How Did Abraham Discover God? The Experiential Approach
God as a Personality (Crescas)
Two centuries after the death of Maimonides, Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (d. 1410/11) composed the first full-fledged “book of principles” of Judaism: A complete work whose parts are organized according to a unique system of the principles of the Torah. The book is called Or Hashem (“The Light of the Lord”).
Crescas’ teacher was Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (best known by his acronym “Ran”), who along with two generations of his students, was deeply interested in defining the principles of the Torah. They subjected Maimonides’ list of principles to systematic analysis and offered alternatives to it. What was shared alike by the entire school, and the source of their preoccupation with the problem, was their rejection of naturalism: The God of Aristotle cannot be the God of the Torah, who is a personality possessing will. This was the foundation of the Torah according to the Ran, its only true “principle”. In his view, any system compatible with it is a viable way to understand the Torah, while any system that undermines it or rejects it will lead to the destruction of the Torah.
During the two centuries between Maimonides and the Ran, ever since Maimonides first publicized the thirteen principles within his Commentary to the Mishnah in his younger years, silence had reigned regarding them. But that silence can be misleading, because this was precisely the period of the great controversies that raged for generations over Maimonides and his writings. It is most likely that the thirteen principles were utterly ignored not because others agreed with them, but rather because they were correctly seen as nothing more than a natural outgrowth—and a relatively unimportant one—of a powerful and dangerous world view that needed to be fought and defeated at its core. The theology underlying the thirteen principles was far more important to Maimonides’ critics than were the principles themselves.
Rabbi Hasdai Crescas realized this more fully than any other member of the school. To suggest an alternative to Maimonides’ system of principles could not be enough for him, because doing so could only be truly effective if the entire philosophy underlying them was also undermined. He therefore strove to collapse the dogmatic certainty of medieval science that had reigned for centuries. That is why he took aim precisely at the Aristotelian proof for the existence of God.
The first treatise of Crescas’ Or Hashem is about the “roots” of the Torah, which are the existence of God and His primary attributes (unity and incorporeality). These can be established with absolute certainty based upon Aristotelian axioms that were enumerated by Maimonides in his introduction to Part Two of the Guide to the Perplexed. Because he was an honest seeker of the Torah’s truth, and in the spirit of the talmudic description of the House of Hillel who “would give precedence to the opinions of the House of Shammai and even teach them first before their own” (b. Eruvin 13b), Crescas therefore divided the first treatise of Or Hashem into three parts: The first part is devoted to a full and fair presentation of the Maimonidean axioms and proofs. In the second part he undermined those proofs through careful, nuanced critical questioning of long-cherished philosophical axioms and definitions. In the third part he proposed his own new approach to the existence of God, God’s unity and incorporeality, which can coexist with a non-dogmatic understanding of both the Torah and science.
Crescas chose to conclude the first treatise of Or Hashem with an interpretation of the Parable of the Illuminated Palace:
Most appropriate here is what they (of blessed memory) told in the midrash: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a palace illuminated. He said, “Will you say this palace has no governor?” The master of the palace peeped out at him. He said to him, “I am the master of the palace.” Thus, because our father Abraham would say, “Will you say this world has no governor?”, the Holy One, Blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him, “I am the Master of the world…” In other words, even though he inclined toward the truth, he didn’t leave all doubt behind until the light of the Lord emanated to him, and that is prophecy.
Crescas’ comment on our midrash is very brief, but loaded with meaning. The only thing he said explicitly about the midrash is that Abraham’s question was a very real one. The world provokes our most important questions, but it doesn’t supply easy answers. Thinking about the world made Abraham ask about whether there is a God, but he couldn’t be sure until God spoke to him. That act of divine communication is of acute importance, so much so that in the above passage Crescas called it the light of the Lord, which is, of course, also the very title of his book.
That Abraham’s question was real, and that the high point of the midrash is in God’s reply, are both crucial points, because together they encapsulate two extraordinary elements in Crescas’ thought. The first is an attempt to return to a classical model of Judaism; the second is a shift in the very nature of religion from medieval times to the modern world.
I. Returning to a classical model of Judaism: The Bible and Chazal rarely if ever touch upon the question of whether God exists. God is there, and powerfully so. The real question is not whether or not God exists, but rather what is the state of our mutual relationship with God: Is it characterized by love or hatred? Respect or disgrace? Loyalty or betrayal? The God of biblical religion and halakhic Judaism is a personality, not a concept.
Take marriage as an example. A great many things can and do happen over the course of a marriage but one thing that has never happened, at least in my marriage, is to wake up in the morning and ask: Does my spouse exist? The question would be silly because we experience our partners all the time in a personal context.
Such is the God of the Bible and Chazal: God is always there, and powerfully so. The question is not whether God is there, but how we relate to God. The most vivid example of this in the entire Bible is Job, to whom it never occurs to take the suffering of the righteous as a reason to call God’s existence into question. Instead, throughout the poetic body of the book, he wags his finger at God time and again in accusation (so to speak): “You are very much there. You are there, wicked, cruel and vicious. You are there, evil and corrupt. You are there and I hate you!”
This is why for Crescas, to know that God exists cannot possibly be a commandment. God is known through living experience, not through logic. It is, therefore, no accident that the preface to Or Hashem is entirely devoted to refuting Maimonides’ contention that knowing God is a commandment. One theme Crescas emphasized throughout Or Hashem is that ideas in general cannot mitzvot, not even for the most important “root” of the Torah, namely that God exists.
The God in Crescas’ Or Hashem is a personality capable of love, who chose to communicate with Abraham. God is a personality known through experience, not a concept derived through logic. Abraham’s relationship with God is fraught with difficult and even horrific experiences, but never since God speaks to him the first time does Abraham have reason to question God’s existence. The same is true for the nation of Israel, Abraham’s descendants, who experience God throughout the Bible and beyond.
In this way Crescas took what he saw as an aberration, namely the medieval philosophical view of God as a concept, and removed it by refuting the scientific basis for the concept. He thus allowed for a return to the God of the Torah, who is experienced through life, rather than being apprehended through rational inquiry. We might even suggest, anachronistically, that the very term “Middle Ages” would have been deemed quite accurate by Crescas, who saw medieval Aristotelianism as a system that had wrongly replaced the classical approach of the Torah, and whose removal would enable prophecy (“the light of the Lord”) to return to Israel at the dawn of a new age.
II. Shifting from medieval to modern religion: Crescas dealt with a great deal of what we would now call “science” in the first treatise of Or Hashem. Perhaps the greatest difference between medieval science and modern science (although one with which Crescas himself didn’t much engage) is that the latter insists on empirical verification. Logic on its own is insufficient. Theories need to be confirmed by conformity to hard facts, and those facts need to be objectively verifiable by anyone.
Because of this, religion ceased to be a scientific issue in modern times. God cannot be tested for in a laboratory. Any good scientist, or at least one who has a decent grasp of the history of science, knows that God is simply not a scientific question anymore. Science cannot define God or describe God, and it certainly cannot determine whether or not God exists. Something that is known through subjective experience, rather than through objective observation and argumentation, cannot be dealt with on a scientific level. This is why religion in the modern world ceased being a scientific matter, and instead became a matter of personal experience and conviction. In the case of Judaism, it is a matter of both personal and national experience and conviction.
It is thus no accident that Crescas’ abandonment of the conceptual God of logic, in favor of returning to the personal God of life, is tightly connected to the historical shift from medieval science to modern science. Crescas was deeply convinced that the Torah itself had been grossly distorted by medieval thought, from which it needed to be disengaged and liberated in order to regain its own integrity. This was his personal motivation for trying to undermine the core concepts of Aristotelian science. To further this goal he was even willing to sacrifice that aspect of Aristotelianism most beloved to medieval Jews, namely its absolute proof for the existence of a single incorporeal God. For Crescas, a God who could be proven (or needed to be proven) wasn’t a God at all. At the very least, such a God certainly wasn’t the God of the Torah.
It must be emphasized that in no way did Crescas engage in anything remotely like the cheap disparagement of modern science that is popular among some Orthodox Jews today. He didn’t try to save the Torah by engaging in apologetics (otherwise he would have been quite satisfied with the Aristotelian proof of God, as were some of his contemporaries and students). Rather, in order to honestly uphold the Torah, he placed himself firmly at the cutting edge of the science of his day by questioning its underlying concepts, and was thus able to offer alternatives that other contemporary scientists found compelling. He tried to rethink assumptions on both sides for every issue he confronted: No idea proclaimed in the name of the Torah, and no product of human wisdom, was obvious to him or beyond question. By shattering popular notions in both realms he did not merely reduce the friction between them, but allowed each one to enrich the other. In fact, he was one of a handful of men who so cogently challenged the core of medieval science that they ultimately paved the way for the scientific revolution of the 16th century.
Crescas is thus a powerful example of how personal attitudes and motivations can be valuable tools toward unlocking new venues in academia. This is true so long as they are openly and honestly acknowledged, and on condition that the quality of research is not compromised and the quest for truth retains its integrity. As a man of Torah, Crescas achieved this by insisting that the Torah be studied and understood on its own terms, and science on its own terms. Honesty and rigour are called for in both worlds, but each realm enjoys its own sovereignty.
The honesty and rigor exhibited in Crescas’ thought are not just important in terms of his contribution to humanity. For our purposes here, his central contribution is to the intellectual lives of Jews loyal to the Torah. To understand why this is so, recall that the first treatise of Or Hashem is about God’s existence, unity, and incorporeality. In other words, it is designed to parallel the first three principles of Maimonides.
For Maimonides, the absolute demonstration of these three principles according to reason was the only possible basis for a true understanding of the Torah. However, for Crescas, objective reason ultimately proves little or nothing about God. Reason cannot uphold the Torah, but neither can it refute the Torah. Crescas’ goal was to neutralize reason, and thus relegate it to its own realm, namely to the world of objective human inquiry. In this way he freed the Torah to be understood on its own terms, in its proper context, namely the experiential, subjective and living relationship between God and Israel.
The Palace in Flames
Rabbi Enoch Zundel ben Joseph of Bialystok (d. 1867), in his commentary Etz Yosef, interprets our midrash as follows: The lonely traveler stumbles upon a vestige of civilization, but it is burning down. The impressive palace most certainly had a governor who built it and maintained it for a time, but now he seems to have abandoned his manor. So the traveler asks, “Does this mean the palace has no governor?” And then, suddenly, the governor reveals his presence.Returning to our midrash, an alternative reading has been suggested. The Hebrew term birah doleket may not mean “Illuminated Palace” at all, but rather “burning palace,” i.e. a castle that is going up in flames.
In other words, when Abraham saw the idolatrous civilization around him collapsing and facing disaster (as described in related midrashim about events in Parashat Noah), and God didn’t intervene, he began to doubt that God cared about the world anymore. But then God spoke to Abraham and told him that all of the calamity and destruction was His will as punishment for the wicked. He chose to let His palace burn. And henceforth, should anyone ask whether the world still has a governor, the key to the answer would no longer be the Palace itself, but rather in the unique experience of one man and his family: Abraham. It is in the special divine providence for Abraham and his descendants, in the extraordinary history of Israel, that God’s hand will continue to be revealed in the world.
I would like to take the “palace in flames” reading in a slightly different direction. Note that in midrashic parables, it is often important to pay attention to where the allegory doesn’t fully match what it stands for. In our parable, the traveler stumbles upon a burning palace. But if the palace stands for the world, then Abraham doesn’t just stumble upon it. Rather, he is within it and a part of it.
An exclamation point is therefore called for when the traveler cries out, “Will you say this palace has no governor?!” It is not intellectual inquiry that is going on here, and he isn’t just musing about whether or not the governor has abandoned his palace. Rather, what we have here is a personal cry for help, and even a challenge to God: “Isn’t there anyone in charge who can save the world?! How could God allow this to happen?! Why isn’t God taking responsibility?!”
There are many people who seek out God in times of pain and peril. In my reading, the traveler represents them.
When reading the midrash this way, God’s reply is particularly fascinating. “I am the master of the world,” God tells Abraham. One way to understand this blunt response is that God has ordained the disaster currently engulfing the world (as the Etz Yosef suggested). It is God’s will, and the decree stands despite any human protest. Considering Abraham’s difficult life, it seems quite reasonable to interpret the midrash this way.
However, it can also be understood differently. When the traveler calls out for help, the master of the palace reveals himself. By doing so the Master says: “You are not alone. I identify with you in your time of trouble.” Such a reply might indicate that when a catastrophe befalls humanity it is not just an accident of history but has meaning, as do the human lives that it affects, and that God cares despite His harsh decree. Furthermore, the divine identification with human suffering spurs action: The very fact that the palace has a master—even though He has consigned it to burn—calls upon Abraham (and humanity) to rescue the moral order that is going up in flames.
The reply might further suggest that God not only identifies with human suffering and shares our pain, and not just that His care calls upon us to act, but that God actively assists us and supports us in ways that might be difficult to discern. According to this, the lesson of the midrash would be something similar to the famous poem, “Footprints in the Sand.”
It is thus entirely possible that the whole medieval debate about proofs of God’s existence is not really what our midrash is about. The midrash focuses not on the palace (and what it does or doesn’t prove), but on the flames (God’s apparent abandonment of the world). In this case the midrash is making a claim about the value and meaning of human life and experience, and that God is concerned about them. It focuses even more closely on Abraham, turning him into a potent symbol of divine involvement and care. Such claims reside in an entirely different realm than rational inquiry or science, which have nothing to say about them.
Reading the midrash about Abraham and the Illuminated Palace in multiple ways shows that the criticism of Maimonides’ thirteen principles by later thinkers is not just technical. A surface reading of some of these works might suggest that they do nothing more than discuss the details of the system (i.e. what should be listed as a “principle of the Torah”), or that they pursue a somewhat broader but still technical goal, namely to analytically redefine how a system of principles should be built. But when they are read carefully as part of a dialogue with Maimonides and with each other, we can see that their critique of Maimonides’ principles is ultimately a negation of the very notion that the Torah depends upon objective reason, and it has harsh implications for the related notion that ideas can be commanded. Crescas’ interpretation of the Illuminated Palace is a vivid example.
God is a personality to live with, not a concept to be analyzed. The Torah is a covenant between God and Israel, in the context of a relationship, not a neutral expression of abstract, objective ideas. What the Torah cares about is how we live—and most of all about the inner intentions and loyalties that inform our behavior towards God, Israel and humanity—not our intellectual positions. The upshot of the analysis of “principles of the Torah” among the rishonim is that the Torah is not intellectual dogma, it is rather a way of life with God.
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October 6, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Seth (Avi) Kadish teaches medieval Jewish philosophy, history and exegesis at Oranim Teacher’s College, and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Haifa in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, his M.A. in Bible and Jewish education from Yeshiva University, and his semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS. Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer and The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi.
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