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Gersonides: Judaism within the Limits of Reason, by Seymour Feldman. Oxford: Littman Library, 2010. 254 pp. $59.50.
“Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides ) stands out as one of the more creative and philosophically daring figures within the medieval Jewish world. Mathematician, astronomer, biblical exegete and philosopher—he assumed all these roles and excelled in each.” Thus Feldman opens the introduction to his translation of Gersonides’ major book, The Wars of the Lord.
In 1973 Charles Touati wrote an important comprehensive book La pensée philosophique et théologique de Geronide, but this was not translated into English and the English reader had no convenient way of getting acquainted with Gersonides’ thought. The need for such a book has been recently increased due to the renewed interest in the work of this original medieval thinker. This need was satisfied by Professor Feldman in two stages: first with his translation of Gersonides’ major book, The Wars of the Lord, and now with the present book. Feldman worked for many years on the translation of The Wars into English. The first volume (which includes an introduction) was completed in 1984, the third and the last volume in 1999. As is often claimed, a person best familiar with a book, after the author, is the translator, and indeed Feldman’s presentation is based on a close acquaintance with the text.
Feldman’s book is a comprehensive survey, which focuses mainly on Gersonides’ theology and philosophy. After the first, introductory chapter Feldman analyzes in Chapters 2–8 the main subjects with which Gersonides deals in The Wars of the Lord: The story of creation, God and his attributes, divine omniscience, divine providence, divine omnipotence, prophecy, and humanity and its destiny. The presentation is roughly in the reverse order, starting in Chapters 2–3 with books VI and V of the Wars, proceeding in Chapters 4–6 to books III–IV; Chapter 7 deals with book II and Chapter 8 mainly with book I of the Wars. The “reverse” order of the presentation is by no means accidental. Feldman proceeds “top down” from the world of the spheres to man on earth, which occupies the center of the world, from creation to everyday life. The “reverse” order also presents Gersonides’ anthropocentric approach:
The heavenly bodies provide for man more than anything else, such that all human actions are ordered by them. It is in fact necessary that this providence be concerned with man more than with any other thing in the sublunar world because of the fine nature of his matter (Wars II.2; Feldman’s translation, Vol. II, 33).
Following this order Feldman proceeds in Chapter 9 to the “guidebook” to human life—the Torah (pp. 211–12). Whereas the previous chapters were based mainly on Gersonides' systematic presentation of the subject in the Wars, consulting also the biblical commentaries, Chapter 9 relies mainly on the commentary on the Torah.
Feldman thus leads the discussion to its conclusion with ethics. It seems that the ethical aspect was most important to him, and he deemed it the aspect of Gersonides’ thought most relevant to the modern Jew (p. 232). It is this aspect that dictated the title of the book Judaism within the Limits of Reason, following Kant’s ethical treatise Religion within the Limits of Reason. In this vein, Feldman concludes: Gersonides’ way from the theory of creation to the “ethics of belief” defines his place in the rationalistic tradition as a precursor of Kant and Hermann Cohen.
Writing a comprehensive book on Gersonides is a difficult task because he was a sophisticated thinker who cannot be easily categorized. Feldman is aware of the intricacies and of the less familiar aspects in Gersonides’ thought. His presentation reflects a deep and thorough acquaintance with the philosophical, as well as with the Jewish tradition. The book, therefore, is both an inviting introduction for students, and an important contribution to research that should be read by historians of Jewish philosophy.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem