Religious Philosophy

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In trying to explain the Medieval Ashkenazic community’s self-image of piety, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik (“Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example” in AJS Review Fall 1987) lists as one source for this attitude their simplicity of beliefs. As an explanation of this, he writes (p. 213):

[R]eligious philosophy is an act of justification. It seeks to make the beliefs and practices of a religion comprehensible in the terms of another system. Implicit in the act of translation is the assumption that the categories of the other system are the dominant ones. They are the notions which yield comprehension and bestow value. Otherwise why translate?

One could respond that the act of translation itself provides an opportunity for greater clarification. When we have to restate our beliefs in different words, we deepen our own understanding and crystallize the underlying convictions that form our religious world. Then again, who says that we cannot do this without having to translate our religion into the language of philosophy?

I have a feeling that many religious Jews who dabble (or more) in philosophy believe that philosophy is superior and that we must, as intelligent people, define ourselves in the terms of the Western philosophical tradition. Emotionally, I sympathize with that view even though I believe it to be mistaken.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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