Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beshalach - The Role of Philosophy in Judaism

At its most basic level, Judaism is about just one thing: Connecting with God. God created us so that we could enter into a relationship with Him and everything we do in Judaism is intended for that purpose. The first step, on our part, in that relationship is to believe – i.e. to be absolutely certain – that God exists.

At the time when the events of this week’s parsha were taking place, the Jewish people came to know God in a very personal and immediate fashion. They saw His hand in the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the gift of the manna. And then, in the central event of Jewish history, they heard God speak to them directly, as He introduced himself to them at Mt. Sinai, saying, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

The Jews of that time knew God in the most personal way possible, the same way that we know our closest friends and family members. This direct, personal relationship with God continued for many generations, if to a lesser degree. Throughout the time in the desert, the Jewish people had daily experience with open Divine providence in the form of supernatural events that accompanied them constantly, such as the manna, the clouds of glory, the miraculous well, and much more. Even after their entry into the land of Israel, supernatural events continued to be normal parts of life. Prophecy flourished amongst the Jewish people for hundreds of years, and even after full prophecy ended early in the Second Temple period, lesser forms of Divine inspiration continued to function into the time of the Talmudic sages.

Eventually, however, we lost the privilege of these direct and obvious expressions of God’s presence. God “hid His face” from us, and we now have to struggle to reach the level of belief in God that was once self-evident to even the simplest Jew. In this new state, it became difficult for Jews to remain confident in their knowledge of God, especially in the face of outside challenges.

In response to this new challenge, a new genre of Torah literature emerged, Jewish philosophy. Although the Jewish people had long been known, from ancient times, as a “nation of philosophers”, they had never produced works of formal philosophy. The first such work was Emunos v’Deos (“Beliefs and Opinions”) by Rav Saadia Gaon. However, from that point forward, we see an explosion of such works, including such monumental works as Chovos Halevavos (“Duties of the Heart”) by Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda, the Kuzari by Rav Yehuda HaLevi, and Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”) by Rav Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides). These great classics of Jewish philosophy continue to be studied to this day, and new works are written in every generation.

One of the main goals of these works is to provide logical arguments and proofs for the existence of God. While the basic foundation of Jewish belief had always been, and always would be, the historical experiences of the Jewish people, there was now a need to supplement that knowledge with philosophical proofs. The knowledge gained from historical tradition, as important as it was, could not provide the sense of personal connection with God that Judaism demands. Without the direct experiences of God’s presence that earlier generations had experienced, it was necessary to introduce a new way for a Jew to come to “see” God in the world around him. One of the main ways to achieve this was through philosophy.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (d. 1630), the Shelah HaKadosh, finds an allusion to this idea in this week’s parsha, in the song sung by the Jewish people after the splitting of the Red Sea (ספר של"ה, עשרה מאמרות, מאמר ראשון). The Jewish people sang (Exodus 15:2):

זה א-לי ואנוהו, אלקי אבי וארממנהו
"This is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father's God, and I will exalt Him."

In a classic example of drash (homiletic interpretation), the Shelah Hakadosh interprets the verse to be contrasting two ways of coming to know God and the kind of relationship with God that results from each approach.

זה א-לי” “This is my God” – If  my relationship with God is that He is my God, in that I have come to know Him through my own intellect and understanding, then I will have a close connection to Him, as alluded to by the term “ואנוהו”, which is interpreted midrashically as a contraction of the words “אני והוא” – “I and He” – together as one.

If however, my relationship to God is only as “אלקי אבי” – “the God of my father” – in that I only know God through the heritage I received from my ancestors, then “I will exalt Him”, I will only know God as an exalted Being, far above and distant from me, and I will not have that close relationship with God that Judaism demands.

It is not sufficient for us to simply rely on the teachings of our parents and teachers for our knowledge of God. Each one of us must find ways to know God out of our own understanding. What these means will be will vary from person to person, and they will also change as we grow ourselves. The means that worked for us as teenagers will need to be developed and supplemented as we mature. The knowledge of God is a life-long task which we will never fully complete, but which we also may never abandon.

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