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Torah and Philosophy (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


     We will now examine the central points of conflict between the philosopher and the man of religion, touching upon the three major themes which we have previously discussed.  We will delve into the Jewish position on these issues at a later stage.  At this juncture we will attempt a brief sketch of the fundamental issues which separate the philosopher and the Jew.




     As we have alluded to earlier, the philosopher opposes a scriptural understanding of creation.  The concept of creation contains numerous elements.  At present, let us analyze the conflict between religion and philosophy from a single perspective: that of creation and will.  To clarify this matter, we will contrast three options which lie before man as he grapples with the riddle of the world's origin.


A.  Epicureanism and the concept of chance: The first approach views the world as something which exists purely by chance.  This was the opinion of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, whose name has since become synonymous with the denial of religion.  This approach has undergone various reformulations with each passing generation, including our own.  Epicurus did not deny the existence of the gods.  Yet his belief in them was rendered virtually meaningless by his confidence in their absolute detachment from our world.  Unlike Aristotle, Epicurus denied even the power of the gods over nature.  In his view, the laws of nature are governed strictly by chance.  Epicurean tendencies are discernible in those philosophical approaches, particularly in our modern times, which deny the existence of God altogether.  In Jewish tradition, the term "epicureanism" (apikorsut) evolved into an expression for any deviation from the principles of Judaism.  However, Jewish philosophy uses this term to describe the complete dependence upon chance as the final cause of existence.


B.  Aristotelianism and the theory of necessity: At the opposite end of the spectrum we find Aristotle's approach, which was adopted by many medieval philosophers as well.  Their attitude was expressed through the theory of "emanation."  They viewed the world and all its components as stemming necessarily from God.  This system may be compared to a mathematical theorem in which each statement stems from the original axiom.  Thus, the necessity of God's existence implies the requisite existence of the world.


C.  Judaism and God's Will: Between these two positions of chance and necessity stands the biblical interpretation of creation.  According to the scriptural position, the world's existence is not a chance occurrence, nor is it a logical necessity.  When one pays attention to the functioning of our world, an intricate system of law and order becomes manifest and serves as evidence of the existence of a Creator.  This is a fact which must be reckoned with.  We refuse to accept the statement that all of creation is simply a chance occurrence.  In our view, the world's existence stems directly from God's absolute freedom and lack of external constraints.  We use the term "will" to describe this state of reality.


     In contradistinction to the positions of both chance and necessity, we perceive creation as the act of God's free will.  The world, then, is not a logical necessity: its existence is not essential but possible, the result of God's desire and command.


     In describing the world as a logical necessity, we have used a mathematical model, but additional models abound, such as man's shadow, or the heat and light bestowed by the sun.  During the Middle Ages a unique philosophical term was used to explain this relationship: emanation.  Necessarily, the world emanates, or stems from God.  The concept of emanation has parallels in Jewish religious thought.  The Kabbala, for example, uses the term; however, the kabbalistic meaning differs from the medieval concept.


     Our belief in the biblical concept of creation compels us to wage battle on two fronts simultaneously.  Although the opposing positions are opponents themselves, necessity being the opposite of chance, they join forces to combat our position.  We can present these two opinions with the help of two models.  Let us look, for example, at the formation created by a handful of windblown specks of dust.  Although the structure may appear meaningful, we know that it was formed by chance.  In contrast, if we observe the formation made by scraps of metal through their exposure to a powerful magnet, it becomes clear that this structure was formed according to the scientific laws of magnetism.  Thus we see two examples of formations, one of which implies chance, while the other denotes necessity.


     Now let us examine a third example: man.  How must we perceive the complex function of the human body?  Many variations, both sophisticated and simplistic, exist on these two themes.  Epicurus and his successors viewed the world and man as dust in the wind, a completely chance formation.  The Aristotelians and their followers saw the same formations as "emanations" from a magnetic field.


     Medieval Jewish philosophers upheld a different approach.  They preferred to compare the world to the third model: will.  They believed that the world is arranged according to a necessary system of laws, yet the very creation and existence of the world are dependent upon the will of the Creator.


     Despite the vast gulf between them, the first two positions both leave man in an existential void.  Whether we owe our existence to chance or to necessity, our lives are equally meaningless.  Within these systems, we are no more than a tiny bolt lost in the vast machinery.  We are but a shadow, irrelevant even to He who casts it.  In both these philosophical systems, man's existence is incidental.  Man is thrown into a world which, for him, is entirely devoid of meaning.  Creation teaches us that both man and the world he lives in possess significance.




     The second focus of conflict is revelation.  Does a dialogue between man and his Creator exist?


     The fact that the Kuzari king rejects the philosopher's position has its roots in his personal history.  He cannot accept this blasphemous opinion since his spiritual quest began with a form of prophecy: a dream.  The philosopher's position is easily discounted by the Kuzari's dream.  The dream convinces the king of God's abiding interest in his creations, as well as of the significance inherent in God's commandments.  In other words, not all actions are equal before God.


     However, the dream cannot explain everything.  The real battlefield does not lie in a chance biographical occurrence.  Rihal, therefore, transforms the discussion into a more general one.  And indeed, the philosopher's final statement does refer to prophecy in general:


"And then it is possible that the spiritual Being will prophesy to you and impart mysteries through true dreams and accurate imaginings."


     The philosophers and the prophets continually contend with each other.  The philosopher may choose, quite simply, to deny the possibility of prophecy, as indeed many have done.  This is the Naturalist position, which denies the existence of the metaphysical.  Our philosopher is faced with two options, and he must make his choice:


a) He can remain in a completely natural world.  Any phenomenon which hints at metaphysical realities is a mistake, an illusion, a symptom of disease or an imitation.


b) He may accept the possibility of a metaphysical reality; however, he will explain it in accordance with his theories, and claim that a prophetic state can in fact only be achieved through his own philosophical approach.


     These are the two tactics that philosophers have traditionally used.  Many philosophers, particularly "enlightened" ones, wished to deny any metaphysical religious experience.  However, serious philosophers could not avoid the fact that many levels of experience exist, including metaphysical ones.  They therefore felt the need to explain these phenomena in various ways.  The first "enlightened" philosophers, 300 years ago, claimed that Yeshayahu the prophet was deceiving the people.  Modern day "enlightened" philosophers attempt to explain his prophecies in other ways.  He did not consciously deceive himself, they claim; however, psychological or sociological forces compelled him to operate under a delusion.  Both of these represent the first option outlined above.


     The Kuzari's philosopher chooses to respond in the latter manner.  He attempts to be a pseudo-religious philosopher, continually striving to incorporate the religious elements of the human experience into his philosophy and to explain them in accordance with his views.


     However, this explanation, too, does not do justice to the religious experience.  Every religious experience is based on the human conviction of having encountered something, or rather someone, beyond the natural boundaries of existence.  The philosopher may endeavor to explain such experiences with irreligious solutions; however, we remain faced with a universal reality which demands a deeper explanation.  The pinnacle of this phenomenon is the prophetic experience.  And it is here that the Kuzari feels justified in discounting the philosopher's opinion.  The philosopher may take pride in many accomplishments, but he has not attained prophetic vision.


     The discussion of prophecy will occupy us later.  At this point we will only mention that it is essential to differentiate between two types of prophetic phenomena:


a) Prophecy which brings us the word of God, the commandment, the rule that obligates us.  This is normative, legislative prophecy.


b) Prophecy which breaks the barriers of time, and brings us information about the future.  This is an informative type of prophecy, which contains an additional element - the possibility of miracles, of surpassing the natural laws which govern our world.  This experience may be termed "miraculous prophecy."


     An important element in Rihal's philosophy is revealed through this debate.  The discussion of prophecy touches upon one of the central themes of the conflict.  Rihal maintains that the test of truth exists beyond the horizon of our lives.  This world is comparable to an exam whose results will only be known in the next world.  However, this is a unique type of exam.  It is an open-book exam.  We may use any source we wish, we may discuss, argue, we are even allowed to copy.  Although we copy, we will still receive a just grade, because the real challenge lies in choosing the correct model to emulate.  In this exam, we express our various opinions regarding all the essential existential issues.  And yet, is it possible to know anything about the real answers here and now?


     Many people demand that I adhere to their system of laws and attempt to present me with a philosophy which teaches me what I must do and where my responsibilities lie.  The philosopher does the same.  I remain confused; I cannot differentiate between true and false prophets.  Rihal maneuvers between the different approaches.  In the discussion of normative prophecy, informative prophecy comes to our aid.  The experiment which most effectively allows us to uncover the true prophet is connected to a vision of the future and the ability to surpass the laws of nature.  These are the undeniable modes of divine inspiration.


     However, those are not the only indications of truth.  Wise men do not depend on miracles.  In this issue Judaism takes one step further, toward an Existentialist view.  We will not deal with this sphere at present.


This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.


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