Rationalism

Can faith and reason coexist in Jewish thought?

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Rationalism is the attitude in which religious faith has to justify itself at the bar of reason before it can be accepted. There is much reasoned appeal in the Bible. The Hebrew prophets seek to persuade by rational argument. The translation, in the Jewish Publication Society version, of the verse in Isaiah (1: 28): "Come let reach an understanding says the Lord," may not be an accurate rendering. A footnote to the translation says: "Meaning of Hebrew uncertain." Yet the implication that the prophets do employ reason becomes apparent from even the most casual reading of the prophetic books, even though terms like "reason" in the abstract sense are unknown in biblical Hebrew. The Talmud consists almost entirely of reasoned arguments, although the Talmud, like the Bible, does not normally rely on human reason to support faith.

Proving God's Existence

Indeed, the problem of the relationship between belief in God (and the truth of the Torah) and human reasoning did not surface until the Middle Ages, when the Jewish thinkers, under the influence of Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb, sought to prove the existence of God and to advance reasons for those laws in the Torah that seem opaque to reason. Abraham Ibn Ezra's contention that reason is the angel mediating between God and man finds many an echo in the writings of the medieval thinkers. Bahya Ibn Pakudah (Duties of the Heart, I. 2) quotes with approval a "philosopher" who maintained that the only persons who really worshipped God were the prophet, with his intuitive awareness of the Deity, and the philosopher, with his reasoned account of God and His nature.

jewish rationalismAll other men, even though they believed they were worshipping God, were really worshipping something other than God, a mere figment of the imagination.

In the Haskalah ("Enlightenment") movement, which arose in the eighteenth century, the "Age of Reason," there is the strongest emphasis on the ability of the human mind to arrive at the basic truths of religion by unaided human reason. This rationalistic tendency in Jewish thought has been heavily assailed by the religious existentialists in modern times. The religious existentialists argue that God must be encountered as a "given," not reached as the end of an argument, though even the existentialists are bound to rely on reason to support their very case.

The mystics, too, are suspicious of philosophical enquiry in religious matters. God, the mystics affirm, is to be known through experience. Unlike the medieval philosophers, who hold that to "know" God is to prove by reason that He exists and that belief means only that one takes it all on trust, the mystics declare that, on the contrary, reason can only tell a little about God, but to know God means to experience His nearness. The mystics declare that there are things higher than reason.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.