Skip to main content

Judaism Confronts the "Isms"

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


            Prior to our formal introduction to the truths inherent in Judaism, Rav Yehuda Halevi takes us on a whirlwind tour through the marketplace of ideas.  Three candidates are invited to display their spiritual wares before the king of the Khazars: the philosopher, and representatives of the two major religions, Christianity and Islam.  In Rav Yehuda Halevi's time, these three ideological positions constituted the central opponents of Judaism.  Since that period, the philosophical marketplace has altered significantly.  If Rav Yehuda Halevi were to publish his book in our day, he would be obliged to swell the ranks of the ideological contenders, and to put new ideas in the mouths of those candidates that he would choose to retain in the fray.


            No matter how comprehensively this chapter is written, it is fated to change with every passing generation.  In fact, the relative importance of the participants may vary within a very brief span of time.  The recent fate of Communism is an example par excellence.


            The faces of the contenders change from generation to generation, while our mission as an eternal nation places us in continual conflict with the various "ism"s.  The prefix to the "ism" will continually change; the struggle remains.


Philosophical Climates:  Dogmatism vs. Relativism


            At the first stall in the marketplace, we are presented with a philosophical methodology based on the teachings of Aristotle, a position which was considered the last word on truth for hundreds of years.  We will discuss the philosopher's principles in depth at a later stage, and attempt to determine, as well, which of the classical philosophical theories still challenge us today.  However, there is a more fundamental issue to examine first.


            We are presented with various philosophical positions throughout the book, yet the Aristotelian concept enjoys a unique status among the others.  This position claimed to have a monopoly on the truth.  In fact, Aristotelian philosophy formed the basis of a philosophical establishment whose members firmly believed themselves the sole possessors of the key to absolute truth, to the exclusion of any other philosophical opinion.


            This historical-social reality compels us to differentiate between two cultural climates: the climate of dogmatism, which leans upon the scientific and intellectual establishment, and the climate of anarchy, or relativism, which allows a chaotic chorus of ideas to exist in concert.  Historically, there are generations of dogmatism, in which one developed and accepted school of thought rules the philosophical arena and is respected by all who consider themselves enlightened and sophisticated persons.  To doubt the accepted position in such a climate would immediately place one under tremendous pressure to comply with a philosophical consensus which claims that there exists no serious alternative to its point of view.  The dissenter in this climate is seen by others, and often by himself as well, as a betrayer of the truth.


            There are other historical periods which are characterized, instead, by a philosophical anarchy.  These are generations of ideological chaos in which a wild, uncontrolled marketplace of opinions exists.  The danger in such a period is not of dogmatism, as in the former case, but rather of relativism.  All positions hold equal weight, and as a result no one position possesses true meaning or value.  The difference between these two intellectual climates can help us explain the gulf between Rambam's work, Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed) and the Kuzari on the one hand, and Rav Sa'adia Gaon's work "Emunot Ve-de'ot" (Beliefs and Opinions) on the other.  The former pair were faced with a dogmatic philosophical approach, whereas Rav Sa'adia Gaon, who preceded them chronologically, responded to a culture in which many philosophical positions contended for the truth, creating a cacophony of ideological claims.  When one compares the Kuzari to parallel discussions in "Emunot Ve-de'ot," the striking differences between the two philosophical climates become apparent.  Rav Sa'adia Gaon introduces us to an entire gallery of characters which includes among others, the atheist, the polytheist, and the pantheist.  In contrast, Rav Yehuda Halevi presents us with a single philosopher who proposes a clear, official, socially accepted opinion with which we must contend.


            Every student approaches the Kuzari against the backdrop of his own generation and cultural climate.  We continually face new intellectual crossroads and debate the various options.  If we compare the challenges faced by Rav Yehuda Halevi to the popular philosophical approaches of our generation, we will immediately discern that our opponents have completely changed their colors over the course of time.  Rav Yehuda Halevi and Rambam were active during a period when the opinion market was virtually monopolized by one position.  Our generation is culturally closer to a free marketplace, which of necessity includes some measure of chaos.  All manner of merchandise is sold; however, forgeries and frauds are displayed as well, and we stand helpless, with no means of separating the genuine article from the sham.


            Our modern intellectual opponent is worlds apart from the Aristotelian philosopher.  Yet, despite this fact, his position is worthy of our attention.  The Kuzari's philosopher constitutes a first edition of the famous Jewish philosopher, Spinoza.  We will yet discuss the many similarities between the two.  However, even our most concentrated efforts to revive the petrified Aristotelian by blowing Spinoza's breath into his dry bones will not succeed.  Although there are those who are tempted to return Spinoza's ghost to the philosophical fray, his thought does not constitute a serious challenge in our times.  The idea of returning Spinoza to the spiritual or  the political scene is reminiscent of the behavior of terrorists who take hostages in a desperate attempt to clear their path.  Oftentimes great personalities are utilized as a focus of identification for the populace and thus unjustifiably win supporters for a particular position.


            Our central opponent is of a completely different mettle.  He is at times an atheist, often a naturalist, who refuses to accept any phenomenon which defies the laws of nature.  Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages developed a specific ideological and explanatory tactic in response to opponents that we no longer face in our generation.  If we fail to translate the principles of the Kuzari in order to apply them to our different reality, we will commit a grave error.  The central theses of the book are eternal, yet there exists the need to change their form in light of the historical and cultural situation which is in continual flux.  We must differentiate between the sections of the book which possess eternal value and those whose merit in our day is merely historical.  If we do not make this distinction, we may perhaps become significant historical researchers, but we will not do justice to Rav Yehuda Halevi, who intended his work to lead the battle to uphold the Jewish national spirit in every generation.


            Here, however, history takes us by surprise.  Recent historico-political occurrences, especially the crumbling of the Communist empire, prove beyond a doubt that Rav Yehuda Halevi's battle against his original opponents maintains powerful significance in our day as well.  The current disappointment with modern ideologies is so great that its impetus causes some sectors of humanity to lose hope utterly, while others swing from one ideology to the next or turn to superstitions and idolatry.  In any case, one thing is abundantly clear: the Kuzari's meeting with the central religions cannot yet be abandoned to gather dust in the archives of history.


Philosophical Fossils


            I would like to examine a fascinating phenomenon with you.  We have been discussing a section of the Kuzari which was written, unlike the other sections, in accordance with the scientific requirements of those times and dictated by the philosophical fashion of the period.  Here we will begin to uncover one of the paradoxes which accompany the developments of Jewish philosophy throughout the ages.  At the time the book was written, the author could feasibly have been accused of championing outdated ideas whose time has passed.  The biblical concepts in the Kuzari certainly left Rav Yehuda Halevi open to such criticism.  In contrast, he was considered modern and up-to-date when he expressed the scientific conclusions of his period.  Yet, hundreds of years later, we discover that the opposite is true.  The scientific concepts of those times are hopelessly obsolete to the extent that we find it taxing to discover the simplest explanations for them, while the "outdated" biblical ideas expressed in the Kuzari have renewed relevance today owing to their eternal quality.  Many works of Jewish philosophy exhibit a similar phenomenon.  In order to teach these works, paradoxically, we must revive dead philosophical concepts.  Since we aim to deal with the questions which are relevant to our generation, and we are not interested in history for its own sake, the "modern" sections of the works hold no meaning for us.  This paradox contains a warning to those who judge ideas according to their "modernity".  Today, philosophical fashions are much shorter-lived.  Every few years, the pillars of our intellectual world crumble and are rebuilt in new forms.  In the Middle Ages the hands of the intellectual clock moved much more slowly, and indeed, the Aristotelian formula presented here to us ruled the world for hundreds of years, seemingly etched in stone.  Great courage on the part of Rav Yehuda Halevi was necessary to stand up against the intellectual establishment and the philosophical and scientific tradition.  This, too, contains a warning and a lesson.


            How must we approach the Kuzari's philosopher?

Two alternatives lie before us:

a)  The Historical Method:

            We can attempt to understand the philosopher within the context of his own world.  For this purpose we must leave the philosophy and science of the twentieth century behind as we enter the maze of the history of ideas.  Moving eight hundred years backward in time, we can strive to comprehend a distant intellectual world.

b)  The Philosophical Interpretative Method:

            The second option is to imagine how the Aristotelian philosopher would respond to the questions which plague us today.  Instead of learning his language, we can try to apply his ideas to our conceptual world, and force him to speak in our modern tongue.


            In our analysis we will make use of both methods.  However, we will expend a minimum of our time on the historical method, and attempt above all to comprehend the philosopher's position on the issues that we deal with today.


(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!