Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Hasdai Crescas (d.1412), a philosopher and communal leader of the Aragonian Jewish communities, was one of the most influential personalities of Spanish Jewry, in particular in his efforts to prevent Jews from being lured away from Judaism in the wake of Christian persecution. His own son was killed during a persecution in 1391.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Crescas devoted a good deal of his literary endeavors both to defending Judaism against theological attacks by Christians and to offering a critique of the popular philosophical trends. His work in Spanish (later translated into Hebrew), Refutation of the Principle Dogmas of the Christian Religion, came to occupy a prominent place in the literature of Jewish-Christian polemics.
Crescas’s major work, on which his fame as a philosopher rests, is his Or Adonai (Light of the Lord) in which he takes issue with the dominant Aristotelian philosophy and Maimonides’ reliance on this for the interpretation of Judaism. Among other topics discussed in the book is the question of dogma in Judaism, where Crescas has a different arrangement from that of Maimonides. In this Crescas was followed by his disciple Joseph Albo.
Freedom of Will
Crescas’s views on the question of human freedom are startling for a Jewish thinker. The medieval philosophers grappled with the problem of reconciling divine foreknowledge with human free will. Crescas, anxious not to qualify in any way the doctrine of divine foreknowledge, puts forward a deterministic view.
Man is not fated to act in the way he does. He does have the freedom of choice. But the exercise of this freedom of choice is determined by God’s foreknowledge. God knows how man will choose. Man’s choice is guided by the promise of a reward for doing good and the threat of punishment for doing evil. Thus, what is determined by God’s foreknowledge is the whole process by means of which man arrives at his particular choices. There would be no justice in God granting reward to the righteous and punishing the wicked if rewards were in the nature of gifts for virtuous living and punishments were deprivations for evil living. Rewards and punishments are only the means by which a man is spurred on to choose to lead a virtuous life and to reject a vicious life, and they operate as cause and effect.
Crescas is not unaware of the difficulties in his position, a very unusual one in Jewish thought, which attaches the greatest significance to human free will. If all is determined by God’s foreknowledge, why does Jewish law make a distinction between sins committed voluntarily and sins committed under compulsion, since the "voluntary" acts are also done under the compulsion of the divine foreknowledge? Crescas replies that there would be no point in rewarding or punishing acts done under compulsion, since, as he has argued, the whole purpose of rewards and punishments is to influence man’s choice. In that case, why is a man punished for entertaining false beliefs, since he is compelled to hold these beliefs by the arguments which have led up to them? Crescas replies that punishment in this area is not for entertaining the false beliefs but for lack of care in accepting the faulty arguments on which the beliefs are based.
Crescas differs from Maimonides on the question of the divine attributes. According to Maimonides’ doctrine of negative attributes, to say that God is good or wise does not mean that His nature can be described in any positive way. The attributes of God found in Scripture are to be understood only as negating their opposite. When it is said that God is good, this refers solely to His actions, which, if performed by a human being, would be said to be good. When it is said that God is wise, the meaning is that He is not ignorant. Crescas disagrees.
For Crescas, the divine attributes are to be understood in a positive sense. God really is good and wise. Such an idea does not compromise the doctrine of the divine unity, since multiple qualities do not imply a compound subject if these qualities are interconnected.