Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2002
In the sixteenth century, several Central European Jews argued, with greater emphasis than their forebears, that the realm of nature and the realm of the divine are largely independent. This argument was expressed in three related claims. First, nature itself came to be seen as indifferent to creed. Though Jews may have assumed that they enjoyed an elevated status in the supernatural realm, the notion that their status and characteristics differed in the natural realm was, for some at least, discredited. Second, once nature was divorced from creed, natural philosophy and allied disciplines too came to be seen (by some) as a theologically neutral discipline. Third, once nature and natural philosophy were seen as insensible to differences in religious belief, discourse about natural philosophy came to be seen as a scholarly pastime that might be shared companionably by peoples of different beliefs. In short, among certain early modern Jews, nature, the discipline of natural philosophy, and the profession of natural philosophy all came to be seen as drained of religious particularity. These views bear an interesting and sometimes paradoxical relationship to secularization. On the one hand, the distancing of nature and creed may have been a harbinger of the actual secularization that portions of European – especially Ashkenazi – Jewish culture later experienced. On the other hand, these same attitudes may also have deterred interest in the physical world itself, discouraging the sort of “this-worldliness” that Max Weber and many others have associated with secularization.
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