Josef Stern

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2018/2019
discipline Philosophy
William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus), Department of Philosophy, University of Chicago

Research project

The Unbinding of Isaac: Maimonides’ Philosophical Interpretation of the Aqedah (Genesis 22)


This project proposes the first sustained analysis of Maimonides’ original interpretation of one of the most familiar but terrifying chapters in Scripture, Genesis 22, the Binding of Isaac.  In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides reads this text as a semantically multi-levelled philosophical parable, situating its significance in its ending—Abraham’s prophetic apprehension not to sacrifice Isaac.


With this radical shift of exegetical perspective, Maimonides argues for two main claims.

(i) First, Abraham’s apprehension not to sacrifice Isaac shows that, rather than being limitless, there is a limit to human love and fear of God; hence, there can also be excessive, indeed wrong, love of God—killing one’s self or one’s son for God. This critique is directed against those who hold that the ultimate expression of one’s love of God is voluntary martyrdom, the unconditional willingness to sacrifice everything for God—including one’s own life and even those of one’s children. Although Maimonides acknowledges (in his legal works) a place for ‘obligatory’ martyrdom in circumstances that publically desecrate God or threaten national survival, in the Guide he argues that the focus on bodily death as a kind of divine worship even of an incorporeal God constitutes idolatry, the cognitive error of believing that God is a body, hence, not one.

(ii) Second, against the Arabic Aristotelian view that certainty is the distinguishing feature of knowledge by demonstration—of which prophecy is a species on his intellectualist conception—Maimonides argues, using a skeptical argument based on the lack of a criterion to distinguish necessary truths apprehended by the intellect from those that are simply unimaginable, that prophetic content (and indeed all claims to knowledge at least of metaphysics) is only certain to the prophet or philosopher at his moment of apprehension. Analyzing certainty as a second-order feature of a subject’s belief state, such a notion of certainty moves one to perform actions, like Descartes’ notion of moral certainty, but it cannot be a standard to judge the truth of the content of a prophetic belief. Furthermore, he subjects the philosophical ideal that intrinsically values nothing but the intellectual to a practical critique, showing that it leads to immoral excesses no less horrific than murder. Indeed the prophet’s intellectualism cultivates a ‘coldly cruel’ moral character oblivious to the suffering and needs of others, a personality type that devalues even human life insofar as it is not pure intellect.  


Maimonides’ interpretation of the Aqedah appropriates a canonical biblical text to offer critiques of two classical conceptions of what love and fear of God demand: dying for God, or voluntary martyrdom, and a philosophical life wholly dedicated to the achievement of intellectual perfection exemplified by the prophet whose knowledge is judged by its certainty.  Apart from the philosophical interest of these arguments, Maimonides shows how scriptural exegesis, and especially the parable, can be used to do philosophy—much as others have explored literature as a medium of doing moral philosophy.




Josef Stern is William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus and was the Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Columbia University. 


Josef Stern main areas of research are philosophy of language, medieval philosophy, especially Medieval Jewish Philosophy and its Islamic philosophical background, epistemology, especially skepticism, philosophy of religion, formal semantics, philosophy of art.  His interests in the philosophy of language focus on the theory of reference, the role of context in semantic interpretation, the distinction between literal and non-literal meaning, and between linguistic and non-linguistic modes of representation and communication. In medieval philosophy, Josef Stern is completing a number of projects that focus on epistemological and metaphysical issues in the philosophy of the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and his relation both to the Arabic philosophical tradition and to later Jewish and Christian thinkers.


Selected publications


Quotations and Pictures, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, 2019. [forthcoming] 


The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013.


Metaphor in Context, M.I.T. Press/Bradford Books, Cambridge, 2000; paperback edition 2016. 


'Meaning and Language', in S. Nadler & T. Rudavsky (eds), Cambridge History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 230-266. 


Problems and Parables of Law: Maimonides and Nahmanides on Reasons for the Commandments (Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot), SUNY Press, Albany, 1998.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Religious Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Indian Philosophy and Intellectual History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History