religion; and few are able, like him, to approach problems without presuppositions.

But, finally, Pines also did not expect his students to replicate his skills, let alone his erudition. To him, each student had his or her own distinctive strengths, whose development he sought to advance. He was, I think, happiest to see his students excited about ideas, in love with learning for its own sake, and sharing his fascination with the glories of Jewish philosophy—in all of its cosmopolitan and multicultural variety.

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More about: Gershom Scholem, Hebrew University, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Jewish Philosophy, Maimonides, Martin Buber