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Intentions and Actions (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 

The Conflict

 

     Having reviewed the central components of the philosopher's position we must stress that our quarrel with him is not merely of a specific nature; its scope is, in fact, much larger.  This conflict demonstrates the clash between he who searches for the keys to the mystery of life in religious sources and he who seeks them in human wisdom and pure philosophy.

 

     This conflict is not necessitated by any inherent discordance between religion and philosophy.  In fact, history displays an impressive array of religious philosophers who endeavored to bridge the gap between the two worlds and inhabit both simultaneously.  Philo, the Alexandrian Jew who maintained this position, initiated the union between the Bible and Greek philosophy.  This fruitful marriage yielded many children.  The most prominent and successful among these - albeit not the eldest - was the Rambam.  Rihal was well acquainted with a number of these offspring.  Yet he staunchly refused to accept the synthesis, and intentionally strove to sharpen the conflict.  Thus Rihal became the prototype of the thinker who rejects the tenets of Greek philosophy out of hand.

 

     Rihal's refusal to concede to the philosopher's position is understandable.  We have amply demonstrated the philosopher's deliberate misuse of religious terminology.  However, Rihal had still more cause for skepticism.  On the surface, the philosopher's position is able to claim superiority on the basis of its proven dependence upon logic alone.  In reality, however, this assertion is far from true.  Each and every philosopher constructs his position not only upon the tenets of formal thought and empirical evidence, but also upon prior assumptions which stem from his education, his culture, and even his language.  The rational Aristotelian philosopher is no exception, and remains bound not only by his pagan milieu but also by his personal fears and desires, and his own individual brand of idolatry.

 

Which Road Will Lead to Happiness?

 

     The greatest defect in the philosopher's position, however, lies not in what it contains but rather in what it lacks.  The philosopher's approach does not resolve the fundamental problems whose solutions must guide man throughout his life.  This complaint is raised by the Kuzari king, who appears here as an advocate of religion.  His response returns us to the point of origin, the dream, and thus to the laconic statement, "Your intentions are acceptable; however, your actions are not."  This is the source of the conflict between the philosopher and the proponent of religion.  The king notes that although the philosopher is working towards an apparently worthy end, he lacks any standard by which to gauge the ultimate worth of man's actions.

 

     Let us demonstrate our criticism of the philosopher through an analysis of one of the central moral commandments, "Thou shalt not kill."  Despite the existence of certain exceptions, such as cases of self-defense, war, and perhaps even capital punishment, "Thou shalt not kill" is and remains an absolute prohibition.  Yet, does the philosopher's approach imply this as well?

 

     This problem is expressed in the dilemma faced by one of the classic figures of world literature, Raskolnikov, the hero of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment."  Raskolnikov ardently desired intellectual fulfillment.  Were we to translate Dostoyevsky's work into the philosopher's terms, we would say that Raskolnikov desired to merge with the "active intellect."  However, he meets with numerous obstacles on his way.  His social and economic realities seem to smother and restrain him, and his dream seems eternally out of reach.  Raskolnikov's desires are hardly akin to those of coarse, unbridled people.  He is, in fact, a model of sensitivity and refinement.  And yet, his goal continually eludes him.  He faces a difficult dilemma, the dilemma of a man who feels that he is destined for greatness but lacks the means to fulfill that destiny.  And behold, a rich old woman, whose money could aid the achievement of his lofty goals, appears in his path.  To lay hands upon this money, Raskolnikov murders the old woman.

 

     Without unraveling the sequence of Dostoyevsky's plot, let us demand an honest and courageous answer of the philosopher: Why should Raskolnikov refrain from murdering the old woman?  Would not your own court acquit Raskolnikov?  Would you not grant him permission, before the fact, to commit the murder?

 

     Jewish thought differs sharply from the attitude of the philosopher.  Judaism demands that if we choose the Jewish path, we must alter our viewpoint and analyze actions from a different perspective: we must evaluate all behavior not only from our own subjective viewpoint, but also from an objective stance.  The philosopher instructs each person to measure the worth of his actions in accordance with their effectiveness in the promotion of his goals.  The only question one needs to ask is: "Do these actions help me attain self-actualization?"  Judaism suggests that we ask another question: "Would God approve of my behavior?"

 

     God judges us according to our actions, not according to our intentions or even our achievements.  God rewards us for our efforts, not our successes.  Judaism finds Raskolnikov guilty!

 

     Judaism presents us with a dual system of ethics.  On the one hand, we face a system of goals, which includes the worthy aim of Torah scholarship.  This is the Jewish parallel to the philosopher's creed.  On the other hand, to sanction the destruction of all that lies in our path in pursuit of this goal, is, from a religious perspective, patently absurd.  Judaism is based upon a harmonious interaction between the fear of sin and the love of wisdom.  While conceding that scholarship constitutes a religious ideal, Judaism maintains that an ignorant boor who nevertheless withstands temptation to sin, or who sacrifices his life for the sake of his God, reaps the rewards of the World to Come alongside the scholar who has arrived at the pinnacle of intellectual achievement and self-actualization.  Righteous actions can have as profound an effect as the search for abstract truth.

 

Religion and Idolatry: Defining the Boundaries

 

     At this point the philosopher fights his battles not with one particular religion but rather with all religions at once.  This fact brings up a significant question: Does a "coalition" in fact exist between the various religions?

 

     I do not intend to define the attitudes of Jewish law to other religions at this point.  This is an important issue, and to do it justice would demand a much broader forum.  However, we must stress that such an automatic coalition certainly does not exist.  While we respect the religious positions and phenomena of other nations, we do not consider ourselves to be covenanted members of the same society.  Ironically, Rihal's words teach us something negative about religion in general.  We discover that religion may in fact sink to the level of idolatry, while outwardly maintaining the appearance of monotheism.

 

     What is idolatry?  The category is difficult to define and we will explore the concept in greater depth at a later stage.  At this juncture we will attempt to characterize idolatry through a single component of its many-faceted countenance.  Idolatry contains a well-hidden trap which is brought to the surface through the problem of intention versus action epitomized by the Kuzari's dream.  On the one hand, there exists within man - perhaps even in every man - an honest desire to worship God.  This positive intention is universal.  Yet on the other hand, man often actively expresses this desire through the worship of other objects.  He worships people, inanimate objects, and often pays obesiance to modes of behavior worthy of his disgust, such as drunkenness, harlotry, drug abuse and human sacrifice.  Oftentimes he worships himself, either covertly or openly.  His religious intentions are laudable, yet his actual conduct leaves much to be desired.  This behavior is, in fact, idolatry. 

 

     Now the words of the angel in the king's dream appears before us with their full intensity.  Not only are philosophical intentions alone insufficient; religious intentions, as well, may fall short of the mark.  Once a religious commitment has been made, we must still question whether a particular practice is capable of fully expressing the religious sentiment.  In other words, we must continually ask ourselves whether our actions are acceptable in God's eyes.  We cannot ignore the fact that the "Ayatollah" who sends his flock to certain death, and the cult leaders who are willing to commit murder, are motivated by "good intentions."  They are clearly convinced of the divine character of their mission.  And yet this internal conviction alone will not suffice.  True, there always have been hypocrites who abused the trust of their followers in order to conquer, plunder or otherwise gain ascendancy under a religious guise.  Yet history overflows with examples of activities and movements motivated only by the purest of intentions, which ultimately remained glaringly empty of religious worth.  Good intentions are not enough.  Intentions and actions constitute two dimensions which must come into play in any analysis of man's religious behavior.

 

This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.

 

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