Saturday, March 31, 2007

Scholarly Notes: Gersonides

April's column for Or Adam:

Continuing our tour of early Jewish philosophers, this month we will look at Levi ben Gerson (also known as Ralbag or Gersonides). Born in 1288 in Provence, Gersonides was an important and influential figure in medieval Jewish philosophy. He died in 1344.

Like Philo and Maimonides before him, Gersonides attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy with Jewish theology. Unlike the earlier thinkers, however, Gersonides had robust knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Norbert Samuelson says of Gersonides: “he could arguably be considered the most important astronomer in Christian Europe before Galileo” (228). He brought this knowledge to bear on his philosophical thinking, giving it an empirical and scientific basis lacking in the earlier synthetic adventures. He criticizes Maimonides for trying to stay neutral on cosmological questions and he argues that astronomy and reason can provide definitive answers.

Heavily influenced by Maimonides and Aristotle, Gersonides sees reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. He believed that the Torah and reason could not conflict; but where they apparently did, one needed, according to Gersonides, to interpret the Torah in a way compatible with reason. Humans, using their faculty of reason, can gain knowledge and understanding of the universe and there is nothing, according to Gersonides, that is in principle out of reason’s reach.

Like Philo and Maimonides, Gersonides believes in God and the Torah. But their attempts at synthesis are what make these thinkers important for secular humanism. The continual and ruthless injection of reason into attempts at understanding the world paves the way for secular humanism. Gersonides, with his consistent and rigorous rationalism, expands the scope of reason and science in grasping the truths of existence and thus, quite unintentionally, limits the scope of faith and the supernatural.

Sources: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Jewish Philosophy: An Historical Introduction by Norbert Samuelson.

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