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God of History or God of Wisdom? Dr. Ari Ackerman on Parshat Yitro

This week in Parshat Yitro The Ten Commandments are revealed. With the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2), an important lens of viewing God is also revealed. Dr. Ari Ackerman, Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought, calls attention to one of the great debates of Jewish Thought between Judah HaLevi and Maimonides. Should we view God  through the lens of power as seen in history or through the lens of wisdom as seen in our natural surroundings?

There are certain Biblical verses which serve as platforms for profound theological debates of Jewish Thought between philosophers. One such verse is the opening of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). Indeed, one can follow the development of the Jewish philosophic tradition by studying the interpretation of this verse. We will confines ourselves to the interpretations of this verse provided by Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides—two of the most important medieval Jewish philosophers. The debate between them regarding the proper understanding of the first commandment has particular significance and is one of the foundational arguments in the history of Jewish philosophy.

The Jewish thought of Judah Halevi (1075-1141), who authored the Sefer ha-Kuzari, argues that the verse commands us to believe in the God who delivered us from Egypt and not the God who created the world (Sefer ha-Kuzari 1:25). For the Jews, God is the being who acts in history and redeems us through divine supernatural activity. It is only in this realm where God’s hand is evident. He also adds that the obligation to observe the commandments is rooted in our debt to God due to divine providence over the Jewish people (Sefer ha-Kuzari 1:27). Thus, according to Judah Halevi, God as ruler over nature has no religious significance and our belief in God must be due to the miracles that God brings about which we know about through tradition and faith.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who authored the Guide of the Perplexed (perhaps the most important Jewish philosophic text ever written), provides a contrasting understanding of the philosophic import of this verse:

The most essential principle and the foundation of wisdom is to know that there is a First Existent and that He brought everything into existence. … Knowledge of this [i.e. God’s existence] is a positive commandment, for it is written, “I am the Lord your God” (Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 1:1, 6)

Thus, Maimonides Jewish thought argues that the first commandment of the Torah (and not only of the Ten Commandments) is the obligation to believe that God is the cause of all beings. He therefore ignores the second half of the verse and cites only “I am the Lord your God.” Maimonides places God qua creator, then, as the focus of Jewish belief. For Maimonides, God expresses divine wisdom and majesty though bringing the world into existence and maintaining nature and the cosmic order. It is not God’s relation to the Jewish people but a more universalistic conception of God that is the ground of the commandment to believe in God. Maimonides also differs with Judah Halevi regarding the means to arrive at a proper conception of God. As noted previously, Judah Halevi believes that faith and tradition bring us to a proper understanding of God and the divine role in Jewish history. By contrast, Maimonides depicts belief in God as a form of knowledge and through studying nature we arrive at faith.

Dr. Ari Ackerman is Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School where he is a lecturer in Jewish Education and philosophy. His most recent publication is The Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin.

Image Credit: Unknown artist   –   Book of Customs: Giving of the Law

Prof. Ari Ackerman is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

President Ackerman is Associate Professor for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education. Prior to his elevation to president, Ackerman held the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education.  He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University and was a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University. His most recent book is a Critical Edition of the Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Prof. Ackerman’s new book on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas – Hasdai Crescas on Codification, Cosmology and Creation (Brill Press, 2022) is newly published. President Ackerman lives with his family in Jerusalem.

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