Halacha, Kabbalah, and Filosofia

I have enjoyed reading the correspondence in response to my essay about Judaism and science. I learned from all of the responses, most of which need no further comment from me. However, two of the pieces raised questions on which I should add some remarks.

Nelson Rivera (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) correctly pointed out that Jewish thinking is not itself completely without some tension and pointed to the discussions in Jewish philosophy of the limits of rational proof. In a similar vein, Ted Davis (Messiah College) noted that the current radical secularization of the academy is no less "post-Jewish" than it is "post-Christian" and cited in support of his thesis the work of intellectual historians such as David A. Hollinger. Dr. Dav is gave no specific reference, but I assume that he had in mind Hollinger's Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century American Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), a collection of essays that I read and hold in high regard.

I agree with what both Rivera and Davis said, but maintain that conforms to my thesis, viz. that the presumed conflict between science and religion is primarily an expression of a conflict between contemporary American Protestants and Post-Protestants. To show this I need to spell out with slightly more subtlety the history of the relation between science and Judaism from the classic to the modern period.

In Judaism, as in Islam, there are three distinct, although closely related, forms of expression of religious thought -- in discussions of religious law (HALACHA), of mysticism (KABBALAH), and of philosophy (FILOSOFIA). All three forms constitute continuous traditions throughout the history of Judaism. All three deal with the major conceptual issues of life through a tradition of textual commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures (MIDRASH), but these are different traditions for which different texts become foundational -- Judah Ha-Nasi's MISHNEH (200 CE) for law, Moses Maimonides' GUIDE OF THE PERPLEXED (the end of the 12th century) for philosophy, and the ZOHAR (probably composed in the 13th century by Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon) for Kabbalah. Usually the three traditions operate in support of each other and often the same rabbis were involved with all three, but at certain times in Jewish history there is a marked tension between them, and the conceptual issue at the heart of that conflict are discussions of the domains of human knowledge.

HALACHA presumes the legitimacy of relying on reports by others of experience, both sensual (from the physical sciences) and revelational (from the Hebrew Scriptures). FILOSOFIA presumes that the use of algebraic or deductive modes of logical thinking can extend human knowledge beyond the domain of what is knowable in the legal tradition, and KABBALAH makes the same assumption about the epistemic legitimacy of employing geometric and inductive modes of imagination. Again, throughout most of Jewish intellectual history, there were few if any perceived claims of contradiction between these three ways of thinking as Jews. However, there are notable exceptions.

Maimonides was strongly opposed to the legitimacy of reasoning rooted in the imagination, and most of those who were his disciples down to the present day share that distrust. At least in the case of the tradition of modern Jewish philosophy, from Spinoza in the 17th century through Hermann Cohen at the end of the 19th century, the epistemic distrust of the imagination expressed itself in delegitimizing KABBALAH.

Conversely, 19th and early 20th century romanticism in western European culture deeply affected emancipated Jews no less than Christians. At least in the case of the tradition of modern Jewish theology, notably in thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Abraham Heschel, the epistemic distrust of deductive logic expressed itself in delegitimizing FILOSOFIA.

However, the greater majority of rabbis, who had (and have) only minimal knowledge of either Jewish philosophy or Jewish mysticism but considerable knowledge of Jewish law, relied primarily on their presumed common sense and experience as well as on Jewish law (of which they had considerable knowledge) to form their views of life and the world in trust that both sense experience and Jewish law, when correctly interpreted, would both be in agreement and true.

Note that for this majority, the legitimacy of either algebraic (deductive) reasoning in Jewish philosophy or imaginative modeling in Kabbalah never was questioned. Rather, what was problematic for this majority was the difficulty of discerning the truth through either means. For the most part these rabbis and their congregants considered both traditions closed to all but a select few of Jewish intellectuals. As such neither tradition could be relied upon to direct ordinary Jews in their physical and spiritual lives. For this purpose only the tradition of Jewish law was seen to be useful.

The critical question at this point is, why were the rabbis so ignorant of their own religious traditions of natural philosophy and revealed theology? This was not always the case. Rather this characterization of rabbinic speculative ignorance is primarily a description solely of European Jewry. Why did the leaders of the European Jewry, in marked distinction to all other Jewish communities at all other times, turn their back on this kind of learning as a path of spirituality? In my judgment the sources are in medieval Jewish intellectual history.

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries Islam, whose empire had been the home in which Jewish philosophy and mysticism flourished, underwent an almost continuous process of decline, both politically and culturally. In terms of politics, the Muslim empire dissolved into a series of independent emirates and religious parties which were constantly at war with each other. In terms of science, the success of the then new Aristotelianism over the then considered old material atomism inherited from the Roman Stoics declined into a more realistic recognition of the inherent limits of human knowledge. Those details need not concern us here, other than to note that the decline of confidence in the powers of unaided human reason led Islamic culture into both mysticism and legalism to the near exclusion of any development in science beyond what this great civilization had achieved before the thirteenth century.

The beneficiary of this political and cultural decline of Islam was Western European Christian civilization. Through the expansion of Christendom into the territory of Spain, the Christians came into contact with a body of scientific literature, in both Arabic and Hebrew, centuries beyond anything that the Christians themselves even imagined. Concurrent with the territorial growth of Christendom was a growth of economic opportunities in commerce for the nobility and of educational opportunities in almost every area of learning for the church. Jews played a critical role in both. In between the warring Christians in the lands to the North, and the Muslims in the lands to the South, of the Mediterranean Sea, were the Jews, who could, precisely because they were neither Muslims nor Christians, move freely between and among the two empires. The new commercial opportunities brought whole rabbinic Jewish communities into Western Europe where they played a critical role in transforming Christendom from an agrarian barter society into a commercial capitalist society. Among them were Jewish scientists, most of whom were rabbis, who taught the science of their day to Christian clerics, located in monastic orders in the service of the church, clerics who established the great universities of Europe.

In this setting of church related universities, learning developed in Christendom. First the learned writings of the Muslims and the Jews were translated into Latin, and eventually, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, science began to develop in Christian schools beyond the heights it had achieved in Judeo-Muslim civilization in the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. But not for Jews. By in large, despite some notable exceptions (such as the astronomer Levi ben Gershom [Provence, 1288-1344]), Jewish learning in the sciences froze, as it had in the world of Islam, as rabbinic interest in both mysticism (called "Kabbalah") and law (called "Halakhah") developed to new levels of creativity and depth.

In the case of Judaism, the focus of the decline was a set of events in Western European Jewish communities during the thirteenth century known as the "Maimonidean controversy." Moses Maimonides was the author of a major code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, and the rabbinic leader of the most important Jewish community in the Muslim world, the Jewish community of Egypt. As such he was the most famous of those rabbis who followed in Saadia's tradition of the symbiosis of science and religion. His major work on the reconciliation of science and religion, The Guide of the Perplexed, became the focus around which Jews re-examined Saadia's symbiosis.

In general, the traditional rabbinic assumptions about the authority of good science and authentic religious tradition were never questioned. Judaism has never had, at least until modern times, a strong anti-intellectual strain that argued, as some Christian thinkers have, that reason is inherently unreliable as a tool for learning the truth. On the contrary, rabbinic Judaism has always affirmed study, no less than prayer and good deeds, as a primary way to serve and relate to God. Rather, the issue was pedagogic for a Jewish community that found itself, from economic necessity, living in the relatively primitive lands of the English, French, and Germanic peoples where illiteracy and ignorance were almost universal. Under these conditions, where the possibility of serious scientific study was limited, rabbis questioned the value of such learning. When, precisely because the domains of both scientific and revealed truth were coincident, they questioned whether Jews ought to spend time studying science, when everything that science could teach was accessible, with far greater ease and with far greater reliability, in the tradition of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah.

The result was, again, that while Jews continued to study law, the Jewish community ceased to be a place of serious scientific speculation. Hence Jewish science, or better, the study of science by Jews in the Jewish community, stagnated at the level it had achieved by the end of the twelfth, possibly the thirteenth, century. So that, by the nineteenth century, when through emanicipation they entered Christian European society in large numbers, the Jews found themselves for the first time in their history significantly beneath the level of learning of their neighbors. By the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the growth in the very Christian universities established and run by Church clerics (both Catholic and Protestant), Christendom, with islands of relatively free scientific inquiry called "universities", advanced science into the nineteenth century, while the Jews remained, at least scientifically, in the thirteenth century.

To those Jews who had unavoidable curiosity and who, because of that curiosity, desired to dedicate themselves to a life of study, Judaism seemed barbaric, even primitive, and Christendom, or at least its culture, was attractive. The choice was given to these Jews as an either or. The price of admission into the centers of European learning was conversion, either directly to Christianity or at least out of Judaism, for the most liberal of European intellectuals found it inconceivable that someone could have the intelligence and the spirit to engage in a life of scientific inquiry who stubbornly continued to practise the seemingly ignorant and/or empty legalisms of the Jewish life of Torah. At the same time the rabbinic leadership of the Jewish world viewed, with considerable justification, European culture and its science as a threat to Jewish identity and did everything it could to discourage Jews from engaging in it. Judaism had finally developed into own tradition of anti-intellectualism.

The result was a disaster for the Jewish people. The best Jews from an academic perspective, namely those Jews who had the greatest intellectual curiosity, found their talents repressed within the Jewish religious community and found in something that Christians called "secularism" emancipation, namely the freedom to pursue with relatively little inhibition a life of learning.

European (and by the 20th century, the American) universities became the kinds of institutions where people so inclined could spend their lives in pursuit of the kind of truth that falls within the domain of the sciences. But by and large those doors were closed to similarly inclined Jews precisely because they were Jews and the institutions of academic learning were Christian. The new understanding of the university as secular, promoted by so-called "post-Christians", opened the doors to Jews, who, like their culturally Christian university peers, shared a dislike of religion -- of Judaism because it offered no place within its structure for science and philosophy, and of Christianity because of its exclusivism.

Again it is my personal judgment that this is the history that lies behind the correct judgments that both Nelson Rivera and Ted Davis made in their discussion of my first paper. Both remarks were a constructive corrective on my (for the purposes of the paper) very general (and therefore non-nuanced) statements about the relationship between science and Judaism.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!