Skip to main content

Dialogue with the Philosopher (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

            "The philosopher said: The Creator has no favor and no dislike, because He is above all desires and all intentions."


            Thus the philosopher begins his discourse.  The philosopher appears before us, undoubtedly, as a firm believer in God's existence.  Although other alternatives existed, and, even in Rihal's day, atheism abounded, the position presented by the philosopher to the king of the Khazars includes an unquestioning acceptance of the existence of God.  This fact requires an explanation.


Religion and Philosophy: The Synthesis

            To understand the philosopher's position we must first recognize that religious philosophy is born of the marriage between two sources: Torah and Greek philosophy.  The most significant effort to bring about this union was made by Philo of Alexandria, a Jew who was intimately acquainted with both worlds.  Drawing upon these two sources, he attempted to create a synthesis between them.  Philo's creation was the outcome of the ongoing conflict between autonomous human wisdom and God's word to man, as expressed through the Torah and the prophets.  If this fusion of worlds had not occurred, religious philosophy would be a virtual impossibility, both for the believer in human wisdom alone, as well as for he who denies that mortal intelligence may offer a meaningful contribution toward the solution of life's riddles.  At the moment that these two sources of wisdom touched, religious philosophy was born.


            Philo of Alexandria can justifiably be called the father of religious philosophy.  All subsequent philosophies stemmed, in some form, from his creative attempt.  This is true of Christianity and Islam as well as of our medieval Jewish philosophers, whose familiarity with Philo's work was obtained through non-Jewish sources with no awareness of its true origin.  We can describe Philo's philosophy as a stream which temporarily disappears from view, but continues to flow underground, unhindered.  At some distance from the original stream, we discover a wellspring, without realizing that its source is the very same stream which we left behind.


            The marriage of Torah and philosophy was made possible, despite the yawning gulf separating the two, by the background shared by both traditions.  The concept of one God, which had previously served to release the Greek philosophers from the bonds of idolatry, now served as the common ground for the historic union of Torah and philosophy.  Greek philosophy was singularly influenced by idolatry, both in its content and in its chosen symbols.  Yet, simultaneously, a profound desire to break free of mythological tradition became manifest.  This need allowed for a fruitful dialogue with Jewish thought, culminating in the synthesis which Philo achieved in his philosophical work.


God and Rationalism

            The fusion of Torah and philosophy is actually but one example of an ongoing dialogue between God's voice and our human voices.  One fact remains constant throughout the ages: the universality of belief in God.  Within idolatry, within philosophy, indeed, at the core of every human endeavor, lies the eternal query, the longing and desire for an encounter with the Divine.  Of course, alongside the internal call to apprehend our Maker, other calls are heard; the call of rebellion, the temptation to sin, the need to unclasp the yoke of heaven from our shoulders.  The conflicting calls which man hears through the vehicle of his good and his evil inclinations reflect a universal reality.  Man incessantly longs for contact with the Divine; and although the desire alone cannot solve the mysteries which plague us, and the longing alone cannot prove God's existence, still the desire remains, expectant and insistent.  And its presence teaches us that the human heart will forever be incomplete and joyless unless it harbors a divine sanctuary.


            Philosophy took one step further than religion.  It based itself not simply upon emotional needs, but also upon the sound foundations of intellect and human wisdom.  The existence of God is a logical conclusion of the intellectual thought process.  This belief is an inseparable element of the classical philosophical tradition.  It does not absolutely preclude the option of an atheistic philosophy; however, it does damage the rationale behind such a position.  Let me explain this further with the aid of a parable.  We can compare our world to a chain of metal links.  Each link holds fast to its predecessor, yet these will not suffice to maintain chain in its place.  The chain will fall unless it rests upon something which is essentially different from any of its links.  We may use a nail in the wall, for example, to support the chain.  All the world's events are interconnected and interdependent, like links in a chain.  Our parable illustrates that an entity must exist beyond the chain of causes, beyond our scientific evidence.  This entity is God.


            The search for the "link" which exists beyond the chain in comparable to an exercise in geometry.  One statement is based upon another statement, and so forth.  The question is, at what point does the chain of proofs expire?  A number of options exists:


a)  We may continue the chain of proofs indefinitely!  In that case, however, we have actually proven nothing at all.

b)  We can prove statement A based on statement B, statement B based on statement C, statement C based on statement D and statement D based on statement A.  This is a circular proof and is logically unsound.

c)  We prove statements based on an axiomatic system.  In other words, we end the chain of reasoning with statements which we accept as true without demonstrating their veracity.


            Geometry, and in fact all of mathematics, are based upon axioms.  These are the nails in the wall which support the entire chain.  This system also forms the basis of philosophical rationalism.  Thus, the chain of causality in the world is dependent upon the First Cause, which exists outside the system.


            A glance at the history of philosophy demonstrates that in each generation, and within every school of thought, numerous attempts have been made to translate this idea into precise philosophical terms.  Each method leads to the conclusion that an entity exists which is entirely and essentially different from our world.  We cannot reach this entity through any worldly medium, yet our worldly phenomena unquestionably attest to its existence.  Let me give you an example.  We see a piece of paper, upon which two lines approaching each other are drawn.  Perhaps the page is too small to mark the meeting point between the two lines, yet everything points to the existence of such a meeting place.  According to classical philosophy, our intellect attests to the existence of such points.  This conclusion is commonly accepted as a necessary element of our mental makeup.  Similarly, man's wisdom is incomplete if the concept of God is absent from his philosophical vocabulary.  Classical philosophy has proven this idea in various ways, from the advent of Plato and Aristotle until our very day.  God is the necessary basis of any understanding of the world.


            This method, which allows us to reach the First Cause, is known as the "cosmological proof" of God's existence.  Many additional proofs exist, two of which particularly stand out and will concern us next.  One of these proofs is based upon the order of the world (the "teleological proof") and the other is based upon the fact that man is subject to an internal moral law.


The God of Philosophy

            Religious philosophy was not the only movement to undergo a radical change since the advent of Philo.  General philosophy altered significantly as well.  In fact, Rihal's philosopher himself was an indirect result of Philo's revolution, of the marriage between Jewish thought and Greek philosophy.


            The philosopher's method stemmed from a combination of the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic schools, the medieval equivalents and successors of Aristotle and Plato.


            Although he was a staunch rival of both Rihal and the Rambam, the philosopher does place God's existence at the center of his position.  In fact, biblical terms abound in the philosopher's lexicon.  For this reason, many great thinkers who were deeply committed to Judaism naively considered the possibility of a covenant between Judaism and this philosophical approach.  Such attempts aroused Rihal's sharpest criticism.  To Rihal, this was no family squabble between essentially similar approaches; he saw it as an uncompromising battle over nothing less than the meaning of life.  The very closeness in language between the two positions only increases the danger that we be led astray.  Spinoza, in fact, fell prey to this error.


            Underneath the apparent linguistic agreement lies an essential difference of opinion.  Rihal brought this latent conflict to the fore by emphasizing the differences between the philosopher's God and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Both philosophies agree upon the centrality of God's existence.  But what lies behind this concept?  For the philosopher, God's existence constitutes an essential element of man's knowledge, but not of his emotional, existential, and active being.  Rihal attacks this philosophical approach and exposes the trap it sets for the believing Jew.  Rihal puts the following words in the philosopher's mouth:


"God has no favor and no dislike.  God is raised above ... the knowledge of details, for the details alter from moment to moment, while in God's knowledge no change is possible."


            Rihal warns us to be wary of external similarities.  It is true that the philosopher accepts the existence of a God who possesses many of the traits ascribed to Him by the Bible and by faithful Jews.  Yet the underlying difference remains.  We will address but one of the essential components of this conflict.  The God of the philosophers does not know your name.  In other words, he maintains no connection with you, the individual.  The philosopher's method attaches tremendous importance to the explanation of the world's order, to science, to physics, etc.  The philosopher believes in a hidden power which orchestrates the apparent chaos of our world.  However, this all-powerful Being takes no interest in you, your existence, or your destiny.


            Philosophy proposes solutions to many complex problems, but at the same time it arouses many equally disturbing questions.  Philosophy helps us understand our world, yet it leaves unanswered the existential query closest to our hearts.  We still cry out:  What of me?  What is the meaning of my life?  This question is defined as the issue of personal and general providence.  It arises anew in every generation, including our own.  To the philosopher, God is the concept underlying the system; yet, no dialogue, no relationship, exists between Man and God.  Unlike the God of the philosophers, the Bible asserts that God does know our names, and that He is personally involved with each and every one of us. 


            Next week we will further explore the differences between the Jewish and the philosophic approaches.



This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!