Human Nature & Jewish Thought

Judaism's Case for Why Persons Matter

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Alan L. Mittleman
Library of Jewish Ideas
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , April
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alan Mittleman, an erudite professor of modern Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a book that attempts to relate Jewish perspectives on human nature with general scientific ones, “especially of a sort promulgated by contemporary neuroscience and evolutionary biology” (xi). While engaging with such sciences, he also, to a certain extent, critiques them, believing them to err through scientism: an “overconfident, ideological application of scientific thought to the whole of life” (xiii). He primarily criticizes “their reduction of human personhood to allegedly more basic realities” (11). He seeks to create a dialogue between contemporary scientific perspectives on personhood and Jewish ones. Do we have any right to continue to believe in the traditional Jewish understanding of persons in the face of modern science? Mittleman argues that centuries of Jewish thought have something to add to the conversation. For, the argument goes, science can tell us what we are, but not who we are, why we are here, or how we should live.

Addressing a philosophical subject in an accessible manner, Mittleman brings in a width and breadth of names, both from the Jewish tradition, as well as from the scientific community. This book reminds me, in passing, of the effort that Wolfhart Pannenberg made in Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1985), albeit Mittleman’s is from a Jewish perspective, while Pannenberg’s was from a Christian one. Both seek to bring the centuries of Jewish or Christian theological and philosophical thought into dialogue with the sciences of the day. Mittleman’s text covers four main topics: Are persons merely in continuum with the rest of nature or is there something truly distinct that separates them from the rest of nature? What does it mean to speak of persons being created in the image of God and are persons a duality of body and soul? Do we have free will or are we conditioned? And finally, what are the foundations of the political community and the economic importance of personal property for personhood?

In Jewish and Christian thought, our personhood results from being in the image of God. This is not something to be easily dismissed. For Mittleman, “to be created in the image of God means primarily to be required to act in a certain way” (54). For him this image, and its ensuing dignity, is the result not of who we are but what we ought to do. This includes the moral responsibility of representing God to the world and cocreating with God. Persons have a responsibility to find the goodness and blessing in reality, which they ought to nourish and pass on to their children, teaching them to receive it with gratitude. Personhood, then, is the result of moral imperatives, to which each person must respond by making a choice, leading to actions.

In each chapter Mittelman engages scientific understandings and seeks to relate Jewish thought to them. For instance, in chapter 3 he briefly presents Edward Wilson’s, Philip Kitcher’s, and others views considering determinism and free will. He then proceeds to show how the Bible and Talmud articulate similar views, before moving on to examine four Jewish thinkers on the topic: Solomon ibn Gabirol, Baḥya ibn Pakuda, Maimonides, and Hasdai Crescas. Mittleman discusses how the paradox of free will versus determinism has been around for centuries and how the Jewish analysis of the question has something to contribute to our understanding of ourselves which can contribute to current debates on the morality of manipulating human nature with gene therapy or even enhancement drugs. Concise (it is only 232 pages, including the notes and index) and accessible, Mittleman succeeds in writing a book that is helpful to “Jews, Christians, secular folk, and others” (xii).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie Nuar is Adjunct Professor of World Religions at Catholic Distance University.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alan L. Mittleman is professor of modern Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His books include A Short History of Jewish Ethics and Hope in a Democratic Age.


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