Belief in God: Rational, Irrational? Schoenfeld Lectures On History of Jewish Perception of God

Professor Devorah Schoenfeld’s presentation “Medieval Jewish Proofs for the Existence of God” on Wednesday, Oct. 28 discussed past attempts to prove God’s existence or presence and their implications for current and future discussions.

After being introduced by St. Mary’s Professor of Religious Studies Katharina von Kellenbach, Schoenfeld began the lecture in Daugherty-Palmer Commons by discussing the question all philosophers and theologians seem to forget when discussing the presence of God: does God exist? “None of the old philosophers seemed to struggle with the question, ‘Does God exist?’” said Schoenfeld. Instead, they attempted to define what “God” means, and the relationship of humans to God.

In biblical times, a similar acceptance arose. Prophets of the various religions accepted that some god existed, and instead focused on proving which god was the most powerful god. For those who believed in God, such as the biblical Abraham, they accepted His word as self-justifying; furthermore, God never forced His followers to believe, but instead told them what they should do in life.

Schoenfeld continued with a discussion of Rabbinic literature, most notably the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem around 70 CE. After this point, marked in Jewish history as a true tragedy and a spiritual displacement with God as further symbolized by Jewish exile from Jerusalem, the remaining Jewish Rabbi continued to spread the word of God in ambiguously-written texts that left plenty of room for multiple interpretations.

By the 9th Century AD, the Jews under Islamic rule had access to non-secular ways of thinking, including the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. As this theory of thinking challenged the literal interpretations of rabbinic literature and the Torah, the most sacred text in Judaism, Jews were left to either ignore philosophy as separate from theology, or use philosophy to prove God’s existence.

According to Schoenfeld, those who still wished to believe in God “[had to] argue that religion is completely rational…or not irrational, that religion is separate from theology, or that philosophy is wrong.”

In The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, rabbi and Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon wrote that since all organisms, including plants and animals, are made of complex assemblies of parts, and that the universe must also be assembled in such a complex way, a maker had to exist to assemble these parts. Like previous theorists, Gaon assumed that this maker was God.

Medieval Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides instead established the view that the conflicts between philosophy and the literal interpretation of the Torah only meant that the Torah should be interpreted metaphorically.

“[According to Maimonides,] we don’t expect God to create something that doesn’t logically make sense,” said Schoenfeld. Instead, Maimonides explained that since nothing in the universe is finite, and that everything is in motion or caused by a previous motion, there must have been an initial force or “moving agent” that caused the first motion. This, he believes, was God.

Before Maimonides, rabbi and physician Judah Halevi used a metaphor of a rabbi and a king in his work The Kuzari to explain the value of personal experience in determining the existence of God, or rather, God’s presence. According to Halevi, God is the God who acts in our history.

Schoenfeld continued the lecture with a discussion of Hasdai Crescas, a dissenter of Maimonides who believed that things in the universe can be infinite. Therefore, one cannot predict the first cause if an infinite history must be traversed to reach it. Furthermore, Richard Dawkins, a modern dissenter of the existence of God, wrote in The God Delusion that there is no physical proof of the existence of God. “Let’s just say ‘we don’t know’ and go on with the scientific investigations,” said Schoenfeld regarding Dawkins.

Schoenfeld concluded with a thought that all of the theories and proofs attempted to address: “is it possible to be religiously satisfied with a God that can be proven philosophically, and is it possible to be philosophically satisfied with a God that can be proven religiously?”

“I enjoyed [the lecture] a lot,” said Celia Rabinowitz, Director of the SMCM Library and Media Center, once the lecture ended with a drink-and-cookies reception. “She made many complex concepts clear, and talked about what makes them important.”

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