Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #08: Religion and Science
According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Part III)
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
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
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 Shabbat is
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:
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
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 alone. Nevertheless, R. Yehuda Halevi prefers 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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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:
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
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"
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:
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
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
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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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,
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:
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,
In his book, Rav Sa'adya Gaon analyzes every issue that comes under
discussion in the following manner:
Tradition's stand on the
Rational proofs that support
Citation of divergent views
and his arguments against them (generally by way of locating the error in the
thought process that underlies them).
Citation of verses from the
Prophets which prove the view of tradition.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
(Translated by David Strauss)