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Jewish skeptics

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Jewish skeptics are Jewish individuals (historically, Jewish philosophers) who have held skeptical views on matters of the Jewish religion. In general, these skeptical views regard some or all of the "principals of faith," whatever these may be (see Maimonides, Albo), but historically Jewish skepticism is directed either at (1) the existence of the God of Judaism or (2) the authenticity and veracity of the Torah.

Background on Jewish skepticism

A skeptic in the strongest sense is one who remains in a state of doubt, declaring all positive truth, religious or philosophical, to be unattainable to man. This type of skeptic can scarcely be found in Judaism. However bold the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages were in their research or critical in their analytic methods, they never so distrusted human reason as to deny it the power, as the Greek skeptics did, to arrive at any positive knowledge or truth. Nor did the Jewish mystics attempt, as did Christian theologians, to build up a system of faith upon skepticism—that is, upon the assumption that reason is incapable of grasping any truth. Seer and sage alike appealed to reason to substantiate and verify the postulates of faith (Isa. xl. 26; Job xii. 7). The passage "The Lord is a God of knowledge" (I Sam. ii. 3) is interpreted by the Rabbis by the remark, "Great is knowledge which leads from God to God" (Ber. 33a).

Skepticism in the Bible and Talmud

Inasmuch, however, as doubt is a necessary transition from a lower stage of faith or of knowledge to a higher one (cf. Rav Kook), skeptics, in the sense of men wrestling with doubt, have found a certain recognition and a place of honor in Biblical literature. In a work by Emile Joseph Dillon, entitled The Skeptics of the Old Testament (London, 1895/1973), it has been pointed out that the authors of the Book of Job, of Ecclesiastes, and of the Words of Agur, the Son of Jakeh[1], were skeptics, but the original compositions were so interpolated and remodeled as to make the skeptical points no longer noticeable. All three contain bold arraignments of divine justice and providence. As to the author of Ecclesiastes compare E. H. Plumptre's edition[2]: "He was almost driven back upon the formula of the skepticism of Pyrrho, 'Who knows?'" (p. 49). Heinrich Heine called the book Das Hohelied der Skepsis[3]. Friedrich Delitzsch, in Das Buch Hiob (p. 17), calls Ecclesiastes Das Hohelied des Pessimismus, but he might as well have called it "the Song of Skepticism."

Jewish skepticism was always chiefly concerned with the moral government of the world. The great problem of life, with "its righteous ones suffering woe, and its wicked ones enjoying good fortune," which puzzled the mind of Jeremiah [4], and Moses also, according to the Rabbis[5], and which finds striking expression in the Psalms[6], created skeptics in Talmudic as well as in earlier times. Elisha ben Abuyah[7] became a skeptic as a consequence of seeing a person meet with a fatal accident at the very moment when he was fulfilling the two divine commandments for the observance of which Scripture holds out the promise of a long life[8].

Skepticism in the Medieval era

The rationalistic era of Islam produced skeptics among the Jews of the time of Saadia, such as was Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, whose criticism tended to undermine the belief in revelation. The Emunot ve-Deot was written by Saadia, as he says in the preface, because of the many doubters who were to be convinced of the truth; and Maimonides, in the introduction to his Moreh, states that he wrote that work as a guide for those perplexed by doubt. With all these Jewish thinkers doubt is not a sin, but an error that may reveal the pathway to the higher philosophical truth.

A remarkable type of skeptic was produced by the sixteenth century in Uriel Acosta, who, amidst a life of restless searching after truth, denied the immortality of the soul and the divine revelation. His excommunication by the Amsterdam authorities was inspired by fear of the Christian Church rather than by traditional practice. Another such was Leon of Modena, who, complaining that "the thinker is tortured by doubt, whereas the blind believer enjoys peace of mind, and bliss in the world to come" (see Ari Nohem, quoted by H. Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., x. 130), arrived through skepticism at a liberal interpretation of traditional Judaism (see S. Stern, Der Kampf des Rabbiners Gegen den Talmud im xviii. Jahrhundert, 1902).

Skepticism on the God of Judaism

Skepticism on the existence of the God of religion relates either to doubts that any supernatural entity such as God exists, or that the God of the Jews exists as described by the Jewish tradition (not, however, ruling out completely the existence of supernatural entities).

Skepticism on the authenticity of the Torah

Skeptics on the authenticity of the Torah are individuals who hold a position rejecting the divine authorship of some or all of the Torah.


  1. Prov. xxx.
  2. In Cambridge Bible for Schools.
  3. See, further, Paul Haupt's Koheleth oder Weltschmerz in der Bibel, 1905.
  4. Jer. xii. 1.
  5. Ber. 7a.
  6. Ps. lxxiii.
  7. According to Ḳid. 29b and Yer. Ḥag. ii. 77b.
  8. Deut. v. 16, xxii. 7.

See also

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

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