Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #07: Religion and Science
According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Part II)
In the previous lecture, I examined R. Yehuda Halevi'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. Yehuda Halevi'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
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
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
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.
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 Rav Sa'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.
Yehuda Halevi 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
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.
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:
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,
With these words, R. Yehuda Halevi 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.
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. Yehuda Halevi did, would, without
hesitation, answer the question affirmatively. But not Rihal.
In the immediately following passage, Rihal proclaims his absolute
commitment to rational proof:
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.
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. Yehuda Halevi 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:
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
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.
The Jewish Sage speaks explicitly in the continuation as well:
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. Yehuda Halevi 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. Yehuda Halevi'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
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. Yehuda Halevi, 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.
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
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 David