By Israel Drazin
Gersonides’ books are not easy to read, but they are very thoughtful. He was one of several great Jewish rationalistic philosophers, along with Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, but he was not as deep a thinker as these two men. But he was far more intellectual than most people. He lived in Provence, France, between 1288 and 1344. He wrote books on philosophy, science, and Bible commentary. He had unconventional opinions that the public doesn’t know or misunderstands: ideas about God, creation, miracles, prophecy, life, death, the functioning of the world, and human responsibilities. Some of his ideas would be considered terrible today, such as his notion that women are mediocre creations between animals and men. But other ideas are quite sound and still others thought-provoking.
He stressed that human perfection is based on an improved and effective use of reason, not tradition or beliefs. Individuals must study the sciences, how the world functions. He was convinced that the Bible teaches philosophy, not only history and laws. He felt that God created the world out of preexisting matter, which God formed into the currently existing universe. He felt certain that the world will last forever. He wrote that people should reject superstitions, 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, such as Jacob wrestling with an angel. He rejected the generally held view that a person’s soul survives the body’s death. He and Maimonides felt that only people’s intellect lives after them. However, perhaps inconsistently, and unlike Maimonides, he 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.”
Like Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, he believed that God doesn’t know details about people, only 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.
Since God has no specific idea of what is happening, it would also be illogical to say that God speaks to people and sends them messages how to behave. Thus, like ibn Ezra and Maimonides, he defined 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 realize that this is their moral duty.
Nevertheless, seemingly inconsistently, like Abraham ibn Ezra and most people of his age, but unlike Maimonides, he was 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.