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The late great historian and scholar Amos Funkenstein excavated the Jewish foundations beneath the Western tradition

David Biale
November 11, 2021
Courtland Ellis
Courtland Ellis
Courtland Ellis
Courtland Ellis

When Amos Funkenstein was a teenager, he assembled his schoolmates in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s famous religious school, Maale, and declared that there is no God. Called on the carpet by the school principal, he refused to repent. Thus began one of the most distinctive intellectual lives of the past half-century.

Like Spinoza, whose philosophy played a central role in his work, Amos was a true epikores, a heretic from within his tradition. The term epikores, self-evidently derived from “Epicurean” in the Greek, originally signified in the rabbinic idiom a Jew who, like the Epicurean philosophers, did not believe that the gods intervened in the affairs of this world. On one level, this was certainly Amos’ position. But in popular parlance, the epikores signifies much more broadly the rebellion against Orthodox Jewish belief and practice whose rebellion is grounded in the classical sources themselves. It is in this latter sense that one thinks of Amos, the heretic who knew the Jewish tradition better than most who call themselves Orthodox.

Like Spinoza, however, Amos was not content to deny the existence of God. Instead, it is fair to say that he spent the next 46 years of his life, up to the moment of his death in November 1995, trying to understand this very Being whose existence he doubted, trying to write God’s biography. This was a task he did by indirection: by engaging the most profound thinkers in the Western tradition, pagan, Jewish, and Christian, from the Greeks and the Hebrew Bible through the rabbis and church fathers, medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics, Christian scholastics, and up to the creators of modem science and philosophy. No stone could be left unturned, no thinker, either close to home or alien, could be ignored in his quest. In the final analysis, only by understanding Amos’ intellectual life as an unceasing search for ultimate Being, is it possible to bring together all of its seemingly disparate parts: Jewish history, scholastic philosophy, and history of science, to name only the three most prominent. How else can we grasp a mind equally obsessed with biblical exegesis and twentieth-century mathematical logic, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason?

In these few pages, I wish to call attention to some of Amos’ major intellectual contributions as well as to some features of his method. As I have already suggested, I believe that the power of his work stems from the congruence of profound intellectual curiosity with questions of deep existential urgency. Yet its power also derived from his ability to hold the personal in abeyance and to speak through the sources he studied. In the introduction to Theology and the Scientific Imagination (1986), he described the emergence of secular theology in the seventeenth century, defined as the collapse of professional scholastic theology and its appropriation by lay thinkers. The study of this world became, as he says, “its own religious value in that, if well done, it increases God’s honor.” For the secular thinkers of the seventeenth century (and, dare we say, for Amos himself) to take on the questions of medieval theology and turn them toward this world became, paradoxically, a new form of worshipping God.

The architecture of Theology suggests the philosophy of history with which Funkenstein operated. The book is divided according to the scholastic attributes of God: omnipresence, omnipotence, providence, and divine knowledge. In each chapter, he seeks to show how the categories of scholasticism fed the discourse of the revolution against scholasticism. In the chapter on divine providence, for instance, he demonstrates how the medieval argument that God spoke the language of human beings a doctrine he calls the principle of accommodation-was secularized and radicalized in Spinoza’s biblical exegesis. The process of appropriation was not usually this direct, however. Many of the connections that he was able to draw required the kind of dialectical inversions so characteristic of his sensibility. He shows, for example, how the impossibility of a vacuum in Aristotelian and medieval science provided the dialectical fulcrum for modern physics, which developed its mechanics by imagining an ideal type of motion in a vacuum. Medieval impossibilities became limiting cases in these seventeenth and eighteenth-century inversions.

This sustained argument for grounding modern thought in its medieval and ancient predecessors points to one of the characteristic features of the Funkensteinian method. He held that to fully understand an idea, one had to know its origins, even if those origins appeared to lie in seemingly contradictory schools of thought. All thought, he believed, was connected in a grand chain of tradition: one could not speak about Kant without understanding Aquinas, just as one could not speak about Hermann Cohen without understanding Moses Maimonides. This pre-supposition led by necessity to intellectual history in the grand style, the kind of Geistesgeschichte once beloved of the German academy, where Amos did his training, but now largely out of favor throughout the academic world. It was not only because of his synoptic and encyclopedic knowledge that Amos seemed so unique but also because of a method virtually unknown in contemporary cultural studies and those other directions that intellectual life has taken. With no apologies for Euro-centrism or gestures toward the social context of the intellectual, Amos engaged the canonical thinkers of the West in a dazzling dialogue over the centuries.

Perhaps, though, I have used the word canon too quickly, since there is one feature of Amos’ work that belies the canonical. The Western tradition has classically been understood as starting with the Greeks and then passing into the hands of Christian thinkers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Hebrew Bible occupies an uneasy place in this canon, and the later Jewish tradition is conspicuously absent. From his earliest work, Amos set about to correct this portrait. His doctoral dissertation, Heilsplan und naturliche Entwicklung (1965), is an account of the complex relationship between conceptions of natural historical development and supernatural eschatology. This interest in the religious origins of modern historical consciousness was to resurface in Theology and, again, in Perceptions of Jewish History (1993). What is striking, though, is how this brief and densely argued account of Christian philosophy of history begins with varieties of Jewish apocalyptic and eschatological thought in late antiquity. In the work he undertook after the dissertation, whether comparing Maimonides and Aquinas on law and history or examining the theologies of anti-Jewish polemic in the Middle Ages, Amos sought to infuse the study of the medieval Christian scholastics with their Jewish counterparts. By the time he published Theology, Jewish intellectual history had assumed as important a place as Christian in his dialectic of Western thought.

What one senses in all this work is the mutual way in which Jewish thought illuminates Christian, and Christian illuminates Jewish. For Amos, the history of relations between these two traditions was always one of tensions and polemics, but neither was it devoid of creative borrowings. In his unique vision, neither Jewish nor Christian intellectual history could be done without the other. Their often-hostile symbiosis required of the historian command both the Latin and the Hebrew traditions and a willingness to venture beyond the familiar into the realm of the Other.

What I am seeking to evoke here is not only an intellectual stance but also something of a singular personality. Amos was deeply, passionately a Jew who liked nothing better than to deflate academic pretensions with a well-placed Yiddish bon mot. In this turn to Yiddish, he enjoyed the classic Jewish move of ridiculing the world of high, non-Jewish culture by reducing it to Jewish provincialism. But he was just as interested in establishing a discourse of equals between the Jewish and Christian intellectual traditions. This was the Amos who related with relish how he conversed in medieval Latin with a French monk he happened to meet. Only he could thus recreate the intellectual symbiosis of the Middle Ages in an Israeli taxi.

For all his deep forays into the worlds of medieval Christian scholasticism and modern science, Amos never left those Jewish texts he acquired in his rebellious boyhood. Although he received almost no formal academic training in Jewish history or thought, he steeped himself in the whole range of Jewish sources throughout his life. As is characteristic of many great intellects, he seemed to have most of his highly original ideas worked out at the very beginning of his career. In the last years of his life, he collected his essays on Jewish history and added new ones in Perceptions, which was first published in Hebrew and then in English. Here he closed the circle that he had opened with his doctoral dissertation, showing now, as he had then for Christian philosophy of history, the connections between secular forms of Jewish historical consciousness and their traditional, religious roots. Against Yosef Haim Yerushalmi’s argument for a distinction between memory and history in Jewish thought, he traced the dialectical interplay between these two seemingly opposed attitudes toward the past. Once again, the modern, for all its revolutionary radicalism, turned out to be grounded in the ancient and medieval.

One of the last chapters in Perceptions is titled “Franz Rosenzweig and the End of German-Jewish Philosophy.” But, we may ask, did German-Jewish philosophy in fact end with Rosenzweig? Perhaps it is in Amos that we have the true last German-Jewish philosopher. To be sure, no Jew after the Holocaust could ever imagine a German-Jewish symbiosis. Yet, in his complex relationship to Germany, where he did most of his academic training and whose language he spoke and wrote flawlessly, Amos was closer to his German-Jewish ancestors than he himself might have been willing to admit. Even more, his intellectual sensibility was thoroughly German—no, even more German than the Germans—and in this, too, he resembled the tradition of German-Jewish philosophy. His very method of searching for origins owes much to Hermann Cohen’s Ursprungsprinzip, which Amos analyzed and which, characteristically, he traced back to Maimonides.

But as German as the intellectual method may have been, the person behind the method was entirely Jewish. Like Heinrich Heine, his favorite German poet, Amos could never be anything but a sardonic outsider to German culture, just as he was always an outsider to American culture. His commitments and his passions remained in Israel, where he returned to teach part-time starting in the 1970s and where he took active part in the struggle for peace with the Palestinians. He achieved that high-wire act attempted by all modern Jewish intellectuals but accomplished by few: to be at once a universal intellectual and a very particularistic Jew.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: “I want to know how God created this world … I want to know his thoughts; the rest are details.” Amos, too, wished to read God’s mind. In the great intellectual adventure that was his life, he never deviated from this goal. He traveled far in search of the answer, geographically, intellectually, and religiously, yet in the final analysis he never really left home.

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author or editor of 11 books, of which the most recent is Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah.