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 History of Jewish philosophy 320 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 Levi ben gershom 321 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 History of Jewish philosophy 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. Levi ben gershom 323 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. History of Jewish philosophy 324 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 Levi ben gershom 325 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 History of Jewish philosophy 326 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 Levi ben gershom 327 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 History of Jewish philosophy 328 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 Levi ben gershom 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 History of Jewish philosophy 330 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 Levi ben gershom 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 Levi ben gershom 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. History of Jewish philosophy 334 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 335 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.