Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can Torah and Rational Philosophy Co-Exist?

For a class I taught last night on great Jewish forgeries, I prepared material highlighting the contrast between the authentic writings of Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh) and the Besamim Rosh, Shaul Berlin’s 18th century attempt to ascribe 392 of his own ‘responsa’ to the Rosh.

As part of the class materials, I translated an excerpt from one of the Rosh’s responsa (55:9):

כי חכמת הפילוסופיא וחכמת התורה והמשפטים אינן על דרך אחת. כי חכמת התורה היא קבלה למשה מסיני, והחכם ידרוש בה במדות שנתנה לידרש בהם, ומדמה מילתא למילתא; אע"פ שאין הדברים נמשכים אחר חכמת הטבע, אנו הולכין על פי הקבלה. אבל חכמת הפילוסופיא היא טבעית, וחכמים גדולים היו והעמידו כל דבר על טבעו, ומרוב חכמתם העמיקו שחתו והוצרכו לכפור בתורת משה, לפי שאין כל התורה טבעית, אלא קבלה. ועל זה נאמר: תמים תהיה עם ה' וגו'; כלומר: אפילו יצא לך הדבר חוץ מן הטבע, אל תהרהר על הקבלה, אלא בתמימות התהלך לפניו. לכן אין להביא ראיה מדבריהם, לעשות אות ומופת וגזרות ומשלים על משפטי ה' הישרים. ועל זה אמר החכם: כל באיה לא ישובון, רוצה לומר: כל הבא ונכנס מתחלה בחכמה זו, לא יוכל לצאת ממנה להכנס בלבו חכמת התורה, כי לא יוכל לשוב מחכמה טבעית שהורגל בה, כי לבו תמיד נמשך אחריה. ומחמת זה לא ישיג לעמוד על חכמת התורה, שהיא ארחות חיים, כי יהיה לבו תמיד על חכמת הטבע, ותעלה ברוחו להשוות שתי החכמות יחד, ולהביא ראיה מזו לזו, ומתוך זה יעות המשפט; כי שני הפכים הם, צרות זו לזו, ולא ישכנו במקום אחד.

The wisdom of philosophy and the wisdom of Torah and its laws do not follow the same path. The wisdom of Torah is a tradition received by Moshe from Sinai, and the scholar will analyze it via the methods assigned for its analysis, comparing one matter and another. Even where this approach does not follow intuitive (lit. “natural”) wisdom, we follow the tradition. Philosophical wisdom is intuitive, though, with great scholars who established intuitive arguments, and in their great wisdom they dug deeper and corrupted (Hosheia 9:9) and needed to deny the Torah of Moshe, for the Torah is entirely non-intuitive and revelatory.

Regarding this it is stated, ‘You shall be pure with HaShem your Gd,’ meaning that even if something is counter-intuitive, you should not doubt the received tradition, but walk before Him in purity. Therefore, you should not bring proof from the words of the philosophers, to make a sign or argument or parable against the just laws of Gd.

Regarding this the scholar said (Mishlei 2:19), ‘Those who enter it will not return,’ meaning that one who enters this area of wisdom will not be able to leave it and introduce his heart to the wisdom of Torah, for he will not be able to abandon the intuitive approach to which he has become accustomed. His heart will be continually drawn after it, and he will not be able to establish himself in the wisdom of Torah, which is the path of life, for his heart will be perpetually drawn after intuitive. He will try to equate the two wisdoms, and bring proof from one to the other, and so he will warp justice for these are two opposites and rivals which cannot dwell in the same space.

I also posted this as a Daily Torah Thought last week, and received emails wanting to take the discussion further.

So here are my two questions:

1. Agree or Disagree with the Rosh? Why?

2. If you agree – does that mean that a person who receives an education in the approach of reason-based argument and deduction will not be able to accept the revelatory approach of Torah?


  1. perhaps in the Rosh's time they were still able to learn all "secular wisdom" (e.g. astronomy, geometry....) from revealed torah sources. This hasn't been the case for some time and since a poseik must know these (e.g. for brain death or shabbat technology issues) perhaps even the Rosh would agree that today one must have at least some access (oh oh -slippery slope ahead)

    Of course then there's the question of ultimate goals - does or lagoyim mean to be involved in the world or to be admired from afar (and will withdrawal get us admiration)?
    Joel Rich

  2. I think it best to define terms first. What is included in "revelatory truth"? Tanach? TSBP? Does it include halachic psak or also scientific statements about the world?

    Also, I have to wonder whether the Rosh specifically wrote "intuitive", especially since intuition is actually one of the ways to achieve faith in God. Most of the problems from the rationalism vs. religion debate of which you speak come from a deep-seated belief that everything can be attained through logic and empirical study, and anything that does not cannot exist or is not relevant.

    Just my two cents.


  3. One might also distinguish between medieval philosophy, which was indeed based on intuition, and modern science which is based on empirical observation and comparison of models with quantitative data observed in God's creation.

    However, it is true that the epistemology of the Torah and science are different. Consider the student in Perek Cheilek who is described as doubting R. Yochanon's drasha about the large (20 amot by 10) gems to be used in the gates of Jerusalem in the future until he saw the angels preparing them on a sea voyage. He was being reasonable according to the epistemology of science, but R. Yochanon considered not accepting his rebbe's drasha without proof such a sign of kefira that he killed him.

  4. Just to clarify my prior post. My own opinion is that science, being based on empirical observation is the correct method for learning about physical fact. Furthermore, I have a hard time understanding how any poseik who isn't sufficiently educated in science to at least probe the scientific advisors he has about how firm their conclusions are and how closely tied to the data can pasken about such issues.

    However, applying scientific epistemology to the Torah is a fundamental error. Torah is based on direct divine revelation and has its own set of methods of analysis.

  5. Joel-
    It seems to me that the Rosh weighs concern for mis-steps and failure of emunah as a greater concern than lack of knowledge.

    "Intuitive" is my translation. At first I went with "natural" because the Hebrew is טבעית, but the Rosh's point seems to be about intuition. I have now included the original Hebre for comparison.
    In terms of scientific statements - Good question. Perhaps the Rosh would go along with the trend among Sephardic rishonim to include scientific observation which impacts on halachah, but I can't prove it.

    Mike S-
    Exactly - the epistemology is the problem, I think. And while the Rambam would seem to be an example of someone who managed both systems, the Rosh is not confident that all can do that...

  6. >2. If you agree – does that mean that a person who receives an education in the standard scientific method will not be able to accept the revelatory approach of Torah?

    Why do you equate חכמת הפילוסופיא with science, much less the scientific method? It seems to me that medieval philosophy was very far from the scientific method; thinking very hard about things, without much prediction, testing, etc.

  7. The epistemology of science is different from both that of the Torah and that of the philosophy with which the Rosh was familiar. However, I am not sure that the Rosh would, or could, recommend treating science the same way he recommended treating philosophy.

    It is the nature of the epistemology of science that it leads to the most accurate available understanding of physical reality. Thus it does reveal the truth of God's creation in a way that philosphy does not. (Although neither the Rosh nor his contemporaries would have agreed with that statement, the empirical evidence for that is overwhelming.) It is also necessary for elucidating the facts in important areas of halacha; indeed in dinei nefashot associated with medical issues, among other things. And one who is not familiar scientific epistemology will not be in a good position to evaluate scientific information even if he knows from who to get such information. Many reporters suffer from the same problem, which is why the popular press seems unable to distinguish between some reported result at the edge of statistical significance from a new study, and things that are extremely well established like Maxwell's equations.

  8. See Malbim's essay on the Mishkan. Medrish Shocher Tov (or Mishlei? I don't recall) opens with a machlokes whether wisdom is in the head or heart. Dovid HaMelech started Tehilim with "aleph", for head; "head" wisdom is the learned type that's not necessary intuitive, which corresponds to anything prophetic (as well as the Aron). Shlomo started Mishlei with "mem", middle of the alphabet, for heart, as his work was intuitive (corresponding to the Menora).

    I assume you got to (or will get to) the great forged Yerushalmi? The guy was a genius, it's a shame he became a crook ...

  9. It really comes down to whether you can compartmentalize the way in which a person deals with different areas of study. The approaches necessary from each do differ, but I tend to think that it is possible to turn off the "philosophy" mindset and turn on the "Torah" mindset when necessary.

  10. 1. The Greek philosophical approach and what we understand as the scientific approach are not the same thing, as Mike S. wrote.

    2. Since the supernatural phenomena accepted as real in the Jewish world view are out of bounds for science, someone schooled to follow a purely scientific approach could get very frustrated in addressing them, and be led to misconstrue them as natural/physical or even to deny their existence.

  11. S. and Bob -

    Thanks for catching that. I specifically thought of, and then avoided, using the term in the title of the post - and then I ended up including it in the text by שיגרא דלישנא carelessness. You are entirely correct.

    Yes, I did cover that forgery as well. An incredible work.

    Would you consider that bifurcated approach "honest"? Or is it disloyal to both?

  12. PS to S and Bob - I have now edited it out.

  13. I think it is important to point out that the Sephardic historian Jose Faur sees this teshuva as a declaration of war against the tradition of Southern Spain, which viewed philosophy/science as part of Torah/tradition. (Recall that the Rosh was at this point the Rav of Toledo but was originally from German lands.) This specific part of the teshuva was in response to an objection of one of the local Sephardic rabbanim, and throughout the teshuva he attacks philosophy and the local tradition that espoused it vociferously. I point this out in response to some of the previous posts that were trying to figure out what was going on among the Rosh's contemporaries (and in the Rosh's own mind). Controversies over the Rambam and philosophy were occurring throughout this time period.
    If you would ask what my personal opinion is on this, I don't think it's so cut-and-dry. I accept the Andalusian and Ge'onic approach to general studies as also deriving from HaShem (against the Rosh), so for me, there must be a way for Torah and philosophy (which would have been defined at the time as deriving knowledge from speculation as opposed to received tradition) to "co-exist." Whether that speculation is based on experimentation (as it is in modern science) or deductive/inductive logic when analyzing sense data is a moot point, since both are chochmah, even as both have limitations. I see rationality and tradition not as "co-existing" but as interacting with each other as one system (Sa'adia Gaon, R. Bahya ibn Paquda, and many others cite pesukim from all over Tanach in support of, even requiring, pursuit of wisdom), and there is no magical way of figuring out how to reconcile the two. This is why there are so many debates over this,and that is why even those in support of rationalism, such as the Rambam, does not always side with the accepted science of the time but often criticizes it in favor of the simple read of the Torah.