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Four Scholars of Jewish Philosophy

The recent deaths of Michael Schneider, David Brézis, Michael Zvi Nehorai, and Gabriella Elgrably-Berzin signal the passing of an era of excellence

Warren Zev Harvey
November 13, 2020
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Clockwise from top left: Michael Zvi Nehorai, Gabriella Elgrably-Berzin, David Brézis, Michael Schneider (pictured with his wife Leah Schneider)YouTube; Facebook; Facebook; Wikipedia
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Clockwise from top left: Michael Zvi Nehorai, Gabriella Elgrably-Berzin, David Brézis, Michael Schneider (pictured with his wife Leah Schneider)YouTube; Facebook; Facebook; Wikipedia

Within a period of less than four weeks, four important scholars of Jewish philosophy died: Dr. Michael Schneider, 63, a remarkably erudite historian of Jewish philosophy and mysticism, died on Sept. 24 of this year; Dr. David Brézis, 72, a provocative philosopher and leading interpreter of Lévinas, died on Oct. 8; Rabbi Professor Michael Zvi Nehorai, 88, a veteran authority on Maimonides and Rabbi Kook, died on Oct. 16; and Dr. Gabriella Elgrably-Berzin, 53, an impressive young specialist in Jewish and Islamic medieval philosophy, died on Oct. 20.

These four deaths were part of an uncanny series of deaths among major scholars of Jewish philosophy that began last spring. They included professor Mark Steiner, Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinovitch, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Hakham professor José Faur, professor Gerald (Yaakov) Blidstein, and Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks.

In what follows, I should like to say a few words about the four stellar scholars of Jewish philosophy who died within less than four weeks at the onset of 5781.

They were very different in their backgrounds, interests, and approaches, but were united by the excellence of their work and by their commitment to the tents of Shem. May their memories be a blessing.

Michael ‘Misha’ Schneider, 63

Born in Moscow in 1957, Michael “Misha” Schneider received an M.A. in mathematics from the Russian University of Transport (MIIT) in 1977. During the years of Soviet persecution, he was a bold and revered teacher of Hebrew in the dissident underground. Together with Gershom Zvi Rosenstein, he authored the samizdat booklet, Ani Maʾamin (I Believe), a philosophic introduction to Judaism that became popular among Russian Jews hungry for knowledge of their heritage. During this period, he translated liturgical and philosophical texts from Hebrew into Russian, including selections from the Tanya, the classic Hasidic book by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1813), the first Lubavitcher rebbe. Schneider’s vaunted mastery of mathematics and Kabbalah was appreciated by the then-incumbent Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who consulted with him in preparation for the rare Blessing on the Sun, which was recited on April 8, 1981. Schneider’s two most influential Russian translations are his annotated Hebrew-to-Russian translation of the Tehillat Hashem prayer book (2007), which is used by Russian speakers all over the world; and his annotated Arabic-to-Russian translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (1999), which has been praised by both philosophers and Arabists.

In 1979, Schneider, his wife, Lena, and daughter Esther moved to Israel. He studied philosophy, mysticism, and Near Eastern languages at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writing a dissertation in Hebrew under the supervision of professor Moshe Idel. His topic was ‘Marʾeh Kohen’ (The Appearance of the High Priest): Theophany, Apotheosis, and Binitarian Theology from the Priestly Tradition of the Second Temple Period through Ancient Jewish Mysticism (2007). A revised version, with the same esoteric title, was published as a book (Hebrew, 2012).

According to Schneider’s novel thesis, supported by meticulous philological argument, the priestly theology in the Second Temple period was “binitarian,” that is, it envisioned the divinity as having two aspects or personae. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he was entirely transformed by a two-way revelation. In this mystical transformation, God was anthropomorphized (“theophany”) and the priest was deified (“apotheosis”). This binitarian revelation became the foundation for experiences of unio mystica in later Jewish mysticism and philosophy. The archangel Metatron (= the Prince of the Face = the kabbalistic sefirah of Malkhut = the Aristotelian Active Intellect) personified the binitarian encounter of God and the human being. Schneider’s compelling conceptual analysis may be compared favorably with the pioneering attempts of previous eminent Jewish philosophers, such as David Neumark (1866-1824) and Israel Efros (1891-1981), to interpret biblical ritual in terms of ontological categories.

Schneider published a second book on late biblical Jewish thought and its medieval repercussions: Scattered Traditions of Jewish Mysticism: Studies in Ancient Jewish Mysticism in Light of Traditions from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Hellenistic Literature, Christian and Islamic Sources (Hebrew, 2012). He also published essays in Hebrew, Russian, and English on philosophic and mystical subjects. His work was distinguished by robust analytic ability and careful explication of texts in Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Slavic, Greek, Latin, and other languages.

Schneider taught Jewish thought at Bar-Ilan University, and was considered a recondite but inspiring lecturer. In an Oct. 23 obituary in the newspaper Makor Rishon, professor Hanoch Ben-Pazi, chair of the Department of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan, called Schneider “a genius” and “a scholar’s scholar,” the sort of scholar whose name other scholars “whisper in awe.” Schneider also continued to teach Jewish texts informally among Russian immigrants in Israel, for whom he remained a very special figure. Inna Orly Sapozhnikova, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, eulogized him on the internet site of Bar Ilan’s Department of Jewish Thought: “He was more than a teacher, more than a talmid ḥakham—he was perhaps the greatest individual among the Russian aliyah.”

Schneider was killed in a freak bicycle accident. An experienced rider, he was on a bicycle excursion with his wife and two of their six children. He hit an obstacle on the road, was thrown off his bike and, although wearing a helmet, suffered a fatal head injury.

David Brézis, 72

David Brézis was born in Paris in 1947. He was a senior scholar at the Husserl Archive in Paris (CNRS) and lived partly in Paris and partly in Jerusalem. His academic career may be divided into four periods: mathematics, Kierkegaard, Lévinas, and Talmud.

He began as a mathematician, following in the footsteps of his brother Haïm Brézis (b. 1944). In his doctoral thesis, “Interpolation et opérateurs non-linéaires” (Paris VI, 1974), he took a theory developed by Jacques-Louis Lions (1928-2001) for linear operators and creatively extended it to certain nonlinear operators.

Despite his success in mathematics, Brézis decided to devote himself to the works of the Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In 1989 he earned his second doctorate, this time in philosophy, for a thesis on Kierkegaard written at the École Normale Supérieure under the supervision of professor Pierre Aubenque, renowned for his Heideggerian studies on Aristotle. The thesis was titled Figures et concepts dans l’œuvre de Kierkegaard.

In this work, Brézis inquired into the relationship between the life and the thought of a philosopher. He showed how the figures of Kierkegaard’s father, mother, brother, fiancée, etc., had precise analogues in his philosophical concepts. Where is the line between biography and metaphysics? Is Kierkegaard’s philosophy about his own life or is it about Being? Was he responding existentially to the immediate “now,” or was he entangled in “infinite reflection”? Brézis concluded with disappointment that Kierkegaard could not be considered an existentialist since he was too hyperreflective. He wrote four more books on Kierkegaard, all in French: Time and Presence (1991); Kierkegaard and the Figures of Fatherhood (1999); Kierkegaard and the Feminine (2001); and Kierkegaard or Mirrored Subjectivity (2004).

Having devoted two decades to the Danish Christian philosopher, Brézis switched his attention to the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995). He wrote several essays in French on Lévinas and one highly controversial book, Lévinas and the Sacrificial Turn (French, 2012). In this book, he distinguished between the early Lévinas in Totality and Infinity (1961) and the later Lévinas in Otherwise Than Being (1974). According to his analysis, the early Lévinas considered ethics to involve a dialectic between the I and the Other in which the I sometimes takes precedence and the Other sometimes does.

The philosophy of the later Lévinas, however, underwent a “sacrificial turn” (le tournant sacrificiel). The I is totally effaced, its obligation to the Other is infinite, and the Other always takes precedence. The I sacrifices itself for the Other. This self-effacement of the I, Brézis argues, is characteristic of Christian ethics (e.g., Matthew 19:21). It does appear also in the Talmud (e.g., BT Bava Batra 11a) but only as an eccentric view. The dominant Jewish view is that the relationship between the I and the Other is regulated by disinterested laws that are neither radically egoistic nor radically altruistic. Brézis shows that the sacrificial motif was present in Lévinas’ ethics at an early stage, but did not become decisive until Otherwise Than Being. Already in 1945, after his liberation from the Fallingbostel POW camp, Lévinas described the suffering of the Jews throughout history as “the Passion of Israel.”

In his fourth period, Brézis turned to Rabbinic theology and wrote not in French but in Hebrew. He composed two books. In Between Zealotry and Grace” (Hebrew, 2015), he examined “anti-zealotic trends” in Rabbinic thought. An example of anti-zealotry is the Rabbinic homily that God bound Himself by oath to destroy the people of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf, but Moses, in his capacity of judge, boldly released God from His destructive oath; thus human ethics based on ḥesed (grace, lovingkindness) canceled a zealous divine decree (see Exodus Rabbah 43:4). In The Sages and their Hidden Debate with Christianity (Hebrew, 2018), Brézis explored the “dangerous affinity” between Judaism and its daughter religion. Following scholars like Israel Yuval and Daniel Boyarin, he finds in the Talmud and Midrash a plethora of allusions to Christianity. Unlike them, however, he is not a historian but a philosopher, and his focus is on conceptual contrasts, not historical connections. For example, the stargazers predicted that the newborn Jesus son of Joseph would be King of the Jews and brought him gold and gifts (Matthew 2:1-11). Similarly, the stargazers predicted that Joseph who Honors the Sabbath would inherit the wealth of a certain gentile, and because of his meticulous observance of the Sabbath he does come to inherit it and receives much gold (see BT Shabbat 119a). The covert moral is that the Jews will inherit the Christians if they faithfully honor the commandments.

The four periods in Brézis’ career represent an existential progress inward: from mathematics, to religious philosophy (Kierkegaard), to Jewish religious philosophy (Lévinas), and finally to Rabbinic theology; or, in other words, from the language of numbers, to Danish, to French, and finally to Hebrew and Aramaic.

Brézis fell ill this autumn with COVID-19, his condition suddenly worsened, and he departed unexpectedly from this world. We do not know what would have been the fifth period in the career of this ever-searching Jewish philosopher.

Michael Zvi Nehorai, 88

Michael Zvi Nehorai (originally Littman) was born in Humulești, Romania, in 1931. His family was murdered by the Nazis but he was able to escape alone to Palestine in 1939 on an illegal refugee ship. Captured by the British, he was interned for months in the Atlit detention camp. In 1940 he enrolled in the first class of the Kfar Haroeh Yeshiva, the first Bnai Akiva yeshiva, founded by Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria (1913-1995), and he excelled in Talmudic study.

In 1949, Nehorai moved to Jerusalem to begin studies at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, the ideological center of religious Zionism, where he became a close disciple of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1881-1992), the dean of the yeshiva and the son of the esteemed Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935). He received rabbinical ordination from Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, taught at Merkaz Harav, Netiv Meir, and other leading religious Zionist institutions, and was entrusted with the task of editing Orot ha-Teshuvah (“The Lights of Repentance”), a masterwork by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He was considered by many to be the future dean of Merkaz Harav.

However, in 1975, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, he published a significant essay, “The State of Israel in the Teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,” in the Hebrew journal Amudim (no. 358), the monthly of the Religious Kibbutz movement (English translation in Daat 2-3 [1978]). In this essay, he argued that according to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook the process of the current Return to Zion was not irreversible. Everything depended on the conduct of the Jews. Our redemption is contingent on our choice. There is no redemption without repentance. This interpretation of Rabbi Kook the father flatly contradicted the deterministic messianism of Rabbi Kook the son. Upon reading Nehorai’s essay, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda was outraged at what he deemed to be the heretical views of his learned disciple. He published a harsh rejoinder in Amudim (no. 360), and Nehorai was asked to leave Merkaz Harav.

Nehorai concentrated now on academic studies. He completed a doctorate in Jewish philosophy in 1978 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His dissertation, written under the supervision of professor Giuseppe Sermoneta, was on Rabbi Solomon ben Judah the Prince’s 15th-century commentary on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Rabbi Solomon, as Nehorai presents him, was a radical Maimonidean from Provence who immigrated to Ashkenaz, and whose exegesis of the Guide was indebted to Alfarabi, Avicenna, Jacob Anatoli, and Moses of Narbonne. Doctorate in hand, Nehorai joined the faculty of Bar-Ilan University where he taught medieval Jewish philosophy and modern religious Zionist thought. His writings on medieval Jewish philosophy focused on Judah Halevi, Maimonides, Gersonides, and Hasdai Crescas.

In his research on Maimonides, Nehorai was interested in the relationship between his metaphysics and his theory of law, or, in other words, the relationship between Maimonides the philosopher and Maimonides the rabbi. For example, in his discussion of divine providence, Maimonides contrasts the Aristotelian view, according to which there is providence over species but not individuals, with the view of the Islamic school of the Muʿtazila, according to which there is providence over every motion of every individual (see Guide of the Perplexed, III, 17). Nehorai observes that this contrast has a suggestive analogue in Maimonides’ discussion of laws. Thus, Maimonides contrasts the view that laws have only general reasons with the view that every detail of every law must have an explanation (ibid., III, 26). Maimonides’ distinction between these two theories of law holds good both for secular laws and for a divine law, like the Torah. Nehorai argues that Maimonides’ own ultimate position on both of these analogous debates is complex, rigorously argued, and concerns arcane secrets of his philosophy. He explored this subject at length in his influential essay, “Maimonides’ Theory of the Commandments,” which appeared in Hebrew in the journal Daat 13 (1984).

Nehorai’s incisive essay “Rabbi Reines and Rabbi Kook” (Hebrew, 1986; English translation, 1991) changed the trajectory of religious Zionist historiography. It had been customary to couple Rabbis Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915) and Abraham Isaac Kook together as the two great “fathers of religious Zionism.” Rabbi Reines was the founder in 1902 of the Mizrahi faction of the Zionist movement, which was the organization that represented religious Zionists throughout the world. Rabbi Kook was appointed in 1921 as the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine. It was widely presumed that their ideologies as “religious Zionists” were roughly identical.

Nehorai, however, found their attitudes toward Zionism to be in sharp opposition. Rabbi Reines and his early Mizrahi colleagues emphasized that Zionism was not a religious or messianic movement but a purely political one, and thus its leaders should be the best politicians, even if, like Theodor Herzl, they are not religious. This emphasis on the nonreligious character of Zionism made it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate fully in the Zionist movement even though most of its leaders were secularists. Rabbi Kook, for his part, criticized Rabbi Reines’ strictly political approach, and held that the movement for the rebuilding of the Land of Israel must necessarily be a religious and messianic one. In 1917 he founded the Banner of Jerusalem movement, which sought to provide a theological and messianic alternative to the Mizrahi, but which was unsuccessful. Nehorai concludes provocatively that if Rabbi Reines had followed Rabbi Kook’s approach, there would have been no Mizrahi faction in the Zionist movement—that is, no movement of religious Zionism—and the history of Zionism would have been very different.

Rabbi professor Michael Zvi Nehorai died in Jerusalem a few days before his 89th birthday.

Gabriella Elgrably-Berzin, 53

Gabriella Elgrably (married name: Berzin), the talented young Israeli historian of philosophy and political theorist, was born in Kiryat Yam three months before the Six-Day War. She studied Jewish philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her superb M.A. thesis, written under the guidance of professor Haim Kreisel, was on “The Concept of Happiness in Maimonides and Hasdai Crescas” (Hebrew, 1998). She developed themes from this thesis in her essay, “Happiness, Pleasure, and Good in Maimonides and Crescas” (Hebrew, 2004). In these works, she perceptively traced the concepts of happiness and pleasure (Arabic: saʿada and ladhdha) from Alfarabi and Avicenna to Maimonides and Crescas. She contrasts Maimonides’ Aristotelian view, which relates happiness and pleasure to intellectual activity, with Crescas’ anti-Aristotelian view, which relates them to physical passion and love. Our bodies, argued Crescas and Elgrably-Berzin, are not impediments to our happiness and pleasure, but on the contrary, they constitute a necessary condition for them.

She pursued doctoral studies at Harvard University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) under the direction of professor Berel Septimus. For her dissertation, she edited and analyzed the 14th-century partial Hebrew translation of Avicenna’s Al-Najāt (“Salvation”) (2010). An expanded version of the dissertation appeared as Avicenna in Medieval Hebrew Translation: Ṭodros Ṭodrosi’s Translation of Kitāb al-Najāt, on Psychology and Metaphysics (2015).

Elgrably-Berzin examines the Hebrew style of the translator, Rabbi Todros ben Meshullam Todrosi of Arles (b. 1313). Todros was the Arabic-to-Hebrew translator of philosophic works by Alfarabi, Avicenna, Fakhr al-Din al-Rāzī, Averroes, and others. Like Rabbi Samuel ibn Tibbon, the translator of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, he was a strict literalist in his method of translating. He was, however, in Elgrably-Berzin’s judgment, much more “extreme” in his literalism, and his “slavish adherence” to the original Arabic syntax “prevent[ed] any measure of stylistic elegance.”

His awkward style notwithstanding, Todros was resourceful in his choice of terminology. Elgrably-Berzin lists many examples of his choices of Hebrew terms. For example, a key term in Avicenna’s psychology is ḥads, which refers to rational intuition (compare Spinoza’s scientia intuitiva). The term appears in Maimonides’ Guide, III, 22 and 38. Ibn Tibbon rendered it inadequately as dimyon (“imagination”) and Judah Alharizi, the Guide’s second medieval translator, rendered equally inadequately as maḥshavah (“thought”). Todros renders it as histakkelut, a word derived from the word sekhel (“intellect”), which can mean “contemplation,” “looking at,” or “examination.” Histakkelut is an inspired choice as a translation of ḥads.

Like Todros, Elgrably-Berzin also translated writings of Avicenna from Arabic to Hebrew. Her translations appear in a Hebrew anthology of Avicenna’s works that appeared in Israel in 2009. However, her translations, unlike those of Todros, are not only precise but also elegant. Her important work on Avicenna did not lead her to forsake Hasdai Crescas. Her last publication on Jewish philosophy was her essay, “Remarks on Crescas’ Relationship to Avicenna” (Hebrew, 2020). She argued compellingly that Avicenna’s “boldness and originality” were “a source of inspiration” for Crescas in his famed critique of Aristotle.

In 2012 Elgrably-Berzin won the Shlomo Pines Prize for outstanding young scholars in the fields of philosophy and religion. She taught medieval Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). In recent years, she developed an interest in political theory and Zionist thought, wrote articles on political and social themes for the Israeli newspapers Haaretz and Israel Hayom, and gave public lectures on subjects like the thought of Jabotinsky or the status of Sefaradi Jews in Israel.

In the summer of 2019 she fell ill with leukemia and underwent months of difficult treatment. By June 2020, it seemed she was free of the disease, and she accepted an invitation to serve as adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on diaspora affairs and foreign relations. Sadly the cancer returned and she died on Oct. 20.

Her mentor, Berel Septimus, recalled her with admiration and fondness: “What I always found striking about Gabriella was her combination of an uncompromising commitment to honest and solid scholarship with thoughtful caring and kindness for others. Her loss is heartbreaking.”

Warren Zev Harvey is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he has taught since 1977.