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Shiur #08: Religion and Science According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Part III)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

            In the previous lecture, I attempted to precisely define R. Yehuda Halevi's understanding of the place allotted to the intellect in the framework of religious service.  In this lecture, I wish to examine the application of his approach.


            I will try to examine how Rihal deals with a variety of theological issues that arise in the book, and see whether the way he deals with these issues accords with his fundamental approach as I presented it in the previous lecture.


Creation of the world


            As we have seen, Rihal notes that Aristotle's decision to accept the doctrine of the eternity of the world was not anchored in rational proof, and that the only way to decide this question with certainty is to rely on revelation, that is to say, on God's Torah, which states that the world was created.  Nevertheless, Rihal qualifies his words and says that were it possible to present rational proof on the matter, we would have to reconcile the certainty of rational proof with the certainty of that which is stated in the Torah – something that would not be particularly difficult to do.


            Here we find one method of dealing with the contradictions between science and religion, a method that follows directly from Rihal's basic approach.


            Rihal does not bother to deal with Aristotle's proofs about the eternity of the world.  He does not mention or struggle with the arguments pro and con.  This is because he does not feel threatened by what Aristotle said regarding the eternity of the world, because, according to Rihal, Aristotle's assertions never reached the level of irrefutable rational proof.  Aristotle's logic and rational speculation brought him to the position that the world is eternal, but rational speculation could be used in no less a reasonable manner to arrive at the opposite conclusion.


            In this way, Rihal pulls the carpet out from under the attempts that were made during his time, as well as before and after, to prove that the logic behind the doctrine of the eternity of the world has lapses, or alternatively to try to offer a more flexible interpretation of the Scriptural verses so that they accord with that doctrine (as Rihal himself had said that he would do were Aristotle's position supported by rational proof).




            The Torah's official rationale for the observance of Shabbatis the world's creation in six days and God's resting on the seventh day.  Even if other reasons are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, surely the source for Shabbat lies in God's resting from work on the seventh day of the creation of the world.


            Nevertheless, Rihal finds it appropriate that the reader should encounter Shabbat for the first time not through the creation of the world, but through the manna that fell in the wilderness for Israel for forty years on every day of the week except Shabbat.


            We can ask the Rabbi the same question that was raised by the Khazar king: Shouldn't you, the Rabbi, have opened your declaration concerning Israel's obligation concerning Shabbat with the creation of the world?! The Khazar king himself answers his own question:


This also is irrefutable, [as it is] 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.  (I, 86)


            Once again, Rihal prefers personal experience, the living encounter through one's own eyes and ears - an encounter that cannot be denied or questioned – to any other proof.


            Only afterwards does Rihal mention two additional sources regarding Shabbat:[1] one, the creation of the world, and the second, the revelation at Mount Sinai, where the people of Israel were commanded about Shabbat.


            Of course, these sources are not found in the realm of logical speculation, for both of them draw their strength from revelation.  The fact that the world was created in six days is attested to by the Torah, (this fact is not supported by rational proof, but only by the Torah's testimony), and the Divine command regarding the observance of Shabbat is also obviously based on revelation aloneNevertheless, R.  Yehuda Haleviprefers to start with the people of Israel's encounter with Shabbat through experience, not through cognition.  Israel's obligation regarding Shabbat stems first and foremost from their experience of the living encounter with this theological idea and all that stands behind it.[2]


The Personification of God


            This issue is perhaps the most sensitive and loaded issue in R. Yehuda Halevi's book, and here is the real test for the manner in which Rihal deals with the relationship between science and religion.[3]


            The personification of God that is found in the revealed religions is the point that set up perhaps the thickest barriers between them and philosophy.  The descriptions of revelation in all the revealed religions seriously challenge the idea that God is sublime and exalted.[4]


            In R. Yehuda Halevi's day, God's exaltedness and the rejection of His personification were unchallenged axioms.  Will Rihal push aside philosophy's attack on religion in this context, as he had done with respect to creation, with the argument that philosophy's point of view has not been demonstrated by rational proof? It stands to reason that he will not.


            R. Yehuda Halevi relates in all seriousness to the philosophical argument against personification of God, and he devotes much discussion to the attempt to reconcile the rejection of personification with the tradition that is reflected in the Torah:


If we ascribe spiritual elements to it, how much more must we do so to the Creator of all? We must not, however, endeavor to reject the conclusions to be drawn from revelation.  We say, then, that we do not know how the intention became corporealised and the speech evolved which struck our ear, nor what new thing God created from naught, nor what existing thing He employed.  He does not lack the power.  We say that He created the two tables, engraved a text on them, in the same way as He created the heaven and the stars by His will alone.  God desired it, and they became concrete as He wished it, engraved with the text of the Ten Words.  We also say that He divided the sea and formed it into two walls, which He caused to stand on the right and on the left of the people… This rending, constructing and arranging are attributed to God, who required no tool or intermediary, as would be necessary for human toil… So the air which touched the prophet's ear, assumed the form of sounds, which conveyed the matters to be communicated by God to the prophet and the people.  (I, 89)


            With these words, the Rabbi reviews several areas in which the problem of personification is blatant: Divine speech, the parting of the Yam Suf, the engraving upon the tablets of the Law, and the like.


            He opens by saying that he is absolutely committed to the assertion that God must not be personified.  At the same time, he does not give up on his total commitment to the events that parallel in their level of certainty rational proof – the revelation at Mount Sinai, the exodus from Egypt, and everything that accompanied these two events.  Thus, he cannot deny either point, and he therefore feels obligated to reconcile the two in a logical manner.  He does this in various different ways in the aforementioned passage.


            Here, however, he appears to veer from his fundamental approach, inasmuch as he adopts rational, philosophical speculation as fact that cannot be challenged.[5] Does Rihal veer from his path only because he submits himself to the authority of the philosophers' rejection of personification? It seems to me that this is not the case.


            It seems to me that Rihal does not assign certainty to the rejection of personification on the basis of rational speculation, but rather on the basis of a different source of authority:


The second command contains the prohibition of the worship of other gods, or the association of any being with Him, the prohibition to represent Him in statues, forms and images, or any personification of Him.  How should we not deem him exalted above personification, since we do so with many of His creations, e.g. the human soul, which represents man's true essence… If we ascribe spiritual elements to it, how much more must we do so to the Creator of all? (I, 89)


            The conclusion that was reached through rational, philosophical speculation is supported and receives its certainty from the source of absolute certainty – the Torah.  It seems that Rihal accepts the philosophical idea that God is above all personification - an idea that the philosophers reached through their rational speculation - as having the certainty of rational proof only because it is anchored in Jewish tradition.


            The personification of God is something that, in Rihal's words, "goes against reason," not because rational speculation is inclined to reject it, for according to Rihal, the weakness of rational speculation is that it can incline one way and, in equal or at least approaching measure, the other way.  The personification of God is regarded as "going against reason"[6] because in this context the rational speculation is supported by the Torah, which constitutes proof at the level of rational proof.


            This is an example of rational speculation that leads the conclusion that and idea "goes against reason," without any reservations that one could just as well have said the opposite, and turn it into something that is "supported by reason." This status is bestowed upon it by the Torah.  For this reason, Rihal must reconcile the Torah with this "rational speculation," which is essentially much more than mere rational speculation.


            We see, then, that R. Yehuda Halevi does not veer in these explanations from his fundamental approach.  Just the opposite is true! Here Rihal is given the opportunity to fulfill what he had declared with respect to the doctrine of creation; if something is demonstrated with rational proof and it contradicts what is stated in the Torah, he would have to reconcile the two so that there is no contradiction. 


            Attention must be paid, however, to the continuation of the dialogue.  Following the explanations that the Rabbi offers to reconcile the Torah with the idea that God is above personification, the Khazar king states: "This representation is satisfactory," to which the Rabbi responds:


I do not maintain that this is exactly how these things occurred; the problem is no doubt too deep for me to fathom.  But the result was that everyone who was present at the time became convinced that the matter proceeded from God direct.  (I, 91)


            I shall try to explain the Rabbi's sudden reservations.


            I described above the two truths that stand out in connection to the issue of personification.  At the one extreme are the rigid principles regarding the personification of God, principles that rest on the certainty of the Torah.  On the other hand, there are descriptions that include radical personification, also based on the very same source of authority – the Torah.


            The two peaks are solid and they are firmly anchored, on the one side, in rational speculation that receives its certainty from the Torah, the source of certainty, and, on the other side, in visual perception that is equivalent to rational proof.  But the bridge that Rihal tries to erect between them is no longer anchored in rational proof.  Here Rihal returns to rational speculation.  When building the bridge, Rihal uses neither visual perception nor rational proof, but rather human understanding/rational speculation, which he had tried to avoid using in the realm of religious belief.


R. Yehuda Halevi does not, however, fall into his own trap.  He does not allow himself to be seduced into returning to the language so widely spoken and recognized in his time.  He prefers the uncertainty, the "hole" that he fails to fully seal, as long as he remains faithful to his approach.  Necessity and certainty belong exclusively to rational proof and collective sensual perception, both of which are irrefutable.  Therefore, the only certain thing that he can say on the matter of personification is that it is impossible for God to have any corporeal features, and that it is impossible that the events described in the Torah did not happen.  The way to bridge these two statements is speculative, and therefore he is not prepared to commit himself to any particular solution to the problem.[7]


Why, then, does Rihal suggest a solution? Can it satisfy and resolve any kind of doubt if he himself is doubtful about its certainty? Rihal relates to this question as well.


At the beginning of Part V, R. Yehuda Halevi puts a request into the mouth of the Khazar king that constitutes the heading for a comprehensive review of philosophical ideas and the attitude toward them:


The Khazar king: I must trouble you to give me a clear and concise discourse on religious principles and axioms according to the method of the Mutakallims.  Let me hear them exactly as you studied them, that I may accept or refute them.  Since I have not been granted a perfect faith free from doubts, and I was formerly skeptical, had my own opinions, and exchanged ideas with philosophers and followers of other religions, I consider it most advantageous to learn and to instruct myself how to refute dangerous and foolish views.  Tradition in itself is a good thing if it satisfies the soul, but a perturbed soul prefers research, especially if examination leads to the verification of tradition.  Then knowledge and tradition become united.  (V, 1)


            And the Rabbi responds:


The Rabbi: Where is the soul which is strong enough not to be deceived by the views of philosophers, scientists, astrologers, adepts, magicians, materialists, and others, and can adopt a belief without having first passed through many stages of heresy? Life is short, but labor long.  Only few there are to whom belief comes naturally, who avoid all these views, and whose soul always detects the points of error in them.  (V, 2)


            Here Rihal lays the foundation for all his substantive remarks about the ideas of the philosophers.  His readiness to propose arguments that belong to the realm of rational speculation, as he did with respect to the issue of personification, is merely be-di'eved and second-choice.


            The confused soul that was exposed to the outlook of philosophy, which is based on rational speculation, and for whom the world of science, despite the shaky foundations on which it stands, constitutes a value that must be considered, is forced to reach reconciliation between science and tradition.[8] The exposure of Rihal's contemporaries to the views of men of science and philosophy forces Rihal to resort to these tools as well.


            Fundamentally, according to Rihal, the certainty of the revelation at Mount Sinai and the exodus from Egypt can provide man with total and perfect faith.  Certainty that could have and must stand up against any rational speculation that seems to contradict it:


The worshipper is further reminded that He revives the dead whenever He desires, however far this may be removed from the speculation of natural philosophers.  (III, 17)


            This is true, first and foremost, because rational speculation is "flexible." But even in the case of a confrontation between biblical stories or commandments and rational speculation that has some kind of biblical support that gives it special status, a person should innocently accept the rational speculation that is strengthened by the Torah, and also the other words of the Torah that contradict that speculation.  In such a case, the Torah's certainty and truth will cover up the "apparent" contradiction, which can be attributed to the limitations of the person's understanding.


            For example, Rihal comments about the sacrifices.  The point of departure for the discussion is the Khazar king's argument that reason rejects the verses dealing with the sacrifices and the Mishkan that personify God.  Once again, we encounter the problem of personification, that same rational speculation which attained the status of "something that goes against reason." The Rabbi presents the king with a series of explanations of the Mishkan and the sacrificial service, but in the end, after he has completed his explanations and it seems that this breach has been sealed, he himself expresses his reservations:


I do not, by any means, assert that the service was instituted in the order expounded by me, since it entailed something more secret and higher, and was based on a divine law.  He who accepts this completely without scrutiny or argument, is better off than he who investigates and analyses.  He, however, who steps down from the highest grade to scrutiny, does well to turn his face to the latent wisdom, instead of leading it to evil opinions and doubts which lead to corruption.  (II, 26)


            The Rabbi's proposal about how to understand these issues, as convincing as it might be, comes from the realm of rational speculation, and thus the Rabbi is aware of its weakness, and even notes that the topic under discussion is above human reason and cannot be fully apprehended.  After he pulls the carpet out from under his own explanation of the meaning of the sacrifices and the service in the Mishkan, and after he casts doubt upon it and thus prevents it from serving as solid proof regarding the difficulties arising from these issues, he explains why he presented them, saying that they prevent a person from drowning in a sea of uncertainty and evil opinions.


            We see that Rihal's methodic approach and confrontation with the entire issue fits in with his fundamental position regarding the relationship between science and religion.  I shall try to summarize the matter and examine its ramifications:


            Rihal maintains that rational speculation has no part to play with respect to theological issues.  He does not make this argument because he thinks that religious faith is irrational, so that reason is an irrelevant standard in its regard, but rather because he has doubts about the intellect's ability to achieve absolute truths in the world of religious belief.  Thus, he maintains that the only source that can guide the believer when he approaches the world of beliefs and opinions is that of tradition and revelation, which provide a person with certainty owing to the circumstances and manner in which they were given.


            R. Yehuda Halevi emphasizes that there cannot be a contradiction between religious beliefs and truths enjoying rational proof.  According to him, in the vast majority of cases where there appears to be a conflict between science and religion, we are dealing with imaginary conflict, for in general the assumption from the world of science that clashes with the religious value is based on shaky and speculative foundations, which can easily be refuted.


            In some cases, however, the religious value faces rational speculation that has achieved special status (e.g., the issue of personification).  Rihal asserts that in such cases, we must not argue that a contradiction exists, because he already established the principle that there cannot be a contradiction between a religious value and an intellectual axiom based on rational proof.  Thus, we must assume that a solution exists to bridge between the two values.  This solution has not been revealed to us, and we can only conjecture about it.  This conjecture, however, is not critical for our faith.[9]


            The ideal believer, according to Rihal, can build a solid world of belief in which he does not relate at all to the world of science, this by virtue of the certainty of the foundation of belief – revelation.


            This is what happened, according to Rihal, in the case of Avraham.  His religious world was based at first upon rational speculation, but once he merited certain revelation, he abandoned such speculation entirely:


Perhaps this was Avraham's point of view when divine power and unity dawned upon him prior to the revelation accorded to him.  As soon as this took place, he gave up all his speculations and only strove to gain favor of God, having ascertained what this was and how and where it could be obtained.  The Sages explain the words: 'And He brought him forth abroad' (Gen. 15:5), thus: Give up your horoscopy! This means: Forsake astrology as well as any other doubtful study of nature.  (IV, 27)


            Rihal attributes the philosophical "Book of Creation" to the patriarch Avraham prior to his having merited revelation, for until that point the only tool that a person could use to examine the world was his intellect, despite its limitations.[10]


            The same applies to Israel prior to their receiving the Torah:


[Moshe] approached Pharaoh and the Doctors of Egypt, as well as those of the Israelites.  While agreeing with him they questioned him, and completely refused to believe that God spoke with man, until he caused them to hear the Ten Words.  In the same way, the people were on his side, not from ignorance, but on account of the knowledge they possessed.  They feared magic and astrological arts, and similar snares, things which, like deceit, do not bear close examination, whereas the divine might is like pure gold, ever increasing in brilliancy.  (I, 49)


            Here, too, the people of Israel are described as using their intellect as the only standard for examining matters of faith.  This examination can perhaps prove the falsehood of deceivers, but it does not suffice on its own to build a religious outlook that enjoys certainty.  This can only be built on the basis of revelation.  From the moment that true revelation appeared in the world,[11] there was no longer any need for the process of rational speculation, except as a remedy to prevent uncertainty and the accompanying discomfort.


            Fortunate is he who can reach religious certainty and peace of mind without resorting to such solutions.


            Against this background, let us go back for a moment to the view of Rav Sa'adya, which we saw in the previous lecture.


            As opposed to Rihal, Rav Sa'adya Gaon sees the logical process as the primary way of reaching the truth even in matters of religious belief.  According to him, there are two sources of religious certainty: the first, correct scientific investigation, and the second, the tradition and the Torah, which also provides absolute certainty.


            According to him, the objective of the tradition is to shorten the path for the believer, and not to leave him to walk across the obstacle path of philosophical investigation for days, months, and even years until he reaches the truth.  Fundamentally, however, intellectual investigation can lead a person to the truths of religion.


            As with Rihal, Rav Sa'adya Gaon applies his fundamental approach in a methodic manner, as he himself notes:


In each treatise I shall begin with [an exposition of] what has been imparted to us by our Lord and of whatever corroboration is furnished by reason.  This is to be followed by [a citation of] such diverging views as have been reported to me.  In each instance there will be given a statement of the thesis as well as of the argumentation against it.  I shall conclude with the proofs furnished by prophecy bearing on the subject of the treatise in question.  (Introduction to Emunot ve-De'ot, 8)


            In his book, Rav Sa'adya Gaon analyzes every issue that comes under discussion in the following manner:


1)        Tradition's stand on the matter.

2)        Rational proofs that support tradition's stand.

3)        Citation of divergent views and his arguments against them (generally by way of locating the error in the thought process that underlies them).

4)        Citation of verses from the Prophets which prove the view of tradition.


Rav Sa'adya opens with tradition's stand on the issue, in accordance with his position that tradition's goal is to provide man with a short-cut and to show him the final objective already at the outset, and thus not to leave him without the truth until he arrives at the end of the path.


Afterwards, the two stages that constitute the lion's share of the book are the stages in which Rav Sa'adya proves that intellectual truth leads to the truth of tradition, and that it is impossible to argue otherwise; anyone who argues otherwise has erred in his analysis.  According to Rav Sa'adya Gaon, we are not dealing with a religious failing, but with a logical failing in the field of universal philosophy.


This argument and this method are diametrically opposed to Rihal's approach.  Rihal's primary argument is that one cannot reach certain truth by way of intellectual investigation regarding questions of religious faith.  On the contrary, with this method one can arrive at varied and different conclusions.


In the final stage, Rav Sa'adya Gaon returns to tradition in order to anchor what he said in the previous two stages, and he thus creates a closed circle in which intellectual analysis proves tradition and tradition proves intellectual analysis, this following from the fact that both provide certain truth.


According to Rihal, as we have seen, there are far fewer rational anchors to religious truths.  When we come across them, the encounter will always be accompanied by reservations regarding their certainty, and by an apology for bringing them.[12]


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1]      Later in the book (II, 50; III, 5) Rihal offers more substantive reasons for the mitzva of Shabbat, but Israel's obligation toward Shabbat is created by what is stated here. 

[2]      It should be noted that with respect to the uniqueness of the people of Israel as well, Rihal opens with the statement: "For me it is sufficient that God chose them as His people from all nations of the world." A deviation from this approach may be found in two sections of the second book (56, 68); I will deal with this matter in Lecture no. 10 on Christianity and Islam.

[3]      As stated earlier, when I speak of science in connection to Rihal, this includes philosophy as well.

[4]      The Rambam devotes large sections of Moreh Nevukhim to the problem of the personification of God that arises from almost every verse and phrase that deals with God. 

[5]      The fact that philosophy's position regarding the personification of God falls into the category of rational speculation was demonstrated in the previous lecture.  See also II, 54.

[6]      See also I, 5, where Rihal refers to the personification of God as something that "goes against reason." I will deal with this at length in Lecture no.  10 on Christianity and Islam.

[7]      Some see Rihal's attitude toward philosophy's critique of the concept of God found in the revealed religions as an "admission" of sorts, but in light of what I have said here, it seems that this term is irrelevant (Yochanan Sillman, Bet Filosof le-Navi, p. 18).

[8]      It is possible that Rihal allows a similar use of rational speculation with respect to the reasons for the mitzvot, though in an even more limited manner:

Follow not, therefore, your own taste and opinion in religious questions, lest they throw you into doubts, which lead to heresy.  Nor will you be in harmony with one of your friends on any point.  Every individual has his own taste and opinion.  It is only necessary to examine the roots of the traditional and written laws with the inferences codified for practice, in order to trace the branches back to the roots.  Where they lead you, there put your faith, though your mind and feeling shrink from it.  (III, 49)

The Rabbi allows use of rational speculation in connection with the reaasons for the mitzvot only when two conditions are met:

1)        It is limited to "tracing the branches back to their roots." That is to say, one may not give rise to new branches based on reason; one may only try to provide a logical explanation that will connect the roots to the conclusions.  In order to do this, one must receive both the roots and the conclusions, and this is done by way of the tradition, which is the exclusive authority for establishing them.  For example, it is legitimate to try to explain in logical manner how fences to the law serve the basic law, or even how Chazal got from the basic law to those fences, but one must not try to establish fences based on logic (as did the Karaites).

2)        Even the logic that the Rabbi permits is not the logic of each individual, but rather logic that comes through tradition.  There are accepted methods and tools even in the realm of rational speculation.  (He may be referring to the thirteen hermeneutical principles, or generally to the rules of halakhic analysis and decision-making that pass down by tradition from generation to generation.)

It seems to me that the possibility that the Rabbi offers the student of Halakha is connected to Rihal's general tendency, according to which use of rational speculation is meant only to quiet the heart – "to trace the branches back to their roots."

[9]      In several places, Rihal mentions the limitations of the intellect to reach certainty and intellectual solutions in such issues.  According to him, a person must adopt a position of modesty with respect to his ability to understand all things: "If we feel any doubt, it is not due to their words, but to our own intelligence.  This also applies to the Torah and its contents.  We must ascribe the defective understanding of it to ourselves." (III, 73)

This kind of modesty is not characteristic of the philosophers of Rihal's generation.  As we have seen, the pretension to prove the foundations of faith through absolute intellectual proofs is based on the assumption that a person can understand and define everything in the world.

Rihal, as we shall see also in the lectures about the nature of religious service, accepts the idea of the nullity of man not only as he stands before God, but even as he stands before nature.

[10]     Some maintain that Rihal identifies his own biography with that of the patriarch Avraham, in that both of them first acquired their religion in an intellectual manner, and only afterwards by way of revelation/tradition (Y. Heineman, "Halakh Ha-ra'ayanot," p. 247, in "Kovetz Mechkarim Ve-ha'arakhot," 1964).

[11]     We will see more on the power of revelation to totally cancel use of the intellect in the lecture dealing with the rejection of Christianity.

[12]     A good example of this is Rihal's attitude toward the reasons of the mitzvot, which will be discussed in a later lecture.