Judaism within the Limits of Reason

By Seymour Feldman

The Littman Library, 2010, 254 pages


Levi ben Gershom, Gersonides in Latin, (1288-1344), was one of several great Jewish
rationalistic philosophers. He lived in Provence, France, and wrote books on
philosophy, science, and Bible commentary. He wasn’t as deep a thinker as
Maimonides and ibn Ezra, who preceded him, but far more intellectual and
innovative than most people. All three had unconventional opinions that the
public doesn’t know or misunderstand: ideas about God, creation, miracles,
prophecy, life, death, the functioning of the world, and human
responsibilities. Everyone should know these things. Seymour Feldman gives
readers an excellent introduction to Gersonides, describes his thoughts in
language appropriate for scholars and the general community, and compares his
views with those of other thinkers. The following are some of them.


The three great rationalistic 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.

The Bible

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

Divine knowledge

As startling as it may appear, all three of these rationalistic 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 understand
events, and share their understanding with others because they realise
that this is their moral duty. Thus, many scholars contend that the three
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 and Gersonides reject the generally held view that a person’s soul survives the
body’s death. The two felt that only people’s intellect lives 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.