Joseph Albo on Free Choice

Exegetical Innovation in Medieval Jewish Philosophy

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Shira Weiss
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this stimulating book, Shira Weiss invites us to reconsider Joseph Albo’s image as an unoriginal philosopher, through an exploration of his biblical exegeses in his Book of Principles (Sefer ha-‘Iqqarim), one of the most popular medieval Jewish philosophical treatises. This popularity is due notably to the fact that Albo (1380–1444) wrote in a rather simple style, avoiding technical conceptual developments. He was addressing his contemporary coreligionists in the troubled context of 15th century Spain, in the aftermath of the 1391 persecutions that led to a massive wave of conversions of Jews to Christianity. The book, in which Albo explores the principles of the Jewish faith, has an apologetic as well as theological purpose, determining—after Maimonides and others—which beliefs define Jewishness and encouraging fellow Jews to remain faithful to their religion. 

In his treatise, Albo positions himself as a rationalist thinker: reason is the sole criterion to evaluate if a religion corresponds to the definition of a divine law (dat elohit), as he tries to show Judaism does. But he also adopts nuanced positions on the controversial issues discussed by previous Jewish philosophers. He appears to have fled from the radical implications of some of the theses of his predecessors. On the one end, he refuses the heterodox positions of intellectualist philosophers such as Gersonides (1288–1344, Provence)— for example, the refutation of God’s knowledge of the particulars—and, on the other hand, he rejects the radical views of anti-intellectualist thinkers, such as the deterministic position of his master Hasday Crescas (1340–1410?, Spain).

Weiss attempts to show the philosophical interest of Albo’s thought precisely on the question of free choice, building on another aspect of his treatise resulting from its address to a popular audience. Rather than a philosophical summa consisting of strictly conceptual demonstrations, the Book of Principles treats some philosophical subjects partly through the exegesis of biblical passages scattered in the treatise. If Albo does not propose a completely consistent conception of free choice, he defends a strictly libertarian position in a series of original interpretations of the biblical text. After presenting Albo and his scholarly reception in her introduction and after a chapter recalling the diverse positions on the question under discussion among medieval Jewish philosophers, Weiss dedicates the following chapters to highlighting Albo’s exegetical innovations regarding famous episodes such as the binding of Isaac, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and the book of Job.

In religious thought, the dilemma between determinism and free choice is coupled with the contradiction between God’s absolute knowledge and the indetermination of future events implied by human free will. Albo’s position is close to that of Maimonides: God knows all future events but this knowledge does not cause human actions (even though Albo refuses the very idea that human action is caused)—a position which preserves both God’s perfection and human freedom. Weiss insists on the fact that this affirmation of the human ability to opt for one action over another and to will the result of this action, according to Albo’s definition of free choice, was central for Albo in his attempt to encourage his contemporaries to resist forced conversion. This explains why Albo refers to the issue of free choice in his interpretation of so many biblical texts, including unexpected ones such as Job. While since Maimonides, philosophers interpreted each character of the biblical book as the representative of a specific position on providence, Albo considered that their dialogue was actually on the question of free choice. Job evolved from a deterministic position at the beginning of the text to a libertarian one at the end, discovering the unmotivated nature of the true love of God by man. 

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart constitutes a difficult objection to libertarianism. Albo’s exegetical boldness is apparent in this case. According to Maimonides, the case of Pharaoh illustrates the fact that God prevents some individuals from the possibility of repentance because of the seriousness of their wrongdoings. Albo explains contrarily that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to offer him the possibility of true repentance. Had he not hardened his heart, Pharaoh might have repented only because of the pain occasioned by the plagues. Hardening his heart allowed him to make his choice freely, notwithstanding this pain. Had he chosen to release Israel, it would therefore have been the sign of an authentic repentance. Albo thus departs not only from the views of his eminent predecessors, but also from the manifest meaning of the biblical text (God prevented Pharaoh from freeing Israel in order to multiply the signs of his power).

Weiss’s basic observation is very accurate: the philosophical implications of exegesis were indeed neglected by scholars of medieval Jewish philosophy, while one of the main characteristics of this corpus is the intertwining of philosophy with the interpretation of biblical and rabbinical texts. It is to Weiss’s merit that he offers an exploration of Albo’s contribution to this field through a meticulous study of exegetical passages of the Book of Principle. What could yet have been expected in order to demonstrate that exegesis is a fully-fledged part of Albo’s philosophy is a development on Albo’s theory of interpretation: is there any link between his innovative path in exegesis and his defense of free choice, as the subtitle of the book might have suggested? Does proposing new interpretations depend on the ability to free oneself from the authority of previous interpreters and maybe of the text itself?

In an appendix, Weiss discloses and translates an interesting responsum by Albo, who served as a rabbi in Daroca, in which the importance of free choice in his thought finds a concrete application.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Lemler is Assistant Professor in Jewish Thought at the University of Strasbourg.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shira Weiss teaches medieval and modern Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. She is the author of Ethical Ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible, as well as numerous articles. Weiss is a fellow in the Templeton Foundation's projects on philosophic theology and Abrahamic science-religion.


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