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Torah and Philosophy (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

The Focus of the Conflict


    After having discussed creation and prophecy last week, let us now examine the third area of conflict between philosophy and religion.


Redemption: Man's Ultimate Destiny


     Whenever we examine a philosophical position, we must not content ourselves with only an analysis of its world view; we must first and foremost examine the understanding of man which each position entails.  And indeed, the philosopher leads us into a discussion of this issue.  What is man's goal and purpose?  Toward what ends should man strive?  All answers to this question are based upon what may be termed "philosophical anthropology": the perception of man's inner character.

     This topic is intrinsically bound up with a more general issue: What is man?  What is his destiny?  The analysis of this issue is necessarily connected to our belief in the world to come, since man's destiny is defined through all the various dimensions of his existence, both in this world and the next.  Man does not conclude his role and his life in this world.  Death does not snuff out our existence.

     We will, with God's help, return to this issue at a later stage, though the philosopher addresses the point at the very outset of his presentation.  In this speech, Rihal succeeds in defining yet another area which stands at the center of the conflict between the Jewish faith and the philosopher's creed.  The philosopher presents a position which can be termed aristocratic.  To conceptualize the philosopher's view, let us imagine an expensive electronic instrument, encased in a box and surrounded by a protective cardboard filling.  To the philosopher, the expensive instrument represents an elite group of thinkers.  They are the best of the human race, the pinnacle of creation, and they alone can hope to attain their full intellectual potential.  The rest of humanity simply fulfills the function of the cardboard cushion, existing solely in order to protect the elite group from harm.

     According to this position - one of the medieval forms of Aristotelian philosophy - man is not divided into flesh and spirit, as we find in the Bible, or into body and soul as the terminology that we commonly use puts it, but rather into body and soul on the one hand versus intellect on the other.  Man's physical being includes both the biological functions, such as digestion and breathing, and the psychological functions, such as emotions and imagination.  All these elements are considered part of the physical side of man which he shares with the animals.  Both man and animal, given their physical essence, are mortal beings.  The function unique to man is his intellect, the only element of his make-up which breaks through the barriers of the physical world.  And every person, or almost every person, possesses the potential to develop his intellect to its fullest.

     This latent intellectual power is termed the "material intellect" or the "potential intellect."  When man studies and attains scientific and philosophical development, his potential intellect is actualized, and he thus becomes worthy of immortality.  Philosophy did indeed speak of the immortality of the soul; however, it did not speak of the immortality of the individual soul.  To the philosopher's credit, we must note that this cognitive theory was often linked to an emotional element as well.

     We do not do justice to the philosopher's position if we ignore the theory upon which it is based, the theory of the "active intellect," which attempts to explain the process of knowledge acquisition.  The theory of active intellect developed during the Middle Ages, based upon Aristotelian philosophy.  Later, this theory was abandoned and left to gather dust in the archives of ancient philosophy, albeit some remnants of it can still be discovered among modern thinkers.  Thus, for example, William James spoke of a collective "attic" of human memory and Jung developed the concept of a collective subconscious which affects all of humanity.

     We have accused the philosopher of aristocracy, and indeed, he can easily be proven guilty of this offense.  His philosophical approach saw man's humanity, and thus his destiny, in the search for truth, particularly the truths of science and metaphysics.  This, he believed, was the highest ideal, the ultimate goal.

     Thus, all other human functions, such as emotion or morality, became secondary.  At the very most, they serve only to pave the way for the intellectual advancement of the elite group.  Human society exists solely for the purpose of creating and maintaining the ivory towers which house the philosophers.  Their satisfaction is gleaned from joining the society of Hermes, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  The philosopher's ultimate ambition is to gain admission to this exclusive club.  Attaining such a membership is loosely termed "God's will."

     The philosopher sees man's cognitive achievements as central, and therefore a man who has taken an intellectual wrong turn has forfeited his life.  By this token, it is possible to cynically remark that the philosophers have managed to disqualify themselves!  The philosopher categorically rejects any person who is unfamiliar with the tenets which form the basis of his knowledge, such as the astronomical and cosmological theories of Aristotelian science.  However, today, after Copernicus, it has become abundantly clear that these theories are completely false and would not pass scientific inspection at even a high school level.  Undoubtedly it is not his fault; nonetheless, the philosopher was mistaken.  This error teaches us that we must search for man's worth not necessarily in the context of his knowledge of scientific facts, but rather in other, more basic areas which are human and eternal and are not dependent upon his state during a particular period.  In other words, faith cannot be seen as knowledge of entries in an encyclopaedia, or as a sum of cosmological and psychological information. 

     The philosopher claims that man need not concern himself with the form of his worship of God, nor with the content of his actions in general.  However, this is not because God is merciful, but because the practical side of life is completely irrelevant to Him in the scheme of things.  What is important is man's intellectual ability to understand the truth.  It is essential that law exist - i.e., religion in the broadest sense of the word.  What law?  It makes no difference.  Man can choose from any of the systems devised by the wise, and then he must be given the freedom to involve himself in philosophy, while his basic needs are fulfilled and while being protected from external dangers by the surrounding society.


Faust and the Philosopher


     Rav Yehuda Halevi contends with the philosopher at his best: the man who searches for a moral path of his own and finds happiness in his "membership" in a small intellectual elite.  This is his only goal.  Rihal accents what can be termed "the democratic problem."  The philosopher's answer is not an appropriate answer for all of mankind, nor is it sufficient for all aspects of any individual.  Can the philosopher make good his promise, and grant man eternal joy?  And assuming this ability, can his philosophical ideals help build a viable society?  The philosopher speaks not of a Godly religion but of a humanistic religion, constructed solely upon the basis of human consensus.

     The humanist who denies the divinity of the Torah is the philosopher's successor; however, an additional successor appeared on the scene as well, one who believed that anything and everything is allowed.  His ideal lies not in the development of humanity but rather in the here and now.  His terms are different.  "Build yourself a religion," he suggests, implying that no binding code of ethics exists.  No prophet can assist in your quest, nor is there a Father in heaven who can direct you.  You remain forever alone, and all paths that you choose are equally valid.  We will discuss this topic further at a later stage.

     "Faust," Goethe's masterpiece, describes the spiritual fate of the philosopher. Faust is a man who saw his life's work in the search for the truth, from logic and mathematics, to the secrets of astronomy.  However, when Faust reaches the pinnacle of his career and looks back at his biography, he reaches a breaking point.  This is the philosopher's crisis.  He discovers that despite the fact that science provides for a number of man's basic drives - intellectual curiosity, wonder at the world, the attempt to solve its riddles, and the discovery of the keys to technology - it cannot infuse his life with meaning.  Faust finds no alternative, and wishes in desperation to take his own life.  At this point Satan appears and offers Faust a deal: the fulfillment of all his desires in return for the possession of his immortal soul.  Faust agrees.

     The covenant with the devil is the danger facing humanity in modern times.  Its most tragic and extreme expression was found in Nazism.

     The basic assumption of this philosophical system was that when man reaches his intellectual summit, he will achieve happiness as well.  The philosopher viewed happiness as a function of attaining intellectual truth.  Among the many principles that find their expression in "Faust," special emphasis must be placed upon the recognition that man cannot achieve fulfillment through scientific knowledge.  However, Faust's chosen option was destructive. Replacing his failed attempts to reach satisfaction through the intellect, Faust joined forces with the devil.


Faust's Jewish Successor


     We can suggest a number of modern thinkers as possible successors of the medieval philosopher.  At his most developed, the "philosopher" wishes to achieve spiritual perfection, and sees the fulfillment of his role in the development of all his latent spiritual potential.  His ideal is the construction of an intellectual elite whose members adhere to a humanistic code of ethics.

     As we have seen, the philosopher makes use of familiar religious terms.  Yet, on the other hand, he speaks the conceptual language of the Middle Ages, which sounds distant and obscure to modern ears.  Thus, for example, the philosopher speaks of "the active intellect," a medieval concept which we will not expand upon here.  However, modern versions of the philosopher continually appear upon the intellectual scene.  The best known modern form of this medieval philosophy is found, with certain changes, in Spinoza's work.  The difference between our philosopher and Spinoza is comparable to the difference between Aristotle and Newton.  Physical and astronomical principles have changed, and as a result, the whole picture of the world has altered as well.  In general terms, however, the conflict between the Jew and the philosopher in the Kuzari can be translated into the conflict between the modern believer and Spinoza.

     Let us look back and trace the development of this philosophy.  It was nourished not only by Greek sources: Jewish sources contributed to its development as well, and that is the reason that Spinoza took religious terminology and clothed it in a new philosophical mantle.  We must be aware of the fact that we frequently meet such philosophers, whose language is almost religious, or pseudo-religious, yet at its core is fundamentally different from our religion.  This ambiguity is the source of mistakes and problems in understanding Spinoza's approach.  In any case, the problems which we have brought to light still exist: Both in Spinoza's philosophy and that of the medieval philosopher, man is alone, God is too great to possess an interest in him, and therefore no meaningful dialogue or relationship between Man and his Creator can exist.


This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.

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