Shiur #04: Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's Attitude Toward Philosophy (Part I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

1. The Khazar King's Response to the Philosopher


            In the Kuzari,R. Yehuda Halevi attacks philosophy and the philosopher in two ways:


1) through the Khazar king’s comments to the philosopher;

2) through the Rabbi’s comments to the Khazar king.


In the words that Rihal[1] puts into the mouth of the Khazar king, the philosopher and philosophy are primarily accused of being irrelevant. What they have to say might be beautiful and illuminating, but nevertheless disconnected from life. Philosophy is irrelevant to the king’s spiritual needs in the wake of his dream, and it is irrelevant to the religious wars that have played such a central role in human history.[2]


It is important to note that the Khazar king's arguments are all devoid of rational confrontation. The fact that philosophy does not fulfill the Khazar king's spiritual needs says nothing about the truth of philosophy. And philosophy's worthlessness in the context of religious wars does not testify to its failure; perhaps even the opposite is true.


Even the last argument of the Khazar king - that there have been no reports of philosophers performing miracles and wonders – does not cause the edifice of philosophy to come tumbling down. Here, too, the opposite is true, for philosophy rejects the possibility of God intervening in the world and of man coming into contact with Him; there is therefore a logical lapse in this argument raised against the philosophers.


It seems to me that the common denominator of these arguments lies in two words: experience and revelation.


We are not dealing only with irrelevance. The philosophers, through their understanding of God, wish to pull the carpet out from under the concept of revelation.


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


As we saw in the first lecture, the king's dream lays the foundation for the central principle in Rihal's understanding of Judaism – the principle of revelation.


Philosophy is inadequate to explain the revelation of the Khazar king's dream. The philosopher avoids entirely the debate between the various religions, which rests on the question of to whom God revealed Himself. These points, in addition to philosophy's denial of wonders, miracles, and dreams, which are clear expressions of revelation – all these sharpen the difference between philosophy and Judaism. It seems to me that we are not dealing here with logical rejection, but with emotional rejection. The logical rejection will come later in the book.


The philosophers wish to wipe out thousands of years of live encounter between man and God. It is this that the Khazar king refuses to accept even before he hears a single word about the logic in the teachings of philosophy:


This proves that the divine influence as well as the souls have a secret which is not identical with what you say, O Philosopher. (I, 4)


            The connection between the Divine influence and  souls, according to the philosopher, is one of knowledge. As we saw in the previous lecture, there is no essential difference between not knowing God and not knowing the nature of the earth, for we are dealing exclusively with knowledge. The Khazar king, based on his intuition and his experience of the world (the dream, wars, tradition), cannot accept this lifeless connection, and rejects it out of hand. As stated above, this is not a logical rejection, but it sharpens the most important difference between the god of Aristotle and the God of Abraham, as the Khazar king says later in the book:


Now I understand the difference between Elokim and Hashem (the Tetragrammaton), and I see how far the God of Abraham is different from that of Aristotle. Man yearns for Hashem as a matter of love, taste, and conviction; while attachment to Elokim is the result of speculation. A feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake, and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation, however, makes veneration a necessity only as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake. I would, therefore, excuse Aristotle for thinking lightly about the observance of the law, since he doubts whether God has any cognizance of it. (IV, 16)


            It seems to me that we can relate to these words from a psychological perspective as well. One of the main flags waved by the philosophical tradition is the flag of objectivity. When I approach a particular issue, especially a theological issue, if I wish to examine it in an honest and genuine manner, I must be objective. I must not come as a descendant of Abraham or of Ishmael or as a follower of Jesus. If I do, my ability to examine the issue by reasonable standards would be greatly diminished.


            The philosopher, who categorically rejects the various religions and detaches himself from all traditions, sits on the Mount Olympus of knowledge, high above all the other disputants, who come with baggage heavily laden with beliefs and traditions.


            At first glance, the philosopher's position truly appears lofty and superior to those of the "religionists." But at this stage, even before R. Yehuda Halevi examines  the truth of the philosopher's "throne" (and he will do this in thorough fashion, as we shall see later in this lecture), he turns everything upside down by transforming the philosopher's great advantage into a disadvantage.


            The philosopher claims to be "without interests," but owing to this attribute, the Khazar king chooses to leave him outside the discussion.[3]


The first upheaval that R. Yehuda Halevi brings about starts here in the words of the Khazar king to the philosopher, when he dares to relate to philosophy as being irrelevant. He does not yet attack philosophy because of logical inconsistencies – the usual grounds for disqualifying a position - but because it does not answer the needs, desires and events that accompany human culture.


2. The Rabbi's Argument Against Philosophy


Before examining the Rabbi’s position, a word about his title.  In the original Arabic, the Rabbi is called “habr,” which translates directly into Hebrew as “chaver,”while the Christian and Moslem interlocutors are called “alim,” translated into Hebrew as “chakham.”  An “alim” is a learned person, while “habr,” a term of higher esteem than “alim,” is most properly translated as “sage,” though it can also mean simply a Jewish religious authority.[4] Since we are using the Hirschfield translation, and since “sage” does not make clear any Jewish affiliation, we will adhere in this series to the title “Rabbi” for the chaver.


R. Yehuda Halevi's attitude toward philosophy finds primary expression in the statements concerning philosophy made by the Rabbi in various places in the book. I will try to present this attitude in an orderly fashion.



Rihal tries to examine philosophy with "objective" logical tools and to deal with it at this level as well.


The Rabbi speaks about a tradition of knowledge that is "supported by the Divine influence." This knowledge began with Adam, who was the most perfect creature on earth.[5] From him, the knowledge was passed down as an inheritance to his son Shem, and from Shem it was passed down from one generation to the next until it reached the people of Israel, who now bear this knowledge.


About the philosophers, the Rabbi says as follows:


There is an excuse for the philosophers. Being Greek, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances. They belong to the descendants of Yefet, who inhabited the north. (I, 63)


            Elsewhere, the Rabbi explains that at a certain stage, during the time of Solomon, this inherited knowledge spread beyond the borders of the kingdom of Israel, but things went wrong:


The inhabitants of the earth traveled to him, in order to carry forth his learning, even as far as India. Now the roots and principles of all sciences were handed down from us first to the Chaldeans, then to the Persians and Medians, then to Greece, and finally to the Romans. On account of the length of this period, and the many disturbing circumstances, it was forgotten that they had originated with the Hebrews, and so they were ascribed to the Greeks and Romans. To Hebrew, however, belongs the first place, both as regards the nature of the languages, and as to fullness of meanings. (II, 66)


            According to Rihal, three things happened to Israel's knowledge when it spread across the world.


1) The Hebrew language disappeared because Israel's knowledge was translated into the local language.

2) The contents became corrupted in transmission.

3) The original (Jewish) source of the knowledge was gradually forgotten.


For this reason, we find sciences among the nations of the world that have no connection to Jewish knowledge. Essentially, however, all sciences have their roots in Jewish knowledge, the knowledge that was supported by Divine influence and passed down by inheritance from Adam.


When the Greeks saw that the tradition that they had was not a true tradition (or, as the Rabbi puts it, "because he [Aristotle] had no tradition from any reliable source at his disposal" [I, 65]), they were left with no other alternative but to exert their minds and engage in rational speculation: 


We cannot blame philosophers for missing the mark, since they only arrived at this knowledge by way of speculation, and the result could not have been different. The most sincere among them speak to the followers of a revealed religion in the words of Socrates: "My friends, I will not contest your theology. I say, however, that I cannot grasp it; I only understand human wisdom."[6]  (IV, 13)


            Rihal does not give in; he talks about "a tradition of knowledge." One might have thought that the concept of knowledge need not be connected to tradition. Why should the lack of a tradition of knowledge among the Greeks have limited their ability to reach conceptual truths? To sharpen the matter, let us compare R. Yehuda Halevi's position to another view, which we shall yet have occasion to discuss in detail -  the epistemology of Rav Sa'adya Ga'on in his Emunot Ve-De'ot:


…It behooves us to give an account of the bases of truth and the vouchers of certainty which are the source of all knowledge and the mainspring of all cognition. Discoursing about them in keeping with the aim of this book, we declare that there are three [such] bases. The first consists of the knowledge gained by [direct] observation. The second is composed of the intuition of the intellect. The third comprises that knowledge which is inferred by logical necessity.

Following up [this] enumeration with an explanation of each of these roots of knowledge, we say that we understand by the knowledge of observation whatever a person perceives by means of one of the five senses; that is, by means of sight or hearing or smell or taste or touch. By intuition of the intellect, we mean such notions as spring up solely in the mind of a human being, such as approbation of truthfulness and disapproval of mendacity. By the knowledge derived from logical necessity is meant conclusions, which, unless they are accepted by the individual as true, would compel his denial of the validity of his rational intuitions or the perception of his senses. Since, however, he cannot very well negate either of these two, he must regard the said inference as being correct. (Introduction, 5)


According to Rav Sa'adya's epistemology, there are three components behind every idea that a person has: 1) observation by the senses, 2) intuition of the intellect, and 3) inference by logical necessity, which may be referred to as the deductive process.


When a person sees another person jumping off a building, he knows that in a few seconds he will crash to the ground and die. This knowledge is based on the three components mentioned above.


First, with his own two eyes he sees the person jumping. He sees that there is nothing that will stop his fall or cushion it when he reaches the ground.


Second, he knows with his reason that gravity will pull the person down, and thus there is no chance that the person will end up suspended in midair. He also knows that the person's accelerating speed will make him hit the ground with great force, and he knows as well that his bones and blood vessels will not stand up to impact of such intensity.


At the third stage, he concludes that what he saw with his senses, and what he knows with his reason, necessitates that the person who jumped off the building will die in just another few seconds.


We offered a simple example, but Rav Sa'adya argues that every idea is comprised of these three components. What is more important for our purposes is that these three components suffice for the acquisition of certain knowledge.


Rav Sa'adya Gaon makes no mention of a tradition of knowledge, nor of corruptions in transmission. All mistakes, all erroneous ideas, all heresies – all stem from errors in one of these three components: the senses, the mind, or inferences based on logical necessity.


In order to understand Rihal's position, we must examine a fundamental distinction that he puts into the Rabbi's mouth in another passage.


The Rabbi distinguishes between two types of sciences: the mathematical and logical sciences - mathematics, geometry, etc. -  and the physical and metaphysical sciences - physics, chemistry, biology, certainly theology, and in our days, we can add the entire realm of social sciences that were not yet developed in Rihal's day, such as psychology, anthropology, and the like.[7]


Rihal notes that the philosophers offer true proofs in the mathematical and logical sciences, proofs that bring perfect rest to the soul. The mistake, however, was that because the philosophers brought absolute and solid proofs in the realm of mathematics and logic, "people accepted everything they said concerning physics and metaphysics, taking every word as evidence" (V, 14).


The Rabbi immediately offers as examples the philosophers' understanding of the four elements and death, raising one doubt after another.


It should be noted that, once again, we are dealing with a position that is almost a thousand years ahead of its time. Until the end of the nineteenth century, scientists continued to claim that there were only a few more things that science had to master before knowledge of the world in all its components could be crowned as "perfect knowledge."[8] It was only with Einstein's discoveries at the beginning of the twentieth century that skepticism began to penetrate the consciousness of the world of science. Room was now allowed for the possibility that ideas which appear to have been proven by "true proofs," as Rav Sa'adya put it, will yet be disproved in the future.[9]


In order to sharpen our understanding of Rihal's position, let us try to define two more key concepts in his outlook: "speculation"  and "proof."


Proof[10] refers to incontrovertible demonstration that leaves no room for uncertainty or objection. It does not deal with speculations or assumptions that are not necessary, but with a closed and perfect logical process that cannot be denied.


R. Yehuda Halevi assigns the same level of certainty to an event that a person sees distinctly with his own eyes and is performed in such a manner that it cannot be denied. In order to bestow such a status on a particular event, it must meet exceedingly demanding criteria. Thus, Rihal distinguishes between an ordinary prophetic vision and the revelation at Mount Sinai. The prophets, notes Rihal, performed many miracles, but our faith is not based on those miracles, because that would require a miracle that cannot be challenged, for example, one that "took place in the presence of great multitudes, who saw it distinctly" (I, 8). Rihal regards the latter type of event as having been definitively established by rational proof. When a person reaches a truth through one of these alternatives - rational proof or an event established by rational proof - it is impossible to challenge such a truth:


Whoever is convinced by logical proof of the duration of the soul after the destruction of the body … will pay no attention to the idea that the activity of the soul is stopped during sleep or illness which submerges the mental powers, that it is subject to the vicissitudes of the body, and similar disquieting ideas. (III, 43)


            Elsewhere, the Rabbi expresses his absolute commitment to these two certainties:


Heaven forbid that there should be anything in the Bible to contradict that which is manifest or proved!  (I, 67)


            As opposed to proof, there is speculation.[11] It seems to me that if we return to the comparison to Rav Sa'adya Gaon, we will see that his epistemology parallels Rihal's logical speculation.


            Logical speculation refers to human thinking, when it relies exclusively on itself, such as Aristotle's conclusion regarding the eternity of the world: "Finally, these abstract speculations which made for eternity" (I, 65).


            Logical speculation attempts to replace tradition or the certainty of prophecy that falls into the category of proof:


Do not quote against me those recent astronomers, the thieves of science … They found, however, their science in a precarious condition, since the eye of prophecy was stricken with blindness; so they had recourse to speculation, and composed books on the strength of it. (II, 20)


            Logical speculation, according to R. Yehuda Halevi, is limited in its ability. It does not bestow certainty, and in all that is connected to the physical sciences and metaphysics, it allows for flexibility and play, as the Rabbi says regarding Aristotle and the creation of the world:[12]


Had he lived among a people with well authenticated and generally acknowledged traditions, he would have applied his deductions and arguments to establish the theory of creation. (I, 65)[13]


            Rihal emphasizes time and again that logical speculation comes in place of logical proof, and wherever there is the latter there is no need for the former. From here, Rihal concludes that logical speculation suffices to deal with mathematical and logical questions and the like, but as for the physical sciences and metaphysics, logical speculation does not suffice: "In the service of God there is no arguing, reasoning, and debating" (I, 99).[14]


            Thus, it follows that anyone who uses logical speculation in this realm is like a blind man groping in his darkness.[15] Nevertheless, this was the path taken by the philosophers, for example, with respect to Divine attributes:


Even philosophers who, with their refined intuition and clear view, acknowledge a Prime Cause different from earthly things and unparalleled, are inclined to think that this Prime Cause exercises no influence on the world, and certainly not on individuals, as He is too exalted to know them, much less to make them the basis of a new entity. (II, 54)


            In light of Rihal's understanding of the limits of logical speculation's ability to reach the truth on questions of this sort, the Rabbi says that the philosophers cannot be blamed for their mistakes, for the tools that they had at their disposal were limited:


We cannot blame philosophers for missing the mark, since they only arrived at this knowledge by way of speculation, and the result could not have been different. (IV, 13)


            Thus, the Rabbi advises the Khazar king not to search for answers to his theological questions through logical speculation:


Now you did allow yourself to be deceived by injurious fancies, did seek that which your Creator did not grant you, and to obtain which no facilities have been granted to human nature. (V, 14)


            R. Yehuda Halevi's argument is a revolutionary and modern one, hundreds of years before its time. The ramifications of this argument will be discussed in the coming lectures.[16]


Rihal proves his argument regarding logical speculation's inability to provide absolute answers to theological questions from historical fact regarding disagreements:


Philosophers justify their recourse to speculation by the absence of prophecy and divine light. They established the demonstrative sciences on a broad and unlimited basis, and on that account separated without either agreeing or disagreeing with each other concerning that on which they held such widely diverging views later on in metaphysics, and occasionally in physics. If there exists a class representing one and the same view, this is not the result of research and investigation, but because they belong to the same philosophic school in which this was taught, as the schools of Pythagoras, Empedocles, Aristotle, Plato, or others, as the Academy and Peripatetics, who belong to the school of Aristotle. (V, 14)


And similarly in another passage:


That which you express is religion based on speculation and system, the research of thought, but open to many doubts. Now ask the philosophers, and you will find that they do not agree on one action or one principle, since some doctrines can be established by arguments, which are only partially satisfactory, and still much less capable of being proved. (I, 13)


            Rihal uses this argument in systematic fashion in various places in the book:[17] disagreements testify to the uncertainty inherent in the method.


            It is interesting to see how Rav Sa'adya deals with the disagreements that arose over the course of history, for according to him, science and philosophy are certain and allow for precise definition. In order to account for disagreement, Rav Sa'adya harnesses a famous passage in the Gemara:


The Sages of the children of Israel have also said with reference to him who has not fully studied the subject matter of wisdom: “Ever since the number of disciples of Hillel and Shammai increased who did not wait upon scholars sufficiently, there has been an increase of the number of disagreements” (Sota 47b, Sanhedrin 88b). This utterance of theirs indicates to us that when disciples do complete their course of study, no controversy or discord arises among them.

Let, therefore, the worried fool refrain from ascribing his failings to the Creator, exalted and magnified be He. Let him not say that it was He who had implanted the doubts in him. Rather it was his own folly or his worry that had hurled him into these doubts, as we have explained.  (Emunot ve-De'ot, introduction, 3)


            According to Rav Sa'adya, disagreement results from scholarly negligence. Were a person to make proper use of the tools that Rav Sa'adya enumerated earlier, he would presumably arrive at the truth, and there would be no disagreements whatsoever.


            R. Yehuda Halevi agrees with the assumption that there exist absolute truths, but he disagrees with the assumption that logical speculation/human wisdom can reach these truths. While Rav Sa'adya understands disagreement as resulting from a corruption of logical speculation, Rihal sees it as revealing the weakness of such speculation. We are dealing with logic that is relative and speculative, and it therefore cannot lead to certainty. Thus, it opens the way for disagreements and contradictions, and no person is able to prove another person's error in an absolute fashion.


            When a person faces a theological problem, logical speculation generally provides more than one answer.[18] Thus, the desire to reach theological truth by way of logical speculation (in the manner of Rav Sa'adya, for example) is hopeless, and success is absolutely accidental. In the same way that a person chose the path that he actually followed, he could just as well have chosen another path.


            In the next lecture, I will continue this discussion and try to delimit the realm of philosophy and the role that it plays in man's world according to R. Yehuda Halevi.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Rihal is an acronym for R. Yehuda Halevi.

[2] The final argument raised by the Khazar king against the philosopher relates to the absence of prophecy and prophetic dreams among the philosophers. I addressed this argument in lecture 2.

[3] R. Halevi confronts the philosophical school throughout the Kuzari, but this confrontation takes place at the level of examining whether there is truth to the methods and principles of philosophy. This confrontation takes place in the framework of the discussion between the Khazar king and the Jew, after the king himself had already decided to disregard the philosopher. That decision was not related to the arguments that would be brought up later in the book, but exclusively to the simple fact, as we saw above, that he found the philosopher irrelevant to his life.

[4] Our thanks to Prof. Barry Kogan for clarifying the Arabic terms, and to Prof. David Shatz for his help.

[5] I will deal with this issue at length in the lecture on the uniqueness of Israel

[6] This statement of Socrates is cited once again in V, 14.

[7] It should be remembered that we are dealing with a time period during which theology, philosophy, and science were intricately connected; every self-respecting philosopher "swam" in all three waters. We find this among the ancient Greek philosophers, as well as among the medieval Jewish thinkers, such as Rav Sa'adya, the Rambam and others.

[8] It should be noted that even skeptical thinkers generally focused their skepticism on the relationship between the world as perceived through the senses and the world as it really is; they did not doubt the perception of the senses or the world of science built upon it.

[9] Let us note that even the realm that seemed - even in the skeptical eyes of R. Yehuda Halevi - to be certain and incontrovertible truth, the realm of geometry, became destabilized with the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry.

[10] Often joined to the word "rational" or "logical," which are synonymous (I: 8,13,15,66,67,86; III: 43,53; IV:3; V:6,14).

[11] Which is also often joined to the word "rational" or "logical" (I: 5,79,88,99; II: 20,49,54,64,68; III: 17,19,21,39,49,68,72; IV: 3,15,16,17,25,27; V: 11,12,14).

[12] He says the same thing about what the Christian has to say (I, 5). I will relate to this point in a future lecture.

[13] It should be noted that on this question, even the Rambam toiled to prove that Aristotle had no proof, and that Aristotle himself conceded that the world might be created or eternal (Guide of the Perplexed, II, 15-16).

[14] So, too, in II, 60. Once again, we see how Rihal directly confronts the philosophical view, according to which every individual, following his own reasoning, can create a religion for himself (see II, 49).

[15] Elsewhere, Rihal defines a level of cognition that is even lower than logical speculation – "appearances":

Common view and assumption deny the non-existence of the vacuum, while logical conclusion rejects its existence. Appearance denies the infinite divisibility of a body, while logic makes it an axiom. Appearance denies that the earth is a globe and the one hundred and sixtieth part of the sun disc. There are also other matters which astronomy establishes by way of logical proof against mere appearances (III, 49).

According to Rihal, "appearance" is intuition that a person must not rely upon, as is attested to by the contradiction between logical speculation and appearances. Were this the only passage in our possession, we might mistakenly think that Rihal sees logical speculation as the standard for truth in those realms that he brings as examples. But his explicit remarks in other places shed a different light on these words. It must be understood that the use that Rihal makes here of logical speculation is one of method, and its sole role is to undermine "appearances," but not to serve as a standard for establishing the truth regarding these matters.

This passage, however, is difficult, especially in light of Rihal's words, "there are also other matters which astronomy establishes by way of logical proof against mere appearances," which move the discussion from "speculation" to "proof." As we have seen, Rihal seems to maintain that in these areas, logical proofs have not been presented, and cannot be presented. This matter requires further study.

[16] In his criticism of philosophy, R. Yehuda Halevi follows in the path of the Islamic scholar, Al-Ghazali, who composed a comprehensive critique of the Islamic Aristotelian schools and rejected their proofs. (Several studies have been made of the similarity between Al-Ghazali and Rihal; see J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism, p. 427, note 137.)

In contrast to Al-Ghazali, however, Rihal's judgment of the philosophers is much more forgiving. According to Rihal, they are worthy of reward for their efforts, whereas according to Al-Ghazali, they are absolute heretics.

[17] Regarding the number of years that have passed since the creation of the world (I, 48), language, the decimal system (I, 58), the truth of the Oral Law and the falsity of Karaism (III, 24, 67), and the truth of the exodus from Egypt (III, 31).

[18] In the coming lectures, we will see that there are certain exceptions to this rule.