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More On Philosophy

I. Philosophy From Tzfas

Two weeks ago, we discussed the view of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (19th cen., Poland) about faith and philosophical inquiry. Essentially, he permitted inquiry into fundamental areas of belief as long as they are preceded by firm faith. If you already believe, then you can examine the arguments back and forth. In the worst case scenario, you will find more persuasive the arguments against your beliefs but will recognize the tentative nature of your conclusions because proofs and counterarguments are always subject to overturn. His is one of many views on the subject, both in favor and against.

Three centuries earlier, Rav Moshe of Trani (Mabit), one of the leadings rabbis of Tzfas (Safed) at its height, wrote something very similar to Rav Kalischer. The third section of his Beis Elokim is dedicated to exploring Rambam’s thirteen fundamental principles of faith. Before he begins this effort, he justifies it religiously. After all, the Mishnah (Chagigah 11b) says that someone who investigates what is above, below, before and after would have been better off not having been born. This seems to delegitimize philosophical inquiry, requiring an explanation before engaging in this questionable enterprise.

II. Three Kinds of Beliefs

In the first chapter of this third section, Mabit points out three arguments regarding philosophical inquiry into sacred beliefs. On the one hand, most of Jewish law and thought comes to us through tradition. If we accept so much based on tradition, why wouldn’t we accept everything that way? On the other hand, in any area of life, if you can confirm people’s claims but fail to do so, you are guilty of laziness. However, if you only believe something after it is proven to your satisfaction, you lack faith. Mabit quotes a Gemara (Sanhedrin 100a) that denounces a student of R. Yochanan who only believed his teacher’s fantastic messianic interpretation after seeing with his eyes how it is possible. R. Yochanan points out that the student mocked his teacher’s words until becoming convinced. What if he had never become convinced?

Mabit says that all these considerations are correct, depending on the subject matter. He divides belief into three areas regarding philosophical inquiry:

1) Unprovable beliefs that are accepted from tradition. These include Torah from heaven, mashi’ach and the resurrection of the dead.

2) Provable beliefs that we should investigate and prove. Among these are God’s existence and unity. With this type of belief, a person should try to prove philosophically what he already believes. And if he cannot prove it, he should blame his own intellectual limitations. The Talmudic prohibition does not apply to these beliefs.

3) Beliefs that a person can never fully understand. For example, God’s nature, and His knowledge and its relation to free will. A person is forbidden to investigate these beliefs because he likely will not be able to reach a conclusion that matches his faith.

III. Dangers of Philosophy

Mabit continues (ch. 2) by pointing out that philosophers disagree on many things. Depending on your preliminary assumptions, your conclusions will differ. Additionally, even when they agree on assumptions, they disagree on what to conclude from various arguments. There is no guaranty that philosophical inquiry will yield a truthful conclusion despite the best efforts of an earnest scholar. Mabit quotes Rambam’s list of reasons that prevent people from engaging in philosophy (Moreh Nevuchim 1:34): 1) the difficulty of the material, 2) limitations on people’s intellectual abilities, 3) the lengthy prerequisites necessary in order to engage successfully in philosophy. Inevitably, people are not fully prepared or capable, and therefore make mistakes.

With all the dangers and likelihood of a philosophical mistake in mind, Mabit proposes the following path for philosophical inquiry into Jewish beliefs. Regarding a belief that is provable, a person should accept the belief from tradition and try to prove it philosophically in order to strengthen his belief. If he cannot prove it, he should rely on the great scholars of our tradition throughout the generations.

If you enter the investigation with a belief already in hand, of what use is the exercise?Understanding a concept deepens the belief and strengthens your resolve. A belief you can defend is a belief in which you are confident. Additionally, you can now respond to scoffers and doubters. Their questions will not cause you to step back even slightly from your belief. Also, the confidence you gain in this particular belief will strengthen your faith in the overall structure of Judaism. You will see the truth in one area and realize that all of Judaism shares that depth.

Mabit says that even the first and third types of belief discussed above, those that we cannot prove or fully understand, benefit from philosophical investigation. We may not be able to prove or fully explain a belief, but we can deepen our understanding of it. This strengthens our faith. Indeed, Mabit continues, the Talmudic prohibition does not apply to attempts to understand philosophically a belief. It only forbids attempting to prove a belief that is unprovable and/or unknowable. A convincing argument does not satisfy the rigor of a proof but still strengthens faith.

IV. Faith in the Postmodern World

Mabit adds that one could argue that philosophical investigation weakens belief. Why do we need to investigate when great Torah scholars throughout the generations accepted these beliefs? Shouldn’t that suffice to deepen our faith? It can but that would lead to our generation and future generations being unable to defend Torah faith on an intellectual level, which is an unacceptable outcome. We need to continue engaging our beliefs intellectually in order to maintain the tradition.

Mabit’s formulation is particularly helpful in the Postmodern world where it is unclear whether anything can be proven. Even if we accept the Postmodern critique, the second category of beliefs will be eliminated, but everything then falls in the other categories, either unprovable or unknowable. Philosophical investigation is still permitted, albeit within the proper frame of mind. We still have faith in the Torah and its sages. We recognize the limitations of our minds and our methods. At most, we hope to strengthen our faiths and at worst, we cannot reach a conclusion hope to someday find an intellectual path to truth.