Shiur #02: The Philosopher in the Kuzari (Part I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     The first character to present his views to the king of the Khazars is the philosopher.  In this lecture and the next, we shall attempt to understand his worldview.[1] My treatment of the philosopher's position, however, will be brief, and only as is necessary to serve two purposes:


1)  understanding the issues as they appear in the book itself and the opposition that is raised against them;

2)  contrasting these views to the outlook promoted by the Jewish Sage as the view of Judaism.  Understanding the similarities and differences between the philosopher's perspective and that of Judaism will provide us with greater appreciation of the novelty in R. Halevi's outlook, both when considered independently and in contrast with the prevailing outlooks of his day.[2]




     The philosopher begins his first speech as follows:


There is no favor or dislike in [the nature of] God, because He is above desire and intention.  A desire intimates a want in the person who feels it, and not till it is satisfied does he become (so to speak) complete.  If it remains unfulfilled, he lacks completion.  (I, 1)


     Yochanan Silman[3] explains that according to Aristotle, that which exists in reality is ontologically superior to that which exists in potentiality.  Will and knowledge, which are comprised of both potential existence and real existence, cannot be ascribed to the Creator, and not only not to Him.  According to Aristotle, everything that emanates from the Prime Cause/God until the last sub-lunar sphere, our world, exists only in reality.[4] Our world – as opposed to all the previous emanations – also has a state of "potentiality," that is to say, potential that has not yet been actualized, and not only the state of "reality."


     These two assumptions absolutely deny the concept of divine providence, and thus also the entire idea of dialogue between God and man:


[God] therefore does not know you, much less your thoughts and actions, nor does He listen to your prayers or see your movements.  (I, 1)


     Explicit remarks of this nature appear again later in the book:


Be he believer or free-thinker, it does not concern him, if he is a philosopher.  His axiom is that: "God will do no good, neither will He do evil" (Tzefanya1:12).  (IV, 13)




     The philosopher denies the idea that the world was actively created by God.  He interprets the idea that God created the world metaphorically: God is the Prime Cause, that is to say, the first cause from which all being emanated in a functional manner, but without intention or will.


     In order to understand this, we must pay attention to what is added to this statement later in the book:


If he believes in the eternity of matter, he cannot assume that there was a time when it did not exist prior to its creation.  He opines that it was never non-existing, that it will never cease to exist, that God can only be called the creator in a metaphysical sense.  The term "Creator" and "Maker" he explains as cause and prime mover of the world.  Effect lasts as long as the cause does.  If the latter is only potential, the former is potential; if [the latter is] real, [the former is] real.  God is cause in reality; that which is caused by Him remains, therefore, so long in existence as He remains its cause.  (IV, 13)


     That is to say, the philosopher accepts the idea of emanation that begins with God and continues to the lowest being, but this chain of being is qualitative, not temporal.  In other words, it would be a mistake to say that the first cause proceeded the second in time, because the cause and its effect coexist from eternity.  Thus, it follows that the world itself with all its components is without a beginning.


     Let us go back to the first issue, the relationship between man and God, and try to understand the ramifications of the severance of any connection between the two that arises from the philosopher's outlook.


     The philosopher describes a full system of emanation, beginning with the first cause and continuing to the lowest creation:


They contrived similar theories with regard to the emanations from the Prime Cause, viz., that from the intuition of the first cause an angel arose; and from its knowledge of itself a sphere arose, and thence downward in eleven degrees, until the emanation arrived at the Active Intellect, from which neither an angel nor a sphere developed.  (V, 14)


            This position speaks of metaphysical constructions emanating from God, level after level, each one being a "spiritual being," or "separate intellect" in medieval terms, and each one "in charge" of one celestial sphere.  The last one is the Active Intellect, which deals with our material world below the sphere of the moon.


     What this means may be understood from the words of Aristotle:


Since in every class of things, as in nature as a whole, we find two factors involved, (1) a matter which is potentially all the particulars included in the class, (2) a cause which is productive in the sense that it makes them all (the latter standing to the former, as, for example, an art to its material), these distinct elements must likewise be found within the soul.  (On the Soul, book III, part 5)


     It turns out, then, that all emanated beings ("the separate intellects" or any other name that we give them) until our sub-lunar sphere are rooted exclusively in the emanation above them; that is to say, the pure spiritual being above them, which gives them the trait of pure spirituality as well.


     On the other hand, everything that is found in the sub-lunar sphere,  in our world, is comprised of two elements.  The first is the spiritual substance that is above the sphere, from which the spirit, essence, and content of our world emanates.  The second is the formless matter whose source is not supernal emanation.  This is what gives the things that exist in our world their "denseness" (as opposed to all the emanations above them), and also the qualities of potentiality and reality mentioned above.


     The emanated being that is above the sub-lunar sphere and is "in charge" of bestowing spiritual meaning upon everything that is below the lunar sphere, is the Active Intellect, which is still a clearly spiritual being, but is the lowest of separate intellects emanating from the Prime Cause.




     According to the philosopher, man's aspiration is as follows:


In the perfect person, a light of divine nature, called Active Intellect, is with him, and his passive intellect is so closely connected therewith that both are but one.  The person [of such perfection] thus observes that he is the Active Intellect himself, and that there is no difference between them.  (I, 1)


     Let us try to understand this conjoining with the Active Intellect described by the philosopher.


     Man's aspiration is to reach the activation of his intellect, when he is no longer exclusively in the category of receiver, but also in the category of giver.  This merging of the passive intellect - man's intellect, thoughts, and understanding - with the Active Intellect has ramifications for him in all realms, and he does only the most perfect actions at the most appropriate times.  This is because, as the philosopher puts it,


his organs become as if they were the organs of the Active Intellect, but not of the material and passive intellect,[5] which used them at an earlier period, sometimes well, but more often improperly.  (I, 1)


The Active Intellect now guides him directly in all his ways and actions.


     Let us try to understand the transition that man makes from the passive to the Active Intellect.


     The various doctrines of cognition speak about a process of intellection that a person goes through every day and every hour.


            One typical and accepted understanding of this process sees it as beginning with an encounter with the external world by way of the senses and the emotions.  This encounter is followed by intellectual analysis; the conclusions drawn from this analysis are the ideas that man thinks.  It turns out, then, that intellection results from an encounter that takes place in time and space.


     The Active Intellect, in contrast, according to its philosophical definition, is the unity of the knowing mind and that which is known.  What does this unity mean?


     This idea of unity is connected to the point that was raised earlier, namely, the difference between that which exists only in reality and that which exists both in potentiality and in reality.


As stated above, according to Aristotle, all of existence until the lunar sphere, until our material world, is spiritual existence that is fully actualized.  The sub-lunar world, over which the Active Intellect is in charge as the last emanation among the celestial spheres, is existence comprised of spiritual emanation in addition to formless matter, which gives it traits in both potentiality and reality.[6] The passive intellect, as part of the sub-lunar world, also has that quality, and it therefore includes ideas that exist in potentiality and ideas that exist in reality.  When a person undergoes the process of intellection, as described above, he realizes an idea that had rested in his mind in potentiality.


Such a process does not take place in the Active Intellect.  The ideas that the Active Intellect has are there in reality at all times.  Absolute unity exists between the intellect, the process of intellection, and the subject of that intellection, unity that is not disturbed by the gap between potentiality and reality.


Thus, the Active Intellect does not require time or place or an encounter with them in order to undergo the process of intellection, for there is no process.


Although the activity of reason in combining proportions by means of careful consideration appears to require a certain time, the deduction of the conclusion is not dependent on time, reason itself being above time.  (V, 12)


This level of conjoining with the Active Intellect is the highest level, in which man's intellect knows itself at all times and in all places; it is one level below the Active Intellect itself.  This is because the Active Intellect itself is an "angel" that is separate from matter, whereas man who conjoins with the Active Intellect, even though he reaches the level that he is absolutely moved by it, is nevertheless still attached to matter.[7]


The philosopher notes that the transition from the position of receiving to the position of giving (from passive to active) is made possible only by absolute unification with the Active Intellect.  At that stage, a person not only absorbs, is impressed, and tries to understand, but also creates, exposes truths, and guides his organs in the proper path and in a perfect manner.


How does a person achieve this unity with the Active Intellect?


This degree is the last and most longed for goal for the perfect man whose soul, after having been purified, has grasped the inward truths of all branches of science, has thus become equal to an angel, and has found a place on the nethermost step of seraphic beings.  This is the degree of the Active Intellect, that angel whose degree is below the angel who is connected with the sphere of the moon.  There are spiritual forces, detached from matter but eternal like the Prime Cause and never threatened by decay.  Thus, the soul of the perfect man and that Intellect become one, without concern for the decay of the body or his organs, because he becomes united to the other.  His soul is cheerful while he is alive, because it enjoys the company of Hermes, Asclepios, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; nay, he and they, as well as every one who shares their degree, and the Active Intellect, are one thing.  This is what is called allusively and approximately Pleasure of God.


Endeavor to reach it and the true knowledge of things in order that your intellect may become active and but not passive.  Keep just ways as regards character and actions, because this will help you to reach the truth, to gain instruction, and to become similar to this Active Intellect.  The consequence of this will be contentment, humility, meekness, and every other praiseworthy inclination, accompanied by the veneration of the Prime Cause - not in order to receive favor from it, or to divert its wrath, but solely to become like the Active Intellect in finding the truth, in describing everything in a fitting manner, and in rightly recognizing its basis.  These are the characteristics of the Active Intellect.  (I, 1)


     The philosopher focuses primarily on the rational truths that are required in order to conjoin with the Active Intellect.  The character traits that he mentions are merely means through which to recognize and know the truth and to stir oneself to cling to contemplation.  In other words, the sole instrument through which one can achieve this conjunction with the Active Intellect is intellectual comprehension.


     As stated above, this is also the consequence of conjoining with the Active Intellect.  Man will always know how to choose the right path and to describe everything in a fitting manner.  Man will know the truth about the world, he will understand it thoroughly, and he will acquire good character traits, which are tools for comprehending the rational truths.[8]


     In order to sharpen what has been stated here, let us compare the position of this philosopher to a later view that makes use of similar concepts, although the content is radically different:


It is fitting that a person should stand in shame before the things he says.  For the world of speech is the world of fear, and the Shekhina, as it were, constricts itself and rests in speech, as is stated in Sefer Yetzira… He should think that the world of speech is talking through him.  Without this, he cannot speak, as it is written: "O Lord, open my lips." And similarly, thought cannot exist except through the world of thought.  He is merely a shofar; that which is blown through it is the sound that it produces, and if the blower goes away, no sound will emerge from it.  Similarly, in the absence [of God], may He be blessed, a person cannot speak or think.  (Or ha-Emet 1b)


     In this selection, the Maggid of Mezerich (an early Chassidic master) speaks of man's speech and thought as tools in the hands of the "world of speech" and the "world of thought," that is, the Shekhina that reveals itself in the world.  Here, too, man himself and his speech are not moved and set into action by way of his own thoughts,[9] but through Divine thought.


     Elsewhere, another Chassidic master brings a suggestion regarding how to reach this level:


The essence of serving the Creator and [performing] all the mitzvot is the objective that he should come to the aspect of humility, that is, that he should come to the aspect of knowledge, understanding that all his powers and ideas are only on account of the Divine elements in him.  He is merely a conduit for the attributes of God.  That which brings to humility is the fear of exaltedness, for when a person understands that no place is void of Him, he then comes to the aspect of ayin (Nothingness), which is the aspect of humility.  (Mevasser Tzedek 9, 1-2)


     Let us consider the similarities and differences between the two outlooks.


     Both outlooks reflect a desire for the situation in which a person, in both the spiritual and material realms, becomes a conduit for some higher spiritual entity.  While it is true that the two positions are dealing with two different entities and that the relationship between that entity and man is different according to the two outlooks, in both perspectives we are dealing with a high level that emanates from a high spiritual connection, through which the person becomes a conduit for it.


     The difference between the two outlooks lies in the path and in the results.  Effectively, we are dealing with two opposite mental processes.


     Man, according to the philosopher, possesses very high self-awareness.  He must use all of his intellectual powers (and his emotions, as well, as we shall see in the next lecture), he is filled with awareness, and he finds himself in the hall of knowledge.  He subordinates himself to nothing but the desire to know and to recognize the truth.  He is critical and beaming with pride in his ability to know and to penetrate all the secrets of being.[10]


     In contrast, the key concepts in the Chassidic path to the goal of conjoining are humility and self-effacement.  The only rational process that a person undergoes, according to Chassidut, is recognition that it is beyond man's ability to understand and to know all; he recognizes that "man is not far above the beast, for all is vanity." He strives to cancel his self-awareness, for it acts as a barrier between himself and Divine profusion.  Man does not strive to know.  So, too, writes Rav Nachman of Breslov:


He said that it says in a certain book that the proof brought in philosophical books that one must engage in [rational] investigation from the verse (Devarim 4:39), "Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart" – that one must know Him, may He be blessed, on the basis of [rational] investigation - is taken from the Karaite sect, for they explain this verse in this manner, that one must know Him, may He be blessed, based on [rational] investigation.  But this is not the truth, for in truth the main thing is to know Him, may He be blessed, exclusively through perfect faith, for it is precisely in this manner that one merits later to acquire great knowledge and comprehension of His exaltedness, may He be blessed.  (Sichot ha-Ran, 217)


     The more that a person sees himself as not knowing, and the more that he recognizes his inability to know and understand, the more room he makes to contain the Divine light.


     The difference in perspectives stems from a different understanding of the goal of conjoining.  Elsewhere, we learn the following about the philosopher's position:


The Rabbi: They are as far removed from us as the followers of a religion from a philosopher.  The former seek God not only for the sake of knowing Him, but also for other great benefits which they derive from Him.  The philosopher, however, only seeks Him that he may be able to describe Him accurately in detail, as he would describe the earth, explaining that it is in the center of the great sphere, but not in that of the zodiac, etc.  (IV, 13)


     Man's aspiration, according to the philosopher, is to conjoin with the Active Intellect.  The more a person knows the truth about the world, and the more he understands how the world operates and of what it is comprised, the closer he comes to conjoining with the Active Intellect, which contains all knowledge and all truth.[11]


     The philosopher identifies the cognitive comprehension towards which man strives with the ontological state that he acquires when he achieves it.  The objective is to know, the way to achieve that objective is through knowing, and the state that a person enjoys when he succeeds in his mission is knowledge, which is the objective itself.  Thus, the entire process focuses on man's intellectual powers and his ability to know.


     The objective according to Chassidut is to conjoin with the Creator and constitute a conduit between Him and the world.  The key concept introduced here is that of agency.  At the first stage, man strives to serve as God's agent, and then at the second stage he tries to totally efface himself; self-awareness, cognition, and knowledge only get in the way.


     It is not by chance that important Chassidic thinkers (the Baal Shem Tov, his great-grandson Rav Nachman of Breslov, and others) saw occupation with philosophy and knowledge as a challenge to the process of conjoining with the Shekhina.  They were concerned not only about the problem of the content to which a person becomes exposed in the study of philosophy, but also about the experience and mental stance that he acquires when he occupies himself with philosophy.  The philosopher, consciously or unconsciously, sets himself up as a judge, and his reason is the standard for judgment.  He grants himself the authority to sit on the seat of justice, judging man, the world, and even God Himself.


     In a place where man raises himself up, God, as it were, is brought low.  And wherever man does not walk about erect and with proud bearing, room is made for the Shekhina to rest.


     On this point it should be noted that even after the philosopher acquires the ontological truth and recognizes the limitations of ability to know,[12] he has still not acquired the humility that Chassidut talks about.  Were he to throw out all his logical arguments and all his knowledge as a result of this recognition, he would indeed acquire the level of humility discussed above.  But if this recognition motivates him to continue his intellectual search ad infinitum, and the only difference that has transpired in him is the skepticism that now accompanies his reasoning, he has still not liberated himself from the chains of reason and their influence.




     What is the idea of prophecy according to the philosopher? Does it exist at all?


     Julius Guttmann writes that, according to the philosopher, conjoining with the Active Intellect is what makes the unmediated connection between man and God possible; in this spirit, the philosopher understands the idea of prophecy as well.[13]


     It seems to me that we must carefully examine whether conjoining with the Active Intellect should be identified with the idea of prophecy.  This hesitation is based on a precise reading of the words of the philosopher and the words of the Jewish Sage about the philosopher:


Then you will reach your goal, the union with the Spiritual, or rather Active Intellect.  Maybe then He will communicate with you or teach you the knowledge of what is hidden through true dreams and positive visions.  (I, 1)


Note the words "maybe then." Two points follow from this expression.


1)Prophecy comes in the wake of conjunction with the Active Intellect.

2)One who conjoins with the Active Intellect does not necessarily attain prophecy.


The same idea is found elsewhere in the book:


Henceforth the people believed that Moses held direct communication with God, that his words were not creations of his own mind, that prophecy did not (as philosophers assume) burst forth in a pure soul, become united with the Active Intellect (also termed Holy Spirit or Gabriel), and be then inspired.  Such a person, say the philosophers, might perhaps have seen a vision in sleep, or someone may have spoken with him between sleeping and waking so that he only heard the words in fancy but not with his ears, or that he saw a phantom, and afterwards pretended that God had spoken with him.  (I, 87)


     This passage also speaks of a person who reaches conjunction with the Active Intellect.  Such a person "might perhaps have seen a vision in sleep, etc." Here again we are dealing with a side effect of conjoining with the Active Intellect.  It turns out, then, that prophecy, according to the philosopher, is not a goal towards which to strive, but rather a phenomenon that accompanies the conjunction with the Active Intellect, the latter being his sought-after goal.


     Moreover, conjoining with the Active Intellect belongs to the realm of reason and intellect.  As stated above, we are dealing with the highest intellectual apprehension and rational striving towards this objective.  In contrast, prophecy belongs to the realm of imagination, which, as was known already in the time of R. YehudaHalevi, can also give rise to illusions.


     A philosopher who has a prophetic vision – that is, a vision stemming from his imagination – must purify and refine it in order to cleanse it of all anthropomorphism and the like, as mentioned in the above passage.


     It turns out then that R. Halevi's philosopher does not reject prophetic vision or invalidate it, but rather assigns it only secondary importance in man's life.  Prophecy is merely a vision or imagination that a person who conjoins with the Active Intellect sometimes attains as a bonus to the absolute knowledge that he acquires through the Active Intellect.  This prophecy includes illusions of the imagination and symbols that cannot be understood in their plain sense but must be interpreted as metaphors or as adornments to the absolute truths attained through conjunction with the Active Intellect.


     This distinction between conjoining with the Active Intellect and prophecy and the lack of identity between them is very important for understanding the Khazar king's rejection of the philosopher's understanding of prophecy.  In the course this rejection, the king presents two arguments:


1)  History teaches that prophecy was not known among the philosophers at all.

2)  There are no reports of philosophers having performed miracles.


Had the philosopher rejected prophecy outright, or alternatively, had he identified prophecy with conjoining with the Active Intellect, absolute and perfect knowledge, the Khazar king's first argument would fall away.  The philosopher could then have responded that prophecy is not known among the philosophers because it does not exist at all, and one who says that he attained it is merely lying.  Had the philosopher identified prophecy with the Active Intellect, he could have answered the king that prophecy, as he understands it, was indeed found among the philosophers of perfect knowledge.


However, since the philosopher himself sees philosophy in almost exactly the same manner as the Khazar king (the difference will be pointed out below), and he even argues that prophecy is the lot of those who conjoin with the Active Intellect, the Khazar king's first question is surely in place.


As for the second argument, it would appear that the philosopher rejects the very possibility described by the Khazar king, that man can perform miracles.  On this point, the philosopher argues against an expanded idea of prophecy, according to which a prophet is endowed with supernatural powers, and limits prophecy to receiving visions.  The philosopher would counter the king's second argument by saying that anyone who says that a prophet is endowed with powers that go beyond man's natural limits, doesn't know what he is talking about[14] (see on this matter II, 54, and also IV, 3, at the end).[15]


(Translated by DavidStrauss)



[1] According to Shmuel B. Orbach, the philosopher in the Kuzari presents the most popular approach in the school of Islamic philosophy during the time of R. Yehuda Halevi.  Its classic representatives include Al-Farabi, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Avempace (Ibn Bajjah), and others (Amudei Ha-machshava Ha-Yisra'elit, vol. 1, p. 259).  Others, however, argue that the outlook of the Kuzari'sphilosopher and the philosophical ideas that R. Halevi contends with in his book are original and are not identical with other Aristotelian outlooks familiar to R. Halevi (Yochanan Silman, Bein Filosof Le-navi, Ramat Gan, 1985, p. 23; Silman's book has also been translated into English as Philosopher and Prophet: Judah Halevi, the Kuzari, and the Evolution of His Thought [NY, 1995], but we will refer to the Hebrew edition). 

[2] I strongly advise the reader to retain this lecture and refer to it when I mention the philosophical approach to various issues over the course of the series, such as man's relationship with God, religious service, the idea of prophecy, and the like. 

[3] Silman, ibid., p. 25, note 1.

[4] The idea of emanation will be explained below.

[5] The philosopher makes an additional distinction between the Active Intellect and the passive one, when he assigns the passive intellect to formless matter, while the Active Intellect is separate from all materiality.  I will make use of this distinction below when I try to sharpen the difference between the Active Intellect and the passive intellect. 

[6] Man was granted free will in that he can submit to his material inclinations or he can reduce his connection to formless matter to the point of total severance and conjoin with the spirit through the Active Intellect.

Regarding the difference between "separate intellects" and "human" creatures, both with respect to choice and with respect to potentiality and reality, see also Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 3. 

[7] According to Silman, the position of the philosopher in the Kuzari is close to that of Avempace (Ibn Bajjah), who believed that the passive intellect becomes nullified in the Active Intellect; according to Al-Farabi and Avicenna, on the other hand, the human intellect always remains one level below the Active Intellect (Silman, ibid., p. 58, note 10).

For this reason, a person who conjoins with the Active Intellect is still subject to time.  When it is said about him that he can intellect at any time that he wishes, this means that, on the one hand, he is not dependent on the factors of time and place that are external to him; on the other hand, there is a gap between potentiality and reality.  This intermediate state follows from the fact that, on the one hand, the person conjoins with the Active Intellect, while, on the other hand, he is still attached to materiality. 

[8] Regarding the tension between the deed as a result of conjunction with the Active Intellect and the deed as a means toward achieving such conjunction, see the next lecture. 

[9] A separate question arises regarding whether his thoughts and opinions exist, but they must be nullified before the Supreme thought, or perhaps there is no "alien thought" outside of Divine thought.  This is not the forum to expand upon this issue. 

[10] In the next lecture, we will see that the philosopher praises humility, but he is talking about humility in the sense of not pursuing honor and riches, the quest for which would limit a person's occupation with pure intellect.  He is not talking about humility as connected to man's own consciousness with respect to himself.

[11] One of the main ramifications, according to both outlooks, relates to man's attitude toward death.  A person who conjoins with the spiritual and becomes its tool ceases to worry about material decay.  Thus, death, which symbolizes the decay of the body (matter), loses all significance.  This is true in Chassidic thought and as well as for the philosopher.

[12] It is said about Socrates that he would respond to those who praised his wisdom by saying that his wisdom is greater than that of others, because he knows how much he does not know.

[13] J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism (NY, 1964), pp. 124-25. 

[14] As stated at the beginning of the lecture, I will deal with this issue in greater detail when I confront R. Halevi's understanding of prophecy and contrast it with that of philosophy, both with respect to prophecy itself and with respect to miracles.

[15] Silman (p. 64, note 30) notes that the position of the philosopher in the Kuzari on this matter stands in opposition to that of Avicenna.