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Philosophy of Religion

Jewish Philosophers on Reason and Revelation

Aharon Shear-Yashuv
Bar-Ilan University

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ABSTRACT: Are reason and revelation different sources of truth? Do they contradict or complement each other? The present article tries to give an answer to these ancient questions from a Jewish pluralistic point of view. I describe the essential views of the most important representatives of the two main schools of Jewish thought: the rationalists Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, and Hermann Cohen, and the antirationalists Judah Halevi and Solomon Levi Steinheim. I show that even the antirationalists use the tools of rationalism, by which Talmudic-rabbinic thought is characterized, in an attempt to show that they are not irrationalists. The comparison of this attitude with the general philosophic tradition shows that Aristotle’s notion of potential knowledge is closer to Jewish thought than Plato’s view of recollection.

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Throughout the history of philosophy and theology the question of the relation between reason and revelation as the two ways of leading to the recognition of truth has always been discussed. Is human reason capable of recognizing and understanding the phenomena of the physical world? Can it make any statements about the metaphysical realm (provided that it exists at all)? Or may be man has to depend on religious truth, as in Christianity e.g., which claims to be based on the concept of incarnation as truth? What is the relation between reason and belief, between philosophy and theology? Does one exclude the other, or do both have a function with a common concern? If so, perhaps one way is only of an instrumental character while the other is actually expressing the aim itself? Many answers have been given during the long history of philosophical and theological endeavour. According to Anselm of Canterbury, both ways are important, but religion or belief is dominant. Hegel, though agreeing with the necessity of both approaches, emphasizes the decisive role of philosophy, because according to him the absolute spirit reaches it's highest level only in the pure form of thought, while religion is the presentation of spirit as mere feeling. As opposed to these two thinkers, who hold that religion and philosophy are two independently legitimate ways of recognizing truth, there are other philosophers (such as Thomas Aquinas), who are of the opinion that philosophy can only prove certain principles while other principles can only be proven by revelation. And finally there are those thinkers who espouse a complete dichotomy between the theological and philosophical approches.

Theologians like Karl Barth, Schleiermacher and others speak about the priority of belief, while philosophers like Kant and others speek about that of reason.(1) Our main question is if reason is capable of making decisive statements in the mundus sensibilis ac intelligibilis. Perhaps our faculty of reason can only be used in the realm of the mundus sensibilis, as Kant holds, and as a result the metaphysical world is left to our beliefs.(2) Or may be, we should leave this Kantian notion after Feuerbach and Nietzsche and accept Wittgenstein's advice to keep silent about matters which we cannot comprehend?

The Rationalistic School

In order to attempt at giving an answer to the aforementioned questions, I now turn to the Jewish biblical-rabbinical-philosophical tradition. It has been correctly emphasized that the differentia specifica of Judaism is the prohibition of making a graven image, as it is expressed in the Decalogue. This means that Judaism is not a world-view, but rather a world-understanding. It is not written "See, Israel, the Lord, our God, is unique", rather "Hear" is written.(3) According to Maimonides, and other Jewish philosophers, the Hebrew term for the word "hear" has three meanings: to listen, to accept, and to understand.(4) Hearing, as the most sophisticated of the five senses, needs to be developed in favor of the intellectual approach of man to apprehend truth. This must be done in order to understand the essence of life as best we can.(5) In addition, the traditional explanation of the second verse of Psalm 1,(6) which discusses the righteous man whose "delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night", reads the first part of the verse as the "law of the Lord" and the second part as "law of man". This is done, in order to emphasize the biblical dialectics between heteronomy and autonomy, between suprarationalism and rationalism, or — according to the scholastic terminology — between lumen supranaturale and lumen naturale. A third example of these dialectics is the classical Jewish interpretation of Genesis 1,26: "Then God said 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'".(8) Maimonides expounds in the first chapter of his "Guide for the Perplexed" the Hebrew words for "image" and "likeness" as referring to "the specific form of man, viz., his intellectual perception" and he concludes this chapter saying: "On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporal, having a material form.(9)

After having refered briefly to the rationalistic understanding of the biblical tradition I now turn to the two main schools of thought which have been prevalent throughout the history of Jewish philosophy. The rationalistic school is associated especially with the aforementioned Maimonides, with Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen. The so-called antirationalistic school has been associated mainly with the medieval philosopher-theologian Judah Halevi and the nineteenth-century German theologian Salomon Levi Steinheim (to mention only the most important representatives of these schools). I would like to emphasize that the term "antirationalistic" should not be confused with "irrationalistic", because, as it will become clear during the course of this essay, Jewish sources do not permit an irrationalistic approach.

Maimonides (1135-1204) is recognized as one of the greatest physicians of his time, practically and theoretically. His code serves as the most important systematic arrangement of talmudic law and his philosophy has had enormous impact not only on Jewish thought, but also on scholastic theology and European philosophy in modern times.(10) Here I only refer to one theme of Maimonide's rationalistic approach, namely his definition of prophecy and revelation, which is spelled out in his different legal works and especially in his "Guide", part I, chapters 32-48. Contrary to the opinion that revelation does not depend on the intellectual faculty of man, but has to be understood as a divine act of grace, Maimonides holds the intellectual preparation of man as a conditio sine qua non for reaching the truth. This highest level of human perfection can only be reached after intensive studying: "Consequently he who wishes to attain to human perfection, must therefore first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics."(11) So it depends on man to transform his potential intellectual faculty into real action. Then, and here Maimonides speaks the language of Aristotelian philosophy, the active intellectual faculty of man can reach the lowest level of the mundus intelligibilis, i.e. the "active intellect". Through this active intellect, divine emanation will reach man after intensive study of all disciplines and thus man can reach the level of a prophet. As a result he will be able to understand the divine attributes, which are expressed in the mundus sensibilis as the laws of nature, without, and this must be emphasized, knowing something positively about the essence of the Divine. This is because all biblical divine attributes have to be understood in the sense of a negative theology. Moses, as the "father" of all prophets, is distinguished, in this philosophy, from all other levels of prophecy, in so far as he is a prophet-philosopher sui generis. Maimonides goes on to claim that the people of Israel only heard the "sound of words" on Sinai (with the exception of the two first commandments about the existence and uniqueness of God).(12) Due to his extraordinary intellectual faculties, Moses functioned as the instructor of the divine commandments.

This rationalsitic concept of revelation greatly influenced Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). In the second part of his "Jerusalem or on religious power and on Judaism" (1783), Mendelssohn, philosopher of European enlightenment, pupil of Leibniz-Wolff, holds that the faith of Judaism is identical with universal truth and that the metaphysical themes are common to all men and are universally true. He also claims that divine legislation alone belongs to the sphere of revelation, whereas universal religious truth does not. Here he bases his philosophy, by and large, on the biblical-rabbinical Noachide theology according to which "the pious of all nations have a share in the world to come."(13) One of the main functions of Jewish legislation is to defend pure monotheism against the inroads of idolatry in it's various forms, because only monotheism can guarantee the eternal truths for the sake of mankind. These eternal truths can be achieved by intellectual endeavour. Judaism, according to Mendelssohn, fulfills all the criteria of reason, unlike Christianity with it's belief in incarnation. This is how Mendelssohn answers the question of the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel who asked him why he, Mendelssohn, is able to accept the Old, but not the New Testament. According to Mendelssohn, the essential doctrines of Christianity, as the trinity, incarnation, the suffering of the Divine, original sin, vicarious atonement etc., are opposed to the religion of reason: "On the other hand, I do not find in the Old Testament anything which is equal to these doctrines, which contradict, according to my understanding, good reason."(14)

The last great example of the rationalistic school is Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), the founder and leader of the Neo-Kantian Marburg school. One of his main problems is the relationship between ethics and religion. Should religion be added as a separate dimension of consciousness? In his earlier works Cohen emphasizes the role of ethics, while the idea of God only functions as the guarantee of the realization of the ethical idea. However, in his later period, especially in his two books "Der Begriff der Religion im System der Philosophy", 1915 (The Concept of Religion in the System of Philosophy) and "Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums", 1919 (Religion of Reason drawn from the Sources of Judaism), Cohen attempts to give religion an individual task, though it is not independent. Man as an individual sinner, cannot be redeemed from his guilt by the moral commandment alone. This is a religious problem, not a purely ethical one.

Only the biblical concept of the correlation between man and God can solve this problem. Nevertheless, unlike Christianity, man is the active partner in this correlation in practicing the act of purification. Thus Cohen describes revelation not as a historical event in the past, but as an eternal process of correlation between divine and human reason. Like Maimonides and Mendelssohn, he understands Judaism to be the example par excellence of the Religion of Reason. In his last work he does not intend to formulate a Jewish Philosophy of Reason, but, as the title indicates, a Religion of Reason from the sources of Judaism. As the result of the analysis of the Jewish Religion we attain the Religion of Reason, which teaches the best ethical world order, which can only be established by an imitation of the biblical divine attributes.(15)

The "antirationalistic" school

Almost all Jewish philosophers deny that the divine attributes teach us something about the essence of the Divine. Concerning this theme there is no difference between the representatives of the so-called rationalistic or antirationalistic schools. From the latter school, the most imporant figures are Rabbi Judah Halevi in the Middle Ages and Salomon Levi Steinheim in modern times. Judah Halevi (1085-1141), the author of "The Kuzari"(16) tries (much like the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali in his book "Destruction of Philosophy") to attack Aristotelian philosophy (book I, 63-65 of the "Kuzari"), in order to free revelation from philosophical inroads. According to Halevi (book III, 53) man cannot perceive theological truths, but only knows of them through the tradition which has been handed down throughout history. He goes on to show (IV, 25) that philosophical schools contradict one another, which in his opinion shows the weakness of philosophical thinking. Philosophical questions of great importance, like e.g. whether or not the world was created, cannot be answered on purely philosophical ground. Even Maimonides, the great rationalist, concurs with the above view and as a result he does not accept the Aristotelian view of eternity, rather he accepts the biblical concept of creatio ex nihilo. For Halevi truth is revealed. Unlike Maimonides, he is of the opinion that "the divine influence as well as the souls have a secret which is not identical with" what the philosopher thinks.(17) There are certain conditions which enable prophecy, which is restricted to the Jewish People when they live in their Land and practice the divine law. If the rational moral law is of universal character, the specific ceremonial law, like prayer, worship, diatery and purity laws etc., qualifies the Jew to reach the divine influence gradually. Judah Halevi deals at lenght with certain aspects of the Jewish law and through this we see his deep knowledge of the talmudic-rabbinic sources, which are very rational indeed. Since learning and understanding of the Talmud is an integral part of keeping the law, and since this is one of the prerequisites for reaching the level of the prophetic divine influence, it is clear that Judah Halevi, in spite of his antiphilosophical approach, cannot be called an 'irrationalist'.

I would like to mention another two Jewish theologians in modern times who, like Judah Halevi, are of the opinion that the philosophical-dialectical thought process cannot lead to the recognition of theological or metaphysical truths: these theologians are Salomon Levi Steinheim (1789-1866) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). I will restrict myself to the theology of Steinheim(18) as a sufficiant example in this framework, because he had already anticipated certain ideas (especially with respect to his criticism of German idealism), which Rosenzweig at the beginning of this century spelled out in his "Star of Redemption".(19) Steinheim, who also became known as a physician and as one who was involved in the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews, developed in his magnum opus "Die Offenbarung nach dem Lehrbegriffe der Synagoge" (Revelation according to the Doctrine of the Synagogue)(20) his understanding of the relationship between Reason and Revelation. Only in the last two generations has his epistemological approach evoked interest, especially in Jewish circles, but also in the Christian theological world. Karl Barth, e.g., whose 'word-theology' is very close to Steinheim's approach, became interested in his books, as we see in his letter to the philosopher of religion Hans-Joachim Schoeps (February 17, 1933).(21) Steinheim, the scientist, writes at the beginning of the second volume of his magnum opus.

We intend to give the same recognition, which in our century natural science in all its branches has gained, to religion. We hope that just as astrology, alchemy and magic have evolved into the powerful disciplines of astronomy, chemistry and physics, so also will theosophy and the 'Theology-of-Feeling' finally become elevated to Theology. Theology will then assume an honorable place at the side of the other faculties and acquire a reputation and rank which thus far it has not earned.(22)

On the one hand Steinheim opposes the rationalistic approach of the metaphysicians, and on the other hand he fights against those theologians who only base revelation on feeling. This position against German idealism and the theology of Schleiermacher resulted in Steinheim's ostracism. As opposed to the thought of the aforementioned schools, Steinheim emphasizes the important role that critical reason plays as one aspect of human intellectual endeavour. The other endeavour that Steinheim emphasizes is dogmatic or constructive reason. According to him the attempt of the philosophers to build their systems by means of constructive reason has been unsuccessful. Steinheim, using Kantian terminology, attributes this to the fact that:

Our reason is not only confused a priori in and of itself in these antonomies of thinking, so that it has to give up trying to understand the 'thing-in-itself, (the essence of things). Rather our reason even finds itself with that which it seems to have understood (that which is construed a priori in an obvious contradiction to the facts. Reason not only finds nothing through a priori demonstration and construing; on the contrary, it suggests the very opposite of reality. Its certain 'knowledge' is the opposite of, and in contradiction to, reality. Therefore, the discrepancy expands from the sphere of pure thinking to exact cognition; from absolute thinking to inductive cognition.(23)

Steinheim expounds the 'inner' antinomy of Kant to an 'outer' one, saying that our demonstrable thinking does not only lead to antinomies of theses and antitheses, but that it also stands in contradiction to the phenomena of the world of senses which is characterized by the wonderful character of non-contradiction. Only with the help of the critical reason we can recognize the physical world. This scientific approach Steinheim calls faith, which is identical with the latin fidere or the Aristotalian pistis. These terms correspond to the hebrew word for faith (emunah), unlike the english 'belief', the latin credere, or the french croyance which belong to the terminology of irrationalism. By means of this inductive method, Steinheim shows that the more-mathematico- method of the metaphysicians leads to unrealistic results. The example of water shows the distinction between what is thinkable, but not real and what is recognizable and therefore real. Water contracts at a temperature of 0° C, but when the cooling process continues further, it suddenly begins to expand; and this, indeed, is a surprising phenomenon, thaumaston ti. Water, having reached 0° C, subsides since it has a smaller volume. Thereafter it raises, expands, and becomes lighter. Were nature to follow the law of continuing contradiction, as a result of decreasing temperature, all northern oceans would turn into a massive ice layer during one winter. Schleiden, whom Steinheim quotes, says that then only a small strip alongside the equator would be habitable.(24) The question is if we can also apply this inductive method to the mundus intelligibilis. Steinheim agrees with Kant that our dogmatic reason cannot say anything about the metaphysical world. But he, as a theologian, knows about truths like the uniqueness of God, creatio ex nihilo, the freedom of man, etc., from revelation. Steinheim shows that the mundus sensibilis ac intelligibilis constitute the same reality by which the same method of thinking can be applied. Both realities are expressed by their wonder- and event-character which is not bound to necessity and is free of antinomies. Therefore the content of revelation is real, just as the phenomena of this physical world are existing and not only ideas.

As Kant has shown, we can prove causality and freedom. These dual results of thinking are opposed to one another, but are both, nevertheless, equally inevitable conclusions.(25) They cannot exist together. However, the concept of creatio ex nihilo solves this contradiction, because it guarantees on the one hand complete freedom (because the creator is not bound to eternal matter) and on the other hand it does not deny causality after the act of creation. Man, as part of the physical world, is therefore also part of the causal-nexus. Nevertheless, as being created in the image of the creator, he also has the power to decide, as a result of his participation in divine freedom. What follows from all this, is that Steinheim, the theologian par excellence, who trusts in the reality of the content of revelation, does not dethrone reason, since he uses the tools of critical reason. Like the facta, the content of revelation is inconceivable, but nevertheless requires scientific recognition. His theology therefore is not the credo quia absurdum of Tertullian, but the trust in the credo quamquam sit absurdum, the trust in the reality of the content of revelation though it is opposed to the rational axioms.

The rejection of irrationalism in Jewish thought

The above short depiction of the important representatives of the two main-schools of Jewish thought, the 'rationalists' and the 'antirationalists', shows that despite their many differences, all Jewish philosophies share rational characteristics. Even the so-called antirationalists are not willing (unlike the irrationalists as Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard) to give up reason in favor of a leap into the realm of religion or belief. This has to be explained — as I have already mentioned — by the importance of learning in Judaism. The studying of the written and oral law is a religious duty, a kind of sacrament, as it is already expressed in the Hebrew Bible: "And these words which

I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children."(26) According to a talmudic dictum, learning counterbalances all other duties(27), because an ignorant person cannot be truly pious.(28) Therefore the study-house, or the talmud-academy, is more important even than, the synagogue, which is merely a place of prayer. Therefore a synagogue should also be a place of study. Comparing this attitude with the general philosophical tradition, I would say that it contradicts Plato's view as expressed in "Meno" according to which enquiry and learning are impossible; they only are, or remembering. Aristotle's notion of potential knowledge, on the other hand, is very close to the rational character of Jewish thought. I have tried to outline in a few words some contributions of the Jewish tradition which might serve for the promotion of advanced educational research.

I am aware of the fact that the task that this general philosophical-historical outline has suggested, still has to be spelled out. I wish it only to serve as a theoretical base on which educational projects can be built, provided that they take into consideration the biblical view that man should use and develop his rational faculty, both to "conquer"(29) the world and to be aware of his being created.

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