Skip to main content

Dialogue with the Philosopher (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 

Beyond the Common Language: Consensus and Conflict

 

     The consensus regarding the existence of one God allowed Judaism and philosophy to share the first triangle, constructed  of God, Man and the World.  However, Judaism speaks of another triangle as well.  Its cornerstones are Creation, Revelation and Redemption.  This second triangle is concerned not with realities but with relationships.  It expresses the dialogues between the points of the first triangle.  The philosopher makes liberal use of our lexicon of religious terms and of religious values.  However, a serious inquiry into the issues at hand shows us that the seeming similarities do not penetrate beyond the surface.  The philosopher does not appear as a destroyer of religion.  He is willing to play the part and speak the language; however, he stealthily insinuates new meanings into our ancient terms.  The voice is still "the voice of Jacob," yet the ideals emerge in a radically altered form.  The philosopher exchanges the three central relationships of Jewish philosophy - creation, revelation and redemption - for other concepts, as we shall soon see.

 

     An analysis of the philosopher's attitude towards the second triangle reveals the chasm between his position and that of the Jew.  Therein lies the parting of ways.  We will analyze these three concepts at greater length at a later stage.  Here we will mention them only in order to aid our understanding of the philosopher's concept of God.

 

     Let us begin with an analysis of the philosopher's concept of creation.  The very use of the term "creation," even after an attempt to remove it from its simple context, is a result of the interaction with Jewish thought.  The retained biblical terms are "fingerprints" which attest to the scriptural sources of the discussion.  To the philosopher, creation means "stemming from God."

 

     Now let us attempt to abandon semantics and look at the contents.  The world stems from God.  Is that a reasonable definition of creation?  Surely, the concept of creation demonstrates a relationship, an interest which God takes in our world.  The God of the philosophers has "no favor and no dislike because He is above all desires and all intentions."  The God of the philosophical method is similar to a mathematical axiom from which many new statements stem, while the axiom itself has no interest in its progeny.  We can compare this concept of God's relationship with the world to man's relationship with his shadow.  Just as the man sunbathing on the beach has no interest in the shadow that he casts, so too God takes no interest in the lower world in which we dwell.  And even if in some cases man does take an interest in his shadow, the Kuzari's philosopher is certain that God never takes an interest in His shadow, in the world.  Beyond his particular place in the system, God maintains no personal or existential relationship with man.

 

     Rihal vehemently objects to this deceitful use of religious terms, and overall rejects the philosopher's view as irrelevant.  Rihal contends that this position is devoid of religious truth, and that it does not solve man's existential problems.  The philosopher's ideal is to remain enclosed in an ivory tower.  He bears a striking similarity to the egoistic, perfect God that he reveres.  Rihal asserts that the philosopher will not find the happiness he seeks.  The price that he, and his society, will pay for abandoning the world will be high indeed.

 

     Since our only common ground with the philosopher is the belief in God, the deciding issue is God's interest in man.  If belief in God is the first tenet of our religious faith, the second must be God's personal interest in His creations.

 

     In the philosopher's view, the lack of Divine interest in man is absolute.  We spoke of casting a shadow.  A better example for the philosopher's viewpoint might be the image of a man discarding the remains of an apple over his shoulder.  What interest does the man take in the remains of his apple, or his banana peel?  According to the philosopher, the world stems from God because "He is the First Cause in the creation of every being, not because God intended to create the world."  In contrast, Judaism maintains that God is interested in man, and that this interest does not expose a "lack" on God's part.  As a great astronomer of the previous generation claimed, "The God that we believe in is so great that he can afford to show interest even in something as small and insignificant as myself.  He has a little energy left for me."

 

     For this philosopher, revelation and Torah have no meaning.  Yes, the philosopher accepts the existence of a first cause which is separate from the world, but this belief has no practical ramifications.  It does not compel the philosopher to draw any conclusions regarding man.  Man remains alone in the world.  As Rihal asserts in one of his poems, the belief in the God of the philosophers is like a flower that bears no fruit.

 

 

Perfection and Perfect Egoism

     A deeper look at the philosopher's position gives rise to a surprising idea.  The philosopher claims that, paradoxically, the simple believer actually damages the concept of God.  This point deserves some clarification.  The words of the philosopher are as follows:

 

"Since desire demonstrates a lack within the desirer, and the fulfillment of his intentions will perfect him, and until his object is achieved he remains imperfect.  And thus He is, according to the philosophers, above knowledge of partial facts, because facts constantly change and God's knowledge admits no change.  He does not know you, and of course He is unaware of your actions and does not hear your prayers or see your movements."

 

     God is the perfect Being who gives life to all the universe.  Both believers and philosophers agree upon this point.  However, the philosopher believes that God's perfection implies an inability to move outside of Himself and display interest in such imperfect creatures as ourselves.  Why would God create a world if he needed nothing?  The God of the philosophers is also above "partial knowledge," the stuff of our fragmented existence, such as my biography, or the history of your nation.

 

     Ironically, we can say that the philosopher's God is perfect in His egoism.  But the perfectly egoistic being cannot create a world.

 

 

Manic and Depressive Atheism

     We have been dealing with an issue discussed in the annals of history.  However, the ramifications of this discussion are far-reaching and are not simply reflections on the past.  The philosopher's view exudes a sense of man's lowliness and helplessness.  He gives voice to a fundamental inferiority complex: God is uninterested in man because man is worthless.  Thus we reach a paradoxical conclusion, that excessive humility can also be dangerous.  This emotion is one of two moods which accompany human existence throughout intellectual history.  It seems to me that atheism can be divided into two types: manic and depressive.  The first stems from man's drunken sense of superiority; he considers himself elevated and practically omnipotent.  This position is held by philosophers of the "Idealistic" school, who view man as the founder of the world, the Being who contains the universe within himself.  This is the atheism of the man who does battle with God, refusing to do His bidding and even denying His existence, all because of his arrogant belief that human wisdom is paramount.  Depressive atheism stands in sharp contrast to this view; it is the lot of the man who claims that life is meaningless, that God is not interested in us and therefore life is devoid of sense and purpose.  We find this position among the "Existentialist" philosophers.  According to the first type of atheism, the world is mine.  According to the second type - I am nothing, and the road from this sense of worthlessness to despair and depression is exceedingly short.  The medieval philosopher considered himself immune to the pangs of despair, for he felt certain that he had discovered the source of salvation in his own intellectual prowess.  However, he willingly abandoned the vast majority of humanity to the depths of emptiness and depression dictated by his philosophy.  This illusion has persisted and is common in modern thought as well.

 

     Our Rabbis repeatedly emphasized the necessity of striking a balance between pride and humility.  We constantly vacillate between these two extremes, and the struggle continues in our day.  The attempt to locate the delicate balance between humility and pride is, at one pole, our battle against Marxism, which considered itself the successor of a dethroned God, and against Nietzsche's vision of the superman who pronounced that God is dead.  And at the other pole, we fight to reject existentialist despair.  We protest against the claim that everything is permitted and reality only exists in the here and now.  Those who give in to existentialist despair see themselves as aimless reeds blowing upon an endless sea.  The French thinker Pascal proclaimed that people are indeed merely reeds, but reeds which possess the power of thought.  The Kuzari's philosopher was somewhat comforted by the idea that man is the only animal capable of thought.  However, this is an illusion which cannot console humanity.  On the contrary, this unique ability of man simply means that he is the only animal capable of experiencing misery.  The animal shares man's predicament and helplessness, for though it too will die, it is blissfully unaware of the fact.  Man is trapped precisely because of his wisdom, wisdom which only intensifies his loneliness and despair.  The philosopher cannot overcome this problem.  With the concept of creation, however, religion can.  Thus, Judaism teaches us that while man requires humility, he is also worthy of hope.

 

 

Chessed: The Foundation of the World

     What is our response to the philosopher?  Judaism, too, views God as the perfect Being.  However, our concept of perfection includes chessed (loving kindness).  What is chessed?  In a word, it is a free gift.  The philosopher teaches us that all activity stems from a lack, that "desire demonstrates a lack in the desirer."  Accordingly, the philosopher will explain that an act of chessed attests to a hidden personal agenda.  Man may perform an act of chessed to receive honor.  At the very most, the philosopher would concede that chessed stems from an internal lack, such as a feeling of pity: I suffer when I view the suffering of others.  However, the Torah dares to propose another concept of chessed, the outcome of a desire to do good, despite the fact that the positive action will not fulfill any of the doer's needs.  Chessed, then, is an attribute of perfection.  The God of the philosophers is an egoist who thinks only of himself and is content with this state of affairs.  In contrast to this view, the Bible informs us that "the world is created of chessed"; the first stage of creation was an act of chessed, a free gift, hiding no secret desire for personal gain.

 

     The creation of the world, like all of God's acts, will always remain a mystery to us.  However, we can and must comprehend that it all began with an act of chessed, or in the words of the Kabbalists, "God desired to bestow good."  Creation was God's first expression of interest in man.  Belief in creation, therefore, constitutes both the birth of hope and the triumph over despair.

 

     Postscript:  We have been discussing philosophical approaches.  What motivates a person to adopt a particular philosophical position?  This is a riddle which remains unsolved.  Many people justifiably point out that a philosophical approach such as the one presented at the outset of the Kuzari absolves one of all responsibilities.  And it seems plausible that such approaches were exploited by certain groups in order to rid themselves of religious and moral obligations.  However, we must recognize that every ideology represents a "coalition" of intellectuals, whose interest lies in the concepts and ideas, and politicians, dealers, and public figures, who make use of the intellectuals and their opinions to forward their own selfish motives.  Clearly, some philosophers were truly convinced that belief in a perfect God necessarily leads to a sense of one's worthlessness, and to a complete severance of any relationship with God.  However, these thinkers were joined by others who chose to exploit their opinions to serve their personal ends.

 

This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.

 

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!