This discussion about Ralbag reminded me of an apparent contradiction in Ralbag's Torah/Philosophy methodology.

At the end of his introduction to Wars of the Lord ('מלחמות ה) he writes:

The reader should not think that it is the Torah that has stimulated us to verify what shall be verified in this book, [whereas in reality] the truth itself is something different. It is evident, as Maimonides (may his name be blessed) has said, that we must believe what reason has determined to be true. If the literal sense of the Torah differs from reason, it is necessary to interpret those passages in accordance with the demands of reason. Accordingly, Maimonides (may his name be blessed) explains the words of the Torah that suggest that God (may He be blessed) is corporeal in such a way that reason is not violated. He, therefore, maintains that if the eternity of the universe is demonstrated, it would be necessary to believe in it and to interpret the passages of the Torah that seem to be incompatible with it in such a way that they agree with reason. It is, therefore, evident that if reason causes us to affirm doctrines that are incompatible with the literal sense of Scripture, we are not prohibited by the Torah to pronounce the truth on these matters, for reason is not incompatible with the true understanding of the Torah. The Torah is not a law that forces us to believe false ideas; rather it leads us to the truth to the extent that it is possible, as we have explained in the beginning of our commentary on the Torah. (Seymour Feldman translation.)

However, in Book 1 Chapter 14 he writes:

If anyone thinks that religious faith requires a conception of human perfection different from the one we have mentioned because of certain passages about the Garden of Eden and Gehenna in various Midrashim, Aggadot, and statements of the prophets, let him surely know that we have not assented to the view that our reason has suggested without determining its compatibility with our Torah. For adherence to reason is not permitted if it contradicts religious faith; indeed, if there is such [a contradiction], it is necessary to attribute this lack of agreement to our own inadequacy. Hence, it is clear that someone who believes this [i.e., the view of the Torah] should follow his religious convictions. We, too, behave accordingly if we see that religion requires a different view from the one that our reason has affirmed. This is incumbent upon all the faithful; for if the door were open to any philosophical doubt with respect to religion, the religion would disappear and its benefits for its adherents would vanish. Moreover, [all kinds] of controversies and confusion would arise among the believers unless there is faith, and as the result of this, definite harm will come about. This fact should not be overlooked. This point that we have made here should be understood as applying to every other part of our book; so that if there appears to be a problem concerning which our view differs from the accepted view of religion, philosophy should be abandoned and religion followed. The incompatibility is to be attributed to our shortcomings. (Seymour Feldman translation.)

Can these two seemingly contrary approaches to the Torah/philosophy conflict be reconciled?

(Side question: In Chapter 14 the translator has a footnote explaining that in the introduction Ralbag gives a different emphasis. However, in the introduction he does not have a footnote explaining that in Chapter 14 Ralbag gives a different emphasis. Can this be taken as evidence that the translator felt that the introduction was the truer representation of Ralbag's view?)

  • +1 Another excellent question! Here's the Hebrew version: daat.ac.il/daat/mahshevt/ralbag-milhamot.pdf The only thing that jumps out at me seems to be usage of truth (Emes in hebrew, p.13) vs. reason (Iyun in hebrew, p.92), although he uses reason enough in the first one to make me skeptical as this as an answer. Dec 31, 2017 at 3:32
  • To your side question I would say yes. Dec 31, 2017 at 3:34
  • Personally I would say that if I was Ralbag and I was writing an introduction for potential readers of my philosophy book, I would like to say that my book makes sense and that Torah has to conform with that. Then, if in the middle of my book I can prove that I should follow the Torah over reason, that works fine for me. (It's almost like a bit of false advertising for kiruv, if I can say such a thing.) (But this assumes that the one in chapter 14 is correct according to him.) Dec 31, 2017 at 3:36
  • @רבותמחשבות Chapter 14 is the last chapter of the Book 1, and the entire chapter is the quote that I excerpted. To me, if anything, it sounds like a disclaimer on the entire book, almost as if he's saying that he didn't really mean anything he wrote. I would almost think that he was just pandering to the religious fanatics so that they wouldn't ban his book.
    – Alex
    Dec 31, 2017 at 3:44
  • interesting thought. Perhaps that is the case, although it seems that all of the books were written together, as evidenced by the introduction listing all of the maamarim, so that would still be in the middle to some extent. Also, he doesn't seem to have cared about the "religious fanatics banning his books", as evidenced by a number of his views: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/86704/… Dec 31, 2017 at 4:19

3 Answers 3


Perhaps the answer is that there is no contradiction because the two statements are addressing two different (types of) people.

Both statements are based on the premise that the purpose of the Torah is to lead man to the greatest possible truth/perfection.

Ralbag always maintains that the Torah and philosophical truth cannot actually be discordant. His statement in the introduction is telling us that the Torah can (and should) be reinterpreted to conform to our philosophical findings. However, this can only be done by someone who can appreciate that the Torah is not bound to its strict literal interpretation. For such a person, the correct thing to do is to interpret the Torah based on philosophy.

However, there are people who cannot imagine that the literal meaning of the Torah can be false, while still being a perfect Divine book. For such people, "reinterpreting" the Torah in light of philosophy is nolens volens a rejection of the Torah's perfection. For such a person, says Ralbag, it would be inappropriate to implement the strategy outlined in the introduction, because it would result in the rejection of the Torah as a whole which would be the loss of the guiding light towards perfection/truth. In other words, Ralbag is saying that it is better for this person to sacrifice the truth in a specific instance in order to maintain the overall truth. Since the specific truth in question and the general truth of the Torah are both meant to lead the person to the same goal (ultimate perfection) it makes more sense to give up the specific truth in order to maintain the overall truth.

(This is perhaps akin to the argument of the Sefer HaChinuch as to why we have to follow the Sages, and the majority, when it is possible for them to err – namely, that it is better to have a working system with a few mistakes than to have no system at all.)

Chapter 14 is directed to this latter person. This is perhaps supported by the fact that Ralbag in Chapter 14 emphasizes that the person believes that the Torah obligates a certain position (when in reality the Torah does not, as per the introduction), and that the consequence of "reinterpreting" the Torah is to have no guide to perfection at all.

(One challenging phrase for this approach is "כי גם אנחנו ננהג כן" in Chapter 14.)


Dr. Nima Adlerblum appears to address this in A Study of Gersonides in his Proper Perspective Chapter Four:

When Gersonides' motive reveals itself to us, the reading of his work becomes easier and more enlightening. We begin to understand, for instance, why at times he tells us that science must be put above the teachings of the Torah, and at other times that the Torah must have the upper hand on science. Critics of Gersonides have gathered one or the other set of statements, according as they wanted to prove him a liberal or an orthodox. In reality Gersonides pronounces the two diametrically opposite statements in one breath. When we enter into his attitude of mind we realize why they do not appear contradictory in his eyes. "The Torah does not force us to believe an untruth" is continually repeated by Gersonides. But the full meaning is not grasped unless we realize that he at the same time means that the truth is contained in it, — one must seek it until it is discovered. This is the keynote to Gersonides' philosophy, namely, that science, the theoretical explanation of the world, and the Torah, the experience of the Jewish people, — both reveal at bottom the same truth through a different language. The truth of the Torah needs for its realization to be both experienced by the Jewish people and to be verified by science. Science is the key to the Torah. On the other hand the Torah being the ground whereby man is led to his highest perfection, it must help him also to reach the truth in deep subjects which are hard to grasp. If such is the nature of the Torah it is self-understood that it would not lead us to believe that which is not true. The truth of the Torah and that of science are exactly on the same level, and are not complete unless verified by each other. They stand in the same relation as sense-experience to reason. (My bold; italics in original)


Without having any sources other than the quotes themselves, this was how how I understood the Ralbag's position on reason vs revelation.

In the introduction, he is talking about not believing that which was proven to be impossible. The topic is truth vs falsehood. Which is why his examples are Hashem's incorporeality, or the hypothetical case of an eternal universe (in particular, one that always existed).

In 1:14 the Ralbag is talking about where one obtains one's values, and "a conception of human perfection". What Ought Be rather than what the introduction's discussion of what Is. When it comes to values, there is little one can logically disprove, so the introduction's point wouldn't apply. And we do at times suspend our judgement about what is right in deference to the answers Hashem revealed to us.

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