Skip to main content

The Philosophical Triangle

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

 

In The Retail Market

     We have already taken a glimpse at the wholesale market of ideas.  Now let us move to the retail market, where one can attempt to infuse meaning into his personal life.  Among the outstanding stalls we find the representatives of the various religions and philosophies, as well as scientists of various types.  As in the wholesale market, our modern times require that we make room for a number of additional stalls.  As we wander through the marketplace, our challenge is to distinguish between true and false prophets, between scientists and charlatans.  Indeed, Rihal was well acquainted with the false sort of scientist, and despite his absence from the introduction to the Kuzari, we find ample mention of him in the rest of the book.

 

     At times, our task seems all but impossible, for we soon discover that even honest merchants often peddle worthless wares.  Before we venture further, however, I would like to mention a few introductory comments about the nature of the retail market.

 

     Man must contend with countless philosophical riddles throughout his lifetime.  These questions do not remain in the theoretical sphere; often, the solutions to life's philosophical dilemmas produce direct practical ramifications.  Our future and our fate are intricately woven into the fabric of our philosophical bent.  Oftentimes, we tend to ignore the numerous riddles of our lives.  Judaism, however, strives to uproot this tendency, by focusing our attention upon these issues, as well as presenting such partial solutions as our intellectual capacities can grasp.

 

     I propose to examine a number of central philosophical enigmas which have served as focal points throughout the history of human thought.  As a useful visual aid, we can structure these issues into a triangle.  Its three corners represent three concepts: God, Man and the World.  These are the three ideals which man strives to understand, and indeed, our ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood rests upon a clear comprehension of these concepts.

 

                          God

                         /    \

                      Man  ———  the World

 

     The first person to draw this diagram was a twentieth century philosopher named Yehuda Halevi Rosenzweig, better known by his German name, Franz.  Rosenzweig viewed Rav Yehuda Halevi as his mentor and teacher, and deeply identified with both his philosophy and his poetry.

 

     The triangular model teaches us that all philosophical approaches are actually varied attempts to solve these three basic riddles.  A central theme which has concerned the human race since time immemorial is the query "What do we know about God?"  Investigations into this question are termed theology.  Humanity similarly hungers for a deeper understanding of the world (cosmology) and of man (anthropology).

 

     The search for the keys that will unlock the mysteries of Man and the World has spawned numerous new branches of science, such as physics, which attempts to reveal the laws that govern our world, and psychology, which investigates the inner nature of man.  Both these fields are infinite in scope, and only a fraction of their potential discoveries is known.  The one spreads endlessly upwards into the infinity which lies beyond man; the other moves endlessly inwards, penetrating the darkest recesses of human nature.

 

     Until this point, we have placed these three separate concepts at the heart of our investigation.  However, we must simultaneously attempt to define the relationships between these focal points.  Rosenzweig shared the biblical assumption that such relationships do indeed exist, that an ongoing dialogue between these concepts is ever present.  Let us name the three relationships.  They are creation, revelation and redemption.

 

                          God

            REVELATION   /    \   CREATION

                      Man ——— the World

                       REDEMPTION

 

     These three concepts form the backbone of Jewish philosophy.  However, Jewish thought is not limited to the investigation of these themes.  As we shall see, the concept of freedom, for example, is also of paramount importance.  Within Rosenzweig's model, man stands alone and faces God and the world around him.  He is not simply a part of the world around him; he contains elements which are, in fact, foreign to his natural habitat.  Nor is he completely chained by the Divine decree.

 

     Occasionally a philosopher will attempt to destroy this triangle, to nullify the significance of one of the central concepts.  The most striking example of such an attempt is the development of atheism.  In contrast, Jewish philosophy insists upon both the existence of the three central facets of existence, and the presence of a dialogue between them.  If we now combine our two triangles, God, Man and the World, with creation, revelation and redemption, we will form the classic Jewish symbol, the Magen David (Jewish star):

 

                God

                /\

 Revelation ___/__\__   Creation

            \ /    \/

    Man     /_\ __ /_\  the World

               \  /

                \/

           Redemption

 

 

     We have no historical explanation to offer for this wondrous symbol.  Rosenzweig granted the Magen David a philosophical dimension, and his powerful interpretation continues to enrich our understanding with each successive analysis.  First, it constitutes the basic dictionary of Jewish thought, and succinctly mentions the concepts to be addressed in any Jewish philosophical forum.  In addition, it successfully presents a complete picture of the issues, which greatly aids any discussion of their potential solutions.

 

     At this juncture I propose to explore briefly the significance of the three central relationships in greater depth.

 

CREATION:  We proclaim that the existence of the world is not a chance occurrence; divine fingerprints cover every inch of the earth.

REVELATION:  We believe that man is not alone, that God maintains an interest in our lives.  This relationship manifests itself through Torah and prophecy.  Directly implied by this interaction is the existence of an absolute moral standard which defines Good and Evil.

REDEMPTION:  Humanity progresses through history towards a preordained future.  The world was created in an imperfect state, and is ever in the process of development.  Man is a significant partner in this task, for through revelation he can and must strive to redeem the world.

 

     Let us now reconstruct our triangle using new terminology.  The three central terms which form the basis for our dictionary of Jewish thought are faith, commandments and hope.

            Commandment         Faith

                      —- —— ——

                      \      /

                       \    /

                        \  /

                        Hope

 

     This new triangle reflects the three dimensions of Man.  Man is composed of a dimension of consciousness, which Judaism calls upon for faith; a practical dimension, through which he endeavors to change the world, which Judaism calls upon for fulfillment of commandments.  And finally, an emotional dimension, which Judaism calls upon for hope.

 

     A brief note regarding the distinction between faith and hope:  As various philosophers have informed us, "faith THAT" exists alongside "faith IN".  The latter indicates the level of bitachon (trust).  The statement, "I believe in the coming of the Messiah," is not simply a proclamation of knowledge.  First and foremost, it is  a feeling, an emotional certainty.  This is hope.

 

     Now let us return to the original relationships of creation, revelation and redemption.  We will discuss each concept in light of its central opponents.

 

Creation

     The concept of creation teaches us that the world was deliberately created of God's free will.  This belief places us in conflict with the Kuzari's philosopher, who maintains that the world is a necessary outgrowth of God's being.  However, in our times, the idea of creation mainly stands in conflict with those approaches which attempt to erase God's name from human consciousness.  In the modern world, belief in creation means confrontation with Darwinism.

 

     This confrontation takes place beyond the scope of science.  To explain this idea further, I ask you to accompany me on a brief journey into the sphere of science fiction.  Imagine that a creature from another planet, possessing far more advanced knowledge than ours, lands on earth.  He carries the three central symbols of science: an encyclopedia, a master computer and an array of sophisticated scientific instruments.  Our visitor arrives in Jerusalem on the eve of Remembrance Day (for fallen soldiers), and sets up his equipment on Mount Scopus.  At eleven o'clock, the siren sounds.  The stranger notes that the people are stopping their cars simultaneously, as though they are part of a well-rehearsed symphony.  In confusion, he consults his computer.  The computer responds, "The car stopped because the driver stepped on the brakes and then interrupted the electrical circuit."  This response is based upon computations of energy conversions.  The energy which originated in the driver's body was transformed successively from chemical, to electrical, and finally to mechanical energy.  If our visitor insists upon knowing why this transpired, his faithful computer will provide him with the history of energy conversion from the creation of the world to the present day.  In a sense, the computer's response is correct.  But it fails to give us the reason for the stopping of the car.  For this, physical equations will not suffice.  To understand why, we must enter into the secrets of human behavior, into the world of language and symbols, in which the computer and its values have no part.

 

     Now let us unravel the parable.  There are two distinct ways of viewing the world.  The sciences investigate scientific equations; we are interested in a perception beyond the physical.  Even if we were to assume that science could explain how life first appeared on the planet, and even if it could create new life from organic material, it cannot answer the decisive questions.  It cannot tell us if any occurrence is coincidental or the action of a guiding hand.  Most important, it cannot answer the question, "Why?"

 

Revelation

     Judaism must often confront philosophies which see no significance in the concept of revelation.  Leon Trotsky, one of the heroes of the Russian Revolution and himself a Jew, published a book in which he defended his vicious behavior towards the enemies of Bolshevism.  When asked how he could act in this way, he responded that such questions may only be directed towards those who believe in biblical divinity, and hence in God-defined concepts of good and evil.  For those who lack this belief, good and evil are relative terms.  To Trotsky, all behavior which championed the revolutionary cause was good.  All other behavior was evil.  The distinction between absolute good and evil dissolved in the absence of a clear belief in God's relationship with man.

 

     Parenthetically, I would like to mention a biographical note regarding Trotsky, which was pointed out by the Chafetz Chaim.  Trotsky's mother wished to enroll her son in cheder (Hebrew school), but he was rejected on the grounds that his parents could not afford the school fees.  The Chafetz Chaim claimed that all the troubles which later befell the Jewish people at the hands of the Communists were brought on by the injustice of turning a child away from cheder simply because his parents were poor.

 

Redemption

     Our central opponent with regard to the concept of redemption was, until recently, Marxism.  Marxism created an attractive alternative to the biblical concept of redemption.  Upon a virulent materialism which negated any form of spiritual meaning, Marxism built the claim that man is destined to achieve utopia while still on earth.

 

     Darwinism, unlike other forms of evolutionary theory which are based, in the words of Rabbi Nachman Krokhmal, on the same principle as the Jewish blessing "Blessed be He who makes the creatures different," insists that everything developed randomly.  Thus, the appearance of man is meaningless.  It is therefore odd that Marxism and Darwinism joined forces.  What is bizarrely proposed by these ideologies, when united, is that man and the world came into being by chance, but the ultimate end of history, the redemption, is preordained and the result of fixed laws.

 

     In addition to the perverted forms of redemption, further opponents of the Jewish concept include those who have despaired of any redemption of our world.  Their approach demands existence in the "here and now," which has greatly influenced modern literature and theater.

 

     Our three weapons in the modern arena remain faith, commandment and hope, while our opponents continually change their forms.  In our day, the belief in science is rampant.  However, beyond the facts of life lie the values.  Our commandments, supplemented by our faith, command and inspire us to distinguish between good and evil, while our hope for redemption burns bright.

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!