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Shiur #05: Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's Attitude Toward Philosophy (Part II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

            As we saw in the previous lecture, R. Yehuda Halevi does not utterly reject philosophy, nor does he consider it unnecessary; he rather limits it and defines its borders.  In this lecture, I shall try to define these limits more clearly.


            The Rabbi defines philosophy for the first time at the very beginning of the book:


That which you express is correct with respect to religion based on speculation and directed at governance of the polity - research of thought, but open to many doubts.  (I, 13)


            R. Halevi sees the role of philosophy as directed at the administration of society.  The connection between governing and reason will be explained later in the work.


In a later passage, the Rabbi lists the various levels of existence in the natural world, starting with the inanimate and reaching the creature endowed with speech -  man.  Animals are superior to plants in that they have a soul.  This provides them with movement, will-power, external as well as internal senses, and the like.  Man, who is endowed with speech, is differentiated from animals in that:


Intellect is man's birthright above all living beings.  This leads to the development of his faculties, his home, his country, from which arise administrative and regulative laws.  (I, 35)


Man's superiority over animals lies in the fact that man has intellect in addition to the soul.  The intellect provides him with capabilities that are focused in two areas.


            The first is improvement.  Man has the ability to advance, to improve, and to perfect himself.  He is not a static creature who merely survives, but a dynamic one who conquers.  Whereas about animals, the verse states: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply in the earth" (Bereishit 1:22), man was told: "Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it" (ibid. 1:28).  Man's mission on earth is to repair and perfect.  The world is in need of repair, and man plays a central role in bringing about this repair.


            The second area in which the intellect defines man is society.  All advances and improvements are directed at the attainment of this objective.  At the first stage, man develops his own traits and faculties, then those of his home, and finally those of his country, giving rise thereby to the art of politics.  Man develops not just an instinctual social framework, but one that is organized and dynamic.


            This explains R. Halevi's comments about the type of religion that is directed at the administration of society.  Religion based on human intellect suffices to allow man to live an orderly life in a just society.  Indeed, R. Halevi praises this advantage:


They are full of doubts, and there is no consensus of opinion between one philosopher and another.  Yet they cannot be blamed, nay, deserve thanks for all they have produced in abstract speculations.  For their intentions were good; they observed the laws of reason, and led virtuous lives.  (V, 14)


            Man's intellectual superiority enables him to establish a just and moral government, and the philosophers, who have brought human intellect to its highest development, are capable of establishing a government that operates at best and highest level possible.[1]


            We saw, however, that, according to R.  Halevi, there is a whole realm of knowledge, namely physics and metaphysics, that man cannot reach with his most elevated quality, his intellect.  Does this mean that man has no access to this realm of knowledge? Absolutely not.  To our great surprise, the chain of being in the natural world does not end with human intellect:


The Rabbi: Which is the next highest degree?

The Khazar king: The degree of great sages.

The Rabbi: I only mean that degree which separates those who occupy it in a qualitative way, as the plant is separated from inorganic things, or man from animals.  The differences as to quantity, however, are endless, as they are only accidental, and do not really form a degree.

The Khazar king: If this be so, then there is no degree above man among tangible things.

The Rabbi: If we find a man who walks into the fire without being hurt, or abstains from food for some time without starving, on whose face a light shines which the eye cannot bear, who is never ill, nor ages, until having reached his life's natural end, who dies spontaneously just as a man retires to his couch to sleep on an appointed day and hour, equipped with the knowledge of what is hidden as to past and future: is such a degree not visibly distinguished from the ordinary human degree?

The Khazar king: This is, indeed, the Divine and seraphic degree, if it exists at all.  It belongs to the province of the Divine influence, but not to that of the intellectual, animated, or natural world.

The Rabbi: These are some of the characteristics of the undoubted prophets through whom God made Himself manifest.  (I, 37-43)


            The Rabbi presents the Khazar king with a new level of existence that is distinguished from the level below it in a qualitative, and not merely a quantitative, way.  This level raises man above ordinary natural life, and removes him, as argued by the Khazar king, from the animated and intellectual provinces to the Divine province.


            Some human beings, then, are endowed not only with the animated influence, like animals, and the intellectual influence, like the rest of mankind, but also the Divine influence.


            A separate lecture will be devoted to the Divine influence.  Let it suffice to say for now that this outlook distinguishes between two possible levels that can be reached by man.  The intellectual level enables man to build a just society and to run its affairs in an honest, truthful, and righteous manner.  The Divine influence is what enables man to penetrate realms that go beyond his existence in society, realms that the human intellect cannot reach.


Philosophy and philosophers, according to R. Halevi, enable man to build a just society, but when he wishes to raise himself to a higher level above that of his simple, natural existence, he must leave his intellect behind and approach the matter with new tools, tools that will be discussed in the coming lectures.


In this context, it is interesting to examine R. Kook's approach to the formation of nations:


The state is not the source of man's highest joy.  This applies to an ordinary state… where many ideas, which are the crown of man's life, hover above it, and do not touch it.  This is not true of a state that is founded on ideals, where inscribed on its being is supreme ideal content that is truly the greatest joy of the individual.  This state is truly supreme on the ladder of joy, and this state is our state, the state of Israel, the foundation of God's throne in this world, whose sole desire is that God should be one and His name one, which is truly the supreme joy.  (Orot Yisrael, chap. 6, 7)


            R. Kook distinguishes between two types of states.  The first is concerned with maintaining itself in a proper manner, with no person causing harm to another, and providing its citizens with welfare, on the one hand, and protection, on the other.  The values on the basis of which this state operates are good and meaningful, but essentially they were created in order to serve the individuals living in the state. 


Every state maintains law and order: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive" (Avot 3:2).  The laws of the state are meant to protect the individual from his neighbor, to allow him to live a normal life, etc.  Almost every state maintains some kind of a welfare system.  The assumption is that society must support its weaker and more unfortunate members.    


There are values meant to improve one's personal qualities, one's home, and the state as a whole.  However, in a regular state, an entire realm of ideas and values is left on the outside.  And the filtering system is clear: That which serves man's natural existence is on the inside, and that which doesn't is on the outside.


            "The state of Israel" - as R. Kook already at the beginning of the twentieth century referred to the Jewish state - that would one day come into being, is not meant to be a state of this sort.  It is a state that is supposed to serve as God's throne, that is to say, to serve a purpose higher than itself.  It is a state the goal of which is to unite God and His name, to serve as a conduit connecting the human world to the world of God and always to reduce the distance between them.  These objectives differ in their essence from the objectives of an ordinary state in that they go beyond the inner existence of the state.  Those living in such a state look outwards, outside of themselves.  Effectively, a state of this sort is merely an instrument - not an instrument for the sake of its citizens, but rather an instrument to be used by its citizens to reach some exalted value that is high above it and all its citizens.


            R. Kook's words may help us reach a deeper appreciation of R. Halevi's position.  Going beyond yourself and beyond the society that surrounds you and aiming towards eternal values located outside of human existence is what turns a person and the members of society as a whole into lofty creatures who have raised themselves above their natural level of existence.  According to R. Halevi, this going beyond oneself is not possible when the only thing driving man is his intellect.  The intellect is limited in that it is inherent to man and, as such, it can reach the limits of his mind; this limit is indeed very high, but not any higher than man's stature or society's stature.


            In order to leap beyond this level, contact must be made "with something on the outside." As we will see in the coming lectures, according to R. Halevi, this contact is "the Divine influence" – revelation, the encounter with the transcendent, that gives man a perspective that goes beyond himself.


            This is the "crown of life," as R. Kook puts it.[2] And this is man's supreme happiness.


            Accordingly, Judaism, which, as we shall see in the next lecture, is founded on revelation, is a religion built atop the religion of philosophy.  Judaism is what enables man to raise himself from the heights of his natural-intellectual level to a new and even higher level.[3]


            R. Yehuda Halevi makes a similar distinction between rational laws and the received "Divine" laws.  This, too, will be discussed at length in a later lecture.  Here I wish merely to mention the principle in order to note the similarity of two distinctions.


            The Rabbi sees the rational laws as products of reason, which follow from logical thinking, and they are therefore common in one form or another to all peoples and every society, even the society of robbers:


These are the rational laws, being the basis and preamble of the Divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society.  Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last.  (II, 48)


            The received "Divine" laws, on the other hand, are not necessarily intelligible, and they are meant to elevate a person above his social existence towards the Divine level.  This is why the Sage refers to them as "Divine" laws.  It is impossible to attain them by way of speculation and deduction:


Whosoever strives by speculation and deduction to prepare the conditions for the reception of this inspiration… such a man is an unbeliever.  (I, 79)


            In this context, the Rabbi relates the parable of the ignoramus who enters a pharmacy in search of the right medicine but has no idea what he is doing.  This is comparable to the philosopher who tries to reach Divine truths through human reason.


            The relationship between rational laws and Divine laws, that is, between laws meant to serve as a tool for administrating society in a just and righteous manner and those that aid the upward leap to a higher spiritual and metaphysical level, is very clear according to R. Halevi: "The divine law cannot become complete till the social and rational laws are perfected" (II, 48).  A society that strives to elevate itself spiritually above its natural level must not abandon the administration of society and the laws that are founded upon human reason.  Just as this is true about society, so is it true about the individual, in reference to whom the Rabbi states: "The Divine influence only dwells in a soul which is susceptible to intellect" (II, 26).[4]


            It turns out, then, that religion based on reason, according to R. Halevi, has a very important role in establishing the natural life of man.  It provides man with the tools to push his intellectual capabilities to the limit and reach the highest natural level, which R. Halevi concedes was what the great Greek philosophers did.


            For this reason, R. Halevi praises the philosophers for their contribution to human culture.  The level reached by the philosophers has not only a social benefit but a Divine one as well.  When the Rabbi distinguishes between the name E-lokim and the Tetragrammaton (as we shall see in the lecture on Divine names), he asserts that "the idea of the name E-lokim" – that the world has a ruler who sets it in order – may be reached through logical speculation.  This apprehension, notes the Rabbi, is one that depends upon the person's rational judgment.  Here the philosophers tower over all the others:


Opinions differ on the basis of different speculations, but that of the philosophers is the best on the subject.  (IV, 15)


            On the one hand, a Jew must not content himself with this level; on the other hand, he must not be frightened by the words of the philosophers regarding that which is above the intellectual level, because they are intruding into a realm that is not theirs.  R. Halevi does not cut himself off from philosophy.  He merely asks of those who expose themselves to it to put it in its proper place and to establish boundaries that are not to be violated.  In order to continue beyond that level, a person must seek his nourishment from a different source.  This new source will enable rational man to rise to a qualitatively higher level, as will be discussed in the next lecture.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1]      Regarding this point, it should be noted that already among the early philosophers in ancient Greece there were those who thought that a philosopher should serve as the head of the state.  According to Pythagoras, human society should be led by a philosopher who understands the natural order.  This view was adopted by Plato and others.

[2]      A crown is not part of the head, but outside of it and above it; it adorns the head and gives it new significance. 

[3]      Silman maintains that according to R. Halevi the struggle with philosophy and the need to confront philosophical arguments is not only a historical need, but it rather stems from the fact that man is an intellectual being and the fact that the prophetic level is based on the intellectual level (Yochanan Silman, Bein Filosof Le-Navi, [Bar-Ilan, 1985], p. 19).  In the next lecture, I will take issue with this argument.  Indeed, R. Halevi maintains that the intellectual level precedes the prophetic level, but the essence of the intellectual level is that it goes only as far as the point where prophecy begins, which is already the realm of metaphysics.  When a person makes the leap from the intellectual level to the prophetic level, he does not take his intellect to the new level.  Hence, when he is at the higher level and when he deals with issues relating to prophecy, there is no room for rational arguments, as we shall see in future lectures. 

[4]      This idea has many ramifications for the attainment of spiritual perfection.  R. Halevi does not accept a society that is devoid of laws, forsakes the natural levels of man acquired by way of reason and intellect, and puts all its trust in the spiritual and sublime.  Such a society, or such an individual, will not be able to benefit from the spiritual if it is not based on firm natural and intellectual foundations.  It seems to me that this applies not only to lifestyle but also to methods of study.  See also R. Kook, Orot Ha-Techiya, no. 60, where he deals with a similar issue.