NEH Summer Seminar - Medieval Jewish Philosophy Skip Navigation

Will, Commandment, and Human Perfection in Medieval Jewish Philosophy

A four-week Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers

Director: Jonathan Jacobs, John Jay College/CUNY

Location: Colgate University, Hamilton, NY
Dates: July 8 - August 4, 2018

Basic Description

National Endowment for the HumanitiesThis Summer Seminar will be an in-depth study of some of the works of Saadia Gaon [882-942] and Moses Maimonides [1138-1204] with a focus on key issues of moral psychology, moral agency, and conceptions of virtue and the best life for a human being. Saadia is significant for having set much of the agenda of medieval Jewish philosophy, and Maimonides is significant as the most influential and enduringly important medieval Jewish philosopher. Both thinkers articulated subtle, profound conceptions of the relations between the rational project of philosophy and basic elements of Jewish religion. The question of “the reasons of the commandments”—namely, whether the commandments (all 613 of them, not just the Decalogue) are rationally justifiable, and the extent to which their justifications can be ascertained—was a central concern of both thinkers. That concern is an especially effective way to raise fundamental questions concerning reason and revelation, the rationality of tradition, and the relation between intellectual and ethical virtue. Those questions will be core concerns of the seminar.

This seminar is not just for scholars who already have expertise in Jewish philosophy or medieval philosophy. Part of its purpose is to highlight respects in which Saadia and Maimonides raise questions and develop views that are enduringly relevant to fundamental concerns of moral life, moral agency, and the conception of the will. Thus, we will be interested in the ways that Saadia and Maimonides’s thought is relevant to more than just medieval thought and more than just Jewish thought. While we will highlight what is distinctive in their thought we will also be exploring how their concerns, insights, and arguments resonate more widely.

The seminar will begin with some exploration of portions of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, as especially relevant background to several of the issues. We will then spend two weeks studying Saadia and two weeks studying Maimonides, examining continuities and affinities between them and also important differences, not only in the content of specific views but in method, as well. We will also read a text from Aquinas, which will be a very helpful basis for comparative study. Among the questions that will shape some of our discussions are the following:

  • How do Saadia and Maimonides’s conceptions of free will differ from Aristotle’s conception of voluntariness, and what are the implications for key issues of moral psychology and moral responsibility?
  • What are the main differences between the Jewish thinkers’ account of repentance and the possibility of revising one’s states of character on the one hand, and Aristotle’s view of the fixity (or near fixity) of established states of character, on the other?
  • What are the distinctive features of each thinker’s conception of virtue and human excellence?
  • How do Saadia and Maimonides understand the relation between reason’s role in religion and the authenticity and significance of prophecy?
  • How do Saadia and Maimonides appropriate and modify inheritances from the Greek philosophical heritage and Islamic influences?
  • How do the views of “the reasons of the commandments” elaborated by Saadia and Maimonides differ (if at all) from the Aristotelian conception of practical wisdom and from natural law theorizing (especially Aquinas’s)?
  • What are Saadia and Maimonides’s most significant contributions to fundamental, persistent issues of moral agency, the understanding of the will, and the rationality of moral judgment? What aspects of their thought are especially relevant in our context?

Of course, numerous other issues will arise and you are encouraged to raise and pursue your own questions and angles of approach. The seminar is meant to engage a wide range of interests and expertise, including Ethics, History of Philosophy, Jewish Studies, Philosophical Theology, theories of Human Nature, Intellectual History, and others.

Application Deadline

Application deadline: March 7, 2018 
Notification date: March 30, 2018.

NEH Application Cover Sheet

Further details will be provided soon. These will include details of the syllabus, the calendar for the Seminar sessions, information regarding housing options, facts about Hamilton, NY, and other information.

What Sort of Study Will We Undertake

In addition to the study of the primary texts led by the Director the seminar is meant to help participants’ pursue their own research and develop their pedagogical plans. Applications are welcome from many different areas of specialization, and the seminar is meant to be relevant to scholarship and teaching across a very wide range. Time for participants to present their own research projects is built into the schedule and the Director looks forward to working with each participant regarding scholarly projects and plans for course-development.

The Director

Professor Jonathan Jacobs is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and also a member of the Doctoral Faculty of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of nine books, editor of three, and has published over ninety articles on topics in Ethics, Medieval Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, Criminal Justice, Political Philosophy, and other areas. He has been a Visiting Scholar or Visiting Professor at Cambridge University, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies, The University of St. Andrews, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Edinburgh, and other institutions.

He has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Earhart Foundation, and the Littauer Foundation as well as the universities at which he has taught. Among his works most relevant to the seminar are Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 2010), Judaic Sources and Western Thought: Jerusalem’s Enduring Presence, (editor, Oxford University Press 2011), and Reason, Religion, and Natural Law: Plato to Spinoza (editor, Oxford University Press, 2012).

Application Information and Instructions

Please review the eligibility criteria for participation in Summer Seminars and Institutes at

Summer Seminars and Institutes for College and University Teachers are offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities to provide college and university faculty members and independent scholars with an opportunity to enrich and revitalize their understanding of significant humanities ideas, texts, and topics. These study opportunities are especially designed for this program and are not intended to duplicate courses normally offered by graduate programs. On completion of a seminar or institute, NEH Summer Scholars will receive a certificate indicating their participation.

Prior to completing an application to as specific seminar or institute, please review the project website and consider carefully what is expected in terms of residence and attendance, reading and writing requirements, and general participation in the work of the project.

Each seminar includes 16 NEH Summer Scholars working in collaboration with one or two leading scholars. Participants will have access to a significant research collection, with time reserved to pursue individual research and study projects.

Institutes are for 25-36 Summer Scholars, and provide intensive collaborative study of texts, topics, and ideas central to undergraduate teaching in the humanities under the guidance of faculties distinguished in their fields of scholarship. Institutes aim to prepare participants to return to their classrooms with a deeper knowledge of current scholarship in key fields of the humanities.

The use of the words “seminar” or “institute” in this document is precise and is intended to convey differences between the two project types.

Please note: An individual may apply to up to two projects (NEH Summer Seminars, or NEH Summer Institutes), but may participate in only one.


A selection committee reads and evaluates all properly completed applications in order to select the most promising applicants and to identify a number of alternates. (Seminar selection committees typically consist of the project director and two colleagues. Institute selection committees typically consist of three to five members, usually drawn from the institute faculty and staff members.)

Special consideration is given to the likelihood that an applicant will benefit professionally. It is important, therefore, to address each of the following factors in your application essay:
  1. quality and commitment as a teacher, scholar, and interpreter of the humanities;
  2. intellectual interests, in general and as they relate to the work of the seminar or institute;
  3. special perspectives, skills, or experiences that would contribute to the seminar or institute;
  4. the likelihood that the experience will enhance the applicant's teaching and scholarship; and
  5. for seminars, the conception and organization of the applicant's independent project and its potential contribution to the seminar.
At least three seminar spaces and at least five institute spaces will be reserved for non-tenure-track/adjunct faculty members. Recent participants are eligible to apply, but selection committees are charged to give first consideration to applicants who have not participated in an NEH-supported Seminar or Institute in the last three years (2014, 2015, 2016). When choices must be made among equally qualified candidates, several additional factors are considered. Preference is given to applicants who have not previously participated in an NEH Summer Seminar or Institute, or who significantly contribute to the diversity of the seminar or institute.


Individuals selected to participate in four-week projects will receive a stipend of $3,300; those in three-week projects will receive $2,700; those in two-week projects will receive $2,100; and those in one-week projects will receive $1,200. Stipends are intended to help cover travel expenses to and from the project location, books and other research expenses, and ordinary living expenses. Stipends are taxable. Applicants to all projects should note that supplements will not be given in cases where the stipend is insufficient to cover all expenses.

Seminar and institute participants are required to attend all meetings and to engage fully as professionals in the work of the project. During the project's tenure, they may not undertake teaching assignments or any other professional activities unrelated to their participation in the project. Participants who, for any reason, do not complete the full tenure of the project will receive a reduced stipend.

At the end of the project's residential period, NEH Summer Scholars will be asked to submit online evaluations in which they review their work during the summer and assess its value to their personal and professional development. These evaluations will become part of the project's grant file.


Before you attempt to complete an application, please study the project website, which contains detailed information about the topic under study, project requirements and expectations of the participants, the academic and institutional setting, and specific provisions for lodging and subsistence.


A complete application consists of three copies of the following collated items:
  • the completed application cover sheet,
  • a detailed résumé, curriculum vitae, or brief biography with contact information for two professional references, and
  • an application essay as outlined below.
The Application Cover Sheet

The application cover sheet must be filled out online at this address:

Please follow the prompts. Before you click the “submit” button, print out the cover sheet and add it to your application package. Then click “submit.” At this point you will be asked if you want to fill out a cover sheet for another project. If you do, follow the prompts to select the other project and repeat the process.

Do not use the same cover sheet for different projects. You must submit a separate cover sheet online for each project to which you are applying in order to generate a unique tracking number for each application.

Résumé and References

Please include a detailed résumé, curriculum vitae, or brief biography (not to exceed five pages). Be sure the résumé provides the name, title, phone number, and e-mail address of two professional references.

The Application Essay

The application essay should be no more than four double spaced pages. It should address your interest, both academic and personal, in the subject to be studied; qualifications and experiences that equip you to do the work of the seminar or institute and to make a contribution to a learning community; a statement of what you want to accomplish by participating; and the relation of the project to your professional responsibilities.
  • Applicants to seminars should be sure to discuss any independent study project that is proposed beyond the common work of the seminar.
  • Applicants to institutes may need to elaborate on the relationship between institute activities and their responsibilities for teaching and curricular development.

Completed applications should be submitted to the project director, not the NEH, and should be postmarked no later than March 7, 2018. Application materials sent to the NEH will not be reviewed.

Send your application to: Jonathan Jacobs, John Jay College/CUNY

Successful applicants will be notified of their selection on Friday, March 30, 2018, and they will have until Friday, April 6 to accept or decline the offer.

Note: Once you have accepted an offer to attend any NEH Summer Program (NEH Summer Seminar or Institute), you may not accept an additional offer or withdraw in order to accept a different offer.


Endowment programs do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or age. For further information, write to the Equal Opportunity Officer, National Endowment for the Humanities, 400 7th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. TDD: 202/606 8282 (this is a special telephone device for the Deaf).

The Venue

The seminar will be held at Colgate University. Colgate has a beautiful campus with an excellent library and physical education and other facilities. Hamilton, NY is a lovely village about forty-five miles from Syracuse. Participants will be housed either on campus (in one of Colgate’s ‘interest’ houses) or they may choose to stay in rental properties near the campus. Additional details will be provided soon. Hamilton is an excellent location for a wide variety of leisure and recreational activities. These include biking, boating, hiking, and use of the university’s facilities. In addition, there is a farmer’s market every Saturday on the Village Green, and there is often live music in the evening. The village has movie theaters, several restaurants, a supermarket, and a variety of other retail businesses.
NoteAny views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.