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Many Rishonim used the philosophy of their time or previous times to 'prove' God's existence and/or learn about the nature of the world.

1- Why did they do this? (Is there a mitzvah to use philosophy to inquire into the nature of God and the world vis-a-vis what the Torah has to say on these topics?)

2- Did any Rishon feel that philosophical inquiry could produce something that the Torah does not?

3- Did any Rishon fundamentally base their knowledge of God or Torah idea's on the conclusions drawn from their philosophical inquiries?

4- Did any Rishon indicate or explicitly state that their philosophical inquiries took precedence over a straightforward understanding of the Torah (such that the Torah would have to fit whatever the conclusions of their inquiries were)?

(I understand that some of these questions are interrelated, but I split them up anyway because I feel it makes the question/s easier to think about.)

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    The Rambam (Hil. Y'sodei HaTorah 1:6,7) seems to indicate that a person should use whatever means are at his disposal to fulfill the mitzvos of knowing and understanding that HaShem is the Creator of the world and that no other gods exist, and understanding HaShem's unity and incorporeality. – Fred Jan 5 '15 at 20:18
  • It was more of a necessity many times,see Mamar Rishon of Emunos vedeos of Rav Saadia Gaon who uses the beliefs of his times and explains why their beliefs are not logical,but he explains that the Pesukim are the greatest proof – sam Jan 6 '15 at 14:55
  • I've read in the name of the vilna gaon that kabala study starts where chakira ends. without chakira one can come to shituf and hagshama - both are big no-nos in judaism. – ray Jan 6 '15 at 19:20
  • @ray Interesting... would that mean that a person should not study kabala without first being choker? (Do you know where this quote is from?) – Gavriel Jan 6 '15 at 21:30
  • dont think this is what the vilna gaon meant, just that from my experience it gives you an idea, at least, of what God is not. This is important when studying kabala to avoid hagshama – ray Jan 7 '15 at 7:12
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1. Does it fulfill a mitzvah?

Not only can it fulfill one mitzvah, but three:

  1. The Malbim (Shemos 20:2), Maharam Schik (Mitzvah 26) and Seforno (beginning of Ohr Amim) all explain that the commandment of אנכי ה' אלוקיך, believing in God, is a command to philosophically justify those beliefs

  2. The Chovos Halevavos (introduction) explains that there is a separate command to "know God", as evidenced by the verses ידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך כי ה' הוא האלקים (Devarim 4:39). He also connects this to the second mitzvah (as counted by the Rambam) of belief in God's Oneness

  3. The Ramban in Shaar HaGemul doesn't discuss the nature/existence of God, but he does discuss questions of how God runs the world. He writes "חובת כל הנברא עובד מאהבה ומיראה, לתור בדעתו לצדק המשפט ולאמת הדין כפי מה שידו משגת", there's an obligation upon those who serve God to justify His actions.

Even without fulfillment of a specific mitzvah, there's still value in asking questions or 'philosophizing' about the truths of Judaism, because it fosters a deeper connection with Judaism (see Divrei Negidim Hagadah by the 4 sons, and R. Hirsch's Nineteen Letters, no. 18)

2. Can Philosophy Teach Something that is not in the Torah?

The whole point of utilizing philosophy is that, in some areas, the Torah might not be sufficient. This does not necessarily mean that these truths aren't contained in the Torah, but that only after understanding certain principles (which are better taught from external sources) can one understand the Torah properly. Thus, the Rambam writes in several places (see M.N. 1:71 and 2:12, and Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 17:24) that wisdom which he learned from philosophers and scientists originally belinged to the Jews, but was lost due to the exile.

3. Does any "Rishon" base their beliefs fundamentally/entirely upon philosophy?

If by "rishon", you mean traditional Torah scholars who have always been totally part of the Jewish religious community, than the answer is no. There was, for a period of time (during the Rishonim) a school of Jewish rationalists who pretty much believed entirely in philosophy and only tried to fit the Torah in to their philosophical worldview, but these were rejected by the mainstream community. An example of such a person is (Rabbi) Levi ben Avraham, who was excommunicated by the Rashba for his extreme views, and others of his ilk. (With perhaps one very early exception)

The real question is one of extent. Some rishonim thought that we should accept much of what would be taught by philosophy, even if it may be a bit of a stretch in terms of how it fits with maamarei chazal, others thought that we should ignore philosophy completely, and of course there are many in between. Despite this, while the Rambam may have used philosophy to an extent that other rishonim were uncomfortable with, he still writes that one must subjugate their knowledge to the Torah, and not the other way around (end of Hilchos Me'ilah)

4. Did any Rishon prioritize philosophical understandings over simple reading of the Torah?

Yes, but not because they thought philosophy to be above the Torah, ח"ו, but because they felt that if something was proven philosophically, then it must be that the Torah means something other than its literal meaning. There are many specific examples of this, but as a methodology, is specifically mentioned by the Rambam (M.N. 2:25) and R' Saadia Gaon (Emunos V'Deos 7:1)

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    It is important to be careful not to conflate philosophy as defined by thinking logically about reality with philosophy as defined by the ideas of particular philosophers or schools of philosophy. – Fred Jan 5 '15 at 22:08
  • the chovos halevavos discusses this also in the shaar yichud ch.3 though in the end he says that it is better to know God through observing nature – user813801 Jan 6 '15 at 12:51
  • @user813801 actually, the above quote (referencing the pasuk) is from shaar hayichud, not the intro. I should fix that – הנער הזה Jan 6 '15 at 12:53
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To answer 1 - Some (the Malbim, for one) explain that the Rambam understood the mitzvah of אנכי ה' אלקך to be a mitzvah to know Hashem, which is different than to believe in Hashem. The Malbim explains that the mitzvah according to the Rambam is to turn the belief into an intellectual awareness. So having an intellectual awareness of Hashem and the nature of His existence (see the Malbim earlier in the same paragraph there) would be a mitzvah.

With regards to 3 - The Rambam was chastised by many later Jewish thinkers for basing his belief that all physicality will end and the World to Come is purely spiritual on Aristotelian philosophy. The Rambam had a fundamental dispute with, for example, the Ramban, based on conclusions developing from his philosophical approach.

To answer 4 - the Rambam in Moreh Nevochim 2:25 says that his philosophical definitive proof that G-d does not have a body led to the necessity to re-explain the verses about G-d's corporeality. (He has another reason there, but that doesn't detract from this one.)

(Yes, I know I skipped #2)

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To add a bit to the answers, the Shaar Yichud of chovos halevavos starts off by explaining the importance of this kind of inquiry.

After investigating after what is the most necessary of the cornerstones and fundamentals of our religion, we found that the wholehearted acceptance of the unity of G-d is the root and foundation of Judaism. It is the first of the gates of the torah, and it differentiates between the believer and the heretic. It is the head and front of religious truth, and one who strays from it - will not be able to perform religious deeds and his faith will not endure.

The Manoach Halevavos commentary explains:

he will not be able to perform the service of G-d, since if one does not believe in Him, that He created the world, and that He is alone in His world, and that it is fitting to serve Him, if so, one has no master that he should serve, and there's no greater non-believer than this

Philosophical inquiry among other things teaches about God and His infinite greatness. The understanding of which is essential for inspiring oneself to dedicate his life to God's service, as the author continues in ch.2

The philosopher spoke truth when he said: "no one can serve the Cause of causes and Beginning of beginnings except the prophet of the generation with his senses or the primary philosopher with the wisdom he acquired, but others serve other than Him, since they cannot conceive what exists (without beginning - TL), but rather can only conceive that which is composite (i.e. created things - Tov Levanon commentary)

Hence, we see according to this just how important this kind of study is for one who is capable of delving into it. And that it is a kind of pre-requisite to the wholehearted service of God.

However, as above, the study is very difficult and highly error prone (ex. treating the Eternal with the same logic as the non-eternal). Hence many Rabbis maintain that one should avoid this kind of study (at least without proper guidance).

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