The Way of Insulation in Judaism

One approach adopted by some Jewish communities in dealing with the outside world is the particularistic position which embraces the view that Jewish thinking has its own native categories; other modes of non-Jewish thinking are superfluous or even inimical to Jewish thinking, identity,  and authenticity. It has also been referred to as the way of insulation by David Hartman.

At its extreme, the way of insulation, as Hartman describes, simply rejects and dismisses foreign modes of thought by refusing to accept them as serious. Attempting to explain or substantiate Jewish values within the category of another philosophical or religious framework requires the affirmation of the competing system as rational and legitimate to some extent. If one denies outside views as inherently lacking any legitimate claim, then one need only to ignore the claim. The act of dedicating oneself to a manner of life decreed by God automatically delegitimizes any claim made by human reason independently made without divine revelation.

The strength and advantage of this position is its very insulation and hence protection of an entire body of knowledge from all serious challenges. Problematic questions are simply denied legitimacy. According to this view, the ultimate guarantor of true knowledge is found in God, as the ultimate source of revelation. With God as the guarantor of true knowledge, any competing claim is easily dismissed; moreover, considering alternative foreign claims or philosophies hints of irrationality and arrogance.

From a historical perspective, the opposition to the type of encounter between Judaism and the outside world embraced by Maimonides took some seemingly contradictory forms. For example, the Maharal (Judah Loew of Prague) while opposing philosophical inquiry, nevertheless, embraced Kabalistic thought which itself was strongly influenced by Platonic ideas. Judah Loew of Prague argued that Kabbalah was an authentic way of Jewish thinking and classical philosophy was not. To justify his acceptance of Kabbalah, Judah Loew of Prague pointed to the fact that even the word Kabbalah comes from the root kibel meaning tradition. That is, Kabbalah is the mesorah (i.e. authentic Jewish tradition). In contrast, Jewish philosophy? is never referred to the tradition or as kibel. For the Maharal, classical philosophy is instead the individual contemplation of the philosopher.

For the Maharal, philosophy is based on Greek thinking which has several fundamental claims that are inherently inimical to Jewish life. The Maharal also pointed to the pseudo work entitled Tefilato sh’Aristo – The Prayer of Aristotle in which Aristotle repents and asks God for forgiveness for introducing ideas that were inimical to Judaism to buttress his attack on philosophical inquiry. For Judah Lowe, authentic Jewish philosophy is Jewish thinking.

Rabbi Moses Isserles however argued against the Maharal’s vehement opposition to all philosophical inquiry and can be viewed as a reconciler between philosophical inquiry and mysticism. For Rabbi Isserles, there was no true clash between philosophy and mysticism. They are both a part of the tradition, because they really are the same thing but they speak about things in a different ways and hence both are legitimate ways of Jewish thinking.