ח אַל-תִּפְחֲדוּ, וְאַל-תִּרְהוּ--הֲלֹא מֵאָז הִשְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְהִגַּדְתִּי, וְאַתֶּם עֵדָי; הֲיֵשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ מִבַּלְעָדַי, וְאֵין צוּר בַּל-יָדָעְתִּי.
8 Do not be frightened do not be shaken! Have I not from old predicted to you? I foretold and you are My witnesses. Is there any god then but me? There is no other rock; I know none!
Friday, May 20, 2011
Yediah And Emunah - Resag On Belief and Demonstration -
I started reading Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (HBV) by Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag). It is a most rewarding experience which I will try to share as I come across ideas that captivate me. HBV was written in Arabic about two years after Resag wrote his commentary on Sefer Yetzira. Resag’s style is to support everything he proposes, directly from Tanach, quoting and then interpreting verses extensively. Resag also composed the Tafsir, a translation into Arabic of Tanach, accompanied by a full commentary. Not all the commentary is available but a lot of work is ongoing in reconstructing from where it is quoted by others to complement the extant parts of the commentary. Resag’s interpretations of verses are original and the comments on verses in the HBV are many times complementary to the Pirush, at others novel.
Note: I want to caution that these posts are written before I had a chance to read the whole sefer. I read it years ago and referred back to chapters and subjects many times in the last few years, but this is the first systematic read in a long time. My comments should therefore be taken with caution and I have a feeling my opinions and understanding of Resag may change as I go along.
Here is a segment in the introduction discussing belief and knowledge. (Translation is mine from Rav Kafieh’s Hebrew translation of the original Arabic).
“Know you who are reading this book, May God grant you grace, that the rationale for studying and exploring matters related to our beliefs is to fulfill two goals. One is so that we can verify in actu through [demonstrated] knowledge that which we already know as taught to us by God’s prophets and the second is so that we can refute any that argue against us in matters of our beliefs. God informed us through His prophets, all that we need to know regarding our beliefs, authenticating their prophecy through signs and portents, and thereafter commanded us that we demonstrate [logically for ourselves] these matters and remember them. He also told us that our study and exploration would lead us to verify all that we were told by His messengers giving us assurances that it is impossible for those who argue against us to contradict our religion or those [among us] who have doubts about our beliefs to argue against our beliefs.”
In the preceding segment, Resag showed that there is a religious obligation to demonstrate for ourselves through logical arguments that which we are commanded to believe and ignore the cautionary warnings of those who worry that speculation may lead to heresy. He now explains that this fear is not only unfounded but shows a lack of confidence that our beliefs are indeed true. If we accept the scriptures and their authors as God’s prophets authenticated by their performance of “signs and portents”, we should feel secure that no one could prove us wrong. I find it interesting that Resag melds the two – co-religionists who have doubts and followers of other religions who argue against our religion – assuring us that should they honestly look for the truth they will find that our beliefs are true and will stand up to all scrutiny. Resag then uses Yeshayahu 44:6-8 in support of his argument which he interprets as follows -
“He [Yeshayahu in the name of God] said; do not be afraid from the numbers and strength of your opponents …. Do not be shaken by the essence of their arguments and of their proofs, consider that I predicted to you future occurrences and told you of past happenings…. He then said “you are My witnesses”, referring to the signs, marvels and great portents that they experienced …. He then said, “Is there any god then but me?” meaning that should you at times wonder about some of the past and the future events I shared with you, thinking that they were not so. That fear would be warranted were I not the sole creator, allowing you to wonder whether I knew all the details. However, [that cannot be the case] considering that I am one and alone, My knowledge encompasses everything that I did and will do. He furthermore said, “There is no rock I know not”, included in that [word צוּר] are the respected people and the wise amongst them as the word צוּר is used [allegorically] for respected people for example …. He tells us with this that as God knows all wise and respected men and all that they know, it is therefore impossible that they should come up with anything that would disprove your beliefs and laws considering that I [God] know all and I am the one who told you all this. It is from this perspective that we explore and study [logically demonstrate] that which our Creator has told us”.
The argument seems to be circular. God tells us about the past, namely that the world is not eternal, that it was created and the reason we believe that is so, is because He is the sole Creator and therefore knows all! Also, the last sentence requires some clarification; what does he mean by this apparently a priori perspective? However, before dealing with that Resag appears to digress and asks –
“If all religious matters as told to us by God, are demonstrable through correct research and exploration, what is the wisdom of Him informing us through prophecy authenticated by physical rather than rational proofs? The answer is that the Wise One knows that knowledge acquired through study requires a lot of time and had he left it up to us to learn [these truths], we would have remained ignorant for a long time. Indeed, many would never reach a resolution because of their handicaps, some for lack of ability while others would become mired in uncertainty and questions. For that reason, God relieved us from this responsibility, sending us His messenger informing us [of these truths], showing us unquestionable signs and portents, ones that cannot be denied as it says “you saw that I spoke with you from heaven” (Shemot 20:22). He also spoke with His messenger in front of our eyes, compelling us to believe in him always as it says …. We were therefore required to accept these religious matters and all they encompass immediately, relying on what our senses experienced, compelling us to accept this reliable transmission. We were then commanded to study [these matters] at our own speed until we demonstrate logically to ourselves [these truths].”
Resag addresses the obvious question first. If these theological truths are demonstrable, and that must be so if there is an obligation to demonstrate these beliefs to ourselves, why then did God present them to us as matters of belief? Why did He not let us work them out on our own? As Rav Kafieh notes, Rambam in MN 1:34 follows the same line of reasoning and offers a similar answer. If everyone were required to establish philosophical truths starting from scratch, starting as a tabula rasa without even a foreseeable endpoint, most of us would never get to the truth. We are therefore told where our speculation, if performed carefully and thoroughly, will lead us to and commanded to accept these truths at first on Moshe’s say so with the expectation that in time we will demonstrate to ourselves their veracity.
The next question that comes to mind is that we are asked to spend a lifetime following a strict set of rules that cover every aspect of one’s life and work to overcome personal biases with the goal that one speculate towards a foregone conclusion. How is one to know that at the end of the road he will not discover that all this was a lie and a life, nay lives were wasted?
This is where “signs and portents” play their role. They authenticate the prophecy by confirming that the source of the message is God who should know the Truth considering He is the Creator of everything. It gives the seeker a certain amount of psychic comfort and confidence to know that the end goal he is seeking comes from an impeccable source. However, theology dependent on revelation-based belief should only be transitory until the seeker develops personal convictions using logical processes. Because without that a person that uses his God given brains cannot shake off a kernel of doubt. As Rambam says in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1 שהמאמין על פי האותות--יש בליבו דופי, שאפשר שייעשה האות בלאט וכישוף
“One whose beliefs are based on signs cannot avoid having doubts. Those signs could be a sleight of hand or magic.” Skepticism is healthy.
Although Resag does not spell it out here, but taking into account his understanding of what a reliable demonstration consists of, as discussed elsewhere in HBV, I think that he holds that beliefs have to be tested against reality - if they do not contradict reality, we can accept them as true. That is how I read the end of the first piece I translated above “it is impossible for those who argue against us to contradict our religion or those [among us] who have doubts about our beliefs to argue against our beliefs.” I will talk more about his position on demonstration in the future.
Here again we see Resag aligned pretty much with the thought we see in Rambam.