Shiur #03: The Philosopher in the Kuzari (Part II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     The previous lecture dealt with the philosopher's views regarding the definition of God, the Active Intellect, and prophecy. This lecture will relate to two no less important issues in the philosopher's thought: man's attitude toward God and the religious act.


Man's attitude toward God


     As we saw in the previous lecture, the philosopher denies God's knowledge of man. God is above knowing individuals, and will and knowledge cannot be ascribed to Him.


     The first ramification of this concept is that God does not demand anything of man. Furthermore, whatever man does, he does not appease or fail to appease God.


     The idea of "Divine pleasure" is not found in the philosopher's lexicon. If he uses this idea, it is only "in the allusive and approximate" sense (I, 1), as a description of man's objective to conjoin with the Active Intellect.


     Given this perspective, what is the proper attitude that man should have towards God? The philosopher's position on this matter is articulated in a very important passage:


… 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. Ignorance of God would be no more injurious than would ignorance concerning the earth be injurious to those who consider it flat. The real benefit is to be found only in the cognizance of the true nature of things, in order to resemble the Active Intellect. (IV, 13)


     God is indeed the Prime Cause, but He is still only a cause. That is to say, God is situated on the same ladder of being as the rest of the emanations down to humans, although He is at the top. A person striving to conjoin with the Active Intellect must apprehend the truth of all the emanations, including – or, better, at the top of which is – the Prime Cause. However, from this perspective, there is no essential difference between knowing God and knowing the world. The apprehension of both is merely a means of achieving conjunction with the Active Intellect.[1]


     Thus far we have seen the philosopher's rational, cognitive attitude toward the Prime Cause/God. Is the proper attitude toward God a purely rational one, or does there exist also an emotional component?


     The philosopher relates to God in a manner that goes beyond the rational realm, but his position must be carefully understood. At the beginning of the Kuzari, the philosopher says to the Khazar king as follows:


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… These are the characteristics of the [Active] Intellect. (I, 1)


     The philosopher venerates the Prime Cause. That is to say, he distinguishes between the rest of the causes that emanate from the Prime Cause and the Prime Cause itself, to which he relates using terms of veneration.


     The philosopher, however, emphasizes the difference between his veneration of God and the singing of God's praises common in other religions. The goal of the latter is to appease God and assuage His anger. The goal of the philosopher's veneration relates not to God, but to man, to help him acquire knowledge and recognize the Prime Cause and all that follows from it, so that he might conjoin with the Active Intellect through his knowledge.


     The emotional attitude toward God described here – the feeling of veneration – results from intellectual recognition of God's superiority. The emotional component is a means to rouse man and encourage him to strive for a more elevated understanding of the Prime Cause and all that emanates from it, until he becomes like the Active Intellect through his knowledge.


     This approach will become sharpened when compared with the words of the Rambam:


When a man reflects on these things, studies all these created things, from the angels and spheres down to human beings, and so on, and realizes the Divine wisdom manifested in them all, his love for God will increase, his soul will thirst, and his very flesh will yearn to love God. He will be filled with fear and trembling as he becomes conscious of his own lowly condition, poverty, and insignificance, and compares himself with any of the great and holy bodies; still more when he compares himself with any one of the pure forms that are incorporeal and have never had association with corporeal substance. He will then realize that he is a vessel full of shame, dishonor and reproach, empty and deficient. (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:12)


     According to the Rambam, contemplation of the created world and recognition of the chain of emanations from God to the lowliest created being leads to man's love and thirst for the Creator. And similarly, recognition of man's corporeal roots and his lowliness in the face of the pure forms that are not connected to material substance[2] leads to absolute fear of the Prime Cause/God.


     Thus far, the Rambam's words are similar to those of the philosopher regarding the feelings that result from intellectual cognition. Here, however, the words of the Rambam and those of the philosopher part.


     The philosopher, as we have seen, sees these feelings as a means and as an intermediate stage to achievement of the final goal, namely, conjoining with the Active Intellect.


     The Rambam, in absolute contrast, sees the feelings of love and fear of God as the ultimate goal. This follows from other passages in the Rambam's writings:


For these two ends, namely, love and fear, are achieved through two things: love through the opinions taught by the Law, which include the apprehension of His being as He, may He be exalted, is in truth; while fear is achieved by means of all actions prescribed by the Law, as we have explained.[3] Understand this summary. (Guide of the Perplexed III, 52)


     The philosopher sees the feelings that arise from intellectual cognition as an intermediate stage in the acquisition of a more perfect and more elevated intellectual cognition, which will bring a person to conjunction with the Active Intellect; this conjunction is entirely intellectual, and includes no religious feeling toward God whatsoever.[4]


     The fact that veneration and praise of the Prime Cause are merely means to an end finds more radical expression elsewhere in the Kuzari:


A feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake, and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation [i.e., philosophy], however, makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake. (IV, 16)


     When the objective is conjoining with the Active Intellect, as long as the veneration of God serves that purpose, it is obligatory. But the moment that this veneration and the praise that comes in its wake interfere with a person's striving for intellectual perfection – whether because the price exacted by this veneration is too steep or because this veneration comes at the cost of the efforts to achieve intellectual perfection – a person must abandon them.


In this context, the Rabbi makes a very important remark. The love of God can bring a person to sacrifice his life and totally devote himself to Divine worship. Intellectual cognition, important as it may be, cannot provide a person with the necessary strength and bring him to a state of readiness to sacrifice his life for the sake of God.[5]


     This would not trouble the philosopher whatsoever, for he maintains that emotions and feelings have no value other than to enhance a person's ability and motivation to strive for intellectual apprehension.


     I will conclude this part of the discussion with the following citation:


It is thus that man becomes a servant, loving the object of his worship, and ready to perish for His sake, because he finds the sweetness of this attachment as great as the distress in the absence thereof. This forms a contrast to the philosophers, who see in the worship of God nothing but extreme refinement, extolling Him in truth above all other beings (just as the sun is placed on a higher level than the other visible things), and that the denial of God's existence is the mark of a low standard of the soul which delights in untruth. (IV, 15)


THe Religious Act


     The philosopher's attitude toward the religious act follows from his understanding of man's objective in this world.


     First of all, in the absence of any connection between God and the world, the carpet is pulled out from under the traditional understanding of the religious act. Religious activity cannot express man's acceptance of the yoke of heaven, because the religious act does not stem from God and He does not command it. It can also not be understood as coming to appease and satisfy God, because will and knowledge cannot be attributed to Him.


I would therefore excuse Aristotle for thinking lightly about the observation of the law, since he doubts whether God has any cognizance of it. (IV, 16)


     Second, as stated above, the philosopher's service focuses on the intellectual plane and is aimed at the perfection of the intellect and the attainment of absolute truths. Thus, religious action becomes marginalized.


     What, then, is the role of the religious act, if it exists at all, according to the philosopher's outlook? The philosopher discusses such actions in the following passage:


Keep just ways as regards character and actions, because this will help you to effect 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… (I, 1)


     Attention should be paid to the fact that these qualities do not constitute an end, but rather the way to achieve it. The goal, as we saw above, is knowledge: "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" (I, 1). And similarly: "… 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" (ibid.).


     Good deeds, and especially good character traits, are intended to make it possible for a person to reach the purity of heart that will allow him to achieve the required cognition without interference. The philosopher does not reject the value of action, but he focuses it both with respect to its content and with respect to its objective.


With respect to its content, the philosopher discusses worthy character traits that purify the heart. He does not deal with religious rituals, good deeds, or the like, but with character traits. One should work to acquire such traits in order to erect a barrier between the material world (which is liable to hinder a person from ascending the spiritual-intellectual ladder) and the spiritual world.


With respect to the objective, refining character allows a person to reach the optimal state for acquiring wisdom and the process of conjoining with the Active Intellect.


According to the philosopher, these are obligatory actions, without which a person cannot reach the purity of heart necessary for conjoining with the Active Intellect. Beyond such actions, the philosopher also relates to common religious rites:


If you have reached such disposition of belief, be not concerned about the forms of your humility or religion or worship, or the word or language or actions you employ. You may even choose a religion in the way of humility, worship, and benediction, for the management of your temperament, your house and [the people of your] country, if they agree to it. Or fashion your religion according to the laws of reason set up by philosophers, and strive after purity of soul. (I, 1)


And so too later in the book:


In the opinion of the philosophers, however, he becomes a pious man who does not mind in which way he approaches God, whether as a Jew or a Christian, or anything else he chooses. Now we have returned to reasoning, speculating and dialectics. According to this, everyone might endeavor to belong to a creed dictated by his own speculating, a thing which would be absurd. (II, 49)


     Religion in its ritual sense is indeed marginal in the philosopher's eyes. As we have seen, man's entire aspiration on the level of action is to reach proper character traits, and whatever will bring him to these traits is desirable and to be sought. From this perspective, the philosopher leaves it to each person to choose his religion or to create for himself his own religion that will serve as a framework in which he can refine his qualities.


     It turns out, then, that the philosopher speaks of three levels.


  1. The objective: conjunction with the Active Intellect. This process is totally intellectual, and has no connection to the world of action.


  1. The preparation: purity of the heart. In order for a person to undergo the rational process, he must remove the material stumbling block within him, and to do this he must refine his traits and actions.


  1. The means: religion. Any religion that will bring a person to the refinement of these qualities is valid; the individual is given the autonomy to choose what is most appropriate for himself.


     To summarize this discussion, I wish to bring the words of the Rabbi in their entirety:


What I told you is the foundation of their belief, viz. that the highest human happiness consists in speculative science and in the conception by reason and thought of all intelligible matters. This is transformed into the Active Intellect, then, into emancipated intellect, which near the creative intellect without fear of decay. This cannot, however, be obtained except by devoting one's life to research and continual research, which is incompatible with worldly occupations. For this reason they renounced wealth, rank, and the pleasure of children, in order not to be distracted from study. As soon as man has become acquainted with the final objective of the knowledge sought for, he need not care what he does. They do not fear God for the sake of reward, nor do they think that if they steal or murder they will be punished. They recommend good and dissuade from evil in the most admirable manner. And in order to resemble the Creator who arranged everything so perfectly, they have contrived laws, or rather regulations without binding force, and which may be overridden in times of need. (IV, 19)


     These laws of the philosophers are the "fabricated religion" that the philosophers created in order to reach the proper purity of heart. They are what the philosopher advocated to the Khazar king at the beginning of the book as one of the alternatives among the religions. Accordingly, these laws are not obligatory; they are merely a means of bringing a person to purity of heart, so that he may reach the ultimate objective of conjoining with the Active Intellect.


In the next lecture, I will examine how this understanding constitutes the foundation for rejecting the philosophical approach, even before R.YehudaHalevi confronts it in a substantive manner.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] Guttmann adds the follows qualification: "As an historical account, this characterization of philosophy is decidedly one-sided. Halevi's Aristotelian opponents were far from thinking of God only as on object of knowledge. In fact, Halevi himself attributes to them the opposite tendency of endeavoring to attain communion with God through knowledge, thereby substituting a kind of pseudo-religion for true religion" (J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism, p. 125).

[2] This is remarkably reminiscent of the words of the philosopher cited in the previous lecture regarding the relationship between the emanations above the sub-lunar sphere and those below it.

[3] Here the Rambam distinguishes between fear and love:  love is acquired through the rational truths, whereas fear is acquired through the actions of the Torah. This is not the forum to expand upon this distinction.

[4] Regarding intellectual comprehension that is devoid of religious passion, see Guttmann, p. 125.

[5] This is an exceedingly important point for Judaism, in which sacrificing one's life for the sake of God's name is a religious ideal of the first order, and perhaps of the highest order that one can attain. R. YehudaHalevi argues that this ideal cannot grow out of faith built exclusively upon logical reasoning and intellectual cognition. Rabbi Akiva would not have been able to identify with the absolute imperative of "'With all your soul' – even if He takes your soul" and say with perfect faith "All my life I was distressed by this verse… when will it come my way that I be able to fulfill it," had his faith not been founded on an emotional encounter as well. I will relate to this point at greater length in the lecture devoted to religious service.