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Isaac Israeli: A Neoplatonic Philosopher of the Early Tenth Century

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Isaac Israeli
A Neoplatonic Philosopher of the Early Tenth Century
By A. Altmann and S. M. Stern
The University of Chicago Press, 2009, 226 pages
ISBN 13: 978-0-226-01613-9
ISBN 10: 0-226-01613-7

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 12, 2010

Most modern people would reject virtually all of Isaac Israeliís ideas. Isaac Israeli (ca. 855-955) is the first known Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher. Neoplatonism is a somewhat mystical philosophy that originated in Egypt by the non-Jew Plotinus (205-270 CE). It is based on the philosophy of the Greek Plato (427-347 BCE). It was prompted among other things by Plotinus wondering how a God who has no body and is all good can create a physical world that contains evil. He suggested that all of existence could not and did not come directly from God. This world is the result of a succession of emanations from God. Each emanation became more and more base as it descended away from God.

Isaac Israeli, like many medieval philosophers, was a scholar and practitioner of medicine. He agreed with Plotinus about emanations, but differed with him when he insisted that the first matter was created by the power and will of God, and not a natural emanation or flow that did not involve a divine decision. Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), Judaismís greatest philosopher, disparaged Israeli and called him a "mere physician." He disagreed with his reasoning and many of his ideas, but held the same views as Israeli in regard to the soul and life after death and the definition of prophecy.

Israeli recognized that Plato spoke of the existence of a "soul," but he contended that Plato was speaking metaphorically. The "soul" is made up of three parts: the intellect, the animal soul, and the vegetative soul. The latter two are body functions, such as the digestive and respiratory systems that dies with the body. Only the intellect survives death.

He agreed with Plotinus that the closest emanation of God to earth is a sphere of intelligence. He felt that God is transcendent and unapproachable, and that when people die their intellect unites with this celestial wisdom. While religions speak of rewards and punishments after death, this is not literally true. People who develop their intellect will enjoy bliss through the union of their intelligence with the celestial wisdom. This is "paradise." "Hell" is the failure to obtain this union.

Israeli agreed with the view of the neoplatonists, a notion rejected by Maimonides but accepted by some Christian mystics, that the intellect must ascend through three stages of purification after death before reaching its union with the sphere of celestial wisdom. Israeli also felt like the neoplatonists and mystics, but not like Maimonides, that the human mind can join the celestial intelligence even during a personís lifetime while still linked to the body. This uniting is accomplished when the body is affectively cut off during deep meditation.

Israeli agreed with Platoís student Aristotle (and Maimonides) that prophecy is not a unique communication from God, but a higher level of intelligence. The function of Godís elect, Israeli writes, the prophet and the true philosopher, is to "guide His creatures toward the truth (and to) prescribe justice and equity."

This volume, written for scholars, contains English translations of several of Israeliís works with a biography and extensive comments by two scholars.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.


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