- Series: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press; 1 edition (September 23, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1904113443
- ISBN-13: 978-1904113447
- Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,677,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Gersonides: Judaism within the Limits of Reason (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization) 1st Edition
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'Will be welcomed by all serious students of Jewish thought ... definitely worth the effort. Recommended.' Barry Dov Walfish, AJL Reviews 'An extremely welcome, important, and long-overdue addition to the literature ... the first monograph in English to look at a broad range of Gersonides' philosophical ideas ... Feldman does a terrific job of exposition and philosophical examination. His analyses are clear and accessible without being over-simplified. He does great justice to Gersonides' thought, as well as to its historico-philosophical contexts. The book is also a pleasure to read. This is just the kind of study on Gersonides that we have long needed, and one can only hope --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Seymour N. Feldman taught philosophy at Rutgers University from 1963 until his retirement. He is the author of The Wars of the Lord by Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) (1984-99) and Philosophy in a Time of Crisis: Don Isaac Abravanel-Defender of the Faith (2003), and editor of both Spinoza's The Ethics, Select Letters and Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (1992) and his Theological-Political Treatise (second edition, 1998).
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Top customer reviews
In Gersonides: Judaism within the Limits of Reason (Littman 978-1906764784), author Seymour Feldman (former professor of philosophy at Rutgers University) has written an enticing overview of the life and thought of one of the greatest and most daring; if not most controversial medieval Jewish philosophers. Like his predecessor Maimonides, Gersonides attempted to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle with traditional Jewish thought.
In truth, I think it’s unfair to use the term controversial, as often is done when referring to the views of Gersonides, as the term carries with it negative connotations. While his philosophical views may be in the minority, and not universally accepted; as one of the greatest philosophers of his time, his views must be considered.
But unlike Maimonides, Gersonides wrote very few letters and as such, details of his life are scant. Besides a very brief bibliographical overview, Feldman spends all his efforts understanding the man and his worldview.
Feldman writes that unlike many modern scientists or philosophers who either scorn religion or compartmentalize it; Gersonides did not see any fundamental discrepancy between the pursuit of truth via reason, and its attainment through divine revelation. Understanding that there has to be but one divine truth, Gersonides felt it was an imperative that reason and divine revelation must be able to be harmonized.
Reason was something Gersonides took quite seriously. In fact, he saw reason and logic as a divine gift. With that, he felt it was essential that God had to be, and must be understood within the limits of reason.
Tertullian's notion that credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) would be an anathema to Gersonides. As a polymath in addition to being an accomplished astronomer, Feldman writes that the study of astronomy and other natural sciences according to Gersonides, were fundamental and prerequisite requirement for the ascent to metaphysics. The reason for this was that Gersonides felt that the whole of nature, even our own bodies, displays the handiwork of the Lord.
In a dense 10 chapters, the book provides the reader with a detailed summary of Gersonides’ worldview in areas such as the Bible, creation, Divine knowledge and omnipotence, prophecy and more.
Gersonides has a number of contentious opinions, and none of it greater than his approach to divine omniscience. Most Jewish philosophers felt that there was complete divine omniscience, of which human free will was simply a perplexing part of. Gersonides took the radical approach and felt that while God knows in advance what choices are available to a person; God in fact does not know what choice the individual will ultimately take.
Gersonides methodology was in part to try to reconcile Aristotle with traditional Jewish philosophy. On this topic, Feldman spends a chapter and writes in detail how Gersonides was almost universally rejected for this approach as detailed in his magnum opus on philosophy Milhamot Ha-Shem (The War of the Lord). One of his opponents mocked it by calling it “Wars against the Lord”. Such mocking was grievous, given the six questions Gersonides was dealing with are fundamental to Judaism; and relevant to this very day.
The book also discusses other non-traditional approaches Gersonides had, including minimizing the notion of miracles, and the approach that a person’s soul is not immortal, rather it’s their intellect that is.
Gersonides didn’t create a formal system of thought, such as Maimonides did in Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed). And like Maimonides, there are many ways to interpret Gersonides, to which Feldman provides a superb overview of all of Gersonides core ideas.
Feldman shows how many of Gersonides’ doctrines were not traditional. Not being bothered by that, Gersonides never shied away from drawing the logical conclusion from what he considered to be the true philosophical premise.
As interesting as he is provocative, Gersonides: Judaism within the Limits of Reason provides the reader with a comprehensive look at one of the most formidable Jewish philosophers.
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.