Can faith and reason coexist in Jewish thought?

Rationalism is the attitude in which religious faith has to justify itself at the bar of reason before it can be accepted. There is much reasoned appeal in the Bible. The Hebrew prophets seek to persuade by rational argument. The translation, in the Jewish Publication Society version, of the verse in Isaiah (1: 28): “Come let reach an understanding says the Lord,” may not be an accurate rendering. A footnote to the translation says: “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” Yet the implication that the prophets do employ reason becomes apparent from even the most casual reading of the prophetic books, even though terms like “reason” in the abstract sense are unknown in biblical Hebrew. The Talmud consists almost entirely of reasoned arguments, although the Talmud, like the Bible, does not normally rely on human reason to support faith.

Proving God’s Existence

Indeed, the problem of the relationship between belief in God (and the truth of the Torah) and human reasoning did not surface until the Middle Ages, when the Jewish thinkers, under the influence of Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb, sought to prove the existence of God and to advance reasons for those laws in the Torah that seem opaque to reason. Abraham Ibn Ezra’s contention that reason is the angel mediating between God and man finds many an echo in the writings of the medieval thinkers. Bahya Ibn Pakudah (Duties of the Heart, I. 2) quotes with approval a “philosopher” who maintained that the only persons who really worshipped God were the prophet, with his intuitive awareness of the Deity, and the philosopher, with his reasoned account of God and His nature.

All other men, even though they believed they were worshipping God, were really worshipping something other than God, a mere figment of the imagination.

In the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”) movement, which arose in the eighteenth century, the “Age of Reason,” there is the strongest emphasis on the ability of the human mind to arrive at the basic truths of religion by unaided human reason. This rationalistic tendency in Jewish thought has been heavily assailed by the religious existentialists in modern times. The religious existentialists argue that God must be encountered as a “given,” not reached as the end of an argument, though even the existentialists are bound to rely on reason to support their very case.

The mystics, too, are suspicious of philosophical enquiry in religious matters. God, the mystics affirm, is to be known through experience. Unlike the medieval philosophers, who hold that to “know” God is to prove by reason that He exists and that belief means only that one takes it all on trust, the mystics declare that, on the contrary, reason can only tell a little about God, but to know God means to experience His nearness. The mystics declare that there are things higher than reason.

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.

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.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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