Dean of Historians of Jewish Philosophy:
Necrology for Professor Arthur Hyman (1921-2017).
By Warren Zev Harvey
Warren Zev Harvey is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he has taught since 1977. He studied philosophy at Columbia University, writing his PhD dissertation under Arthur Hyman. He has written prolifically on medieval and modern Jewish philosophers, e.g. Maimonides, Crescas, and Spinoza. Among his publications is Physics and Metaphysics in Hasdai Crescas (1998). He is an EMET Prize laureate in the Humanities (2009).
This is his first contribution to the Seforim Blog.
Arthur Hyman, 1921-2017
Photo courtesy of Yeshiva University
Arthur (Aharon) Hyman was born on April 10, 1921 (2 Nisan 5681), in Schwäbisch Hall, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, the son of Isaac and Rosa (Weil) Hyman. In 1935, at the age of 14, three years before Kristallnacht, he immigrated with his family to the United States. He pursued undergraduate studies at St. John’s College, Annapolis, which had recently adopted its Great Books curriculum (B.A., 1944). He did graduate studies at Harvard University, studying there under the renowned historian of Jewish philosophy, Harry Austryn Wolfson (M.A., 1947; Ph.D., 1953). He concurrently studied rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary under the preeminent Talmudist, Saul Lieberman (ordination and M.H.L., 1955). He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary (1950-1955), Dropsie College (1955-1961), and Columbia University (1956-1991). His main academic affiliation, however, was with Yeshiva University, where he taught from 1961 until last year, was Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy, and Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies (1992-2008). He also held visiting positions at Yale University, the University of California at San Diego, the Catholic University of America, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Bar-Ilan University. I had the privilege of studying with him at Columbia University in the 1960s and early 1970s, and wrote my dissertation under his wise supervision. Among Hyman’s other doctoral students are David Geffen and Charles Manekin (at Columbia University), and Basil Herring and Shira Weiss (at Yeshiva University). Hyman received wide recognition for his scholarly accomplishments. He was granted honorary doctorates by the Jewish Theological Seminary (1987) and Hebrew Union College (1994). He served as president of both the Société Internationale pour l'Étude de la Philosophie Médiévale (1978-1980) and the American Academy for Jewish Research (1992-1996). He was married to Ruth Link-Salinger from 1951 until her death in 1998, and they had three sons: Jeremy Saul, Michael Samuel, and Joseph Isaiah. From 2000 until his death he was married to Batya Kahane. He died in New York City on February 8, 2017 (12 Shevat 5777).
Hyman was a scholar’s scholar. He was an outstanding historian of philosophy, thoroughly at home reading recondite philosophical texts in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, German, French, or English. He masterfully taught classical, medieval, and modern philosophy. However, his great love and the main focus of his research was medieval Jewish philosophy. He is the author of more than fifty scholarly studies on diverse philosophical subjects. He was the editor, together with James J. Walsh, of the popular anthology of medieval philosophy, Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions (1967), a volume that did much to shape the study of medieval philosophy over the past four decades (a revised third edition appeared in 2010 with the collaboration of Thomas Williams). He edited and annotated the medieval Hebrew translation of Averroes’ Arabic treatise On the Substance of the Orbs (1986). He founded and edited the scholarly journal Maimonidean Studies (1989-), which became an important venue for interdisciplinary research on the Great Eagle. His book Eschatological Themes in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2002) was his Aquinas Lecture, delivered at Marquette University. In addition, he wrote pioneering studies on Averroes, Maimonides, Spinoza, and other philosophers.
Hyman was staunchly committed to the teaching of Jewish philosophy as philosophy. He was not interested in appropriating it as a means to foster Jewish identity or religiosity. Similarly, he was not enamored of academic approaches that put too much emphasis on “esotericism” or “the art of writing,” which, in his view, served to distract one from the hard nitty-gritty work of analyzing the philosophic arguments. Medieval philosophy, he argued, is an integral part of the history of philosophy, and Jewish philosophy is an integral part of medieval philosophy. Thus, medieval Jewish philosophy should be taught in departments of philosophy. Hyman, in practice, did teach medieval Jewish philosophy in philosophy departments at Yeshiva University, Columbia University, and elsewhere. He also believed that modern Jewish philosophy should be taught in philosophy departments, but was less unequivocal about it. He thought that it is difficult to discern a “continuous tradition” of modern Jewish philosophy, and elusive to define the philosophic problems and methods common to it. He often noted that in most universities modern Jewish philosophy is not taught in philosophy departments, but in departments of Jewish studies or religion.
Hyman and Walsh’s Philosophy in the Middle Ages presents medieval philosophy as a tradition common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Of 769 pages (in the 2nd edition), 114 are devoted to Jewish philosophers (Saadiah, Ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, Gersonides, and Hasdai Crescas), 134 pages to Muslims, and the remainder to Christians. As a general textbook in medieval philosophy that included philosophers from all three Abrahamic religions, Philosophy in the Middle Ages was downright revolutionary.
In his essay “Medieval Jewish Philosophy as Philosophy, as Exegesis, and as Polemic,” published in 1998 (Miscellanea Mediaevalia 26, pp. 245-256), Hyman observed that medieval Jewish philosophy was originally of interest to historians of philosophy only as “a kind of footnote to medieval Christian philosophy.” This situation, he continued, began to change in the 1930s with the work of scholars like Julius Guttmann, Leo Strauss, and Harry Austryn Wolfson, and later Alexander Altmann, Shlomo Pines, and Georges Vajda. Owing to their pioneering work, he concluded, “Jewish philosophy…has taken its rightful place as an integral part of the history of Western philosophy” and “[i]n universities in the United States it is now [in 1998] taught regularly in courses on medieval philosophy.” Hyman, always modest, did not add that the anthology he edited with Walsh, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, was in no small measure responsible for enabling Jewish and Islamic philosophy to enter the curricula of courses in medieval philosophy in universities throughout North America. Hyman was mild-mannered and courteous in his personal relations, but as a scholar he was a revolutionary who helped redefine the academic field of medieval philosophy.
Writing on “The Task of Jewish Philosophy” in 1962 (Judaism 11, pp. 199-205), Hyman bemoaned the alienation in the modern world: “though the means for communication have increased immensely, communication itself has all but become impossible.” He argued that the cause of this alienation was the loss of Reason. Jewish philosophy, he urged, has a role to play in “the rediscovery of Reason.” He defined its task as “the application of Reason to the interpretation of our Biblical and Rabbinic traditions.”
More than three decades later, in a 1994 essay, “What is Jewish Philosophy?” (Jewish Studies 34, pp. 9-12), Hyman sought to clarify who is a Jewish philosopher. “One minimal condition for being considered a Jewish philosopher,” he suggested, “is that a given thinker (a) must have some account of Judaism, be it religious or secular; and (b) must have some existential commitment to this account.” Given his requirement of “existential commitment,” he unhesitatingly excluded Spinoza, Marx, and Freud. A second condition for being considered a Jewish philosopher, according to him, is simply that a given thinker must be a philosopher; that is, his or her account of Judaism must be interpreted “by means of philosophic concepts and arguments rather than in aggadic, mystic, literary, or some other fashion.”
The notion of “existential commitment” provides a key that enables Hyman to distinguish the historian of Jewish philosophy from the Jewish philosopher, that is, the scholar from the thinker or practitioner. The Jewish philosopher has an existential commitment to a particular account of Judaism, while the historian of Jewish philosophy must analyze the various accounts of different Jewish philosophers, without preferring one account over another. The historian qua historian remains uncommitted existentially, that is, he or she remains impartial and objective. “It should be clear,” Hyman concludes, “that for the historian of Jewish philosophy there is not one, but a variety of Jewish philosophies.”
Although Hyman excluded Spinoza from the category of Jewish philosophers, he wrote two of the most important studies on his debt to medieval Jewish philosophy, namely, his “Spinoza’s Dogmas of Universal Faith in the Light of their Medieval Jewish Backgrounds” (1963) and his “Spinoza on Possibility and Contingency” (1998). In these essays, he showed how critical arguments in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise and Ethics reflected arguments found in the Jewish and Muslim medieval philosophers, particularly Maimonides. In uncovering Spinoza’s covert debt to medieval philosophy, Hyman continued the line of research of his mentor, Wolfson. Hyman’s Spinoza was formatively influenced by Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers in his ethics, politics, and metaphysics, but he nonetheless was not a “Jewish philosopher” because he lacked an existential commitment to some account Judaism, whether religious or secular. Hyman’s insistence on an existential commitment is crucial. For a philosopher, according to him, to be considered a Jewish philosopher, it was not sufficient for him or her to be ethnically or culturally Jewish, or even to be well-educated in Jewish law and lore. An existential commitment was required.
In the introduction to the Jewish Philosophy section of Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Hyman gave a simple definition of medieval Jewish philosophy. “Medieval Jewish philosophy,” he wrote, “may be described as the explication of Jewish beliefs and practices by means of philosophical concepts and norms.” It is an explication, not a defense or apology. One might say that, according to Hyman, Jewish philosophy is a philosophic explication of a Jew’s existential commitment.
The medieval Jewish philosopher who stands in the center of Hyman’s research is Maimonides. He wrote important technical studies on Maimonides’ psychology, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. He always emphasized the difficulties involved in understanding Maimonides. As he put it felicitously in his 1976 essay, “Interpreting Maimonides”: “[The] Guide of the Perplexed is a difficult and enigmatic work which many times perplexed the very reader it was supposed to guide” (Gesher 5, pp. 46-59). The only way to understand Maimonides, he insisted, is by carefully analyzing his philosophic arguments, and comparing them with those of the philosophers who influenced him, e.g., Aristotle, Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Algazali. In Philosophy in the Middle Ages, he describes the purpose of the Guide of the Perplexed: “The proper subject of the Guide may…be said to be the philosophical exegesis of the Law.” Hyman quotes Maimonides’ statement that the goal of the book is to expound “the science of the Law in its true sense.” In other words, the purpose of the Guide is to give a philosophic account of Judaism. “Maimonides,” writes Hyman, “investigated how the Aristotelian teachings can be related to the beliefs and practices of Jewish tradition.” He sought, if you will, to explicate philosophically his existential commitments as a Jew.
Perhaps Hyman’s most well-known essay on Maimonides is his 1967 exposition of “Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles” (in A. Altmann, ed., Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, pp. 119-144). Presuming the unity of Maimonides’ thought, Hyman shows that the famous passage on the “Thirteen Principles” in his early Commentary on the Mishnah coheres well with his later discussions in his Book of the Commandments, Mishneh Torah, Guide of the Perplexed, and Letter on Resurrection. He rejects the view that the Thirteen Principles were intended as a polemic against Christianity and Islam, and also rejects the view that they were intended only for the non-philosophic masses. He argues for a “metaphysical” interpretation according to which the Thirteen Principles are intended to foster true knowledge among all Israelites, thus making immortality of the soul possible for them all, as it is written in the Mishnah, “All Israel has a place in the world-to-come” (Sanhedrin 10:1).
A word should be said here about Hyman’s excellent edition of the Hebrew translation of On the Substance of the Orbs, written by Averroes, the great 12th-century Muslim philosopher who was Maimonides’ fellow Cordovan and elder contemporary. Averroes’ book contains profound speculative investigations into the nature and matter of the heavens. It is lost in the original Arabic, but was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in its Hebrew and Latin translations, and several important commentaries were written on it by Jewish and Christian philosophers. Hyman offers a critical annotated edition of the anonymous medieval Hebrew translation accompanied by his own new English translation. His lucid English translation is based on the Hebrew translation but also uses the Latin translation. His erudite and instructive notes clarify the meaning of the text, and discuss the development of technical philosophic terms from Greek and Arabic to Hebrew and Latin.
In his eulogy for his revered teacher, Harry Austryn Wolfson, printed in the Jewish Book Annual 5736 (1975-1976), Hyman wrote as follows: “[He] showed himself the master of analysis who could bring to bear the whole range of the history of philosophy on his investigations. This scholarly erudition was combined with clarity of thought felicity of style, and conciseness of expression.” I think it would not be amiss if I now conclude my remarks by applying these very same words to Professor Arthur Hyman, my own revered teacher.
Yehi zikhro barukh.