Gersonides: Judaism Within the Limits of Reason
(Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)
By Seymour Feldman
The Littman Library, 2010
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 28, 2011
Levi ben Gershom, Gersonides in Latin, (1288-1344), was one of several great Jewish rational philosophers. He lived in Provence, France, and wrote books on philosophy, science, and Bible commentary. He wasn't as deep a thinker as Maimonides and ibn Ezra, who preceded him, but far more intellectual and innovative than most people. All three had unconventional opinions that the public don't know or misunderstand: ideas about God, creation, miracles, prophecy, life, death, the functioning of the world, and human responsibilities. Everyone should know these things. Seymour Feldman gives readers an excellent introduction to Gersonides, describes his thoughts in language appropriate for scholars and the general community, and compares his views with those of other thinkers. The following are some of them.
The three great rationalists stressed the use of reason. Human perfection, they wrote, is based on an improved and effective use of reason, not tradition or beliefs. Individuals must study the sciences, how the world functions. The Torah begins by teaching about creation to emphasize the importance of understanding science. Reason even supersedes the literal meaning of the Bible: "For when the Torah, interpreted literally, seems to conflict with doctrines that have been proved (to be true) by reason, it is proper to interpret these passages according to philosophical understanding" and not accept the biblical words literally.
Gersonides was convinced that the Bible teaches philosophy, not only history and laws. But while Maimonides and most ancient thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, recognized that the majority of people lack the education and intellect to understand philosophy, Gersonides felt that they could and should understand it. Thus Maimonides composed his writings so that the intellectual would understand it one way, the true way, but the masses would only see their mistaken notions reflected in his writings and think that the Great Eagle, as Maimonides was called, thought as they thought. But Gersonides wrote his philosophy and philosophical interpretations of Scripture openly, convinced that everyone would understand his views.
Feldman does not read Maimonides in this dual – one might call it elitist - manner. He feels, as most scholars, that Maimonides was hiding nothing. Thus he reads Maimonides repeating the conventional belief that God created the world out of nothing. Other scholars, such as Straus and Pines, and this reviewer, contend that Maimonides could be saying that God created the world out of preexisting matter, which he formed into the currently existing universe. In any event, Gersonides takes the latter view and states it clearly.
End of the World
Both, but not ibn Ezra, agree that the world will last forever. Ibn Ezra accepted the notion in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a, that the world would last only six thousand years in his commentaries on Genesis 1:5, 8:22, and Leviticus 25:2. Maimonides wrote that one may rebuff rabbinical opinions about non-legal matters. Thus he rejected the rabbis' superstitious notions. Gersonides felt the same, but he accepted many of them. He also accepted as true many biblical tales that are contrary to reason, tales that Maimonides said were untrue, just parables or dreams.
Since scholars read Maimonides differently, some say he thought miracles occur and others the opposite. Gersonides and ibn Ezra are also unclear. Yet, even those who insist that they believed in miracles say that they felt that miracles are rare and that the world generally (or always) functions according to the laws of nature. The scholarly understanding that miracles do not occur seems correct because it is consistent with the three thinkers' feelings about God's knowledge.
As startling as it may appear, all three of these rational philosophers were convinced that God doesn't know details about people; God only knows the general rules of the laws of nature, what could possibly occur, but people can subvert the laws of nature. Needless to say, since God does not know the details of human activities, the idea that God punishes people for their misdeeds and rewards them for proper acts, is impossible. Therefore they reject this common conception and contend that people should use their intellect and act properly because it is better for them and society.
Since God has no specific idea of what is happening, it would be illogical to say that God speaks to people and sends them messages how to behave. Thus, the three define prophecy as a higher level of intelligence, not a divine communication. Prophets are intelligent people of high moral integrity, with imaginative skills that give them the ability to communicate, who understands events, and shares their understanding with others because of what they understand is their moral duty. Thus, many scholars contend that the three rationalists would say that the pagan Aristotle, who had these qualities, was a prophet.
Dreams, divination, and astrology
Nevertheless, seemingly inconsistently, Gersonides and ibn Ezra were convinced that some people receive a kind of mental experience that enables them to avoid danger or obtain a benefit. This occurs through dreams, divination, and astrology. They were not alone. Most ancient people, including rabbis, believed this, but not Maimonides.
Maimonides and Gersonides reject the generally held view that a person's soul survives the body's death. The two felt that only people's intelligence live after them. Like other philosophers who had this opinion, Maimonides is unclear whether this surviving intellect can recall the person's prior life. Most likely, Maimonides felt that this was a subject he better not reveal to people. Some are certain that Maimonides thought that the surviving intellect has no recollection of the past, but this is mere conjecture by these scholars. However, Gersonides writes openly that the surviving intellect could recall its pre-death thoughts, spends eternity contemplating them, but learns nothing new, since the intellect now lacks the five senses that are used to acquire knowledge. (Some readers might call this hell.)
According to the scholars who read Maimonides taking a dual tract, one for intellectuals and one for the general population, Maimonides did not think that people will be resurrected after death. All scholars recognize that he said that the messiah will be human and the messianic age will be like current times except that Jews will no longer be persecuted. However, Gersonides believed in resurrection and wrote that the messianic age would be one that is filled with "marvelous miracles that will be seen by all the earth." (This seems inconsistent with his general view about miracles, but Gersonides is not known for pure consistency.)
Most rabbis and scholars recognize and respect the vast and deep learning of Gersonides – as well ibn Ezra and Maimonides - but they cannot accept his radical heterodox conclusions concerning the creation of the earth out of preexisting matter; that miracles don't occur, even though biblical people thought they did; God doesn't know the details of human behavior, only the laws of nature; neither the soul nor personality of people survive their death, only their intellect; when the Torah differs with scientific proofs the Torah must be interpreted according to science; people who study Torah and Talmud, even daily, haven't fulfilled their human duty, which is to study and understand the sciences and use the knowledge to improve themselves and society; and similar unorthodox stances.
Readers may prefer the conservative positions. They may be bothered at first by the fact that not everyone agrees how to interpret Gersonides or Maimonides, and be annoyed at what seems like Gersonides' inconsistencies. But they will find that they will profit from this well-written and thought-provoking book because Dr. Feldman presents Gersonides' ideas in a clear and understandable fashion, and contrasts them with the thinking of Maimonides and ibn Ezra. Readers will finish Feldman's book learning how to think more deeply and how to delve into and better understand their own ideas.