Shiur #06: Religion and Science According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In the previous lecture, we saw that according to R. Yehuda Halevi, philosophy is the science that can lead man to the highest human level, that is to say, the highest level that a person can reach by way of his intellect.  This level can lead to the best possible social organization of human life.


     But what can bring man to the next level, which, according to Rihal, bestows upon him metaphysical existence and which opens the door before him to an encounter with the metaphysical reality that Rihal calls the Divine influence?


     This brings us to the Jewish Sage's declaration of faith in his initial encounter with the Khazar king:


The Sage replied: I believe in the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them cross the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moshe with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant, and threats to the disobedient.  We believe in everything that is written in this Torah, a very large domain.  (I, 11)


     The Khazar king will have to travel a long way before he understands the profundity of this answer.  That journey starts with a parable that the Jewish Sage relates to the king.


     The parable about the king of India (I, 19-24) contains several new concepts that the Sage introduces into the discussion.


     The first new concept is that of "obligation" – we are not dealing with a non-binding outlook on the world, a world of pure ideas.  "If you were told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind you to revere him?" (I, 19), the Sage asks the king.  He asks once again in the continuation: "Would this make you beholden to him?" (I, 21.  Already here, without making special note of the point, the discussion shifts from the plain of intention to the plain of actions.  The question of faith is not merely an issue of outlook, but one of lifestyle and deeds, and here we see the first difference between philosophy and Judaism.


     The second new concept is "encounter" – The Sage opens with the words, "if you were told," and continues "if he came to you," but what he is essentially talking about is not "telling" or "coming," but rather "giving" (presents, curative drugs, and the like).  Once again the Sage shifts the discussion from the theoretical and purely intellectual level to the level of experience.  He is dealing with an encounter, with revelation.  The king turns, sends emissaries, bestows gifts, watches over, and acts.  The possibility of revelation is the second difference between philosophy and Judaism.


     The third new concept is "individualism" – "I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me" (I, 22).  This point is perhaps the most novel, and it distinguishes Judaism not only from philosophy, but from the other religions as well.  Here, for the first time in the book, it is asserted that one's obligation to God is a direct result of the encounter with Him (this point will be dealt with at length when we come to discuss the uniqueness of Israel).  In other words, he who has not had an encounter with God is not obligated to Him.  This is a very novel idea when contrasted with philosophy, which tries to impose universal character to its ideas, a tendency that was followed by some Jewish thinkers as well.  The national element, which stipulates an essential difference between the people of Israel and the other nations of the world with respect to their relationship with God, is based, according to Rihal, on the principle that obligation to God follows from the experience of encounter with Him.


The Khazar king: If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves?

The Sage: Yes… But the Law was given to us because He led us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the pick of mankind.  (I, 26-27)[1]


     Already in the Sage's early statements to the Khazar king, Rihal lays out the three foundations, which can be seen as the pillars of Judaism:

  1) Revelation – the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai.

1)   2) Obligation – the commandments.

2)   3) Nationalism – the unique qualities of Israel.


These are three central issues in Rihal's thought.  In this lecture, I will begin with the most fundamental of the three – revelation.  What aspect of the encounter of revelation constitutes, according to Rihal, the foundation of Jewish belief?


Here, it seems to me, we must be very precise with the Rihal's words, if we are to understand what he means to say.


Revelation, in our modern world, casts us in the direction of the existential dimension.  We conceive of revelation as an experience, and experience belongs to the world of emotions and not the realm of the intellect.  In addition, we tend to believe that introducing the intellect into the world of experience impairs and diminishes the intensity of the experience.  Many doubts can be raised about love, but the intensity of the experience of lover and beloved leaves no room for intellectual uncertainty.  Doubts penetrate when a hole is formed in the intensity of the emotions.[2]


When R. Yehuda Halevi bases his world of belief on the experience of revelation, does he, too, move over from the realm of the intellect to the realm of the emotions? It seems to me that the answer is no.


Rihal understands revelation as it was understood by other Jewish thinkers of his time.  The intensity of the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai lies not only in the intimacy between God and man created by these two events, and not even in the explicit deviation from the laws of nature that accompanied these events, but rather in the collective, communal nature of these occurrences.


The Sage labors to prove the certainty of the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai (I, 83-87); the guiding principle in all his proofs is the collective nature of the event, which bars the possibility of forgery or deception:


The Khazar king: This is, in truth, divine power, and the commandments connected with it must be accepted.  No one could imagine for a moment that this was the result of necromancy, calculation, or fantasy.  For had it been possible to procure belief in any imaginary dividing of the waters, and the crossing of the same, it would also have been possible to gain credence for a similar imposition concerning their delivery from bondage, the death of their tormentors, and the capture of their goods and chattels.  This would be even worse than denying the existence of God…

The Khazar king: This also is irrefutable, viz.  a thing which occurred to six hundred thousand people for forty years.  Six days in the week the Manna came down, but on the Sabbath it stopped.  This makes the observance of the Sabbath obligatory, since divine ordination is visible in it…

They distinctly heard the Ten Commandments, which represent the very essence of the Law.  One of them is the ordination of Sabbath, a law which had previously been connected with the gift of the Manna.  The people did not receive these ten commandments from single individuals, nor from a prophet, but from God, only they did not possess the strength of Moses to bear the grandeur of the scene.  (I, 84-87)


     The first stage, in the framework of building the foundations of the Jewish faith, is the certainty of collective revelation (the second stage, which will be examined later, is tradition).  On this point, Rihal follows in the steps of other philosophers of his time.  The source of this proof is Rav Sa'adya Ga'on, who regarded the fact that the Jewish tradition is based on collective revelation before six hundred thousand people as proof of the certainty of revelation.


     The isolated individual, who claims to have enjoyed an encounter with the Divine, will always have to contend with the uncertainty that perhaps it was a mirage, an illusion, or the work of his imagination, and he might even have to contend with the accusation that he is lying.  Six hundred thousand men, women, and children cannot all be exposed at the same time to an imaginary illusion, nor can there be a conspiracy between them:


The first leader, Moses, made the people stand by Mount Sinai, that they might see the light which he himself had seen, should they be able to see it in the same way… By these means all evil suspicion was removed from the people, lest they opined that prophecy was only the privilege of the few who claimed to possess it.  For no common compact is possible among so many people….  (IV, 11)[3]


     The authority that Rihal attaches to the revelation at Sinai stems not from the intensity of the experience, but from its certainty.  The certainty of something that is clearly perceived is equivalent to the certainty of a rational proof, which according to Rihal is a proof that cannot be refuted (as we saw in the previous lecture).


     This is why Rihal sees the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai as the exemplary bases for faith.  Regarding his opening the discussion with these two topics, he states: "Surely the beginning of my speech was just the proof, and so evident that it requires no other argument" (I, 15).


     I noted in my opening lectures that Rihal shifts the basis of religious belief from intellectual proof and rational demonstration to revelation, encounter, and experience.  I hold fast to this position, but now we can better understand the meaning of this shift.  Rihal's dismissal of logical argumentation should not be understood as an abandonment of the intellect as a tool of judgment (as we saw in Lecture 2 in Chassidic thought).  On the contrary, the conclusion that God's revelation to Israel at the exodus from Egypt and at Sinai is the foundation of the Jewish faith because it cannot be refuted is also a product of reason.  As opposed to logical speculation, however, here we are dealing with intellectual certainty, at the level of rational proof.


     This is the first step, but R. Yehuda Halevi sees this merely as the beginning of the journey.  Thus far we have seen that the revelation in Egypt and at Sinai provided Israel with the certainty of an encounter that created an obligation toward God, who had revealed Himself to them.  But the revelation did not exhaust itself in the revelation itself; rather, it bore within it an entire array of content – God's Torah.


     God's Torah provides us with the substance and ideas that comprise an entire theology, from the creation of the world, through the selection of Israel, the selection of the land of Cana'an, the manner of God's governance of the world, Divine names and attributes, and the way that man must conduct his life.  All this is found in the Torah that was given by God in circumstances and in a manner that allow no room for doubt.  The certainty of the event and of the God who revealed Himself through it bestows certainty and absolute authority to the Torah and all that is stated therein.


     In order to sharpen the point, let us once again compare Rihal's point of view to that of Rav Sa'adya Ga'on.


     We already saw (lecture 4) Rav Sa'adya Ga'on's epistemology.  Let us merely cite once again the overview of this outlook:


Having concluded now what we thought fit to append to our first statement, 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.  (Emunot Ve-de'ot, Introduction, 5)


     Rav Sa'adya describes a process based on the senses and on human reason, which is the process that leads man to truth and veracity in all areas of knowledge and cognition.


This approach is exceedingly pretentious in that it assumes that every idea, be it scientific, philosophical, or theological, lends itself to logical analysis; if this analysis is properly conducted, without veering from the rules, there will be one irrefutable conclusion.  According to Rav Sa'adya, this conclusion will, of course, be identical with the truths of the Jewish tradition.


This approach is so absolute for Rav Sa'adya Ga'on that he himself raises the question:


Of necessity we must append to this something that cannot be passed over, namely, we must ask, if all matters of religion are attainable by way of proper inquiry and analysis, as God has informed us, what was the wisdom of giving them to us by way of prophecy and performing manifest miracles in their regard, rather than intellectual proofs? (ibid. 6)


     In the framework of such an outlook, in which rational proofs provide man with answers to all theological (and other) questions, revelation, the Torah, and prophecy seem to be superfluous.


     Rav Sa'adya's answers to this question appear to be technical.  He gives several reasons that the Torah is necessary.  First, acquiring the truth by way of rational proofs cannot be done overnight, and without the Torah a person would remain without the proper beliefs for a long time.   Second, circumstances do not always permit a person to complete the process.  Last, not everyone is capable of executing the process, and therefore many people – those of limited intellect – would remain without the proper beliefs if it were not for the Torah.[4]


     Common to all these arguments is the underlying assumption that human reason, with the help of the three bases of knowledge described earlier by Rav Sa'adya[5] (as explained in Lecture 4), is capable of reaching absolute certainty with respect to religious beliefs.


     Against this backdrop, Rihal's position stands out sharply.  According to him, speculation and logic cannot bring a person to the level of certainty associated with rational proofs, whereas revelation before masses of people can bring him to such certitude.  Rihal, therefore, disagrees with Rav Sa'adya's assumption that the road to all knowledge and cognition passes through logical speculation.


     Here we come to the profound difference between Rav Sa'adya's attitude toward the Torah and that of R. Yehuda Halevi.


     According to Rav Sa'adya, as we have seen, the Torah offers an alternative track.  When a person faces a theological difficulty – the creation of the world, providence, reward and punishment, or the like – and he seeks a resolution, two options are open to him:


     The first, is the track of rational proof.  If a person is intellectually capable, he has the proper tools, and he is careful not to err along the way, he will reach the correct conclusion regarding the issue, with a level of certainty that leaves no room for any doubt whatsoever.


     The alternative track is that of the Torah and tradition.  Here he must open the Torah or that which came in its wake – rabbinic literature  -  to find the answer to his question.[6]


     According to Rihal, a believer in search of certainty has no choice in the matter.  The only path that he can follow is the path of the Torah.  The only way that he can achieve certainty with respect to the question of whether or not the world was created is by way of the Torah, whose certainty follows from the fact that it was given to a mass of people by way of certain revelation; rational proof on this matter has never been put forward (I, 67).


     Let us now return to the Jewish Sage's declaration of faith:


Now should you, O Jew, not have said that you believe in the Creator of the world, its Governor and Guide, and in Him who created and keeps you, and such attributes which serve as evidence for every believer, and for the sake of which He pursues justice in order to resemble the Creator in His wisdom and justice? (I, 12)


     The Khazar king paid attention to the strange answer given by the Sage, who chose to note a certain event in the history of Israel and view it as the basis for his faith.  In the meantime, he ignores the basic theological foundations, which would seem to be the basis and foundation for any religious belief: creation or eternity, Divine attributes, providence, and the like.  The Sage answers:


That which you express is religion based on speculation and system,[7] 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)


     Basing Judaism on such beliefs and opinions means basing faith on a process of logical speculation.  As we saw in the previous lecture, this is good for building an orderly society that takes care of itself, but it cannot bestow even partial certainty in all that is connected to theology and religious belief.


The role of revelation, therefore, is not only to create obligation towards God, in that it leaves no room for any doubt concerning His existence and His turning to those to whom He revealed Himself (as we saw at the beginning of this lecture in the parable of the king of India).  Its role is also to bestow substantive certainty regarding all the theological questions that Rihal will now raise.  This certainty is not based on intellectual analysis, as was recommended by other thinkers of the period – a path that is destined for clear failure – but on the ongoing encounter with the Torah and tradition.  This is the only certainty that can answer these questions.




     Before concluding, I wish to expand upon Rihal's attitude toward the revelation at Sinai.


     In Chazal's comments about the revelation at Sinai, we find two approaches that represent two different elements of that revelation.  I will bring an example of each approach:


Rav Shemuel bar Nachmani says: The tablets [of the Law] were six handbreadths long and six handbreadths wide, and Moshe held on to two handbreadths and the Holy One, blessed be He, [held on to] two handbreadths, and there were two handbreadths of space in the middle.  (Yerushalmi, Ta'anit 4:8)


     This focus on the moment of handing over the tablets of the law is not by chance.  It is true that this comment appears in the framework of the sin of the golden calf and Moshe's struggle, as it were, with God over the giving of the Torah, but this does not alter the fact that Rav Shemuel bar Nachmani sees the very moment of the giving of the Torah as the supreme moment.


     The Maharal follows this approach:


And therefore he said that two handbreadths of the tablets were in the hand of God, and two handbreadths in the hand of Moshe, and two handbreadths of space in the middle.  This is the absolute connection and conjunction that Israel has with the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is through the Torah that Israel conjoins with Him.  Had the tablets not yet been given, there would not have been a connection, because the tablets had not been given, and Israel did not yet enjoy connection.  And if the tablets had already been given, the tablets would already have been given, and there would have been no conjunction with God, for the main conjunction is when He gives to them, for in that way He connects to them.  (Netzach Yisrael, chap. 2)


     It should be noted that from this perspective, the Torah's content is marginal to the revelation.[8] What was written on the tablets was of no significance.  Even had God given Moshe a ring worth a peruta, each one holding on to one side of the ring, the revelation would have been in no way diminished, for it still would have created the connection between God and Israel.  The King turns to man, and even makes contact with him, certain contact that cannot be denied or refuted.  To such a King, one must be obligated.  "Happy is the people that is so situated; happy is the people whose God is the Lord."


     On the other hand, the revelation at Sinai has another dimension:


Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] says: To sing the praises of Israel, for when they all stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they would hear a commandment and explain it.  As it is stated: "He led him about, He instructed him" (Devarim 32:10) – as soon as they would hear a commandment, they would explain it.  (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro 9).


     This midrash sees the revelation at Sinai as having the character of a beit midrash.  The maggid shiur – Moshe in the name of God – stands before the people, who are all seated before him taking notes on the shiur.  Who had time to be impressed by the Cloud of Glory? Who allowed himself to experience the excitement of hearing the voice of God speaking to him? One had to quickly write down every word, for at that moment the world was receiving for the first time, and to this day also for the last time, certain answers to all questions: Creation or eternity? Doe God have no will or perhaps His will is the basis of everything? Does God desire man's actions, or perhaps they are irrelevant to Him?


     R. Yehuda Halevi holds the stick by both ends.  He does not give up in the slightest way on the very fact of revelation, on the enormous novelty of God's turning to man, or on, in Rihal's words, the removal of all false ideas about the connection, or more precisely, the lack of connection between God and man (I, 87).


     But neither does he give up on the revelation at Sinai as the source of knowledge and cognition.  Every cognition, every logical speculation, every intellectual process, is dwarfed by the absolute certainty of God's Torah.  In the next lecture, I shall deal with the ramifications of Rihal's approach.


In conclusion, I wish to cite a midrash that well illustrates the two focuses described above:


"And Moshe brought the people out of the camp to meet with God" (Shemot 19:17).  Rav Yose said: Yehuda would interpret: "The Lord came from Sinai" (Shemot 33:2) – Do not read it this way, but rather: "The Lord went to Sinai" – to give the Torah to Israel.  Or perhaps this is not so, but rather: "The Lord came from Sinai" – to receive Israel, like a bridegroom who goes out to greet the bride.  (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro, 3)


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1]  The principle that revelation only obligates its witnesses is stated for the first time here, and from now on it is adopted by the Khazar king as well (see I, 4, where the king himself expands on this idea).

[2]  "Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists?" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 32, note.) Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik cites this question in the name of the existentialist, SorenKierkegaard.

[3]  Similar words are said to the Moslem sage at the beginning of the book (I, 8).

[4]  In the continuation, he seems to bring another, more fundamental answer relating to the revelation to Israel, but we will not discuss it here.

[5]  Observation of the senses, intuition of the intellect, and inference by logical necessity.

[6]  It should be noted that this approach, according to RavSa'adya, enjoys the certainty of revelation, as we saw in Rihal; in this, Rihal follows in the footsteps of RavSa'adya.

[7]  We dealt with this issue in the previous lecture.

[8]  A more radical view that veers from the plain sense of Scripture, and in my opinion from the bounds of Halakha as well, may be found in a letter written by Franz Rosenzweig to Martin Buber.  In that letter, Rosenzweig denies that the revelation at Sinai established laws and statutes.  According to him, the revelation at Sinai consists only of itself.  As he puts it, the revelation ends with "And Moshe went down" (Shemot19:25); "And God spoke" (20:1) marks the beginning of the interpretation.  (The Letters of F. Rosenzweig, Berlin, 1935, p. 535).