Is Religion Based on Philosophy?


Maimonides revelation in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that the Torah could not reveal the ideal to the Israelites just out of slavery not only explains why some laws seem so barbaric to us today, it also helps us understand how philosophers read the Torah and why we should obey the Rabbinic Laws since they are so different than Torah Laws. In reading this article, we need to remember that the ancients used the term philosophy to include all the sciences. Thus when they stress the study of philosophy they are encouraging everyone to learn and apply the laws of nature.

There are people, including most philosophers, who are convinced that: (1) People have a duty to study and develop their minds, for this is what makes them human. To do otherwise is to act as an animal or plant or a piece of dirt. (2) Contrary to most religious people, they think that God wants or reason demands that individuals devote their lives to this study. (3) The purpose of their study is to improve themselves and help improve society. (4) The study should be of the laws of nature, including such subjects as physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics so they can understand the world, and psychology, history, and sociology to understand people. (5) These people recognize that everybody cannot do this. (6) They recognize also that such study will teach them information that will differ with the notions held by the majority of people who have leant little since grade school, who lack the capacity to learn, and who have based their lives on childish notions, false ideas, and even superstitions. (7) They know that if they try to tell the average person what they know, the average person will feel threatened because they will feel that the intellectual is attacking the basic principles of their lives.

Many of these philosophically-minded intellectuals are religious people or people who feel that their religion is important and would like to believe that their religion is teaching people the truth, but they realize that religion cannot teach the ideal truth (8) because the average person is unable to understand the truth and would feel threated by the new ideas because they lack the education to understand the truth or lack the ability to do so or have become accustomed to false ideas and superstitions taught to them as children. To teach them the truth is as dangerous as feeding solid foods to children. Yet (9) the goal of religion is to aid people in living a better life so it teaches some truths in a “watered-down manner.”

But, (11) Intellectuals feel that they can mine the words of their scriptures and read many of the tales in it as allegory, and they can thereby find that their religion is teaching the truth in a hidden manner. Carlos Fraenkel calls this “philosophical religion,” in his book “Philosophical Religion from Plato to Spinoza.”

The following are some of the statements that Fraenkel made about “philosophical religion”:

The need to study the laws of nature

Fraenkel argues a person needs to study philosophy, meaning the laws of nature, to be perfectly religious. True “piety consists in perfecting reason.” It is the study of the sciences to improve oneself and to aid in improving society. “At the center of philosophical religion is the ideal of Godliness attained through the perfection of reason.”

Philosophy is the highest form of worship

Like Plato, Aristotle, the Jewish philosophers Aristobulus in the second century BCE, Philo in the beginning of the common era, Maimonides in the twelfth century, and many philosophers before and after Maimonides, which Fraenkel quotes, Fraenkel notes that philosophers “claim to grasp the true nature of things which radically differs from the belief of ‘the many’ (hoi polloi)…the hopelessly confused ‘opinions of mortals.’”

The value of philosophy (understanding the laws of nature)

“In a community based on a philosophical religion the life of all members is ordered toward what is best.” “Reason determines how much food, drink, and sex or power, victory, and honor we should pursue.” It is not, as most people think, prayer and the study, among Jews, of the Talmud.

It was impossible for the Torah to teach the truth

Maimonides taught[1] that the Babylonian Talmud[2] states that “the Torah speaks in the language of man,” meaning that the Torah could not reveal the entire truth but only what people could understand and deal with to help them improve themselves and society. The Torah adapts its teachings to the audience’s capacity to understand. “The Law of Moses,” Fraenkel states, “aims at the perfection of every adherent insofar as possible for him.”

Teaching lies

To do this, Maimonides teaches, the Torah had to use a “ruse” such as God punishes people who do not obey the divine law.[3] It is a “necessary” falsehood,[4] what Plato called “the noble lie.”  An example of a necessary teaching that is contrary to reason is that God has emotions and becomes angry when people disobey divine law.[5] Fraenkel mentions Samuel ibn Tibbon (died c. 1232) who agreed with Maimonides “The Divine Law has two sides: a secret side directed towards philosophers and a public side directed towards non-philosophers.”

Religion teaches what people can understand about the truth

Religion “establishes beliefs, practices, and institutions that imitate (emphasis added) philosophy to give non-philosophers a share in the perfection (of the self and society) that philosophy affords.”

How do philosophers read the Bible?

We have to learn how to read and understand biblical statements. “Only if taken literally prophetic statements are false. Their allegorical sense, by contrast, consists in sound philosophical doctrines.”

Even the prophets taught as much of the truth as people could understand

“The difference between the philosopher and the prophet is that while both know the good, the prophet also has the skill to convey the good to non-philosophers and motivate them to do it.”


[1] Guide 1:26.

[2] Yevamot 71a.

[3] Guide 3:32.

[4] Guide 3:28.

[5] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Madda, Laws concerning repentance 10:5.