- Light of the Lord (Or Hashem) by Hasdai Crescas
With Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed (1190) and Gersonides’s Wars of the Lord (1329), Hasdai Crescas’s Light of the Lord (Or Hashem) (1410) deserves a place on any shortlist of medieval Jewish philosophical classics. Apart from partial translations by Warren Harvey and Harry Wolfson, the English-speaking student of (late) medieval Jewish philosophy has had limited access to the text. Thanks to Roslyn Weiss’s felicitous new translation, this is no longer the case.
Light of the Lord [=Light] has of course its own internal philosophical dynamic, but it is helpful to remember the broader historical context in which it was written. In 1391, the life of Spanish Jewry was upended. Thousands of Jews in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain were murdered, and forced conversions followed. For the next twenty years, until his death, Crescas played an important leadership role in the Spanish Jewish community. Like Maimonides, who acted as a preeminent leader of his own community some centuries earlier, and whose corpus, whether legal or philosophical, never loses sight of that community, Crescas’s literary career was marked by works that consoled as they edified. Ever the polemicist, Crescas sets out in Light to defend the way of life of traditional Jews, who practice their faith by following the divine commandments, out of love and fear of God. As an apology for traditional Judaism, Light might be viewed as a late example of Jewish kalam.
Light consists of four books. Book 1 focuses on the root-principles, the foundations of monotheism—God’s existence, unity, and incorporeality. Books 2 and 3 are the heart of the work, in which Crescas lays out the pinnot (the cornerstones), that is, the necessary conditions for the existence of the Torah, as well as those beliefs the denial of which constitutes heresy. Regarding the pinnot, the Torah presumes divine omniscience and omnipotence, providential concern, prophecy, freedom of choice, and, finally, an end and purpose to the giving of the Torah. Book 4 deals with specific issues in the Torah that in [End Page 146] Crescas’s view were not decisively dealt with there. Inter alia, the existence of demons and the immortality of infants are considered. As can be seen, the trajectory of the work is from general issues to very particular topics in the Torah.
The main philosophical target of Light is Maimonides. For Weiss, Maimonides represents an “intellectualizing” tendency in Jewish philosophy, emphasizing God as (a distant) mind and human happiness as a function of intellectual excellence. For him, prophecy and providence are shorn of their fideistic element, and in its place philosophical understanding is paramount. Prophets are philosopher-kings, and salvation and human happiness are the prizes for a few. Crescas sets out to counter this trend. In emphasizing doing what one is commanded to do out of love and fear of God and in “replacing the self-intellecting intellect which is Aristotle’s [and Maimonides’s] God with a God who is engaged in finite creation out of boundless goodness and love” (2), Crescas is seen as “de-Hellenizing” Jewish thought, as combating the “pervasive Aristotelianism” (1) of his predecessors. Weiss writes, “If there is a single driving aim of Light of the Lord, it is to restore to Jewish thought its Jewish soul” (1). I find such essentialism question-begging. There is of course no doubt that prima facie the Torah supports a view of God as a personal being, of the prophets as moral leaders, and of human happiness as in principle open to all, regardless of intellectual attainment. Maimonides knows this, yet he argues that such traditional views ill consort with what reason demands. As a result, he argues for a deeper reading of the text, a more considered view of the tradition itself. It is wrong to suggest that in so decoding the Torah, Maimonides is doing something contrary to the “Jewish” tradition. Rather, he is plumbing the tradition in (admittedly) a revisionist way, eliciting from...