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Levi ben Gershom Gersonides

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Levi ben Gershom Gersonides
CHAPTER 16
Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides)
Seymour Feldman
LIFE AND TIMES
We do not know much concerning the life of Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides), about
which he was reticent. Born in 1288 in the Provence, where he lived all his life, he was a
member of a prominent family; his father was a rabbinic scholar and one of his brothers
was a physician. Perhaps Gersonides himself was also a physician; he may also have
been a money-lender. His renown as an astronomer and mathematician brought him into
contact with high-ranking Christian scholars and clerics connected with the Avignon
papal court, perhaps even the Pope himself. Several of his scientific writings were
commissioned by these scholars and others were translated into Latin for their use. On
occasion Gersonides was able to use these connections with the Church to the benefit of
his coreligionists. Among his local Jewish contemporaries he was highly respected for his
biblical and rabbinic learning. He died in 1344. Whether he had any children is
unknown.1
Probably the most prolific and versatile medieval Jewish scholar, Gersonides’ writings
encompass virtually the whole range of medieval secular and Jewish religious learning,
with one exception, halakhah. Although his Torah commentary shows deep talmudic
learning and sophistication, which earned him a good reputation among local Jewish
scholars, Gersonides rarely wrote on talmudic matters as such. His main contributions to
Jewish learning were his biblical commentaries—he wrote commentaries on all the books
of the Bible except the later Prophets, Psalms, and Lamentations; a commentary of Isaiah
is referred to by Gersonides (Commentary on the Torah 1970, 227b), but is not extant—
and his philosophical-theological magnum opus, the Wars of the Lord. In pure
philosophy, he commented upon many of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle and wrote
an independent treatise on logic. Finally, he wrote a number of mathematical and
astronomical treatises, some of which were originally included in the Wars but now
survive in separate manuscripts. Gersonides’ astronomical contributions were quite
significant, and have been studied recently by Bernard Goldstein2 and others. But for the
Jewish world and the history of Jewish philosophy, it is Gersonides’ Wars of the Lord
that is his most important legacy. It is here where his philosophy in general and his
philosophy of Judaism in particular are found.
Gersonides’ philosophical bibliography looks slight: Aristotle, Averroes, and
Maimonides were his sole, philosophical primary sources. In fact, his knowledge of
Aristotle was obtained primarily through Hebrew translations of Averroes’
commentaries, as was much of his acquaintance with al-FƗrƗbƯ and Avicenna, whom he
cites but probably did not read first-hand. His references to the late Greek philosophers
such as Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, and John Philoponus were also via
Averroes’ commentaries. Nevertheless, since these commentaries were so
comprehensive, Gersonides was familiar with and well-versed in almost all of the
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important issues in ancient and medieval philosophy as it was developed in the ArabicHebrew philosophical tradition. It is unlikely that he knew Latin: he refers to no Latin
text or philosopher writing in Latin. His philosophical world is really the world of
medieval Muslim Spain, despite the fact that he lived his whole life in southern France
and could not read philosophical Arabic.
At the end of the thirteenth century, Jewish philosophical circles were
faced with a twofold dilemma: first, the anti-philosophical, more
specifically the anti-Maimonidean, reaction was beginning to be felt,
especially in Spain and the Provence; second, the hebraization of
Averroes’ writings had forced Jewish thinkers to rethink the status of
philosophy in general and the philosophy of Maimonides in particular.
Although Gersonides rarely makes any specific references to the former
problem, his major philosophical work, the Wars of the Lord, is in a sense
a comprehensive and critical appreciation of the philosophies of both
Averroes and Maimonides. Throughout this book Gersonides is engaged
in a running debate with his two mentors, sometimes agreeing with one
against the other, sometimes rejecting both. Averroes represents for
Gersonides the Aristotelian tradition despite some individual differences
among its advocates; Maimonides is the spokesman for those whose first
allegiance is to the Torah but who use philosophy to defend it against the
criticisms of the Aristotelians. In short, for Gersonides, Maimonides was
primarily a theologian, a Jewish specimen of kalƗm, and Averroes was a
failasnjf, a disciple of Aristotle. Since Maimonides was acquainted only
with some of Averroes’ writings, and it would seem at the end of his life, a
critical Jewish appreciation of Averroes was a desideratum. Gersonides
accepted this challenge.
CREATION
Although the question of creation is discussed in the sixth and last book of the Wars of
the Lord, it was probably the earliest philosophical issue that caught Gersonides’
attention. It is quite clear from the number of pages that he devotes to this subject that it
is the dominant theme in his philosophy. (Almost forty per cent of the Wars deals with
creation.) Why was this problem so important for him? In the first place, like many of his
predecessors, Gersonides believed that creation of the universe was not only a
fundamental dogma of Judaism but a principle with which other key philosophical and
theological ideas were linked. The belief in creation makes credible a number of other
important principles, especially those more intimately concerned with the Jewish religion,
such as the Torah and the End of Days. Second, in Gersonides’ eyes this fundamental
question had not been adequately answered, either by Averroes or by Maimonides.
Averroes had concluded, agreeing with Aristotle, that the universe is eternal; Maimonides
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had claimed that although philosophy could not resolve this question, the Torah teaches
creation ex nihilo, and this is what a Jew must accept. Gersonides rejected all these
claims: neither eternity of the universe nor creation ex nihilo is true; nor is it the case that
philosophy is unable to decide this issue. For Gersonides, one cosmological theory is
true—creation out of eternal matter—and this theory can be philosophically proved. His
strategy is as follows: first, he proves that the universe is created, that the eternity thesis
is absurd; second, he proves that creation ex nihilo is false and that Plato’s theory of
creation and of eternal matter, suitably revised, is correct. Finally, he argues against the
whole Aristotelian tradition that, although the universe had a beginning, it has no end.
(Maimonides too believed this thesis, but did not provide any detailed philosophical
discussion of it.) In short, Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides are wrong, although in
different ways.
Given the large number of arguments Gersonides provides for creation, one would
think that he did not believe he had proved it. But numbers can be deceiving. He firmly
believed that the creation of the universe was provable and that he had proved it. It is
possible to subsume his many arguments under three types: first, those that infer creation
from some teleological facts about the universe; second, those that infer creation from
some contingent facts about the world; and, third, those that conclude that creation is true
because the theory of eternity implies an absurdity, namely, an actual infinite.
The first type is in an important sense a philosophical justification of the biblical
verse, “the heavens proclaim the handiwork of the Lord” (Psalms 19:2). Gersonides
claims that, first, heavenly bodies, which for Aristotle are eternal, exhibit teleological
properties; and that, second, such properties imply that these bodies have been created. A
teleological property in this context is a feature of a thing that is goal-directed; in
particular, it is a property that expresses itself most explicitly in its activity or influences
upon some other thing. Gersonides claims that the heavenly bodies exhibit teleological
properties that prove they are literally “creatures.” This is most evident in the case of the
sun: its activities are most beneficial for terrestrial life. If it is objected that these benefits
are just sheer accidents or chance phenomena, Gersonides quickly replies that Aristotle
himself precludes such a reply, since he claimed that in the celestial domain there is no
chance (Aristotle, Physics 2.8). Aristotle himself admits, indeed emphasizes, the
teleological character of nature throughout his scientific writings. Now, Gersonides
argues, either we say that these teleological features are due to chance, which we cannot
in this case, or we admit that they have been made on purpose. Or, to use Gersonides’
term, they are the products of the “activity of an agent” (Wars 6.1.7 and 9).
This line of argumentation is reinforced if we look at another sort of fact about the
heavenly bodies: they exhibit properties that are not features necessitated by their
essence. If we put our finger in the flame and get burned, we are not surprised since we
expect, indeed know, that fire is essentially hot, and thus burns. Now, fire has other
properties that are not essential, for example, its colors or smells. But these “accidental”
features are not problematic in the case of fire because we can explain them in terms of
its chemical constitution, its elements. But when we look at the heavenly bodies, we find
ourselves at a loss to explain some of their properties. Consider the differences in
illumination in Mars and in Venus: Venus emits a bluish light, but Mars a reddish light.
Why is this so, if, as Aristotle insists, both planets have the same nature? Or, why does
Saturn have rings (a fact not known to Gersonides or any other astronomer before
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322
Galileo) and Mars not? Aristotle’s failed attempt to account for these astronomical
anomalies had already been noted by Maimonides (Guide 2.24). But whereas for him
these “irregularities” were only inductive evidence against Aristotle’s doctrine of
eternity, for Gersonides they amount to a decisive proof for creation (Wars 6.1.8).
Aristotle’s own teleological framework and strong commitment to a thoroughgoing
causal account of nature require there to be no inexplicable facts, especially in the
heavenly domain. But there are such facts; thus, they prove that the world has been
created.
Gersonides’ third type of argument focuses upon the nature of the infinite, a topic that
interested him as a mathematician as well as philosopher. He claims that the thesis of the
eternity of the world entails the existence of an actual infinite or infinites of different
sizes, neither consequence admissible within Aristotle’s philosophy. Although this kind
of proof has been rendered obsolete by modern mathematics, it is successful as an ad hoc
argument against Aristotle, who claimed that, first, there is no actual infinite and that,
second, the admissible, or potential, infinite magnitudes, such as time, motion, and
divisibility, are all “equal,” that is, no infinite is larger or smaller than another.
Gersonides takes Aristotle at his word, but shows that, if he is right about the infinite,
then he is wrong about the eternity of the universe.
Using an argument originally invented by Philoponus and developed in kalƗm,
Gersonides tries to expose the absurdities inherent in the notion of infinite past time
(Wars 6.1.11–12). Among his many arguments of this type there is one that is perhaps
original with him; it is certainly the most interesting of them. Suppose, as Aristotle
believes, that time is infinite in the past. Now this infinite interval is not empty: it is filled
up with all kinds of events, especially motions, since, for Aristotle, time is an accident of
motion. But each such event is real: it is a fact about the world that in a sense never goes
away. To be sure, dinosaurs no longer exist, but they did. More important, some events of
the past have or leave effects, not just traces. The destruction of the Second Temple by
the Romans in 70 CE caused significant changes in the Jewish polity and religion, some
of which are still present today. Although we like to think of the past as gone,
nevertheless, it is present in so far as at least some of the events of the past affect us now.
At any rate, the whole history of past time is filled up by, or saturated with, facts, all of
which are real, and hence actual. But this means that if time were infinite in the past, then
past time would be an actual infinite, whose possibility Aristotle denies. Aristotle’s thesis
of the eternity of the world turns out then to be inconsistent with his own physics! (Wars
6.1.10)3
More important than his affirmation of the provability of creation is Gersonides’
negation of the traditional, almost orthodox, doctrine of ex nihilo creation, and his
defense of a modified version of the Platonic cosmological model of creation from
matter. Again, Maimonides’ discussion set the stage for the debate. He had claimed that
(1) the Torah view of creation is creation ex nihilo, and that (2) Platonic creation is
compatible with the dogmatic content of the Torah, especially with the belief in miracles,
but that (3) the Platonic theory has not been proved (Guide 2.25). Gersonides accepts (2),
but rejects (1) and (3). He first proceeds to demonstrate that ex nihilo creation is false,
indeed absurd; then he revises the Platonic theory by removing from it the errors that
Aristotle had noted; and, finally, he shows how the Torah itself teaches creation out of
matter.
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Ironically, in this context Gersonides relies heavily upon Aristotle. Not only is
creation ex nihilo counter-intuitive—after all, who has ever seen anything come into
being literally out of nothing?—but this doctrine violates some of the more fundamental
theorems of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, taken here by Gersonides to be true. Consider
carefully what ex nihilo creation commits one to. The picture is this: first there was
absolutely nothing; then suddenly a material world exists, created by an incorporeal
agent. Besides having to explain how an incorporeal agent can make a corporeal system
from no pre-existing matter, the defender of this doctrine is faced with the problem of the
vacuum, which in Aristotle’s physics is impossible. A vacuum is, according to Aristotle,
that which is empty of body (Physics 4.7). Accordingly, when the world was created, it
was created in this empty space, which acts as a kind of “receptacle” for it. But not only
was there an antecedent vacuum prior to creation, there still is one outside the world,
since for Aristotle, and most medievals, the physical world is only finitely large. Indeed,
since some of the defenders of creation ex nihilo admit that God could have made the
universe larger or smaller than it actually is, they are implicitly assuming the existence of
a vacuum in which this larger or smaller world “resides.” But why stop? Since no region
in this vacuum is more fitting to be the locus of the world than any other region, the
world should be infinite, which it not only is not but cannot be. Thus, the doctrine of ex
nihilo creation is committed not only to the existence of a vacuum prior to and after
creation but to the existence of an actually infinite body, both unacceptable doctrines
within Aristotelian natural philosophy (Wars 6.1.17). Maimonides then was wrong and
Plato right, at least for the most part.
But if creation out of matter is the correct theory, we still need to know something
about this matter. Gersonides claims that this original matter occupies the lowest level in
the “chain of being.” It is so formless that it “doesn’t keep its shape.” It cannot even be
said strictly to have irregular motion, as Plato mentioned; for only formed bodies are
capable of motion. The “divine craftsman,” to use Plato’s language, used this shapeless
body to make this world. Some of it was made into heavenly bodies; some of it became
the terrestrial domain. Indeed, some of it still remains in its pristine shapelessness
between the heavenly bodies, facilitating their motions. In Genesis it says that God made
the firmament, which for Gersonides is the domain of the heavenly bodies, “in the midst
of the waters.” Moreover, the Torah never says that the waters were created. If anything,
Genesis 1:2 suggests that the waters were with God from eternity. So far from teaching
creation ex nihilo, the Torah actually teaches that God created the physical universe out
of some shapeless body, to which it refers by the term vohu (Genesis 1:2). Moreover,
Gersonides claims that the miracles reported in Scripture are all described as a creation
from something; Moses’ staff became a snake, the gnats came from the dust, etc. To
believe then in miracles does not require us to believe in creation ex nihilo. Just the
contrary, not only is creation from matter consistent with Aristotle’s physics, it is in
addition compatible with the plain meaning of the biblical text.
A concluding point: this created world is everlasting. Again, Gersonides
harkens back to Plato, who in the Timaeus makes the heavenly bodies
generated but everlasting (Timaeus 41a-b). Actually, Gersonides goes
further than Plato: whereas for Plato the heavenly bodies are everlasting
because of divine will, for Gersonides they are literally incorruptible.
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After all, they are perfect and simple, possessing no internal
compositeness or contrariety, and thus not liable to decay or
disintegration. Moreover, why would God want to destroy them? Being
perfect, they cannot be improved upon; being perfect, God also cannot
improve upon the original creative act. So they endure ad infinitum. The
world then for Gersonides had a beginning, but will have no end (Wars
6.1.16 and 27).4
DIVINE NATURE AND HUMAN FREEDOM
Gersonides’ strong defense of the doctrine of creation is at the same time a proof of the
existence of God. This is why, unlike Maimonides or Aquinas, he gives no separate
treatment of the question of God’s existence. Although there is in Gersonides a proof for
God’s existence, it is almost an afterthought. Moreover, it is not the favored proof among
many medieval thinkers, namely, Aristotle’s argument from motion to the existence of an
incorporeal unmoved mover. In fact, Gersonides explicitly rejects this argument, since he
rejects its main premise—everything in motion is moved by another (Wars 5.3.6).
Departing from Aristotle’s physics in this regard, Gersonides favors the teleological
argument found both in the Bible and in Plato: “the heavens proclaim the handiwork of
the Lord” (Psalms 19:2; cf. Plato, Laws 10, 889–93). As we have seen, teleology serves
as one of the proofs for creation. So Gersonides does not need an independent proof for
God’s existence. That the universe is created is the proof of God’s existence.
Nevertheless, there is in Gersonides a “theology,” a doctrine about God, especially
about the divine attributes, one of the standard topics in medieval metaphysics. By the
time Gersonides entered the debate, two different questions had been distinguished: first,
how are we to understand the semantics and logic of divine attributes? and, second,
which attributes in particular are most appropriately ascribable to God? Maimonides had
given a radical answer to the first and more important of these questions: all divine
attributes are best formulated and understood as negative attributes (Guide 1.51–60).
Whenever we say in our prayers “God is one,” we are to understand this formula as
equivalent to “God is not non-one.” Gersonides rejects this view. He discusses these
issues in two separate books of the Wars: in book 3.3, which is devoted to the question of
divine knowledge, he criticizes Maimonides’ doctrine of negative attributes; in book
5.3.12, he discusses the specific attributes that are to be ascribed to God. The first of
these questions is the more interesting and important one, for not only does he reject
Maimonides’ doctrine, but he proposes an alternative account of the logic of divine
attributes.
Since Maimonides’ solution to the dilemma concerning divine omniscience and
human freedom presupposes his doctrine of negative attributes, Gersonides discusses this
doctrine before he develops his own solution to the dilemma. In short, he wants to argue
that the verb “knows” in “God knows that…” is not absolutely equivocal, as Maimonides
claimed (Guide 3.16, 20–1). Suppose this were true; consider then the statement, “God
has an outstretched arm.” If Maimonides were to accuse the asserter of this statement of
heresy, since taken literally it attributes corporeality to God, the would-be heretic could
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say that “arm” here does not mean the arm that humans have, but a totally different kind
of limb. He would not be guilty of “corporealizing” God, since he makes it clear that the
divine arm is unique. In general, Gersonides claims, any predicate could be asserted of
God, if the predicate is understood to be asserted equivocally. If so, there would be no
principle of exclusion in our theology: any attribute could be ascribed to God as long as it
is indicated that we are speaking equivocally. Moreover, in negating a predicate of some
subject, one must understand this predicate in the identical way as one understands it
when affirmed of the subject; when one says, “this flower is not red,” the term “red” has
the same meaning as it has when someone says “this flower is red.” Otherwise, we have a
fallacy of equivocation, and the negation would not be a denial of the original
affirmation. So, if “God is one” really means, as Maimonides claims, “God is not nonone,” the term “one” in both sentences has to have the same meaning in order for the
latter to be semantically equivalent to the former. Thus, “one” cannot be predicated
equivocally in sentences about God. Besides being contrary to our customary religious
language, especially in liturgy, Maimonides’ negative theology is logically defective,
according to Gersonides.
Recognizing that he cannot fall back upon the opposite view, that attributes predicated
of God have exactly the same meaning as when they are predicated of humans,
Gersonides proposes a “middle view.” Divine attributes are predicated according to the
relation of priority and posteriority: when one says, “God exists,” the term “exists” is
neither univocal nor absolutely equivocal; rather, it is said of God in a prior sense, while
it is said of Moses in a posterior sense. This relation has two aspects: first, it implies, at
least for Gersonides, that God is in some sense the cause of Moses’ existing; second, it
connotes the more eminent or perfect character of the attribute in God. So in the original
case of knowledge, when one says, “God knows…” and “Moses knows…” one is not
using the term “knows” equivocally; rather, one is asserting that, although both God and
Moses have different cognitive capacities and techniques, there is some feature common
to their respective cognitive acts; otherwise, there would be no point in uttering these
statements. To be sure, Moses did not know all that God knows; nor, in cases in which he
did know what God knows, did he know it in the same way as God knows it. Yet, there
must be something similar in their respective cognitive acts: for both Moses and God,
1474÷ 22=67 is true, although Moses has to use a calculator, while God just “sees it”
(Wars 3.3).5
Having disposed of Maimonides’ general theory of divine attributes, Gersonides turns
to the attribute of knowledge in particular. Does God have knowledge of what Abraham
will choose to do on Mount Moriah before Abraham actually ascends it? For most
medieval theologians, including Maimonides, the answer is yes, although they differ in
their explanations of how this divine foreknowledge is compatible with Abraham’s free
will. The Aristotelian philosophers, however, deny that anyone, including God, has
foreknowledge of free actions. After all, if God did know what Abraham would choose to
do, why did he bother to “test” him? In trying to resolve the dilemma, Gersonides, unlike
most of his predecessors and successors, assumes the dilemma to be genuine: there is a
real incompatibility in claiming both that God knows what I am going to choose to eat
tomorrow at 8 a.m. and that what I shall choose to eat tomorrow at 8 a.m. is a free choice.
Gersonides accepts the logical force of the Aristotelian arguments against the
compatibility of divine foreknowledge and free will. This means that, for him, God did
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not know what Abraham would choose to do when he commanded him to ascend Mount
Moriah. It was truly an “open question.” If God did know that Abraham was going to
choose to sacrifice Isaac, then Abraham’s choice was preordained and not free, and thus
not meritorious. What makes the story so poignant and powerful is that Abraham chooses
to kill his beloved son. If this choice were known in advance, it would have been
necessitated; no real choice would have been involved.6
So if God does not have foreknowledge of future contingent events, is
there any sense to the traditional concept of divine omniscience? There is,
for Gersonides: God knows whatever is knowable. Future contingent
events, actions done as a result of choice, are not knowable, for to know
them is to annul their contingency. If these events are genuinely
contingent, they are unknowable, even to God. Yet this does not make
God ignorant; for God knows the general laws governing the world,
including the laws true of human behavior. So, God knows that in general
humans will not choose to sacrifice their (only) child; in addition, God
knows it is possible, albeit extremely remote, that some father may choose
to sacrifice his (only) child. But God has no knowledge of any particular
person’s choice. This latter does not fall within the domain of what can be
known. Accordingly, the testing of Abraham was a genuine test.
DIVINE PROVIDENCE AND IMMORTALITY
For many medieval thinkers, the problem of divine providence was closely connected
with that of divine omniscience. If God does know individuals as individuals, then there
does not seem to be a problem about individual providence: those who deserve it will
merit divine notice and care. But for some medieval philosophers, the problem was more
complicated. Maimonides wondered whether every individual falls within the range of
divine providence. And his answer is that it is only individuals in the human species who
warrant divine providence. But, for Gersonides, the problem was aggravated by his own
thesis that God does not know individuals as individuals. Does this imply that there is no
individual human providence at all? Is divine providence entirely general, even for the
human species as well? To advocate such a thesis would have committed Gersonides to a
form of Aristotelianism that he was not prepared to accept. So some sort of reconciliation
had to be found between his radical view about divine omniscience and his more
conservative commitment to the biblicial doctrine of individual human providence.
Gersonides’ full treatment of this question is found both in the Wars of the Lord (book
4) and in his Commentary on Job. Like Maimonides, he recognized the philosophical
dimensions of the book of Job and read it as a philosophical dialogue in which competing
views concerning providence are advanced by its characters. He also agreed with
Maimonides that individual providence extends only to human beings; for all other living
species, providence is general: the natural order, especially the heavenly bodies, as
created by God, guarantees the survival of each species in the animal and plant worlds.
Particular members of such species are not “covered” by providence. Although he works
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within this Maimonidean framework, Gersonides’ treatment of this topic is more detailed
and systematic; in addition, his answer to the correlative question of theodicy—why do
the righteous suffer?—has a particular flavor that is non-Maimonidean, perhaps even
anti-Maimonidean.
Gersonides accepted the Maimonidean thesis that it is only the person who has
attained both moral and intellectual perfection who merits providential concern. This
follows from a simple syllogism:
1 Individual providence consists in a link between the individual and God.
2 The link between God and a human being is the intellect.
Therefore,
3 Individual providence is a function of intellectual achievement.
Although this doctrine does have an “elitist” aspect, it does capture the biblical and
rabbinic idea that the saint is “dear to God” (Psalms 116:15) and that only a wise man can
be a saint (Avot 2:6). It also expresses the traditional Jewish emphasis upon learning and
its appreciation of intellectual prowess and proficiency. But what about the obvious fact
of human suffering, even of scholars? After all, Rabbi Aqibah died a martyr’s terrible
death. And what about innocents who are incapable of intellectual perfection? Should
little children suffer and die because (ex hypothesi) they have not mastered Maimonides’
Guide? There seems to be something wrong with this doctrine.
Gersonides is aware of these problems; indeed, he accuses Job’s three
friends of not being sufficiently empirical in their simple-minded replies to
Job’s complaints. Gersonides’ response involves several distinctions. First,
we have to recognize that not all goods and evils are genuine goods and
evils. Gersonides discounts the wealth and pleasures of the haughty rich
and the poverty and deprivations of the humble poor. All of these are
material goods and evils, and as such do not matter. The only things that
count are spiritual goods and evils. So one hour of intellectual enjoyment
is superior to a life of sensual pleasure. Indeed, the rabbis recognized this
when they said both that only the righteous enjoy “the splendor of the
divine presence” and that there is no reward in this world for doing the
commandments (Qiddushin 39b). True human happiness is to be sought
and enjoyed when we are no longer tied to our mundane material
existence, that is, after death.7
This traditional answer to the question—why do the righteous suffer while the evil
prosper?—may satisfy the sage; but does it pacify the complaints of the parents of a child
suffering from a painful and terminal disease? The innocent child seems to be abandoned,
even by God. Is there any divine justice here at all? At this point, Gersonides provides an
answer that is unavailable to the rabbinic and Maimonidean theodicies. The answer is
found in his cosmology.
It will be recalled that, for Gersonides, the universe was created by God from formless
matter, which is of “utmost imperfection.” All natural evils, such as earthquakes and
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diseases, not only derive from this matter but are necessary consequences of it.
Gersonides refers to this as the “necessity of matter”: natural evils are ineliminable
elements within the natural order. No matter how orderly and purposeful God made our
universe, there is an irremediable residue of imperfection that surfaces in natural
catastrophes and disease. God can no more eliminate such imperfection than square the
circle or undo the past. Just as the latter are impossible, so is the former. Accordingly, the
parents of the dying child should not doubt or curse God. God is not to blame, for there is
nothing to be done. “The Rock!—His deeds are perfect; yea, all His ways are just”
(Deuteronomy 32:4).
Gersonides’ theory of providence already hints at his doctrine of immortality. Again,
he is indebted to his predecessors in the Islamic-Jewish philosophical tradition, especially
Averroes, but not slavishly. Indeed, he rejects much of Averroes’ theory, but he works
within a conceptual and linguistic framework that had been initially formulated by
Alexander of Aphrodisias and elaborated upon by al-FƗrƗbƯ, Avicenna, and Averroes.
The major theme is that human immortality consists of the conjunction of unification of
the human intellect with a supernal, immaterial intellect, the agent (or active) intellect. Its
function, according to Aristotle, was to stimulate human thought; but in the hands of
Avicenna and others the agent intellect assumed the additional roles of proffering to
humans both secular knowledge and prophecy as well as being the efficient cause of
natural generation. The “intellectualist” bias of this doctrine is patent, commensurate with
the doctrine that individual providence is a function of intellectual perfection. The highest
form of such providence is of course immortality, and this is reserved for those who are
“attached to” and have become unified with the agent intellect. Although Maimonides is
silent about the question of conjunction with the agent intellect, his doctrine of
immortality is clearly intellectualist: it is the perfected intellect that becomes immortal,
not the corporeal aspects of our personality, and certainly not our bodies.
Gersonides is highly critical of this doctrine of conjunction in virtually all of its forms,
although he retains its intellectualist thrust. Unlike Avicenna and others, he rejects the
view that the human intellect is a substance, a subsistent entity that is capable of
immortality. Like Alexander of Aphrodisias, he considers the human intellect to be a
disposition, or capacity, of the human body to acquire knowledge. For many, this
capacity is barely or never realized; for some, only partially. But, for a small group, it is
actualized by means of their own cognitive abilities as well as by the assistance of the
agent intellect. A cognitively perfected human intellect becomes the “acquired intellect.”
This alone is immortal, since the cognitions it consists of are themselves grounded in the
agent intellect, which everlastingly exemplifies the rational order for the terrestrial
domain. Since this plan is immutable and permanent, knowledge of it “participates” in its
everlastingness. Our immortality then is identified with our intellectual capital.
But Gersonides steadfastly denies that this involves conjunction or
unification with the agent intellect itself; although the agent intellect is the
necessary condition for human cognition, one can never aspire to be
“attached to” it, such that one becomes unified with it. Gersonides offers
several different arguments against this thesis, but one point is especially
noteworthy. If one could become unified with the agent intellect, there
would be no longer any difference between Einstein and a high-school
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329
teacher of physics. In the agent intellect all become one. How then could
immortality be individuated? Indeed, is there any justice in a theory of
immortality that obliterates individuality? Here Gersonides takes a
conservative stand and defends the traditional doctrine of individual
immortality, although he formulates it within the medieval Aristotelian
theory of the intellect.8
PROPHECY AND MIRACLES
So far Gersonides’ philosophy seems to be religiously neutral. With the exception of the
book on providence and the second part of book 6, the Wars of the Lord does not have a
decidedly Jewish character. But Gersonides was not just a philosopher and scientist.
Much of his intellectual career was devoted to biblical exegesis, which he pursued while
he was writing the Wars as well as after he finished it. In his biblical commentaries one
clearly sees not only Gersonides’ Jewishness but a valiant attempt to discover his
philosophical conclusions in the text of the Torah. Far from preaching any form of a
double-truth doctrine or distinguishing between esoteric and exoteric levels of truth,
Gersonides’ commentaries on the Bible have the same philosophical content as does the
Wars. The radical conclusions about divine cognition advanced in the Wars are found in
his exegesis of the Binding of Isaac; the doctrine of creation from matter is present in his
account of creation. Unlike Maimonides, he seemed to have a more optimistic attitude
towards his audience. Yet, the Torah is the basis for Judaism, and it is not surprising to
find in his commentary a more Jewish Gersonides, one who comments in detail on
certain specifically religious concerns of Judaism.
One of these issues was the status and character of Mosaic prophecy,
which for Jews is not only authoritative but unique as well, a thesis denied
by both Christian and Muslim. Maimonides was at such pains to elevate
Moses’ level of prophetic achievement that Moses became almost a “son
of God,” an angel (Commentary on the Mishnah, Pereq Cheleq, principle
7). Gersonides, however, was not as obsessed with Moses as was
Maimonides. Although he certainly believed in the uniqueness of Mosaic
prophecy, which he understands and describes within the vocabulary of
Maimonidean prophetology, Gersonides’ account of prophecy in general
and Moses’ prophecy in particular have a somewhat different agenda.
Consider first the location of his treatment of prophecy in the Wars: it is
discussed along with the phenomena of dreams and divination. For
Gersonides, prophecy is one among several types of extra-sensory
perception. His main concern in book 2 of the Wars is to distinguish
prophecy from divination, not Mosaic prophecy from ordinary prophecy.
For Maimonides, on the other hand, divination was a form of idolatry; it
had no relevance to prophecy. Moreover, prophecy for Gersonides was not
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primarily, as it was for Maimonides, a cognitive medium, especially for
the transmission of truths that are allegedly inaccessible to human reason.
To be sure, the prophet may receive theoretical knowledge in prophecy,
but that is not the main purpose of prophecy; if the prophet does receive
such knowledge, his understanding and formulation of it is no better than
that of the philosopher, who also possesses the same knowledge. Indeed, it
may even be less clear and precise. What is primary in prophecy is the
predictive and, in Moses’ case, the legislative functions. Now no one
denied these roles, but Maimonides tended to de-emphasize them in his
exaltation of the cognitive function, especially in Moses. For Gersonides,
the uniqueness of Moses consists in his legislation: not only is he the
lawgiver but the law he gave is everlasting, and it is everlasting because it
is perfect and completely rational. It should therefore be expected that
when he comes to the legal portions of the Pentateuch Gersonides will
provide a detailed analysis of the laws, showing their internal logic and
essential intelligibility. Indeed, it is the legislative side of Moses that for
Gersonides distinguishes him from the messiah; the latter will have a
wider audience than Moses and will perform a miracle that transcends all
of those performed by Moses—the resurrection of the dead. Yet, because
of the permanence of the Torah, Moses’ status is unique; indeed, the
uniqueness of Moses is itself a miracle.9
But what about miracles themselves? A biblical religionist must believe in them;
otherwise, Maimonides claims, the Torah itself “falls.” Yet, the belief in miracles is not
philosophically respectable; after all, they violate the laws of nature. So what does a
Jewish philosopher do with miracles, especially one who is an outstanding astronomer as
well? Already in Maimonides one can detect an attempt to deflate the miraculous.
Although he states that Judaism stands or falls with the belief in miracles, he does not
want to give them undue attention or emphasis. Indeed, as some scholars have noted,
Maimonides’ attitude toward miracles is ambiguous and ambivalent. One thing does
seem clear: Maimonides is not comfortable with the idea of a sudden ad hoc rupture of
nature’s laws. This is not the way God works. For Maimonides, miracles are somehow
part of the laws of nature; they are programmed ab initio within the original plan of
nature. In this way the immutability of God’s will and nature’s course is preserved.
Although this is a concern for Gersonides, he first addresses several other questions
(Wars 6.2.9–12). Is the domain of miracles wide open? Can miracles occur anywhere?
Who actually is the “agent” of miracles: God, an angel, or the prophet? Many religious
people believe not only that God is the agent of miracles, but that he can do anything.
After all, doesn’t God stop the sun and the moon from moving for Joshua and the
Israelites? Gersonides rejects both that God can do anything and that God is the direct
agent of miracles. Miracles fall within the range of that which is possible in itself,
although impossible relative to the standard laws of nature (Commentary on the Torah
69a, 74d). This immediately rules out situations such as undoing the past or an immaterial
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331
substance becoming a body. Such occurrences are impossible, since by definition the past
is over and irreversible and the very essence of an immaterial substance is to be
immutable. So far Gersonides’ definition of the scope of miracles is not unique:
Maimonides and others would have agreed; even the conservative Muslim theologian alGhazƗlƯ maintained that miracles cannot violate the laws of logic. But Gersonides further
narrows the range of the miraculous when he claims that miracles cannot occur within the
celestial domain (Wars 6.2.12). This means that the miracle of the sun’s stopping for
Joshua needs to be reinterpreted. The sun did not stop moving at all. It looked as if it did
stop, at least to those who did not know any astronomy; for at high noon, when the battle
took place, the sun ordinarily appears to halt since it is at its highest point in the sky. The
miracle consisted in the victory being accomplished during the brief interval when the
sun appears to be standing still.
In general, Gersonides “naturalizes” the miraculous, an orientation one already detects
in Maimonides. Gersonides emphasizes the fact that the Torah describes miracles as
being brought about through natural phenomena; for example, the splitting of the Sea of
Reeds was caused by a “strong east wind.” Indeed, as a general policy, miracles are
effected in “the least strange way possible” (Commentary on the Torah 206, 68a, 69a70b, 21 5b). In one passage Gersonides suggests that a miracle such as the transformation
of Moses’ staff into a snake is just the speeding-up of a natural process: eventually the
wood decomposes and ultimately is transformed into the elements out of which a snake is
generated. Nor are miracles sudden and unique eruptions into and contraventions of the
laws of nature. There is a “law and order” to miracles, especially since they are
providential and, for Gersonides, providence itself is lawful. But miracles are not entirely
natural; otherwise they would not be miracles. They manifest a volitional character, like
creation itself. But this does not mean that each miracle is individually willed into being
at the time of its occurrence or at any time earlier. Just as the laws of nature were
“programmed” in the physical system at creation, so too was the law of miracles “preset”
at creation. Yet, unlike the view of some of the rabbis and perhaps also of Maimonides,
this does not mean that miracles are individually predetermined to occur when they do
occur. If this were true, then human freedom would be annulled. The law of miracles, like
the law of nature, is general and has a conditional clause built into it: the splitting of the
Sea of Reeds will take place if and only if certain conditions obtain, one of which
(perhaps the most important) is that Pharaoh chooses to pursue the Israelites. Just as the
laws of natural, or general, providence governed by the heavenly bodies can be
contravened by human choices, so too the law of miracles is conditional. Miracles are
lawful, and thus natural, but they are also contingent, and hence volitional.
But now we must ask, who is the real “agent” of miracles? God, an angel, or the
prophet? Since the miracle occurs within the general system of nature, its agent must be
someone who knows this entire system. No human then can be the cause of miracles,
although one can be the instrument through which it is brought about. The agent of
miracles must be either God or the agent intellect, for they alone have the requisite
knowledge of the providential plan and order of this earthly domain. Although most
people would be inclined to say that God is the agent of miracles, Gersonides refuses to
go this route. The agent intellect is the cause of miracles. After all, it is the agent and
cause of subhuman generation and development; and it is in addition the proximate cause
of prophecy wherein many miracles are predicted. In short, the agent intellect is in charge
History of Jewish philosophy
332
of terrestrial providence (Wars 5.3). So it is no wonder that it is the proximate cause of
miracles, which are in effect providential occurrences in the earthly domain.
One should, however, not think that the agent intellect is capable of
momentary volitions, whereby it wills and performs the miracle at a
particular moment for a specific person. Just as in prophecy so here, the
occurrence of a miracle, like prophecy, is “impersonal.” Whoever is
qualified and worthy of receiving it receives it. The recipients of a miracle
are those who are worthy of having the providential plan concretized or
manifested through them. The agent intellect does not really do anything
particular or temporal. That is why we do not pray to it to perform
miracles. When miracles occur in response to a prayer, it is only because
the individual (for example, Moses) exemplifies the kind of person for
whom miracles are performed in certain conditions. Or, the law of
miracles is instantiated in Moses’ case because his actions, including his
prayers, are the kinds of events that trigger or set into operation the laws
of individual providence. In this sense the miracle is ordered and
determined, although it comes about only because of the free acts of
individuals.
TORAH AND COMMANDMENTS
The giving of the Torah through Moses was for Gersonides the greatest of all miracles,
for the Torah is no ordinary book. Again, like Maimonides, Gersonides conceives of the
Torah in Platonic terms as the perfect law, one that reveals the path to human happiness.
Indeed, unlike human legal codes, which are frequently felt to be burdens and bonds, the
Torah attracts followers by its very perfection. It is not an imposition but a gift, whose
inner “sweetness” entices, not compels, its adherents (Wars 6.2.1). The Torah not only
does not burden us with false beliefs, it also does not encumber us with senseless
commandments (Commentary on the Torah, Parshat Yitro 75a). Indeed, one who lives by
it not only attains the moral and intellectual perfection requisite for human immortality,
but is in this life deserving of individual providence.10
Gersonides’ deep appreciation of the Torah is most evident in his
discussions of the Mosaic legislation. Although he did not contribute
much to the standard halakhic literature, his detailed analyses of the legal
norms in the Pentateuch are both halakhically well informed and
philosophically fecund. Perhaps more so than Maimonides he takes
seriously the idea that every commandment has a purpose and reason. This
is most apparent in his treatment of ritual, precisely that part of the law
that seems most remote from reason. Take, for example, dietary laws. In
commentating upon the prohibition against eating certain kinds of insects
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333
and reptiles (Leviticus 11:41–5), Gersonides focuses upon the passage
“You shall not make your souls [nafshotekhem] unclean…, for I am the
Lord your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy”
(11:43–4). The eating of these animals, he main-tains, is one of many
ways whereby we infect and contaminate our souls, specifically our
intellects, whose “light” is “extinguished” by the coarse matter of these
creatures. Observance of this commandment, as well as the other dietary
laws, is part of a system of holiness, whose ultimate reason is
emancipation from our materiality. Just as God is pure intellect, so we
become truly like God, that is, incorporeal, to the extent that we follow
these commandments. Holiness is for Gersonides synonymous with
separation from matter and perfection of the intellect. This is the main
theme and underlying purpose of the entire Torah (Commentary on the
Torah, Parshat Shemini 137bc).
CONCLUSION
Gersonides’ position in the world of traditional Judaism has been ambiguous. On the one
hand, his biblical commentaries have been continually studied and some of them have
been incorporated into the canonical editions of the rabbinic bibles. On the other hand,
the Wars of the Lord has been more the subject of criticism or neglect than praise or
study, although his critics did recognize his enormous learning, both secular and
religious. Gersonides himself was most sincere in his beliefs that, first, he was a defender
of the faith and “fighting God’s battles” and that, second, true philosophy is identical
with the teachings of the Torah properly understood. This true philosophy is not identical
with Aristotle’s teachings, as Averroes had believed; nor is it unavailable through human
reason, as Maimonides had maintained. What makes us human is our intellect; it cannot
then be the case that the link between us and God is intrinsically imperfect. With the
guidance provided by the Torah, we can attain intellectual perfection through the use of
reason. It is not an easy undertaking; the pitfalls are many and various. Nevertheless, as
Spinoza (who refers to Gersonides’ biblical commentaries) was to remark, although the
way to true happiness is indeed difficult, what is ultimately gained is excellent.
NOTES
1 Shatzmiller 1972; Touati 1973, pp. 34–48; Dahan 1991.
2 Goldstein 1969.
3 Feldman 1967.
4 Feldman 1975
5 Wolfson 1953.
6 Rudavsky 1983.
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7 Bleich 1973, introduction.
8 Feldman 1978.
9 Kellner 1977.
10 Kellner 1980.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Texts
Gersonides (Levi ben Gershom) (1480) Perush ha-Ralbag al ha-Torah
(Commentary of Gersonides on the Pentateuch) (Mantua); reprint Israel
1967.
——(1866) Milhamoth Hashem (The Wars of the Lord) (Leipzig: Lorck).
——(1946) Commentary of Levi ben Gershom on the Book of Job,
translated by A.Lassen (New York: Bloch).
——(1984 and 1987) The Wars of the Lord, translated by S.Feldman, 2
vols. (books 1–4) (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society).
Goldstein, B. (1985) The Astronomy of Levi ben Gershom (1288–1344)
(New York: Springer).
Touati, C. (1968) Les Guerres du Seigneur: Livres III et IV (Paris:
Mouton).
Studies
Bleich, J.D. (1973) Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides (New
York: Yeshiva University Press).
Dahan, G. (1991) “Les Traductions latines médiévales des oeuvres de
Gersonide,” in Gersonide en son temps, edited by G.Dahan (Louvain and
Paris: Peeters), pp. 329–68.
Feldman, S. (1967) “Gersonides’ Proofs for Creation of the Universe,”
Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 35:113–37.
——(1975) “Platonic Themes in Gersonides’ Cosmology,” in Salo
W.Baron Jubilee Volume, edited by S.Lieberman and A. Hyman
(Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research), 1:383–406.
——(1978) “Gersonides on the Possibility of Conjunction with the Agent
Intellect,” AJS Review 3:99–120.
Goldstein, B. (1969) “Preliminary Remarks on Levi ben Gershom’s
Contributions to Astronomy,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of
Sciences and Humanities 3(9): 239–54.
Levi ben gershom
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Kellner, M. (1977) “Maimonides and Gersonides on Mosaic Prophecy,”
Speculum 52:62–79.
——(1980) “Gersonides on Miracles, the Messiah and Resurrection,”
Daǥat 4:5–34.
Manekin, C. (1991) “Logic and its Application in the Philosophy of
Gersonides,” in Gersonide en son temps, edited by G.Dahan (Louvain and
Paris: Peeters), pp. 133–49.
Rudavsky, T. (1983) “Divine Omniscience and Future Contingents in
Gersonides,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21:513–36.
Samuelson, N. (1972) “Gersonides’ Account of God’s Knowledge of
Particulars,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 10:399–416.
Shatzmiller, J. (1972) “Gersonides and the Community of Orange in the
Middle Ages” [Hebrew], in Studies in the History of the Jewish People
and the Land of Israel 2:111–26.
——(1991) “Gersonide et la société juive de son temps,” in Gersonide en
son temps, edited by G.Dahan (Louvain and Paris: Peeters), pp. 33–43.
Touati, C. (1973) La Pensée philosophique et théologique de Gersonide
(Paris: Minuit).
Wolfson, H. (1953) “Maimonides and Gersonides on Divine Attributes,”
in Mordecai M.Kaplan Jubilee Volume, edited by M.Davis (New York:
Jewish Theological Seminary of America), pp. 515–30.
Fly UP