Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Intro To Machshava: Rav Sa'adiah Gaon - Faith and Doubt (Part 1 of 2)

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz
Adapted by Micah Hyman

Rav Sa’adiah Gaon in Emunos V’Deos writes that there are many people who say that it is heretical to intellectually explore theological issues; better, they say, to simply accept the tradition. They claim: Our fathers and Rebbeim were sure God existed, that He was incorporeal and created the world from nothing. We should accept this too. 

Rav Sa’adiah argues that this approach disregards the most elevated gift that God gave man: a mind capable of abstract cognition. That brilliant tool was not only given so that we could create automobiles and skyscrapers, but also, and primarily, to perceive God (albeit in a limited fashion). 

Rav Sa’adiah Gaon acknowledges that heretical problems can arise from philosophizing, but that is only if it is done in the “secular” fashion. In this context “secular” means the form of philosophy practiced by the Greeks, who only accepted things that could readily be verified. Years later, the Ramban in a famous comment would criticize Aristotle for this attitude. One can compare this attitude to an individual sitting in one of Einstein’s physics lecture.  As he hears complex physic concepts being discussed he is confused and does not understanding anything.  In response to his lack of understanding he foolishly concludes that Einstein does not know what he’s talking about! How much more so is this true when trying to comprehend God’s existence and essence, which are by nature beyond all human conception. Who is man to declare God nonexistent, when his feeble mind can barely remember what he had for breakfast last Sunday?! In Jewish philosophy, Rav Sa’adiah argues, one must begin with the premise of a God who is beyond complete understanding.  It is that premise that must guide our search. 

Rav Simcha Zissel in Chochma U’Mussar discredits another troublesome approach to philosophy that is found in the modern philosophic world. The father of that school, René Descartes, wrote, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Rav Simcha Zissel writes that a Jew ought not subscribe to this approach of absolute skepticism. We Jews possess a rich and ancient tradition.  Why should we discard that and instead leave belief to our own minds only?  Rather, all intellectual inquiry ought to take place within the context of the accepted truth of our masorah. The Mahabit writes in his Beis Elohim that once one fully affirms the masorah, then one absolutely can and should “doubt, as far as possible, all things.” By using this method of “acceptance and then inquiry”, we are able to fall back on the pure truth of our masorah if we ever come across a theological problem. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik wrote in Lonely Man of Faith that he was never bothered by the questions of Torah and science that plague the brains of many modern Jews. Based on a comment of Rav Mayer Twersky, it can be suggested that the truth of Torah was so part of the very fiber of the Rav’s perception of reality that no question could shake his faith.  There were no threats to his rock-solid beliefs.  Reconciling apparent questions would only be an exercise in “intellectual gymnastics.”

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