Shiur #07: Religion and Science According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Part II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In the previous lecture, I examined R.YehudaHalevi's conclusion that the revelation at Sinai is the sole means of bestowing certainty and establishing religious faith.


     In this lecture we will begin to see how this understanding finds expression in religion's confrontation with science and philosophy. Once again, it must be emphasized that in Rihal's time philosophy included both the study of theological issues and the study of the scientific world. Thus, Rihal's confrontation with "logical speculation and intellectual study" parallels what we would call today "the issue of science and religion."


     This discussion will focus on the question of how, according to Rihal, a person is supposed to build his religious beliefs. How much room must he give to his intellect/philosophy, and how much must he rely on tradition? Most importantly, how is he to relate to the seeming contradictions between the intellect/science/philosophy and tradition.

Judaism has contended with the question of the relationship between science and religion from ancient times to the present day. Darwinism, the discovery of million-year old dinosaurs, the Big Bang theory, and many other issues have challenged the Jewish faith over the course of the generations, and Jewish thinkers have confronted these issues in a variety of ways.


     In this lecture, I will try to examine R.YehudaHalevi's approach in the framework of what we have seen thus far, and in the next lecture, I will demonstrate how this approach was applied to a variety of theological issues.




     I will begin with an important comment, which will complete the picture from the previous lecture.


     According to R. Yehuda Halevi, the irrefutable certainty of the revelation at Sinai and its having taken place before the masses of Israel obligates not only those who witnessed that revelation with their own eyes, but all future generations as well: "Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day" (Devarim 29:14).


Now in the same style I spoke to you, a Prince of the Khazars, when you asked me about my creed. I answered you as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former. (I, 25)


     This line of thinking is original. Already Rav Sa'adya Ga'on noted the certainty of a tradition that is passed down from one generation to the next:


Our reason arrives at the conclusion that it is only the individual who is subject to and fooled by false impression or deliberate deception. In the case of a large community of men, however, it is not likely that all of its constituents should have been subject to the same wrong impressions. On the other hand, had there been a deliberate conspiracy to create a fictitious tradition, that fact could not have remained a secret to the masses, but wherever the tradition had been published, the report of the conspiracy would have been reported along with it… Accordingly if the traditions transmitted by our ancestors are viewed in the light of these principles, they will be found to be proof against these arguments, correct and unshakable. (Emunot Ve-de'ot, III, 6)


     We see, then, that the certainty felt by a Jew living today is based on three links in a chain:


     First, the truth of the event at Mount Sinai. This truth is based on the assumption that a single individual cannot invent a story about an event experienced by six hundred thousand people, without their descendants revealing the truth. This proves that the event in fact occurred.


     Second, the truth of the revelation that took place at that event. Once again, the collective element bestows certainty, for six hundred thousand people cannot be deceived by their imagination at precisely the same moment and in precisely the same manner.


     Third, the truth of the tradition handed down from father to son, for a person who hears from his father about the revelation at Sinai has a live and undeniable encounter with that revelation. The uninterrupted chain of generations can provide a person living three thousand years after the Sinaitic revelation with the same certainty, by way of what he hears with his ears, as his ancestor had, by way of what he saw with his eyes at that revelation.[1]


Science and religion


     We see, then, that Rihal provides a person with only a single tool with which to fashion his religion belief, namely, the Torah. Another tool – man's intellect – is a speculative tool whose ability to reach clear conclusions is very limited, and it cannot provide certainty beyond the realms of mathematics and logic. This approach stands in contrast to RavSa'adya, who saw in the intellect as well, and perhaps mainly in the intellect, the instrument with which a person can build his religious world, and more importantly, the instrument by which he can prove this world.


     Rihal's approach has two immediate ramifications. First, Rihal is not afraid of objections raised against Judaism based on philosophy/science. Second, Rihal makes no effort to prove the principles of Judaism by way of logical processes, for according to him these provide very weak support.


But does R.YehudaHalevi leave the intellect totally outside the religious discussion? Is there really no connection, according to Rihal, between the principles of Judaism and religious ideas, on the one hand, and rational standards on the other?


In two places in the book, the Jewish Sage makes an unequivocal declaration that answers the questions that have just been raised. If we examine the questions that were raised by the Khazar king and that brought the Sage to these declarations, we will see the precise boundaries of the realm of the intellect in the framework of religious belief according to Rihal.


The first issue regarding which Rihal applies his approach is that of creation. Rihal notes that man's ability to decide the creation/eternity issue by way of rational speculation is very limited. About Aristotle he says as follows:


He meditated on the beginning and end of the world, but found as much difficulty in the theory of a beginning as in that of eternity. Finally, these abstract speculations which made for eternity prevailed… 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, however difficult, instead of eternity, which is even much more difficult to accept. (I, 65)


     With these words, R.YehudaHalevi undermines the rational-intellectual approach's capability of deciding the issue of the eternity of the world. We are dealing with speculation, with rational arguments that can go one way or the other, and therefore it is legitimate to rely on either position. According to Rihal, one must seek a different source for deciding the issue, and that source, as we have already seen, is tradition.[2]


     The king immediately objects to what the Jewish Sage had said: "Is there any decisive proof?"


     Is religious belief, according to the Sage, completely severed from man's intellect? Does he argue that there can be a contradiction between human reason and religious belief?


     Many thinkers in later generations, who raised doubts about the reliability of logical argumentation as R.YehudaHalevi did, would, without hesitation, answer the question affirmatively. But not Rihal.


     In the immediately following passage, Rihal proclaims his absolute commitment to rational proof:


The Sage: Where could we find one for such a question? Heaven forbid that there should be anything in the Bible to contradict that which is manifest or proved! On the other hand it tells of miracles and the changes of ordinary, things newly arising, or changing one into the other. This proves that the Creator of the world is able to accomplish what He will, and whenever He will. The question of eternity and creation is obscure, while the arguments are evenly balanced. The theory of creation derives greater weight from the prophetic tradition of Adam, Noach, and Moshe, which is more deserving of credence than mere speculation. If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself logically compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief that this world was created at a certain epoch, and that Adam and Noach were the first human beings. (I, 67)


     Rihal does not give up for a second on human reason as the sole standard for establishing the truth.[3] According to him, however, the intellect is incapable of clarifying issues such as that of creation. The only rational proof (or distinct perception, which provides the same certainty as rational proof) that has been presented on this question is that of the revelation at Sinai; everything else is mere "speculation." Moreover, as we have seen, the entire validity of the revelation at Sinai stems from the fact that its truth was proven at the level of rational proof. The reason that Rihal passes on the intellectual track to clarify these questions is not because we are dealing with two different planes that do not and cannot have any point of contact, but rather because of the intellect's limited ability to reach necessary conclusions on these questions.


     R. Yehuda Halevi is so committed to the intellect that he declares, in hypothetical fashion, that were the intellect to reach a state of "logical compulsion," similar in its level of certainty to rational proof or distinct perception, regarding, for example, the eternity of the world, the believer would be forced to adjust his faith in accordance with this conclusion, and for this he would even harness midrashim to interpret Scripture not according to its plain sense.


     With these words, the Jewish Sage defends his position against the attack of the Khazar king, who is unwilling to give up on the intellect as the exclusive standard for deciding the truth. The Sage answers him: You are right, but by no means do I give up on the intellect.


     In order to sharpen the matter, R.YehudaHalevi brings the Khazar king to clarify this issue a second time, this time from a different perspective.


     After a detailed description of the certainty of the revelation at Sinai, the Khazar king is so convinced by the exclusivity of this track that this time he raises a question from the opposite direction:


You, on the other hand, are free from blame, because this grand and lofty spectacle, seen by thousands, cannot be denied. You are justified in rejecting [the charge of] mere reasoning and speculation. (I, 88)


     And truth be said, what room is left for reason and the intellect, following the overpowering certainty of the revelation at Sinai? Is it not right that such a religion, which is based on a living and irrefutable encounter with God, should entirely abandon the intellectual process?


     Rihal, however, does not allow the matter to rest until the place of the intellect in the framework of religious service is well understood. This time, however, he limits religion's autonomy even more: "Heaven forbid that I should assume what is against sense and reason" (I, 89).


     Here, it must be noted that Rihal expands the truths to which religion is committed. Until now, there was "rational proof" (mofet sikhli) and "distinct perception" (ayin be-ayin).Here, Rihal speaks of "what is against sense and reason."


     Is Rihal referring here to his previous categories, that is to say, rational proof and distinct perception? Perhaps yes, but it seems to me that careful analysis, both of the Khazar king's question and the framework in which this statement is made, proves that he is not.


     Already in the framing of the question, we see a difference between the first and the second questions. At first, the Khazar king asked about "rational proof," whereas in the second question he speaks of "reason and speculation." In other words, now he is contending not with rational proof, but with logical speculation.


     The matter is further clarified by the context. The Khazar king raised his question against the background of the personification of God in the description of the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, which tramples over the philosophical approach that denies the personification of God. The king wishes to set aside the intellect and all that it has to say about personification. Against this, the Jewish Sage declares that one must not believe in anything that goes against reason. This overall approach is attested to by the fact that in the continuation he tries to explain the personification of God in the Torah's descriptions of the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. That is to say, he tries to resolve the contradiction between the approach of philosophy, which denies personification, and what is stated in the Torah.


     Does philosophy's attitude toward the personification of God meet Rihal's criteria for rational proof? This question cannot be answered in the affirmative, for more than once Rihal declares that the philosophers have not succeeded in providing rational proof for matters of physics and metaphysics.[4] The Jewish Sage speaks explicitly in the continuation as well:


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


     It turns out, then, that R.YehudaHalevi rejects not only the possibility of religion contradicting rational proof, but even the possibility of it contradicting logical speculation, only that, as we saw in previous lectures, logical speculation is generally diversified. That is to say, the assertion that the world was created does not contradict logical speculation, because such speculation itself recognizes the possibility that the world was created and the possibility that the world is eternal. A definitive conclusion was never reached that would have raised it from the level of speculation to that of proof.


     What has been said here sharpens R.YehudaHalevi's understanding of human reason within the framework of religious belief.


     Rihal accepts the intellect as the exclusive standard for examining the truth of every idea. According to him, there cannot be a contradiction between a religious value and reason. Such a contradiction, according to Rihal, must be resolved in such a way that the religious value can be reconciled with reason.


     When, however, we come to confront a theological assertion with the intellect, we must make an important distinction, already noted in previous lectures, with respect to the intellect. The intellect sometimes reaches conclusions that may be regarded as having been proven; this is rational proof. When this happens, states Rihal, we must whole-heartedly accept the assertion and adjust our beliefs accordingly. Sometimes, however, (and practically speaking, in all theological issues), the intellect reaches conclusions that are not absolute. We are not dealing with a perfect process that has no weaknesses or breaches, but rather with speculation, and the transition from one stage in the logical process to the next is  possible, but not necessary. In such a case, when the rational conclusion contradicts the religious value, we cannot call the religious value something that "goes against sense and reason," for in such a case the intellect could have reached a different conclusion that would have accorded with the religious value in question.


     Rihal is ready to accept a theological position even when it stands in contradiction to logical speculation not because he is ready to accept a view that contradicts reason, but rather because logical speculation can support that position to the same degree that it now contradicts it.


     According to R.YehudaHalevi, the revelation at Sinai, when examined according to the standards of reason, reaches the certainty of rational proof that cannot be refuted.


     In contrast, the examination of any theological issue by way of the intellect (a process that Rihal calls logical speculation) will lead a person to conclusions that do not have the certainty of rational proof. This is due to the limitations of the intellect and its inability to reach definitive conclusions in these areas.[5]


     The reason for this, as we saw in previous lectures, is that these realms involve the Divine influence that is beyond the natural world. Thus, the intellect that is part of man's natural level and the tool that exhausts that level, cannot contain, at least not in full and perfect manner, that which enjoys a higher level of existence than it does.


     In the next lecture I will examine the ramifications of Rihal's approach and its application to various theological issues that arise in the course of the discussion between the Jewish Sage and the Khazar king.


(Translated by DavidStrauss) 


[1]  I will not discuss the logic of this approach, which was accepted by Rav Sa'adya Ga'on, R.YehudaHalevi and many other contemporary thinkers. Is this, indeed, a closed process, with no cracks or breaches, or perhaps it too is based on speculation that puts it into the category that Rihal calls "logical speculation?" This is a matter that is open to discussion, but one thing can be said with certainty: Rihal was absolutely certain that the process is perfect and suffers no weaknesses, and that it is equal in value to irrefutable and undeniable rational proof.

[2]  As we have already seen, the Rambam also demonstrated that Aristotle was unable to prove that the world was created or that it was eternal, and that Aristotle himself admitted to this (Moreh Nevukhim, II, 15-16).

[3]  It should be noted that Rihal once again compares the level of certainty achieved by rational proof to that achieved by distinct perception that is irrefutable (according to the standards set by Rihal – perception of the masses, changes in the natural order, etc.).

[4]  Another proof that Rihal considers philosophy's attitude toward personification in the category of "logical speculation" may be found in the Khazar king's words to the Christian (I, 5), as we shall see in a future lecture.

[5]  The question of personification, with respect to which Rihal declares his commitment not only to rational proof, but also to that which "goes against reason," is an exceptional example of logical speculation that which achieves the standing of "something that goes against reason," despite Rihal's reservations about the truth of logical speculation. This will be discussed at greater length in the next lecture.