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Judaism: Wellspring of Religions

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 

     As we have seen, Rihal made use of the dream sequence found in R. Hasdai ibn Shaprut's epistle; however, he altered and weakened it somewhat by removing the recognition of the truth of Judaism from within the dream itself.  For Rihal, the dream simply provides the impetus for the philosophical quest.  The fateful decision is reached at a later stage, following considerable debate and discussion.  The Kuzari does not join the ranks of the Jews through ignorance of other options; rather, he embraces Judaism after an analysis and subsequent rejection of those options.

 

     At this point, a great paradox becomes apparent.  Judaism is perceived as a provincial, tribal religion, puny and insignificant.  The natural tendency is to turn initially to the representatives of the "great religions."  In addition, Judaism is seen through the eyes of an entrenched and socially sanctioned prejudice.  And yet, it is from within this dismal picture that the sovereignty of Judaism becomes manifest.  Through the addresses of the Gentile representatives, the Kuzari discovers Judaism at the root of all religions.  Any religion which speaks of a relationship between man and his Maker, champions the doctrine of creation, and claims that life is imbued with meaning, locates its source in Judaism.  This category often includes religions which adamantly oppose all things Jewish and actively wage war against the Jews. Their animosity notwithstanding, they draw their essence from Jewish roots.  The attitudes of Islam and Christianity towards Judaism were long characterized by violent conflict and persecution.  These reactions are typical of children rebelling against their parents.  And despite their hostility, at times even while in the grips of this oedipal struggle, they are forced, to some extent, to acknowledge their Jewish parentage.

 

     "The Kuzari" opens two avenues before us.  Our first option is philosophical, a path based solely upon human intellect and man's search for the Divine.  The alternate course begins with prophecy, or God's approach towards man.  With this, a classic system of ideas was born: creation, knowledge of God, revelation, redemption.  These ideas, universally accepted today in various cultures and tongues, were born of the Israelite revolution.  Every person whose consciousness contains these elements, be it in complete or partial form, draws on the sources of Judaism, either consciously or unconsciously.  Every position which is based upon the relationship between God and man - this being what Rihal terms "the Divine essence" - returns us in some form to the sources of Judaism and to the historic encounter between God and the Jewish people.

 

     We have attempted to sharpen Rihal's claim and to prove that even the words of the philosopher could not have evolved into the form they take in "The Kuzari" without Jewish influence.  This merger between Jewish ideas and the philosopher's position was formulated long before the advent of Christianity and Islam.

 

The Christian Position

 

     To understand the gateway to Judaism that swung open before the Kuzari king, we must first analyze the opinions of the Christian scholar.  However, we will take the liberty of altering his words slightly; we will explain this change at a later stage.  Let us now read the "corrected" version of the Christian position.

 

"Then he called one of the Christian wise men and asked about his doctrine and his actions, and the scholar replied:

 

     'The falseness of other religions: They do not have witnesses, whereas [the Jews] have witnesses.  God calls out against the other religions and demands of them to show their proofs.  (Isaiah 43:9; 44:8)

 

     'The history of China: I only believe those histories whose witnesses are willing to be killed.  (Who is more reliable in our eyes, Moses or China?)

 

     'Mohammed has no authority.  It would be necessary, therefore, that his claims be weighty indeed, since their validity stems solely from their own strength.  Well, and what does he say?  That we must believe in him.

 

     'Who gives witness for Mohammed?  He himself ... the essence of a witness is that he be present at all times and in all places; and he is forsaken and alone ...

 

     'I do not expect Mohammed's case to be closed simply based upon his vague utterances, which could be interpreted in mystical and secret ways, but rather upon the basis of those clear statements which he has made, such as his concept of heaven.  It is in these areas that his absurdity is apparent.  And therefore, we must not interpret his unclear messages as mystical secrets, since those opinions which he states clearly are obviously ridiculous.

 

     'This is not the case with the Holy Scriptures.  I agree that they contain some vague and unclear passages which equal some of Mohammed's cryptic statements in their obscurity.  However, they contain beautifully clear passages, and prophecies which have materialized, as well.  Any person can be a Mohammed, since he performed no miracles and no prophecy heralded his appearance.

 

     'The idolatrous religions have no basis ... the bases of the Muslim religion are the Koran and Mohammed, but this prophet who is destined to be the world's salvation, have any prophesied his coming?  What proof has he which could not be adopted by anyone who chose to become a self-ordained prophet?  What miracles has he performed, according to his own claim?  What secrets has he disclosed, according to the tradition held by his followers?  What morality, and what lofty felicity?

 

     'The Jewish religion must be viewed differently, through the tradition of the Holy Scriptures and the tradition of the Jewish people ... [which are] a wondrous basis for this religion ... this is the most ancient and reliable book in the world.

 

     'It is an indisputable fact, that while all the philosophers are divided into various sects, in a hidden corner of the globe there are people, children of the oldest race, who claim that all others are mistaken, and that God has revealed His truth to them alone, a nation which will exist forever on this earth.  And indeed, all other sects have disappeared, while this nation continues to exist without a break for the last four thousand years ... they state that it is their tradition that man has degenerated and exchanged his closeness with God for a complete separation, but that God has promised to redeem him ...

 

     'Thus I see a wealth of religions in many places and in all times; however, they possess no moral code which can charm me, and no proofs which may convince me.  I therefore equally reject both the religion of Mohammed and of China, as well as the religions of ancient Rome and of Egypt, for the single reason that since none of them is more convincing than the others, and none hold absolute proofs for their superiority, the intellect cannot tend towards one over the others.

 

     'Yet while I gaze at this ever-changing, unstable and strange panorama of ethics and faiths over the various periods of time, I find, in a hidden corner of the world, a unique nation, separate from all the other nations of the world, the oldest of them all, a nation whose history precedes that of the most ancient of the other nations by many hundreds of years.

 

     'This great nation appears before me.  Its origin lies in one man, who worshipped one God, and it functions according to a constitution which this man claims to have received from his God.  The members of this nation claim that they are the sole recipients of God's secrets; that all men are depraved, and God withheld his grace from them; that they are all enslaved to their physical passions and their heart's desires; and that here lies the source of all those strange perversions and all those incessant changes which forever take place both in religions and in customs, while the members of this nation do not budge an inch from their lifestyle; however, God will not abandon the other nations in darkness forever and a redeemer will come for all of them.

 

     'The fact of this nation's existence amazes me, and it seems to me worthy of consideration.  I have examined this constitution which they claim to have received from God and it is to my mind a wondrous constitution.  It is the first constitution, to the extent that even before the word "constitution" was known to the Greeks, almost a thousand years had passed since this nation received their constitution, which they incessantly kept ...

 

     'The Jewish religion first attracts my attention because of the many wondrous and unique elements which it contains.

 

     'First of all, it is a nation composed entirely of brothers ... they create a great state from one family ... it is unique also in its constant duration ... the constitution which governs them is both the most ancient and the most sophisticated, and the only one ever to be kept with such constancy ... yet this constitution is the most severe and rigorous of constitutions, in all things touching upon their religious ceremony; so that this nation will not forget their obligations ... it is therefore wondrous and amazing that it was kept so regularly for so many years, by a nation so impatient as that one, while all other nations regularly change their laws, although theirs are infinitely easier to keep [than the Jewish law].

 

     'When the creation of the world was fast becoming a fading memory, God sent a single historian and made an entire nation responsible for the preservation of this book, so that the most reliable history book be preserved, and in order that people may learn from it the thing which is so elemental and which cannot be gleaned from any other source.'"

 

     Those words, which are clearly reminiscent of the opinion of the Christian representative in the book of the Kuzari, are authentic quotes from one of the leading Christian thinkers of the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).  As the reader will note, some interesting differences exist between the words of the Kuzari's Christian and the words of Pascal (such as China instead of India); however, the overall content is strikingly similar.

 

     Pascal's work mirrors Rihal in many ways.  It is particularly interesting to note the parallels between the two regarding the differences between the God of the philosophers and the God of the adherents of religion.  The God of the philosophers serves as the anchor upon which all the eternal truths are based; however, these produce but a barren and useless knowledge, in Pascal's view.  Not so the faith in the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

 

     To be sure, Pascal felt certain that Christianity alone understood Scripture correctly.  He considered the God of the Jews to be the God of providence, and the God of the Christians to be the God of love and mercy.  Despite this love and mercy, we still find the dark side of Christian instruction in Pascal.  As we will see later, Pascal attempts to prove that Jesus is the Messiah through the suffering of the Jews.  Here we are interested only in one of the elements of his presentation, his sense of the Jewish roots which nourish his position.  This is an honest and upright admission and as such is worthy of our respect.

 

     Were the world unaware of the vast time gap between the two, we would certainly be witness to various attempts to prove Rihal's influence upon Pascal.  The parallels are so striking that one could well imagine the existence of a literary debt owed by Pascal.  In fact, Prof. Shlomo Pines has suggested that the parallels found in the passage from Hamlet quoted earlier are equally surprising and perhaps hint at a literary connection between the two works.  This theory runs into an obstacle in the fact that the Kuzari was only translated into Latin at a much later stage.  Despite this, it is possible that some sort of oral tradition existed that was transmitted through forcibly converted Jews.  It seems to me that these parallels are examples of an influence which is not literary but rather a reflection of the sparks of Rihal's soul hovering over philosophical development.  This idea may perhaps be somewhat too mystical, but then again - why not?

 

Jewish Roots: Who bears them witness?

 

     Two types of evidence point to Judaism's unique status in the world.  The book of the Kuzari brings positive testimony in the form of independent discourse on the part of members of the various religions.  On the other hand, we can easily locate evidence for the source of Judaism's position within the antagonism of her enemies.  Thus the modern Haman, chief persecutor of the Jews, termed the conscience a "Jewish invention."  Human morality in general cannot be understood without the Scriptures.  Nazism pointed its finger at the Jewish source of morality, as part of its attempt to transform ethical behavior and values in both the private and the public spheres.

 

     Other positions fall into this category as well.  The admission of Judaism's contribution to religion and morality was often reluctantly made.  Various groups which identified with Nazism but stopped short of its declared goals, chose an alternate route and attempted to erase the signs of their Jewish origins.  This was the method favored by antisemitic Christians who collaborated with the Nazis.  Clergy of this sort attempted to construct a Christianity devoid of its Jewish roots.  This task was, of course, impossible; however, those who sought an "Aryan" as opposed to a "Semitic" Christianity did not shy away from the alteration of history.  This path was chosen as well by those who assumed a mantle of "objective science," such as some central elements in biblical criticism.  In fact, part of the activity of biblical criticism - particularly in Germany, where it was influenced somewhat by modern antisemitism - was directed towards discovering the non-Jewish foundations of humanity and the Christian tradition.

 

     It is abundantly clear that everything that exists in our world today is permeated with Judaism.  Were we to wish for a truly non-Jewish philosophical alternative, we would be forced to resurrect idolatry.  This is not surprising, since Nazism set out to do precisely that.  Without a doubt, the world of idolatry is responsible for some wonderful creations, among which the Greek intellectual works stand out.  Athens remains the symbol of the creative human intellect.  However, Greek philosophy also represented an attempt to abandon the world of mythology and idolatry, which is why a "meeting of the minds" between it and Judaism was conceivable.

 

     Another non-Jewish alternative exists in the Far East, in Hinduism and Buddhism, for example.  This is a world which developed separately and parallel to our own.  The conflict between East and West rages until our very day and we will yet discuss this matter.  However, modern Western civilization, which includes the various branches of Islam and Christianity in addition to all the modern ideologies, is indisputably the fruit of the Jewish seed planted in its soil.

 

(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

 

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