Andrew Pessin, professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, is highlighting the wide variety of ideas and arguments Jewish thinkers from ancient times to today have made about God, the Bible, and more in his new book, The Jewish God Question (Rowman & Littlefield, Nov.).
Why write a book about the Jewish thinkers and Judaism's philosophical tradition? What was your goal?
One is the selfish goal of, I wanted to learn this material. I realized I was becoming an expert on medieval Catholic theology, but it started occurring to me I knew almost nothing about my own Jewish background and heritage. When you're reading Western philosophy, the Jews are largely excluded from the canon. So I had this kind of awakening a few years back where I said, "What were the Jews saying during all these centuries that I've been studying?"
When Jews think about God, do they think about a different kind of entity than does a Christian or a Muslim?
That's a really deep question and it presupposes that there's some single unified notion of God within each of those three religions. They have really extremely different conceptions of the divine being within each religion. And what I'm discovering—and this is kind of exhilarating for me—is that a lot of these Jewish thinkers end up not only disagreeing among themselves about the nature of the divine being, but end up saying exactly the same sorts of things the Christians and Muslims have said in their disagreements.
You put together a set of questions using different voices throughout history, such as everyone from the secular Zionist leader Theodor Herzl to the ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Sholom Dov Baer Schneersohn. Can your readers get a better idea of the answers to what is God, is there life after death, is there a soul, and why are we here?
I wasn't attempting to answer those questions. I was attempting to raise them because in the history of Jewish thinkers, these are among the major questions that they grapple with. You know the famous adage: you ask two Jews, get three opinions. As I like to say about this book, I asked 72 Jewish thinkers and got more opinions than I could actually count. I leave it to the reader to decide in the end.
Will this book answer questions about what Jews believe?
It may not give you the definitive answers. You'll notice that even though Maimonides was certainly the towering figure of the Middle Ages, and arguably the towering figure in the whole history of Jewish philosophy, that doesn't stop people from disagreeing with him on absolutely every single issue. Maimonides is not the pope, and you can quote me on that.