Rationalism

Can faith and reason coexist in Jewish thought?

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The Tensions

There are inevitable tensions between the surrender to faith and the employment of reason. Many thinkers have argued that a God who can easily be contained in the human mind is not the God whom Jews worship. Chesterton put it neatly: "The philosopher tries to get the heavens into his head. The poet tries to get his head into the heavens." There is some truth in Dr. Isidore Epstein's remarks (The Faith of Judaism (London, 1954)) regarding the Tertullian paradox in relation to Judaism, but they are too sweeping, as will be noted later. Epstein writes:

"Applied to the doctrines of Judaism, we can say that though they are not all in accord with understanding they are all in accord alike with reason and the established truths of scientific teaching. Contrast this with the Tertullian dicta: 'Credo quia absurdum,' 'Credibile quia ineptum,' 'Certum est quia impossibile est' ('I believe because it is absurd,' 'To be believed because it is foolish,' 'It is certain because it is Impossible'), making incredibility the test of credibility…"

The same applies to Milton Sternberg's attack (Anatomy of Faith (New York, 1960)) on Kierkegaard's view that faith and reason are mutually exclusive, an attack which is too total in its rejection on behalf of Judaism. Steinberg remarks: "No Jewish thinker is on record as advancing Kierkegaard's contention of the radical incompatibility of religious truth and reason."

Antirationalist Thought

To declare, as Epstein implies and Steinberg says, that no Jewish thinker has ever gloried in a Jewish version of the Tertullian and Kierkegaardian paradox, is to ignore Jewish thinkers (few indeed, it must be admitted), who do come very close to affirming the paradox. One might argue that these men are not thinkers, but they are certainly Jewish and were possessed of high intellectual ability. It might well be argued, and very convincingly, that in the mainstream of Jewish thought there is nothing to suggest any acceptance of the paradox and that it is, in any event, logically absurd to use reason to reject reason. It is still not true to say that no Jewish thinker can ever be an antirationalist in his religious approach. Shneur Zalman of Liady, for example; the founder of the Habad movement in Hasidism, can write (Tanya, ch. 18):

"Faith is higher than knowledge and comprehension for: 'The simpleton believeth every word' (Psalms 14:15). In relation to God, who is higher than reason and knowledge and whom no thought can grasp at all, everyone is a simpleton, as it is said: 'But I was brutish and ignorant;  I was as a beast before Thee: Though holdest my right hand' (Psalms 73:22-3). This means: Because I am brutish and as a beast I am continually with thee."

Shneur Zalman appears to be saying that only the "simpleton" can always be with God, since faith is God's gift to man and faith is contrary to reason. It is not in spite of his brutishness that man can always be with God but because of his brutishness.

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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.