Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Persecution and the Art of Writing Pt IV - Kalam

(continued from here)

The next chapter of Strauss' book is an analysis of the Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levy. Before summarizing this essay, it is worthwhile to quickly review a couple of things that figure in the essay. The first is the discipline of Kalam. I am sure that there are volumes that can be written about Kalam, so here is a summary of some key points.

Kalam was a Muslim theological movement that arose as a way of responding to Aristotelian philosophy from an Islamic point of view. It arose in the 9th century, focused in Baghdad during its Golden Age. It is interesting that not more than a few centuries after the advent of Islam, the great scholars and thinkers of that religion were thinking about such philosophical issues as free will vs predestination, proof of the existence of God, the creation of the Universe, etc...

Kalam becomes more interesting to us as Judaism responds to this philosophical development. It seems that Saadia Ga'on was a big proponent of Kalam, as were many of his bitter enemies, the Karaites. Rabbenu Bachya and Hai Ga'on are other famous Jewish thinkers that dealt with "Jewish Kalam". The Rambam mentions it extensively in his writings, mostly taking a negative view of it, believing it to be naive and incomplete.

It seems to me that the first time Judaism encountered "philosophy" through the Greeks, it basically took the attitude that it was not something that could be integrated into Judaism, and therefore Judaism formed a very negative attitude towards "Greek Wisdom", at best ignoring it for the most part, and at worst prohibiting it. However, it appears that "philosophy" was much more palatable to the great Jewish thinkers the second time around, couched in terms of Islamic Kalam, because it was embraced by a great many thinkers.

This enthusiastic embrace of Kalam philosophy must have been similar to the haskalah enlightentment movements of the mid 19th century. There was a frenzy of Jewish thinkers that tried to digest the new ideas and conform them to traditional Judaism.

Strauss makes a statement that ha-Levy's polemic in the Kuzari was not against the Christians and Muslims but against the "philosophers". This is a very interesting statement if you examine ha-Levy's life. He was a philosopher himself, clearly very intelligent, a physician, a thinker. Morever, he was a poet and in many ways a secular man, a Man of Letters, a bon vivant. Yet at some point in his life, he rejected his ideas about the role of philosophy in life. It is not clear what prompted him to change his mind, but the Kuzari is his attack on his former beliefs.

Of course, the main point of Strauss' essays is that oftentimes there are hidden meanings in works of great thinkers, and by looking carefully you can find meanings often the opposite of what a cursory reading may reveal. It is not clear whether ha-Levy truly believes the arguments he puts up against philosophy. Could it be that he feels like the things he discovered are two dangerous and potentially destructive to Judaism? Perhaps he feels like he needed to write this book because it would convince the majority of Jews to stay away from the "bitter waters" of philosophy and so protect them from finding out the "ugly truth"?

3 Comments:

Anonymous B. Spinoza said...

>It seems to me that the first time Judaism encountered "philosophy" through the Greeks, it basically took the attitude that it was not something that could be integrated into Judaism

The first time they encountered Greek wisdom they were subjects of the Greek empire. That could have played some role in it. They saw the Greek brutality first hand and they also felt humiliated by them

November 27, 2007 11:31 AM  
Anonymous B. Spinoza said...

>It is not clear whether ha-Levy truly believes the arguments he puts up against philosophy.

does Strauss bring any evidence to back up his speculation?

November 27, 2007 11:46 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>does Strauss bring any evidence to back up his speculation?

Well, evidence may be a strong word, but yes - that is the point of the essay, I think. I haven't finished reading it yet, so I am just getting to the meat of it. Not quite ready to summarize it.

Of course the medieval jews were subjects of the caliphate in a way similar to the rabbis being subjects of the Greek empire. I don't know how violent the Arabs were at the time, compared to the Greeks. Though it seems to be, after the initial violent phase of conquering, both cultures were fairly tolerant, Antiochus nonwithstanding. Of course they didn't call him Antiochus Epimanes for nothing!

November 27, 2007 12:12 PM  

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