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The Evolution of Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Martha Nussbaum

The Evolution of Jewish Thought from Maimonides to Nussbaum
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I. Introduction

There are certain rites of passage that Jewish people around the world share. For most, the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, which takes places at age 12 or 13, marks the transition from childhood to adolescence. For others who choose to become bar or bat mitzvah later in life, the ceremony celebrates a period of intense Jewish study. Students explore passages from the Torah and from prophetic writings. The student then delivers a d’var torah, a sermon on their content as part of the congregation’s weekly service. Most students draw primarily on great Jewish thinkers from the past. This paper will focus on a very unique bat mitzvah of a contemporary thinker, the woman the New York Times described as, “ the most prominent female philosopher in America”, Martha Nussbaum (Cooper, 2018).

Nussbaum was born in 1947 in New York City to a southern-born lawyer George Craven, and Betty Warren, an interior designer (Green, 2013). She described her childhood as part of the east coast WASP elite as “very sterile”, and “very preoccupied with money and status” (McLemee, 2001). Nussbaum attended a private girls prep school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvannia and then began her college career at Wellesley college. After two years she dropped out to pursue studies in theatre at NYU, hoping to become a professional actress (The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America From 1600 to the Present, 2016). She soon realized she enjoyed studying the classics more than performing them and shifted her focus to philosophy (Cooper, 2018). At NYU, Nussbaum met her future husband, Alan Nussbaum and she converted to Judaism prior to their marriage in 1969 (Cooper, 2018). Although her decision to convert was influenced by her romantic relationship, she also wrote of having “ an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them” (Green, 2013). She told an interviewer from the New York Times that she had “kind of gotten to the end of my rope with Christian otherworldliness. I wanted a religion where justice was done in this world” (Green, 2013).

Nussbaum continued her studies in philosophy, receiving her master’s degree in 1971 and PhD from Harvard in 1975. She taught at Harvard for 20 years, then at Brown. Now, at the University of Chicago, she teaches primarily in the fields of Law and Ethics (Cooper, 2018). She has published more than 25 books, and edited another 21. Nussbaum believes philosophers should be “lawyers for humanity” and her frequent public appearances help to further her mission for “philosophy to have real-world applications” (Cooper, 2018).

On the day of her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum presented two texts for study in her d’var torah, entitled The Mourners Hope. The first text came from the prophetic book of Isaiah 40:1-26 and the second from Deuteronomy 5:1-18, the text of the ten commandments. At first glance, the two appear unrelated. Isaiah deals with personal emotions, describing the relationship between a mother and her infant or a shepherd and his sheep. The ten commandments outline laws of social justice including prohibitions against murder, stealing and bearing false witness. Nussbaum quotes philosophers from the past like Maimonides, Mendelsohn and Kant to support the assertion that these principles in the Torah are for all mankind, not just for the Jewish people.

The two passages also deal with two main areas of Nussbaum’s philosophical work, the structure of personal emotions, and mapping out principles of social and global justice (Nussbaum, 2008). She argues that although the two may appear unrelated, one cannot fully experience personal emotions without pursuing universal principles of social justice.

This paper will explore the connections between Nussbaum’s work and the works of Maimonides, Mendelsohn and Kant. It will also examine part of her philosophy that one cannot fully experience the depth of personal emotions without a commitment to the pursuit of universal social justice (Nussbaum, 2008).

II. The Mourner’s Hope: Isaiah 40:1-26 and Deuteronomy 5:1-18

In the Mourner’s Hope, Nussbaum focuses on the connection between Isaiah’s words of consolation in chapter 40:1-26 and the text of the 10 commandments, found in Deuteronomy 5:1-18 (Nussbaum, 2008). Isaiah’s words express the personal intimacy of grief and consolation, comparing God’s acts of consolation to a shepherd protecting his flock or a mother feeding her infant. This very personal message is paired with the supreme, covenantal laws of Deuteronomy, laws intended not just for the Jewish people, but, “ for all of us here, today, the living” (Nussbaum, 2008). Nussbaum connects the words of the 10 commandments to the work of Maimonides, concluding that he believed, “ the rules of justice that lie at the heart of Judaism are not sectarian, but universal, not subjective, but fully objective…” and “…always bound up with the need for action aimed at realizing the norms of justice in this world.” (Nussbaum, 2008). She also connects the ten commandments to Mendelsohn’s work in his book, Jerusalem, emphasizing Judaism’s unique call to act in pursuit of social justice. She includes these words from Mendelsohn to emphasize what both she and he find crucial to living as a Jew, not mere words, but action. “ Among all the prescriptions and ordinances of the Mosaic Law, there is not a single one which says: You shall believe or not believe. They all say: You shall do or not do. Faith is not commanded…. All the commandments of the divine law are addressed to man’s will, to his power to act.” (Nussbaum, 2008 ). Nussbaum also incorporates Kant’s idea that personal happiness is in constant tension with moral law and that human society should aspire to a “kingdom of ends” a world where all human beings are treated as if their well-being is the goal, rather than as mere means to an end for other people (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 22, 2020). She agrees with Kant’s framework for ethical behavior to the extent that one should care equally for the friend and the stranger. However, Nussbaum would disagree that personal happiness is in tension with moral law, because she believes that Kant’s version of personal happiness is not happiness at all. One cannot truly experience happiness, grief or consolation without pursuing universal justice, or in Kantian terms, behaving in an ethical rather than immoral, selfish way.

III. Maimonides and the Ten Commandments

Maimonides was born in 1138 in Cordova, Spain. His family fled persecution in Spain, and Maimonides spent much of his adult life in Cairo, and eventually became physician for the royal court in Egypt. He was very well educated in many subject areas including math, medicine, Jewish law and philosophy. Maimonides was recognized as a scholar within the Jewish community and he offered extensive guidance on matters of Jewish law and life.

His most famous philosophical work, The Guide to the Perplexed (Maimonides, 1190),

was written as a series of letters to his former student. The Guide to the Perplexed offers guidance to Jewish philosophers of faith on how to reconcile the conflict between rational thought and the way God is depicted in the Torah (G. Sharvit, personal communication September 03, 2020)

A. Understanding God According to Maimonides

According to Maimonides, the conflict between the words of the Torah and rational

thought stem from a misunderstanding of the Torah. Maimonides believed in a Torah of multiple layers, like a golden apple encased in silver filigree. The “plain person”, one who is not extensively educated in philosophy and Jewish thought, is able to see only the layer of silver, while the philosopher can see both the silver filigree and the golden apple underneath (Maimonides, 1190, pp. 1-6).

The Torah speaks of God in corporeal terms, not because God is a physical being, but because this language makes the Torah accessible to the “plain person”. (Maimonides, 1190, p. 44). When man is said to be made in God’s image, this does not mean that man physically resembles God, but rather that he, unlike other animals, is capable of rational thought (Maimonides, 1190, p. 13).

B. The Ten Commandments as Universal Laws of Reason

Although Maimonides did not believe in a God who is physically present in our world, he did believe in a world organized by divine providence. The laws of the Torah are meant to teach mankind how to rationally understand the world, and how to act in accordance with divine providence (G. Sharvit, personal communication September 10, 2020). Maimonides’ understanding of God and the ten commandments as universal laws are aligned with Nussbaum’s belief that principles of social justice outlined in the Torah are for all mankind, not just for the Jewish people(Nussbaum, 2008). However, Nussbaum’s emphasis on personal emotions and human connections stands in contrast to Maimonides’ singular focus on rational thought.

VI. Mendelsohn: Truth and the Commandment to Act

Moses Mendelsohn was born in Born Dessau, Germany 1729 at the height of the European Enlightenment period. He studied not only Jewish texts, but also several languages in order to pursue a deep study of philosophy. During Mendelsohn’s time, several European countries allowed Jews to move out of the ghetto. This was a conditional invitation for Jews to join the larger community, provided they could be good citizens of Europe first, and Jewish second (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 08, 2020).

In his book, Jerusalem, Mendelsohn rose to the challenge of proving Jews could be good European citizens and good Jews if they could separate the eternal truth from historical truth, and if their actions led to conversation, reflection and rational understanding of the world (Mendelssohn, 1783, pp. 132-133).

A. Historical truths of the Bible

In Jerusalem, Mendelsohn’s central work of Jewish philosophy, he explains that there are two kinds of truth, the first of which is historical truth. Historical truths are tied to a specific moment in time and were true only at that specific point in time. Historical truths include narratives of the bible, or any other historical accounts of which we lack personal firsthand knowledge. We must accept these truths based on faith because we cannot observe them. There are many commandments in the bible that relate to historical truths, such as laws related to sacrifice in the temple or those related to living in the land of Israel. These laws need not be observed, because they were only applicable to one particular moment in time. However, the Jewish historical narrative, like the historical narratives of Christianity or Islam can be useful provide individual context and insight into eternal truths (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 08, 2020).

B. Eternal Truth

Eternal truth, unlike historical truth is an enduring concept that remains true

throughout time. Eternal truths are generally found in the realms of mathematics, physics and science. The concept of a triangle, or the concept of gravitational forces in the universe remain true throughout time. Judaism introduced the concept of monotheism to the world, the idea that there is one God supreme above all humanity (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 08, 2020). This ethical eternal truth leads logically to one of Judaism’s central precepts recounted in Jerusalem, to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mendelsohn 1783, p.102).

C. Commandments to act

In Jerusalem, Mendelsohn reminds the reader, that unlike Christianity, Judaism requires no oath of faith, but only commands action. The central tennent of Judaism is not to believe, but rather to “hear, O Israel,...” to “understand” and to “know” (Mendelssohn, 1783, p. 100). Mendelsohn believes this is because when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, they were newly freed slaves. They could not understand the full extent of Torah at that time, so instead they were only given the essence of Torah. The people would come to understand the full extent of Torah not through reading a book but only through their actions, conversations and subsequent reflections (Mendelssohn, 1783, p. 120). Nussbaum, like Mendelsohn, believes that Judaism is uniquely well suited to urge mankind to do acts of social justice in the world. The Jewish religion, unlike others, is one of action and advocacy for the rights of all people. Perhaps this is what Nussbaum meant in her interview with Ha’aretz. When asked about her conversion to Judaism, Nussbaum said she converted because in her mind, Judaism, in contrast to Christianity is a religion “ where justice is done in this world” rather than in the world to come (Green, 2013).

V. Immanuel Kant: Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason

Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia in 1724. Kant lived during the age of enlightenment, a time when philosophers moved away from religion as a means to seek truth about the world. Science had become the major field of truth, and religion became primarily a means of teaching ethical behavior. Kant believed that one who acts in accordance with his moral duty is acting ethically, regardless of the outcome. Moral duty, according to Kant, describes actions that are an expression of rational thinking, in accordance with a categorial imperative, rather than the subjective desires of the individual, or of particularized circumstances. One should always imagine his act as shaping universal laws of human action in a world in which one would hope to live. For example, imagine you are standing in line with a friend. There is a chance to skip the line, but you do not skip ahead. Kant would deem your decision immoral if you only made your decision based on whether others would think of you as a good person. Rather, your decision should be based on maintaining the concept of a line. If everyone decided to skip ahead in the line, the universal concept of a line would be lost (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 22, 2020).

Kant believed in the unique power of religion to shape ethical behavior. Political behavior could be defined by the state and enforced through the coercive power of human actors. Ethical behavior could not be defined by human actors, because human beings act subjectively based on their desires in relation to others around them. Ethical behavior can only be directed by an invisible, objective non-human figure. Religion has the power to guide ethical behavior through divine, rather than human instruction (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 22, 2020, Kant, 1996, pp. 129-171). Nussbaum would agree with Kant that we should act the same way toward our neighbors as we act toward distant strangers. However, unlike Kant, she believes that acts of social justice do affect us on a personal level. Nussbaum believes that the only way to fully develop personal emotions is through a commitment to acts of social justice.

VI. Nussbaum: Emotions and the Pursuit of Universal Justice

Two main areas of Nussbaum’s work include investigating the structure of personal emotions and mapping out a framework of principles of social and global justice. In her book, Upheavals of Thought, Nussbaum fully explores the development of personal emotions in humans and across cultures. In Creating Capabilities, the Human Development Approach, Nussbaum maps out a framework of principles of social and global justice. Many of her students simply believe she studies two different topics, but Nussbaum believes the two are inherently connected. Emotions evolve from the narcissistic, selfish desires of infancy to maturity in adulthood. A person can only experience the depth of human emotion once he comes to believe that the needs of others are as important as his own. He then puts those beliefs into practice through acts of social justice.

A. Upheavals of Thought and Mourner’s Hope: Structure and Development of


In Upheavals of Thought, and The Mourner’s Hope, Nussbaum discusses the

development and structure of emotions from infancy to adulthood. Human infants, unlike other animals, are physically helpless and fragile for a long period of time, with little direct control over their environment. However, there are agents in the infant’s environment, his caregivers, who satisfy his needs. These agents take on heightened awareness in the mind of the infant, because they provide what he cannot: comfort, nourishment and protection. The infant, who cannot satisfy his own desires, perceives the world as unpredictable. He perceives his caregivers as magical forces, rather than as other people distinct from himself. The infant’s earliest emotions are likely fear or anxiety when his needs are withheld, and hope and joy when they are ultimately satisfied. The infant may also begin to develop feelings of anger and gratitude, but he cannot yet truly feel love, because he does not yet see his caregivers as whole people separate from himself (Nussbaum, 2001, pp. 181-191; 2008).

Over time, the child is able to “be alone in the presence of mother” occupying himself rather than constantly seeking comfort from the caregiver. The child may have transitional objects like a blanket or stuffed animal which the child can use to comfort himself without needing to constantly seek out the parent. The child comes to realize that the parents attends to him sometimes, but the parent also has needs independent of the child’s needs. The child realizes that his love and anger are directed toward the same person, resulting in painful conflict that humans continue to address as children, adolescents and adults (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 209). The child can now develop feelings of real love towards the caregiver, as he comes to recognize the separateness and independence of the person being loved (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 209). Similarly, other emotions, such as grief and consolation can only be fully realized when one sees the other as a complete human being with needs equal to his own.

The personal call for comfort, as an infant to his mother, is sheer narcissism because there is no understanding that other people are real. Concern for others will never develop if the child demands removal of all pain and satisfaction of every desire. Only one who gives up perfection and takes the needs of others as seriously as his own can truly give or receive non-narcissistic consolation (Nussbaum, 2008). Such consolation cannot be realized through thoughts alone, but must become “ real in action, through a dedication to universal justice, both social and global” (Nussbaum, 2008).

B. Creating Capabilities, the Human Development Approach

In Creating Capabilities, the Human Development Approach, Nussbaum explores one way of doing social justice in the world, particularly in developing countries. The capabilities approach is an alternative to measuring national economic growth. For generations, leaders of countries have focused on gross domestic product (GDP) as the indicator of growth in developing countries. Global agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank make policy and funding decisions based on the GDP of developing countries.

However, GDP is a crude aggregate measure of national wealth, and gives no information as to how that wealth is distributed among the people who live in that country (Nussbaum, 2013, p. 1). One might think this problem is only relevant to developing nations halfway around the world. However, this question arose many times during the recent United States presidential election in discussing who was most severely affected by the economic crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic. The issue of income inequality continues to affect families all over the world as those in poverty struggle to find access to internet, computers and childcare in order for their children to participate in school on a regular basis.

Nussbaum and her colleagues propose using the capabilities theory, a measure of the quality of daily life, instead of GDP to measure the wealth of a nation (Nussbaum, 2013, p. 1). Nussbaum and her colleagues spent several years interviewing struggling people in developing nations. Nussbaum noticed, through these interviews, these people lacked agency in several key areas of life. She compiled the list of central capabilities based on these stories, like the story of Vasanti, which Nussbaum includes in her book.

Vasanti is a small woman in her early thirties from Gujarat, India. Poor families in India, like Vasanti’s rarely have enough resources for all of their children and are often forced to choose who will be properly fed and educated. There are fewer employment opportunities for women in India, so families often choose to better feed and educate boys hoping they will grow up to generate income for the family. In India, the mortality rate of daughters is high, and the problem of sex-selective abortion is widespread. Vasanti was physically small, although healthy, and never learned to read or write.

Her husband was an abusive alcoholic who spent the household money on gambling and drinking. He then got a vasectomy based on a government cash incentive offered to encourage sterilization and population control. Vasanti had no children to protect her from her abusive husband or to earn income for the family. Many women in Vasanti’s position would have been forced into homelessness or prostitution since poor families are often unwilling to take in married female children who cannot contribute financially and who will be “another mouth to feed (Nussbaum, 2013, p. 4). Vasanti was fortunate because her brothers took her in and allowed her to work on her father’s old sewing machine, making eyeholes for sari tops. She also discovered the Self-employed Women’s Organization (SEWA), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that offers education, healthcare and microcredit to poor women in Gujarat (Nussbaum, 2013, pp. 4-8).

After interviewing many others like Vasanti, Nussbaum and her colleagues began to notice common themes in their stories. Vasanti and others commonly faced struggles in the same areas of life. The capabilities approach outlines these areas where personal agency is necessary to live a full life, but where vulnerable people often lack power and control.

The Ten Capabilities (Nussbaum, 2013, pp. 33-34):

1. Life – Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length.

2. Bodily health- being able to have good physical and reproductive health, adequate nourishment, and adequate shelter.

3. Bodily Integrity – being able to move freely from place to place, secure against violent assault, sexual or domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and choice in matters of reproduction.

4. Senses, imagination, and thought – being able to use the senses, to imagine think and reason in a human and informed way.

5. Emotions – being able to have attachment to things and people outside ourselves.

6. Practical reason – being able to form a conception of good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life.

7. Affiliation – being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for others, protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech, being treated with dignity equal to that of others, protection from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion or national origin.

8. Other species – being able to live with concern for animals, plants and the world of nature.

9. Play – Being able to laugh, play and enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control over

a. One’s political environment – being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life.

b. One’s material environment – being able to hold property and to seek employment on an equal basis with others. Freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.

Nussbaum and her colleagues believe that one must have agency in these ten areas in order to live a life worthy of human dignity (Nussbaum, 2013, p. 32). The capabilities approach focuses first and foremost on individual persons. Nussbaum believes social justice and respect for human dignity requires that a nation’s citizens be “placed above a threshold of capability, in all ten of those areas” (Nussbaum, 2013, p. 36). The capabilities theory is just one example of how to do justice in the world and how one can place other’s needs as equal to his own.

VII. Conclusion

On August 16, 2008 Martha Nussbaum became bat mitzvah. Her bat mitzvah marked not only a period of personal Jewish study, but also a union of two major areas of her philosophical work: the structure of personal emotions and the pursuit of global justice. While the two may appear unrelated, Nussbaum shows that they are inextricably intertwined. In her d’var torah, The Mourner’s Hope, Nussbaum quotes the works of philosophers of the past like Maimonides, Mendelsohn and Kant to show that the principles of social justice outlined in the Torah are for all mankind, not just for the Jewish people.

Maimonides believed in a God who is completely removed from our human existence. The 10 Commandments according to Maimonides are a path to rational understanding of the world, and instructions for living in accordance with divine providence. Maimonides did not explore the world of personal emotions, focusing instead on man’s unique capacity for rational thought. In contrast, Nussbaum is very informed by personal, human connection. She speaks very openly in her works about her personal grief at the loss of her mother, and how valuable emotions like grief are not only to the individual, but also to the larger community. While Maimonides prized the intellectual superiority of the philosopher, Nussbaum’s philosophical and personal work have a more fragile, vulnerable, everyday human quality.

In contrast to Maimonides, Mendelsohn believed in the Torah as more than a path for rational understanding of the world. The historical truths of the Torah, the narratives and commandments tied to a specific moment in time, are like the body by which one can understand the eternal truths, the soul of the Torah. These eternal truths are universal laws, like the 10 commandments, and the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Nussbaum’s work appears to align more closely with Mendelsohn than with Maimonides. Like Mendelsohn, she believes that the personal, Mendelsohn’s historical truth, is inextricably intertwined with the universal, like body and soul. Nussbaum would extend this relationship even further to say that the personal cannot fully exist without pursuit of the universal. Kant believed in the unique power of religion to shape ethics, consistent moral action free of bias and subjectivity based on one’s selfish personal desires. Kant described a “kingdom of ends”, a world in which all people are treated as if their well-being were the goal, rather than a means to an end for other people (G. Sharvit, personal communication October 22, 2020, Nussbaum, 2008). While Nussbaum aligns herself with Kant’s goal, a world where all people have basic rights and values, her path to that end is quite different. Kantian ethics, when taken to its logical extreme, treats human beings not as individuals, but as empty receptacles for moral action. Nussbaum and her colleagues take the exact opposite approach, traveling to India to meet the stranger face to face. Nussbaum’s approach does not remove the human component of ethics, but rather broadens one’s circle, so that the stranger’s needs become important because through interaction, the stranger can become the friend.

She also shows through her work in Upheavals of Thought and Creating Capabilities, that one cannot feel the depth of personal emotions without viewing the needs of others as equal to his own. The capabilities framework is just one idea of how to ensure that all people’s basic needs are met. According to Nussbaum, we are all obligated to do the work of social justice not only to help the stranger, but to enable us to feel the true depths of our own personal emotions. On the day of her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum concludes her d’var torah encouraging us to do the work of justice even when it is difficult. It is not about merely saying “what justice requires…” but about “… putting one’s whole self into the search for justice, which means not just some nice words, but a patient and persistent effort of imagination, analysis and ultimately, action. That kind of dedication asks of us all a courage that we can barely imagine and only rarely, and inadequately, approach” ( Nussbaum, 2008).


The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America From 1600 to the Present. (2016). (John R. Shook Ed. 1st ed.): Bloomsbury Academic.

Cooper, Marilyn. (2018). Martha Nussbaum: The Philosopher Queen. Moment.

Green, David B. (2013, 16-08-2013). 2008: A Convert to Judaism Celebrates Her Bat Mitzvah - at Age 61 Ha’aretz. Retrieved from

Kant, Immanuel. (1996). Religion and Rational Theology (Allen W. Wood & George di Giovanni, Trans. Allen W. Wood & George di Giovanni Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maimonides, Moses. (1190). The Guide for the Perplexed (M. Friedlander Ed.).

McLemee, Scott. (2001, OCTOBER 5). What Makes Martha Nussbaum Run? Retrieved from

Mendelssohn, Moses. (1783). Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism (Allan Arkush Ed.): Brandeis University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2001). Upheavals of Thought : The Intelligence of Emotions: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008). The Mourner's Hope. Boston Review Retrieved from

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2013). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach: Harvard University Press.

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