Rationalism

Can faith and reason coexist in Jewish thought?

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The Limits of Reason

Another renowned Hasidic thinker, Nahman of Bratslav, holds that man can never discover God through his reasoning powers and goes so far as to say that man is bound to have religious doubts (Likkutey Moharan): "It is entirely proper that objections can be found to God. It is right and suitable that this should be so because of God’s greatness and exaltedness. Since in His exaltedness He is so elevated above our minds there are bound to objections to Him." AGod who raises no problems for human thought would not be God for the very reason that the Infinite is bound to offend the finite mind. Since God cannot be grasped by the human mind, human reason in itself must not only fail to bring man to God but must be in contradiction to God.

Nahman of Bratslav, according to a disciple, is reported to have taken issue with the medieval Jewish philosophers who argue that, while God can do that which seems impossible, even He cannot do the absolutely impossible such as make a square a triangle: "They write in their books: 'Is it possible for God to make a triangle into a square?' But our master (Nahman of Bratslav) said I believe that God can make a square triangle: For God's ways are concealed from us: He is omnipotent and nothing is

Impossible for him."  Obviously, Nahman is involved in logical contradiction when he implies the rules of logic apply only to humans. It is not that God cannot make a square triangle but that, by definition, there cannot be any such thing as a square triangle for God to create. A square means not a triangle and a triangle not a square. The question: "Can God make a square triangle?" is simply to ask: "Can God. . .?" without completing the question. As Aquinas puts it--and many of the Jewish thinkers, Saadiah for instance, say the same thing--contradiction does not fall under the scope of omnipotence.

It remains to be said that for Tertullian, as a Christian, the paradox at the heart of faith is due to the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is impossible for God to become man and yet the Christian must believe this "impossible" thing. No Jewish thinker is moved by this because Judaism rejects the doctrine of the incarnation. While Shneur Zalman, Nahman of Bratslav, and a few other Jewish thinkers have seen a similar "absurdity" in all theistic faith, which is bound to remove faith entirely from the realm of conceptual thought, their views, and here Epstein and Steinberg are correct, remain on the periphery of Jewish thought. That Judaism contains a non-rational element, as religion is bound to do, does not mean that Judaism is essentially irrational.

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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.