Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #06: Religion and Science
According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi
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
This brings us to the Jewish Sage's declaration of faith in his initial
encounter with the Khazar king:
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
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.
Khazar king: If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves?
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
(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
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
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.
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,
Let us now return to the Jewish Sage's declaration of faith:
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?
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:
which you express is religion based on speculation and system,
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.
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
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:
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.
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
I wish to cite a midrash that well illustrates the two focuses described
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,
(Translated by David Strauss)