Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #03: The Philosopher in the Kuzari (Part
The previous lecture dealt with the philosopher's views regarding the
definition of God, the Active Intellect, and prophecy. This lecture will relate
to two no less important issues in the philosopher's thought: man's attitude
toward God and the religious act.
MAN'S ATTITUDE TOWARD GOD
As we saw in the previous lecture, the philosopher denies God's knowledge
of man. God is above knowing individuals, and will and knowledge cannot be
ascribed to Him.
The first ramification of this concept is that God does not demand
anything of man. Furthermore, whatever man does, he does not appease or fail to
The idea of "Divine pleasure" is not found in the philosopher's lexicon.
If he uses this idea, it is only "in the allusive and approximate" sense (I, 1),
as a description of man's objective to conjoin with the Active Intellect.
Given this perspective, what is the proper attitude that man should have
towards God? The philosopher's position on this matter is articulated in a very
The philosopher, however, only seeks Him that he may be able to describe Him
accurately in detail, as he would describe the earth, explaining that it is in
the center of the great sphere, but not in that of the zodiac, etc. Ignorance of
God would be no more injurious than would ignorance concerning the earth be
injurious to those who consider it flat. The real benefit is to be found only in
the cognizance of the true nature of things, in order to resemble the Active
Intellect. (IV, 13)
God is indeed the Prime Cause, but He is still only a cause. That is to
say, God is situated on the same ladder of being as the rest of the emanations
down to humans, although He is at the top. A person striving to conjoin with the
Active Intellect must apprehend the truth of all the emanations, including – or,
better, at the top of which is – the Prime Cause. However, from this
perspective, there is no essential difference between knowing God and knowing
the world. The apprehension of both is merely a means of achieving conjunction
with the Active Intellect.
Thus far we have seen the philosopher's rational, cognitive attitude
toward the Prime Cause/God. Is the proper attitude toward God a purely rational
one, or does there exist also an emotional component?
The philosopher relates to God in a manner that goes beyond the rational
realm, but his position must be carefully understood. At the beginning of the
Kuzari, the philosopher says to the Khazar king as follows:
consequence of this will be contentment, humility, meekness, and every other
praiseworthy inclination, accompanied by the veneration of the Prime Cause, not
in order to receive favor from it, or to divert its wrath, but solely to become
like the Active Intellect… These are the characteristics of the [Active]
Intellect. (I, 1)
The philosopher venerates the Prime Cause. That is to say, he
distinguishes between the rest of the causes that emanate from the Prime Cause
and the Prime Cause itself, to which he relates using terms of veneration.
The philosopher, however, emphasizes the difference between his
veneration of God and the singing of God's praises common in other religions.
The goal of the latter is to appease God and assuage His anger. The goal of the
philosopher's veneration relates not to God, but to man, to help him acquire
knowledge and recognize the Prime Cause and all that follows from it, so that he
might conjoin with the Active Intellect through his knowledge.
The emotional attitude toward God described here – the feeling of
veneration – results from intellectual recognition of God's superiority. The
emotional component is a means to rouse man and encourage him to strive for a
more elevated understanding of the Prime Cause and all that emanates from it,
until he becomes like the Active Intellect through his knowledge.
This approach will become sharpened when compared with the words of the
a man reflects on these things, studies all these created things, from the
angels and spheres down to human beings, and so on, and realizes the Divine
wisdom manifested in them all, his love for God will increase, his soul will
thirst, and his very flesh will yearn to love God. He will be filled with fear
and trembling as he becomes conscious of his own lowly condition, poverty, and
insignificance, and compares himself with any of the great and holy bodies;
still more when he compares himself with any one of the pure forms that are
incorporeal and have never had association with corporeal substance. He will
then realize that he is a vessel full of shame, dishonor and reproach, empty and
deficient. (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:12)
According to the Rambam, contemplation of the created world and
recognition of the chain of emanations from God to the lowliest created being
leads to man's love and thirst for the Creator. And similarly, recognition of
man's corporeal roots and his lowliness in the face of the pure forms that are
not connected to material substance
leads to absolute fear of the Prime Cause/God.
Thus far, the Rambam's words are similar to those of the philosopher
regarding the feelings that result from intellectual cognition. Here, however,
the words of the Rambam and those of the philosopher part.
The philosopher, as we have seen, sees these feelings as a means and as
an intermediate stage to achievement of the final goal, namely, conjoining with
the Active Intellect.
The Rambam, in absolute contrast, sees the feelings of love and fear of
God as the ultimate goal. This follows from other passages in the Rambam's
these two ends, namely, love and fear, are achieved through two things: love
through the opinions taught by the Law, which include the apprehension of His
being as He, may He be exalted, is in truth; while fear is achieved by means of
all actions prescribed by the Law, as we have explained.
Understand this summary. (Guide of the Perplexed III, 52)
The philosopher sees the feelings that arise from intellectual cognition
as an intermediate stage in the acquisition of a more perfect and more elevated
intellectual cognition, which will bring a person to conjunction with the Active
Intellect; this conjunction is entirely intellectual, and includes no religious
feeling toward God whatsoever.
The fact that veneration and praise of the Prime Cause are merely means
to an end finds more radical expression elsewhere in the Kuzari:
feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake,
and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation [i.e., philosophy], however,
makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no
pain for its sake. (IV, 16)
When the objective is conjoining with the Active Intellect, as long as
the veneration of God serves that purpose, it is obligatory. But the moment that
this veneration and the praise that comes in its wake interfere with a person's
striving for intellectual perfection – whether because the price exacted by this
veneration is too steep or because this veneration comes at the cost of the
efforts to achieve intellectual perfection – a person must abandon them.
context, the Rabbi makes a very important remark. The love of God can bring a
person to sacrifice his life and totally devote himself to Divine worship.
Intellectual cognition, important as it may be, cannot provide a person with the
necessary strength and bring him to a state of readiness to sacrifice his life
for the sake of God.
This would not trouble the philosopher whatsoever, for he maintains that
emotions and feelings have no value other than to enhance a person's ability and
motivation to strive for intellectual apprehension.
I will conclude this part of the discussion with the following
is thus that man becomes a servant, loving the object of his worship, and ready
to perish for His sake, because he finds the sweetness of this attachment as
great as the distress in the absence thereof. This forms a contrast to the
philosophers, who see in the worship of God nothing but extreme refinement,
extolling Him in truth above all other beings (just as the sun is placed on a
higher level than the other visible things), and that the denial of God's
existence is the mark of a low standard of the soul which delights in untruth.
THE RELIGIOUS ACT
The philosopher's attitude toward the religious act follows from his
understanding of man's objective in this world.
First of all, in the absence of any connection between God and the world,
the carpet is pulled out from under the traditional understanding of the
religious act. Religious activity cannot express man's acceptance of the yoke of
heaven, because the religious act does not stem from God and He does not command
it. It can also not be understood as coming to appease and satisfy God, because
will and knowledge cannot be attributed to Him.
would therefore excuse Aristotle for thinking lightly about the observation of
the law, since he doubts whether God has any cognizance of it. (IV, 16)
Second, as stated above, the philosopher's service focuses on the
intellectual plane and is aimed at the perfection of the intellect and the
attainment of absolute truths. Thus, religious action becomes marginalized.
What, then, is the role of the religious act, if it exists at all,
according to the philosopher's outlook? The philosopher discusses such actions
in the following passage:
just ways as regards character and actions, because this will help you to effect
truth, to gain instruction, and to become similar to this Active Intellect. The
consequence of this will be contentment, humility, meekness, and every other
praiseworthy inclination… (I, 1)
Attention should be paid to the fact that these qualities do not
constitute an end, but rather the way to achieve it. The goal, as we saw above,
is knowledge: "This degree is the last and most longed for goal for the perfect
man whose soul, after having been purified, has grasped the inward truths of all
branches of science" (I, 1). And similarly: "… but solely to become like the
Active Intellect in finding the truth, in describing everything in a fitting
manner, and in rightly recognizing its basis. These are the characteristics of
the [Active] Intellect" (ibid.).
Good deeds, and especially good character traits, are intended to make it
possible for a person to reach the purity of heart that will allow him to
achieve the required cognition without interference. The philosopher does not
reject the value of action, but he focuses it both with respect to its content
and with respect to its objective.
to its content, the philosopher discusses worthy character traits that purify
the heart. He does not deal with religious rituals, good deeds, or the like, but
with character traits. One should work to acquire such traits in order to erect
a barrier between the material world (which is liable to hinder a person from
ascending the spiritual-intellectual ladder) and the spiritual world.
to the objective, refining character allows a person to reach the optimal state
for acquiring wisdom and the process of conjoining with the Active
the philosopher, these are obligatory actions, without which a person cannot
reach the purity of heart necessary for conjoining with the Active Intellect.
Beyond such actions, the philosopher also relates to common religious rites:
you have reached such disposition of belief, be not concerned about the forms of
your humility or religion or worship, or the word or language or actions you
employ. You may even choose a religion in the way of humility, worship, and
benediction, for the management of your temperament, your house and [the people
of your] country, if they agree to it. Or fashion your religion according to the
laws of reason set up by philosophers, and strive after purity of soul. (I,
too later in the book:
the opinion of the philosophers, however, he becomes a pious man who does not
mind in which way he approaches God, whether as a Jew or a Christian, or
anything else he chooses. Now we have returned to reasoning, speculating and
dialectics. According to this, everyone might endeavor to belong to a creed
dictated by his own speculating, a thing which would be absurd. (II, 49)
Religion in its ritual sense is indeed marginal in the philosopher's
eyes. As we have seen, man's entire aspiration on the level of action is to
reach proper character traits, and whatever will bring him to these traits is
desirable and to be sought. From this perspective, the philosopher leaves it to
each person to choose his religion or to create for himself his own religion
that will serve as a framework in which he can refine his qualities.
It turns out, then, that the philosopher speaks of three levels.
objective: conjunction with the Active Intellect. This process is totally
intellectual, and has no connection to the world of action.
preparation: purity of the heart. In order for a person to undergo the
rational process, he must remove the material stumbling block within him, and
to do this he must refine his traits and actions.
means: religion. Any religion that will bring a person to the refinement of
these qualities is valid; the individual is given the autonomy to choose what
is most appropriate for himself.
To summarize this discussion, I wish to bring the words of the Rabbi in
I told you is the foundation of their belief, viz. that the highest human
happiness consists in speculative science and in the conception by reason and
thought of all intelligible matters. This is transformed into the Active
Intellect, then, into emancipated intellect, which near the creative intellect
without fear of decay. This cannot, however, be obtained except by devoting
one's life to research and continual research, which is incompatible with
worldly occupations. For this reason they renounced wealth, rank, and the
pleasure of children, in order not to be distracted from study. As soon as man
has become acquainted with the final objective of the knowledge sought for, he
need not care what he does. They do not fear God for the sake of reward, nor do
they think that if they steal or murder they will be punished. They recommend
good and dissuade from evil in the most admirable manner. And in order to
resemble the Creator who arranged everything so perfectly, they have contrived
laws, or rather regulations without binding force, and which may be overridden
in times of need. (IV, 19)
These laws of the philosophers are the "fabricated religion" that the
philosophers created in order to reach the proper purity of heart. They are what
the philosopher advocated to the Khazar king at the beginning of the book as one
of the alternatives among the religions. Accordingly, these laws are not
obligatory; they are merely a means of bringing a person to purity of heart, so
that he may reach the ultimate objective of conjoining with the Active
In the next
lecture, I will examine how this understanding constitutes the foundation for
rejecting the philosophical approach, even before R. Yehuda Halevi confronts it
in a substantive manner.
(Translated by David Strauss)