- Gersonides: Judaism within the Limits of Reason
Over the past few decades, Seymour Feldman has contributed important studies on the philosophy of Levi ben Gershom, better known as Gersonides (1288-1344), as well as a highly acclaimed annotated translation of Gersonides' philosophical opus, The Wars of the Lord. Feldman now offers a succinct conspectus of Gersonides' positions on the pivotal issues of medieval Jewish philosophy and the arguments he offers in their favor: creation; God and His attributes; divine omniscience, providence, and omnipotence; prophecy; humanity; and the Torah. Feldman's guiding thesis is encapsulated in the book's subtitle: Judaism within the Limits of Reason. Gersonides is fully committed to the authority of Scripture and tradition—properly interpreted, of course—as well as the binding force of Jewish law, including ritual law. However, proper Jewish belief is constrained by reason, and he calls for some adjustments to teachings generally accepted even by "rational" Jews.
On the question of creation, Gersonides finds the arguments against ex nihilo compelling, and he accordingly accepts the existence of coeval matter that was fashioned by God into the present universe. He rejects Maimonides' counterargument, that we cannot learn about the physics of the pre-formative and formative stages of the universe from its present state, holding instead that we can and must apply the physics of the world as we know it to the story of creation. Still, he too admits that the shape and quantity of the body out of which the universe was formed are unknowable. It must be added that Gersonides has an important use for the residual, amorphous, liquid-like coeval matter: in his highly original cosmology, it functions as the interstellar "brake fluid" that prevents the motion of one set of planetary orbs from affecting the next. Like Maimonides, he acknowledges that the divine will opens for God boundless possibilities; even so, he will not parlay this into a blank ticket for God's doing everything that Aristotle had shown to be impossible.
On the question of divine attributes, the departure from Maimonides is more severe. Gersonides rejects the via negativa. He wants to be able to say something meaningful about God, and, in his opinion, predications of priority and posteriority allow us to do that without either defining Him or equating Him with us.
In a strong and engaging chapter on divine omniscience, Feldman shows that Gersonides maintains a robust view of human freedom as well as a philosophically sound conception of divine knowledge. That means that God can know only things that are knowable in the strict Aristotelian sense; He cannot know future events or particulars. Gersonides was severely criticized by most medieval and some modern Jewish scholars on this issue especially. Gersonides' position on this issue is far removed from that of Christian scholastics as well. Making use of his understanding of astral governance, the "necessity of matter" (to my mind, Plato's notion of recalcitrant primal matter), and the idea that types of individuals are particularized by their special capacities, Gersonides is able to produce a theory of providence that is "less daring and unorthodox" than his omniscience theory.
Gersonides puts together a theory of miracles whereby the prophet stimulates the Agent Intellect to shift a particular event into the miraculous mode of governance, which means that a natural process of transformation is greatly accelerated, but remains "natural" nonetheless. These ideas about future contingency and miracles made it harder for Gersonides to develop a tight test for prophetic authenticity.
"Humanity and its Destiny" focuses on Gersonides' solution to the question of individual immortality. Each person is a unique constellation of acquired items of knowledge; this particularity does not depend upon the body and maintains itself after the body's demise. Gersonides remains faithful to the Torah's truthfulness and timelessness—though it must be interpreted properly, not necessarily literally. Unlike Maimonides, Gersonides is willing to fully disclose his readings of divine writ to the general public. In a strong "Conclusion," in which Feldman engages earlier analysis by...