Harry Wolfson was the greatest scholar of Jewish thought of his generation, and although he was not a believer in Yeshua, understood Christian thought better than most Christians. He modeled for Messianic Jews what it means to be fully immersed in both traditions, to be respectful of one another’s differences, and to think philosophically and coherently (he would say ‘systematically’) about the similarities, differences, convergences and divergences between the two faiths. I have chosen to write about him today because Messianic Jews should be more aware of his scholarship and legacy, and seek to emulate his personal character and professional values.
WOLFSON, HARRY AUSTRYN (November 2, 1887 – September 20, 1974), historian of philosophy. Born in Belorussia, Wolfson received his early education at the Slobodka yeshivah. Emigrating to the United States in 1903, he studied at Harvard and, from 1912 to 1914, held a traveling fellowship from Harvard, which enabled him to study and do research in Europe. In 1915 he was appointed to the Harvard faculty, becoming professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy in 1925. From 1923 to 1925 he also served as professor at the Jewish Institute of Religion. Wolfson received many academic honors for his pioneering researches. He was a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, serving as its president from 1935 to 1937, and a fellow of the Mediaeval Academy of America. He was president of the American Oriental Society in 1957–58, and also held membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1958 he was awarded the prize of the American Council of Learned Societies. In 1965 the American Academy for Jewish Research published the Harry Austryn Wolfson Jubilee Volume (in English and Hebrew) in his honor.
Born in a small Russian village in 1887, Harry Wolfson from his childhood became accustomed to living away from home. He was sent off to pursue talmudical studies with various rabbis, and slept on the benches of synagogues and schoolrooms in the different towns. He studied at the seminary in Slobodka. Aware that around him a new doctrine called Marxism was attracting young people, Harry from Austryn (it became his middle name) was impervious to the new creed; his abiding love was for Torah. Then his whole family joined in the migration to the United States in 1903.
After a spell in Yeshiva preparing for rabbinic ordination, Wolfson became a Hebrew teacher in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he entered the secular education system, and ended up a Harvard Professor of Jewish thought. Whilst living a non-orthodox lifestyle, he remained a master of Jewish thought, adding to this an encyclopaedic knowledge of Christian and Islamic thought and philosophy.
His writings are marked by a mastery of the philosophic literature in the several languages in which it was written, penetrating analysis, clarity of exposition, and felicity of style – wrote many books and articles. (A bibliography, appearing in the Jubilee Volume (Eng. sec., pp. 39–49), contains 116 items, which were published between 1912 and 1963.)
His early articles, several of which dealt with issues in the philosophies of Crescas and Spinoza, were followed by his first book, Crescas’ Critique of Aristotle, which, though completed in 1918, was not published until 1929.
The volume contains a critical edition of part of Crescas’ Or Adonai (the section dealing with the 25 propositions which appear in the introduction to the second part of Maimonides’ Guide), an exemplary English translation, and an introduction; but of special importance are the copious notes which take up more than half of the volume. In these notes Wolfson discusses, with great erudition, the origin and development of the terms and arguments discussed by Crescas, and he clarifies Crescas’ often enigmatic text.
A reader need only turn to one of the collections of Wolfson’s essays in order to encounter directly the elegance of style, flow of wit, and effusion of charm; the vigorous prologue, the animated epilogue, the exhilarating characterization, the intricately-textured and carefully-cadenced generalization, and the resonant allusion provide a light, soothing ambiance for his philosophic explorations. The fusion of these aspects is seen very clearly in the volume on Crescas, where felicitous translation, exhaustive explication, and enticing conceptualization are combined.
In the introduction (pp. 24–29) Wolfson describes the “hypothetico-deductive method of textual study” which guided him in all his works (see introductions to his other books). Akin to the method used to study the Talmud known as pilpul, this method rests on the assumptions that any serious author writes with such care and precision that “every term, expression, generalization or exception is significant not so much for what it states as for what it implies,” and that the thought of any serious author is consistent. Hence it becomes the task of the interpreter to clarify what a given author meant, rather than what he said, and he must resolve apparent contradictions by means of harmonistic interpretation. All this requires great sensitivity to the nuances and implications of the text and familiarity with the literature on which a given author drew. Like the scientific method, the “hypothetico-deductive” method proceeds by means of hypotheses which must be proved or disproved, and it must probe the “latent processes” of an author’s thought.
The investigation of the background of Crescas’ thought involved Wolfson in an intensive study of the commentaries on Aristotle’s works written by the Islamic philosopher Averroes. However, most of these commentaries existed only in manuscripts, and so Wolfson proposed the publication of a Corpus Commentarionum Averrois in Aristotelem (in: Speculum, 6 (1931), 412–27; revised version, ibid., 38 (1963), 88–104). This corpus was to consist of critical editions of the Arabic originals, and of the Hebrew and Latin translations; and it was to contain English translations and explanatory commentaries by the editors. The Mediaeval Academy of America undertook to sponsor this project and Wolfson was appointed its editor in chief. By 1971, nine volumes of the series had appeared.
In 1934 Wolfson’s two-volume The Philosophy of Spinoza appeared. Applying the “hypothetico-deductive” method, Wolfson undertook to unfold “the latent processes” of Spinoza’s reasoning. Following the arrangement of Spinoza’s Ethics, Wolfson explained the content and structure of Spinoza’s thought and discussed extensively the antecedents on which he drew. By the time he had completed his Spinoza, Wolfson had conceived the monumental task of investigating “the structure and growth of philosophic systems from Plato to Spinoza,” working, as he put it, “forwards, sideways, and backwards.” As work on this project progressed, he continued to publish articles.
His next book, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, appeared in two volumes in 1947 (19482, 19623). Philo had until then been considered an eclectic or a philosophic preacher, but Wolfson undertook to show that behind the philosophic utterances scattered throughout Philo’s writings there lay a philosophic system. More than that, he held that Philo was the founder of religious philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and that “Philonic” philosophy dominated European thought for 17 centuries until it was destroyed by Spinoza, “the last of the medievals and the first of the moderns.”
After publishing more articles, Wolfson in 1954 completed another two-volume work, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (19642). However, he decided to publish only the first volume, which appeared in 1956. Following the pattern established in his Philo, but allowing for differences occasioned by Christian teachings, Wolfson devoted this volume to faith, the Trinity, and the incarnation, discussing not only the orthodox but also the heretical views.
In 1961 a collection of Wolfson’s articles appeared under the title Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays.
Isidore Twersky writes:
The public academic career and impressive scholarly achievement of Harry Austryn Wolfson, Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard since 1925, are relatively well known. However, in addition to this Wolfson revelatus—the straightforward success story of a talented, industrious young immigrant and his rise to scholarly fame—there is a Wolfson absconditus—a story, for the most part unknown, of a shy, introspective, sometimes melancholy, former yeshivah student and eminent professor, candidly assessing his own achievement in historical-typological terms, soberly pondering the state of Jewish scholarship and sensitively, sometimes agonizingly, reflecting upon contemporary history and the destiny of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Prayer:(on seeing a scholar) Blessed are you, O LORD our God, who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.
Thank you Lord for the life of scholarship and learning of Harry Wolfson, and the way his was able to combine great scholarship with respect for all. His learning is illustrative of that heavenly wisdom that comes from above, that is pure and peaceable and full of the fruits of righteousness. Lord, we need more scholars of Judaism and Christianity who will accurately reflect our similarities and differences, without polemic and prejudice. Lord, will you raise up men and women of learning, righteousness and godly character, who can as Jewish believers in Yeshua demonstrate his divine and spiritual wisdom in our world today. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.