Science or Philosophy: An Exchange on the Future (and Past) of Modern Jewish Thought

Among the more original and forceful recent contributions to constructive Jewish philosophy are the works of Norbert Samuelson. Most recently, Professor Samuelson published the second volume in a three-part series of monograph-length essays dedicated to the classical triplet of doctrines, creation, revelation, and redemption. Revelation and the God of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2002) was critically reviewed by Michael Zank in the February 2004 issue of Modern Judaism. Subsequently, Michael Zank and Norbert Samuelson began a conversation on the claim, advanced by Samuelson, that Jewish thought needed to abandon philosophy and turn to science as its major partner in conversation about the "believability" of its religious doctrines.

In the following, we provide you with a link to Michael Zank's review (curtesy of Project Muse, with permission from the editor of Modern Judaism, Prof. Steven T. Katz). The essay can be read on-line (if you have access to Project Muse) or downloaded as a pdf file (opens with Adobe Acrobat). In addition, you may read the emails exchanged between Norbert Samuelson and Michael Zank, as well as two essays by Norbert Samuelson on the relation between science and Jewish thought. We invite you to respond to this discussion, and contribute to it further, by posting your views on the discussion list maintained by Textual Reasoning ( (For subscription information please go HERE.)


1. Zank's Review of Samuelson on Revelation (From: Modern Judaism 24.1 (2004) 93-100)

Michael Zank, Review of Norbert Samuelson, Revelation and the God of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2002) (on-line).

Michael Zank, Review of Norbert Samuelson, Revelation and the God of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2002) (download pdf).


2. Email exchange between Norbert Samuelson and Michael Zank

From Sun Apr 25 11:30:48 2004
Date: Mon, 19 Apr 2004 10:38:19 -0700
From: Norbert Samuelson <>
To: Michael Zank <>
Subject: Review of the Review

Dear Michael.

I finally had a chance to read your review.  I'm sorry it took this
long, but I have been fairly swamped with professional commitments that
had to take precedence over my personal interests.

In general I don't have any arguments to put forward with what you did.
As I said before, an author's work has a life of its own.  I gave birth
to the book, but now it is on its own.  I am the last person who should
comment on any review of it.  Of course I am not happy with what you
say.  I would much rather have had you like the book, recognize its
importance, and learn from it.  Hopefully others will and will also
review it in one forum or another.

I think the only suggestions I can pass on are the following:  I don't
think you know much of the corpus of my previous writings.  If that is
correct, and you want some references, I would be glad to supply them.
The accusation that I don't do careful text readings just strikes me as
strange since the overwhelming bulk of my many publications are just
that -- close readings of primary texts of major Jewish philosophers in
the light of secondary sources.  On the Bible, see my THE FIRST SIX
Maimonides, see my article on Maimonides' theory of creation in a past
issue of the HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW (if you need it, I can give you
a specific reference).  Finally on Rosenzweig, see my READERS GUIDE TO
... THE STAR, is just that -- a close reading of the text of the Star.

Second, I'm sorry you don't see what is new in my presentation.  Of
course the theses presented are conventional.  That is precisely what
they are supposed to be, specifically as a recommended theological
reading of root doctrines of a historical religious community.  (My goal
is to inform the tradition and not to create a new one.)  However, much
of the work of interpretation is new, especially the substitution of
contemporary science as the theological "other" as a replacement for
philosophy and the critique of contemporary philosophy of religion
itself.  I especially think that what I say about proofs of the
existence of God is new, which did not seem to catch your interest at

Finally, on my choice of texts, my reasons for focusing on primary
philosophical texts and largely ignoring the writings of minor figures
is a conscious selection that is argued for methodologically in the
Creation book.  I do not think from this perspective my selection of
materials is, as you suggest, narrow.  On the contrary, by comparison
with most people I know who do philosophical theology, Jewish or
Christian, I know of few if any (Amos Funkenstein is a notable
exception) who have my breadth, viz. to be able to work with
philosophical expertise in the areas of Hebrew Scriptures, medieval
Jewish philosophy, modern Jewish philosophy, and the discipline of
science and religion.

However, I have already said more than I should and more than I wanted
to say.  Thank you for being interested enough to write your review and
even more for being interested to know my response to the review.

All the best.  I look forward to seeing you here in Temple next year for
the Cohen meetings.



From Sun Apr 25 11:32:31 2004
Date: Tue, 20 Apr 2004 08:37:53 -0400 (EDT)
From: Michael Zank <>
To: Norbert Samuelson <>

Subject: Re: Review of the Review

Dear Norbert,
Thank you for the gracious response. The idea of substituting science for
philosophy as the partner of conversation for Jewish thought is of course
an interesting and provokative one. But I am not sure it works. If
philosophy and science were once a whole whose parts have parted company
what you do is simply to replace one fragment by another. This is a
problem that connot be resolved from within Jewish thought, or at least I
cannot imagine how. But your preference for "science" explains why I, for
one, and others interested in "philosophy" don't find your account of
revelation particularly compelling. -- In fact, if it is your ambition to
"restore" what you regard as the original correlation of Judaism and
scientific thought you really still have your task before you, and it is a
formidable one. If Cohen is right, Judaism itself never was intrinsically
interested in "science" or in the idealist presuppositions of science.
(Strauss shares this intuition, and both provide powerful historical,
exegetical, and philosophical arguments.) This disinterest in science
(which, by the way, doesn't mean that Jews are not interested in science)
is augmented by an intrinsic interest in a radicalization of legal, moral,
and political responsibility. These two elements, Greek science/philosophy
and Jewish prophetic morality, are profound sources of Western identity
that continue to inform us. This is not to say that there are no powerful
vectors within the Jewish tradition pointing to certain aspects of the
scientific mind, or to deny the formation of Greek and Roman ethical
thought. But there remain important differences between the traditions
that are worked out in the Jewish philosophical tradition, as well as in
the Christian and Islamic ones. -- An immediate
connection between "Judaism" and "science" seems, to me at least,
shortcircuited. Exegetical or substantive argumentative bridges of any
sort always call for a philosophical justification of one sort or another,
so you still need the philosophical tradition. -- All you say, and all you
can say, without recourse to philosophy is that science and Judaism do not
contradict one another, but the same can be said about apples and oranges.

Very best-

From Sun Apr 25 11:32:53 2004
Date: Fri, 23 Apr 2004 14:36:38 -0400 (EDT)
From: Michael Zank <>
Subject: Re: truth vs. believability

Dear Norbert,
More about modern Jewish philosophy: as I say somewhere in my review of
your book on revelation, there is a sense of urgency in medieval
and modern concepts of revelation that is missing in your account.
Trying to explain Rosenzweig's philosophy to a group of undergraduates at
the end of a term in which we've tried to understand modern Jewish
philosophy in the context of philosophy of religion in its Continental
forms (from Spinoza's crit of rel to Nietzsche), I found that the urgency,
beauty, magnificence of philosophy of religion lies always in the pathos
of truth itself. Whether the latter is located in the glory of reason, in
critique, in self-consciousness, in feeling, in life's irrational drives,
in the pre-rational facts taken on faith, or in revelation as pre- and
post-systematic ground of reality, there is always a profound
affirmation, a sense that it matters, a realization that there is
something rather than nothing, that philosophies and religions  are
profound expressions of a successful communication with reality. I miss
this realization and sense of real, non-trivial concerns in your
approach to Jewish philosophy.
When I read Cohen, Rosenzweig, or Buber and even
Mendelssohn, I have the feeling that there is truth. With Rosenzweig I
believe that the philosopher matters, that the individual thinker is part
and condition of the possibility  of the truth  of his or her vision of
reality. Hence I always tend to fall back on the biographical approach to
Your own vision of what is true about Judaism and philosophy is marred, in
my view, by your discarding of truth in favor of believability. This you
borrow from science which you believe ought to displace philosophy as
the relevant matrix of Jewish thought. Since science qua such cannot go
beyond the believable, neither can Jewish philosophy. To me this is less
satisfactory than the task of philosophy of religion as conceived even in
the context of Enlightenment rationalism  which reduced experience
etc. to the level of conceptual relations. What makes this less scientific
than your approach also makes it more "religious" (or, rather,
metaphysical). The way from, say, Kant to us today leads through
Rosenzweig as a philosopher of revelation. But I don't find your
interpretation of Rosenzweig very helpful. An example of how I think
Rosenzweig should be understood, esp. how his concept of revelation should
be understood, is presented on a very few pages by Michael Morgan in  his
introduction to the "Urzelle" (the Nov. 1917 letter to R. Ehrenberg),
included the Hackett edition (2000) of Philosophical and theological
writings of Rosenzweig (pp. 25ff).
Perhaps, in the end this is all about the difference between skepticism
(science) and belief ("new thinking")?

Just thought I'd add this to the preceding.


3. Two Essays By Norbert Samuelson

The Death and Revival of Modern Jewish Philosophy

Integrating Science and Religion – A Jewish Perspective