Philosophical Truth and Torah Truth in the Kuzari

Author: Esther Ehrman, Elul 5770/August 2010

In the fifth Essay of the Kuzari, Yehuda HaLevy expands on views that he had stated briefly in the first Essay. The aim of the Jewish Chaver is to demonstrate to the King of the Khazars the merits of Torah truth in topics that philosophers had seemingly analysed successfully. Medieval Jewish thinkers were concerned to explore whether the 'god' of the philosophers, their description of the universe in terms of Spheres and basic constituent Elements, their analysis of the Soul were compatible with Jewish teachings. (A parallel exercise was undertaken for Islam by the Mutakalim).

The King of the Khazars asks for instruction on these matters and the Chaver agrees:

'I will give you a clear standpoint, which will assist you to acquire clear notions of matter and form, elements, nature, soul, intellect and metaphysics in general' (The Kuzari, Schocken Books, New York, 1964, p.249). There follow accounts of a First Cause, the Prime Creator and of the Active Intellect in the lowest of the Spheres, which is governed by the moon as well as a detailed chapter on the structure and functions of the Soul in accordance with the thinking of Greek philosophy as it was studied in the Arabic versions available at the time. The substance of the universe was presented, in accordance with the pre-Socratic teaching of Empedocles, as consisting of Four Elements, namely Air, Water, Earth and Fire.

These accounts are given in a neutral style, so that, most of the time, it is not clear whether the Chaver accepts them himself. However, in section fourteen of the fifth Essay, the Chaver clarifies his position. 'I feared', says the Chaver, 'that you would be deceived and acquiesce in their (the philosophers' ) views. Because they furnish mathematical and logical proofs, people accept everything they say concerning physics and metaphysics'. He then proceeds to question the validity of some of the Greek tenets, beginning with the Elements 'When did we ever accept an elementary fire? The highest degree of heat in the earth appears as coal, in the air as flame, in the water as boiling point' In other words, we can see 'qualities' of heat , cold, liquidity and solidity, but we nowhere see an Element. We cannot take the liquid from a plant and say it is water to drink, nor can we devise 'recipes', where given quantities of the Elements would constitute some object. Moreover, these ideas are not compatible with other ideas of the philosophers, such as the eternity of matter. If matter is eternal, there can be creation by means of he Elements.

Jewish teaching does not go along with these analyses of the philosophers. 'According to the Torah, it was G-d who created the world. There is no need to pre-suppose intermediaries or combinations [of Elements]. If we make Creation a postulate, all that is difficult becomes easy...Why should we need such artificial theories in order to prove the life of the soul after the dissolution of the body, considering that we have reliable information with regard to the return of the soul, be it spiritual or corporeal'. Trying to work out these matters using logic will get nowhere and take up all one's life.

Interestingly, the Chaver also makes use of logic to destroy the philosophers' arguments.'Why is not a philosopher conscious of himself when he is asleep or intoxicated? 'Does he then cease to be himself? If he loses his memory and later recovers, does he have two souls? If his character changes once he has recovered, does he have one soul in heaven and one in hell? Incidentally, these questions show Yehudah HaLevy to have been very modern in his arguing. Descartes' cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, of the 17th Century was mocked by Voltaire in the 18th Century with the argument: what happens when I am not thinking? Yehudah HaLevy was writing in the 12th Century.

These speculations are not for Jews, since truths were revealed to them and reliably transmitted. Not only is it idle to speculate, G-d has withheld from most people answers, 'to obtain which no facilities have been granted to human nature. Only a few privileged individuals are allowed to grasp such things..' We, who are not prophets, have the benefit of their knowledge of truths. The philosophers do not have that benefit. They do not even agree with one another about their 'truths'; they only agree if they belong to the same school of thought, says the Chaver. Their own tool, reason, shows them to be fallible. However , philosophers are not wicked; they lead moral lives and they should be appreciated because they have raised important issues.

In this section of the Fifth Essay, the Chaver maintains the position that he took in the first Essay. However attractive the arguments of the philosophers may seem, they should not persuade us in these matters. They do not even persuade each other and we do not need them. The Torah, Revelation and the Prophets, followed by the Oral Law of the Sages, teaches truths that we can trust, because the transmission of those truths is reliable.