In this fifth instalment of his Jewish Philosophy lecture series, David Solomon explores two significant Jewish thinkers living in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries:
- Hasdai Crescas
- Yosef Albo.
Watch the lecture here: https://youtu.be/uZ0C8w28boc
He examines the philosophical contributions of Hasdai Crescas, including his ideas on:
- Divine knowledge replaced by Divine love
- Divine omniscience, providence, and omnipotence
- Free Will
- The purpose of the world and the happiness of the soul.
Crescas, who was known for his critique of Aristotle, had revolutionary ideas that would pave the way towards a new humanism.
David then discusses Yosef Albo, a student of Hasdai Crescas, and Albo’s ideas on:
- The existence of God
- Reward and punishment.
Albo recognised true faith through a series of derivatives (shorashim), known as:
- God’s interested omniscience
- Revelation through prophets
- The authenticity of the prophets
- Individual providence.
His ideas led to a systematic theological restatement of Jewish belief on the eve of a new philosophical era.
With late Medieval Spain as the historical setting for both of these extraordinary figures, David provides their fascinating but fraught historical backgrounds, including the impact of the 1391 massacres in Barcelona on Crescas and the disputations at Tortossa for Albo.
For a historical overview of the period, watch David’s series ‘Hope in Darkness: Jewish History of the 14th & 15th centuries’ here.
It’s nice to see people back here for the next instalment in this fascinating journey through Jewish philosophy. I’ll get straight into it because we have a fair bit of material to cover today. Last week, if you would recall, we were looking at the incredibly important moment of Jewish philosophy which was rising to the challenge of 12th and 13th century science, for want of a better term, and the dominance of the philosophy of Aristotle.
We looked primarily at Maimonides; we looked at Avraham Ibn Daud. But Maimonides is no doubt the dominant figure in Jewish philosophy through all of the Middle Ages. He’s trying to marry the philosophy of Aristotle, which had become the dominant thought paradigm of the Middle Ages, to the Torah as a source of revelation.
And that’s all very good. And that created an entire movement in Jewish thought, but it also created great concerns as we alluded to last week. It created great concerns for people that were not accessing the nuances of Aristotelian philosophy. The Rambam left us with some serious questions such as if the mitzvot are pathways to philosophical enlightenment, and if the whole thing is about knowledge and enlightenment, then why at the end of the day, do I need the Torah? Why do I need the revealed word of God if I’ve got the philosophy of Aristotle? It’s a question that a lot of people were asking and was one of the conflicts arising after the philosophy of the Rambam.
14th – 15th centuries
But today we’re going to look at a very, very important moment in Jewish history that is a couple of centuries later. The rest of this series will be dealing with what happened in Jewish philosophy after the Enlightenment, but before the enlightenment, before the 16th and 17th centuries, we have one very, very important and critical moment in Jewish philosophy that happened towards the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries.
And in order to highlight what it is I’m talking about and the importance of this particular moment, I’m going to show you a graphic now that is a historical timeline, but I want you to see something in this timeline. This is not a timeline you’ll see every day. And you won’t see it everywhere, but I’m going to show it to you, and it will enable you to understand something very, very profound.
We’re going to talk today about the philosophies of Hasdai Crescas and his student Yosef Albo who we group amongst a series of thinkers around this time that we could label roughly the anti-Aristotelians. They’re going to deconstruct the Rambam’s ideas, and they’re going to leave Jewish philosophy with a very, very, very important thought revolution and a legacy that is still with us.
I want you to see where Crescas and Albo are living and the challenges. Every moment in Jewish philosophy responds to challenges. And have a look at this. This is something you don’t often see and what you can see immediately is that the story of Spanish Jewry over the course of a century, from the end of the 14th to the end of the 15th century, is a total train wreck that happens over a hundred years. And Crescas Albo is living right at the moment when that train wreck is taking off. But what’s important to realise is that while all that is going on in Spain, while we have this horrendous decline of Spanish Jewry – through the massacres, the debates of Tortosa that I’ll talk about, the Spanish Inquisition, and finally the expulsion.
While all that is going on elsewhere in Europe, things are changing radically in other ways. We see Gutenberg, the rise of printing, and the rise of the Renaissance. And that project is going on concurrently with the destruction of Spanish Jewry. And that’s a very important historical time for us to understand.
Crescas and Albo are living at the beginning of this, but their legacy survives it in many ways due, in no small part, to what was happening elsewhere in Europe with the rise of Humanism and the rise of the Renaissance. Because Crescas particularly and to an extent Albo, are amongst those early thinkers who were kicking off that project.
But let’s get into it. Let’s have a look now at what Hasdai Crescas is all about. Hasdai Crescas is not just a philosopher. He was a great rabbi, a communal leader, he was a favourite at the court of Aragon, and he was a student of the RaN, Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerondi, one of the great, great halachic authorities of the Middle Ages. And Hasdai Crescas was his student.
Hasdai Crescas was an unbelievably cultured and well-read individual. Bear in mind when we talk about, when we talk about these Spanish rabbis of the Middle Ages, they were not simply men who had spent all their time studying the Talmud. To be a rabbinic leader in the Middle Ages meant you had to be right across the whole range of human thought. You had to be familiar with philosophy, you had to be familiar with mathematics, with science, you had to be familiar with geography, with biology, with medicine. All of the things that we would today call the secular arts and sciences were second nature to these people. Without them, they would not be respected as leaders. Hasdai Crescas is a great exam example of that, someone who comes to the fore in rabbinic leadership during the 14th century.
But, after a very distinguished career towards the end of his life, he suffered some tremendous tragedies, and one of those was the fact that his son was killed in the massacres at Barcelona that happened in 1390 -1391. If you haven’t heard about those tremendous massacres of the Jewish communities of Spain, you should read about them. We covered them extensively in our history series on the 14th century, but it was a huge, pivotal moment and caused Crescas to think deeply about what was the cause of this tremendous tragedy to Spanish Jewry.
No one was short of speculating on why this happened, but one of the main culprits that people were pointing fingers at was the philosophy of Maimonides and the philosophy of Aristotle. I’m not saying Crescas was suggesting that, God forbid, Maimonides was responsible for the massacres in Spain at the end of the 14th century. But there was a feeling that the great challenge that had come to Jewish thought was coming from my Maimonides’ adherence to Aristotelian thought at the yardstick of truth.
DISPUTING THE RAMBAm: CRESCAS
Philosophy for Crescas was not an exercise that should be employed in justifying religion. He rejected the entire project of Maimonides. To take your revealed religion and to set it on a base of rationalism and scientific rationalism, and it had emerged from Greece and then through the Middle Ages, through Islamic, through Arabic thought, then Christian thought, and Jewish thought was completely wrong. It would remind you of someone who walks into someone’s house five minutes before Shabbat and finds the gentile cleaner lighting your Shabbat.
That’s not really what’s supposed to be happening, says Crescas. Philosophy is very, very good at doing the cleaning. It can give us some very good insights into logic and rationality, but it’s not what we base our understanding of the world upon. Religion is based on revelation, but that does not mean it can’t also be logical and it can’t also be rational, but it’s not built up from syllogisms and logic and your supposed speculations and observations.
Now, Crescas was so concerned about this that he wrote a very, very important book called Or Hashem, or of the Light of God as it. As it happens, I don’t often show this, but this is the title page of the first-ever edition of the Light of God, which was printed first in the early 16th century and it’s just a very, very cool cover, so I wanted to show you that. But I want to get to terms with what Crescas is saying.
Crescas is saying that when you indulge in the exercise of philosophy, in the exercise of using your mind to set up some kind of system by which to understand the world, and you are going to base it upon Revelation, you need parameters. If you don’t have parameters that are guided by revelation – logically understood but at the end of the day, guided by revelation, not guided by some guy running around in fourth century BCE Greece – but using revelation as your guidepost by which to understand reality that, that you need parameters for this.
Crescas’ parameters are fascinating because they’re based primarily on the rejection of the ideas promoted by my Maimonides and by Levi Ben Gershon who we touched on last week. The first thing that Crescas wants to tell you – he’s very, very, Gershonides, he’s very cross with Ben Gershon. If you recall last week, we mentioned one of the radical ideas of Levi Ben Gershon was the limitation of God’s omniscience as a solution for free will. The first thing Crescas is saying is that when it comes to God, everything that we can say about God has to be by way of understanding that God foundationally is infinite – way, way, way, way, way beyond our understanding.
What was the Rambam saying? What was my Maimonides saying? Maimonides was saying that, at the end of the day, the main thing that’s going on is knowledge. Divine influence comes into the world through the active intellect, which in a sense creates the world as it thinks. The job of the human being, the purpose of the human being, is to grow in spiritual consciousness, is to gain knowledge of God, so much so that knowledge not only determines your level of individual providence, but it also determines even the afterlife for you. Your entire job in this world is to contemplate, and is to know, is to work on your intellect, and it is to gain knowledge – expand your spiritual consciousness, and gain knowledge.
Love Versus Knowledge
Crescas is coming along and saying the Rambam was not correct. It’s a big moment in Jewish philosophy. The Rambam is wrong. It all sounds very, very good, but knowledge, the perfection of your intellect, is not what it is about. It is not the purpose of the world, and it’s not the purpose of the human. What is it really all about? says Crescas. It’s not about knowledge, it’s about love. This revolution that Crescas makes is foundationally important. It not only profoundly affects thinkers coming a bit later, like Spinoza and so on, but it takes Jewish thought and puts it on a much more existential and ethical framework than the Rambam’s emphasis on intellectual attainment. So, in order to understand that we need parameters, Jewish thought needs parameters by which it can be guided.
You can’t understand God. You can’t use your rational intellect to understand God. God is way, way above the ability of the human intellectual comprehend. And anything we can say about God can only be said if we talk about it in terms of the infinite. And that doesn’t just apply to God’s knowledge. It applies to God’s power. It applies to God’s providence.
Let’s have a look. I’ve got this thing I want to show you. You know I’ve been doing these very interesting charts and with this particular thing about the light of God, and Crescas’ thought I did two diagrams. I’m going to show you both. I couldn’t decide which one I like best. This is the first one I did. And then I looked at that and I thought: oh, you know what? I don’t want to put the divine in a box. So, what I’m going to do instead is I’m going to do this. And we’ll stick with this one. Have a look at this.
Now Crescas says: look, God knows everything, so just forget, forget Levy’s discussion about the limitations on what God knows and what God doesn’t, God is completely infinite because. He’s not happy with Maimonides’ via negativa that we discussed last week when we talked about the fact that you can only say things about God in the double negative. Forget that says Crescas. We can say whatever we like about God, so long as when we talk about an attribute of the divine, we realise that it’s infinite. God is everywhere. God is omni-provident, meaning that it is not the case as Maimonides tells you that your particular individual providence is dependent upon your attainment of perfection, of intellect. God’s individual providence is absolutely everywhere. And of course, God is completely omnipotent. This whole question: can God create a rock that he can’t pick up? In any sentence that starts with the words “can God” for Crescas, the answer is: yes. God can do anything, even things beyond your understanding.
Jewish philosophy cannot cross those boundaries in discussions of God. God is all-knowing, all-provident, and all-powerful because God is the infinite and is above the rational intellect. In the human realm, there are three fundamental phenomena that Jewish thought cannot cross the boundaries of. Of course, these are not so much principles for Crescas but they are guidelines. So, for example, prophecy. Now Crescas disagreed with the Rambam. The Rambam said that prophecy was perfection of the rational intellect. A person could have such incredible clarity of intellect and rational insight that what they’re perceiving is a revelation of truth. And that is prophecy, but it comes from the intellect. Crescas is going: no, prophecy is something that is decided by the divine. If God decides you’re going to be a prophet, that it’s nothing to do with your attainment of intellect.
Similarly with free will. How does free will exist where God is omniscient? And here Crescas goes very, very anticipatory on the whole rise of the humanist thought revolution, which ultimately leads to existential answers to these questions. Crescas is saying: look, it’s not within our intellect to be able to solve that problem. What’s important is you feel, you are free. Don’t ask questions about how that works for God, because God’s intellect is an entirely different plan, and all Jewish Philosophy, says Crescas, must discuss the concept of purpose – purpose for the world, purpose of the Torah. And that’s one thing the Rambam doesn’t really give you. And he says that the purpose, ultimately, is love. God invests in the world and souls come into the world in order to reflect the love of the divine. The divine’s love for creation, the creation’s love for the divine, and he sets the whole of Jewish thought on that basis. It’s an incredibly important moment and it’s going have a huge influence, particularly on at least one of the philosophers that we’re going to look at next week.
BELIEF IN GOD
Crescas even questions whether or not it’s actually a commandment, a mitzvah, to believe in God, and he ends up by saying that it is not. There’s no commandment to believe in God. Why is there no commandment to believe in God? The Rambam tells you there’s a commandment to believe in God. Crescas says there’s no commandment to believe in God. First of all, because belief in God underpins the whole system, it would be ridiculous if you didn’t believe in God. But, more importantly, you can only be commanded in things over which you have free choice. And the belief in God is so innate inside the Jewish soul that it is not something that is subject to free choice. Every soul in the world ultimately believes in God, and the evidence of the existence of God is so apparent everywhere that it would be impossible to command that and impossible to have any notion of free choice over. It’s an interesting facet of Crescas’ philosophy that others have gone into in other ways.
I wanted to talk about Crescas, and I wanted to highlight just how important that is. What scholars have realised – and some of you hearing about Crescas for the first time may not appreciate this until you actually go into his thought – is that Crescas doesn’t just liberate Jewish philosophy from Aristotle. In the course of Or Hashem, in the course of this book, Light of God, he takes on Aristotle – he doesn’t just take on the Rambam, he takes on Aristotle. He argues with him on the validity of some of Aristotle’s logical and rational outcomes itself. And in doing so, he doesn’t just liberate Jewish philosophy from dependence on Aristotle, he liberates science itself. He is one of the early thinkers of the humanist/Renaissance thought revolution, that is going to liberate science and not just religion from its dependence on Greek nationalism.
This is a huge moment because as we know, around the corner is an entirely new era of knowledge that is going to get escape velocity from Aristotle and other more ancient world notions of science and knowledge. So, Crescas is very important.
Crescas has a student. I’m going to go back for a moment to this chart here. Crescas has a student called Yosef Albo. Now Albo’s challenge as you can see, Albo became historically well due to his contribution at the debates of Tortosa.
Just to remind people because we discussed this in the history course on the 14th and 15th centuries, but for people that are not aware, throughout the Middle Ages there were some very, very big disputations between Christianity and Judaism. Let me tell you that the Jews never initiated these disputations. It was never the case that Jews went to a bishop and said: Oh, you know what? Let’s debate next Tuesday. Jews did not like these debates. These debates were forced on Jewish communities by the church authorities in order to allow the Jews to come to an understanding that they are wrong and the truth of Christianity.
There are many debates throughout the Middle Ages, and as we’ve discussed many times, the three most famous ones are in Paris in 1240, and in Barcelona in 1263 with the Ramban, with Nachmanides, and the third big daddy debate was in Tortosa in Spain between around 1412 and around 1414. This debate was devastating because every rabbi in Spain was summoned to be at the debate. Many rabbis cracked at that debate; many Jews were under pressure. Remember it was just in the wake of the massacres throughout Spain of Jewish communities – pogroms – at the end of the 14th century. And a lot of people lost their faith, a lot of people converted to Christianity simply because it was socially and economically convenient. It was a mess.
Disputution at Tortosa
But some rabbinic figures really made their name at Tortosa, and one of the rising stars was, in fact, the student of Hasdai Crescas, Yosef Albo. I want to look at Albo’s challenges for a minute because in order to look, understand what any Jewish philosophy is responding to, you need to look at the challenges. Whereas for Crescas, the challenge really was coming from within Jewish philosophy itself and its adherence to Aristotle and the other trends and currents of intellectual paradigms of the Middle Ages. Albo’s challenge was first and foremost coming from Christianity. That had a spill over effect into a project that he realised – and as a student of Crescas – that he wanted to systematise the theological picture of Judaism.
Judaism did not have a systematic theology. For Albo, bishops and priests and people that he was meeting at Tortosa and people that he was arguing with, would come along and they would say to Jews – the Christian Church throughout the Middle Ages was finding it very, very difficult to understand why Jews did not believe in Jesus. Now, this was something that was completely obvious to them, and that Jesus and the Messiah was the most important thing going on in the world, and they just could not get their head around the fact that the Jews could not see that. Amongst the many, many, many arguments back and forth, Albo comes to realise that in fact, not only Christians, but Jews themselves had a very, very distorted concept of the Messiah itself – and part of that was due – bearing in mind, he’s the, his teacher was Crescas – to the fact that Maimonides had placed the concept of the Messiah as a fundamental principle of Judaism. What we call an ikar, that is, a main fundamental principle that if you don’t believe in it, you are a heretic.
Albo did not agree with this, neither did Cresco, neither did a great many other thinkers going as far back as the Talmud. He did not regard belief in the Messiah as a critical point of heresy within Jewish thought, but no one had laid out Jewish thought and what its fundamental principles were, this was all organically done until Crescas and Albo. Crescas had given us the parameters of Jewish philosophy, where it shouldn’t go beyond, but no one had sat down and attempted to give a systemic kind of rational theology. Rational, yes, not rational based on the thought of Aristotle and other philosophic thinkers, but rational with its own internal cohesive logic based on revelation itself.
THE THREE TYPES OF LAW
Albo was very, very interested in the concept of divine law. We have three different types of laws, says Albo. One is natural law – and here Albo is very interesting because he’s actually kind of the first Jewish thinker to deal with the concept of natural law. We’re not going into natural law today, but it’s a very interesting discussion. Natural law is going to become a very big topic over the next few hundred years. Once again, anticipated by Crescas and Albo.
Another type of law is conventional law. That’s the laws that states and governments make by which societies function. But Albo is interested in revelation, and since he’s talked about Judaism, he’s interested in divine law. And there are three fundamental principles of divine law as embodied in religions, not even Judaism itself, but religion generally. Albo’s point is to start with a very, very universal description of what revealed religion is and what you need to understand about Judaism. If you don’t believe these three things in some form, then you are not on the bus.
I’ll show you why elbow’s going through this. He’s going through this because he’s trying to prove a point that he’s going to come to at the end. The first of these principles is the existence of God. If you don’t believe in God, you are not on the bus of revealed religion. I’m sorry. What your belief entails comes down to certain details, but you’ve got to believe in the existence of God. The second is revelation. You’ve got to believe in it, and in the case of Judaism, in the divine origin of the Torah – that the Torah is not just another book, but it is divinely revealed to humanity in line with God’s project of revealing to humanity. And the third fundamental principle that you need to believe in is the concept of reward and punishment. You need to believe that all our actions have consequences, particularly in the ethical and moral realm. It doesn’t matter how you believe in that, you could believe in a full-blown heaven and hell. You could believe in a warm, fuzzy karma concept, but you must believe that actions have consequences. So, these three other foundations of Jewish thought.
From those three fundamental principles emerge eight other principles, which Alvo called shorashim. I’ve got a diagram and let tell you that the diagram I’m about to show you, you’re not going see anywhere else. I have displayed elbow open like a dissected cat. And I want you to see this. I’m going give you Albo in one very interesting graph.
Three Fundamental Principles
Here we have the three fundamental principles – the existence of God, Torah’s divine origin, and reward and punishment. Now, what Albo is arguing is that those three principles are common to all the great Abrahamic faiths, but what we need to do is we need to work out what are the derivative principles from that.
When we talk about the existence of God, there are four facets or shorashim or roots emergent from that principle that Albo wants us to understand: the unity of God, the incorporeality of God – that God has no body, that God is outside time – so the temporality, the eternality of God – and the perfection of God, all these things are critical. If you don’t believe anything inside this circle about the principle of the existence of God, according to Albo, you are a heretic. You are a kofer ba’ikar because these four belong to that principle. The principle is existence of God, and these are its parameters. These are the shim that emerged from that.
When we talk about the Torah’s divine origin, we need to talk about the fact that God didn’t just create the world and walk away. God is interested and God’s knowledge is an interested knowledge. Yes, God’s omniscient, God knows everything, but God knows everything in a particular way, even in the lower realms, the human realms where we are. God then reveals a plan or an idea or a program for humanity through prophets. There is a whole line of authentic prophets which the Bible describes, and they are historically embedded, authentic prophets, particular ones, who have revealed God’s word in the world. So, if you don’t believe in any of these, then you are a heretic in relation to this fundamental principle.
The idea of being a heretic is important, especially when we come out of the Middle Ages and we’re about to hit the Enlightenment. We are going need to know who’s a heretic and who’s not. So, this very, very systemic statement by Albo of the eve of the Enlightenment, on the eve of the new era is, in a sense, important for us to understand. And the third principle, reward and punish, you have to understand that that involves individual providence. Every individual is accountable for their own actions and the consequences of their actions. And therefore, every individual undergoes either reward or punishment on which is based, of course, the whole idea of free will because there’s no point in having reward and punishment if you don’t have free will to choose. Reward and punishment sound like very heavy terms, but what it comes down to is an equilibrium in the universe, a moral equilibrium, of justice where all actions have consequences.
Now, look carefully because in these circles, that’s where the principles are, and what the shim, or the roots associated with those principles – these are the parameters of those principles – but each of those principles also has branches. As we can see coming up, there are six branches. And here’s the really important point, cause Albo tells you that these branches are things that you should believe in, but if you do not believe in them, you are not a heretic. These are not fundamental principles.
For example, I believe in the existence of God, I think God is unity, corporality, eternality, and perfection. But I don’t believe in creation ex nihilo. If you said I believe all that, but the world has always existed coterminous, it’s like some kind of primordial substance as Aristotle and other Greek thinkers argued – that substance is eternal – that’s not correct belief says Albo, but it’s not going to make you heretic.
On the other hand, what he’s really trying to get to is that if you look, for example, at the Torah’s divine origin. One of the important branches is the idea that the Torah is eternal, and this is the point that Albo makes because it’s a very, very important point Bearing in mind that the whole background to Albo’s philosophic system about Judaism coming from the Christian Church…maybe I haven’t underlined this enough.
The hardship of Jewish life in Europe in the Middle Ages
Please, let me just put this in perspective. For those of you who are in doubt. The Middle Ages, centuries-long, is one constant project of harassment on behalf of the church towards the Jewish communities of Europe. We don’t find this in the Islamic world. We don’t find Muslims coming along going: oh, you have to believe in Muhammad. I mean, if they do say that, they say believe in Muhammad or we’ll kill you. But in most cases, they’re not saying that. Muslims are not interested in having theological debates with Jews saying: can you not see the truth of Muhammad? But Christianity does. Because Christianity’s got a real problem in the Middle Ages with the existence of Jews who deny their fundamental tenets. And yet Jesus himself, and the whole of the Christian continuum comes from Judaism. So, if the Jews are not believing it, that’s a real problem.
And one of the important things, one of the important arguments that emerged from Tortosa which album writes – this is not a discussion on the tremendous complexities of Middle Ages disputations and the polemics, because that’s a whole field in itself – but one of the things that comes out of it that Albo is arguing is that if the Torah is going to be repealed, or superseded, it can only be done in the same way that it was given – that’s logical, that’s rational. The Torah was given to an entire nation on Mount Sinai – several million people standing there – and they received the Torah. Therefore, if it’s going to be repealed, it can only be repealed under the same. So, if we look for example at that particular branch, and these at the bottom are branches, we see that his discussion of the Torah being internal is really backgrounded with the interface with Christianity.
The other thing Alba wants you to realise is that – and this, once again, you can see the anti-Maimonidean sentiment in the background because the Rambam is telling you: oh no, you’ve got to activate your intellect and you’ve got to sit and study and work and philosophise and rationalise and contemplate and meditate and get all your intellect perfect – and Albo comes along and he goes: no, you actually can attain moral perfection through the performance of a single mitzvah. One single mitzvah can enable you to achieve moral perfection. We don’t know what that mitzvah is, and a person should be doing mitzvah all the time, but you can actually attain perfection that way. Perfection is gained through the performance of the commandments of Torah and that’s what it means to have a revealed religion that is given to you by God.
Belief in the Messiah
But the really important points are in number three. Because what Albo is trying to show his readers is that the coming of the Messiah is a branch. It is not an ikar. It is not a fundamental point that if I don’t believe in it, I’m a heretic. You are allowed to believe – well allowed is a little strong maybe. It is possible to believe that the Messiah is not actually coming. That opinion is even an opinion expressed in the Talmud. Albo thinks that’s a wrong opinion. He thinks that you should believe that the Messiah is coming, but if you say: I don’t think there’s a Messiah, so long as you are believing all the ikarim – there’s a God, there’s a Torah, there’s reward and punishment in the world. But you know, the Jewish people are just there to schlepp through the end of history, there’s no Messiah coming – you’re not a heretic. For my Maimonides that would be outrageous. But for Albo, and going forward, it’s very important to realise… he said, because Christians are coming to me all the time going: oh, the Messiah, the Messiah, the Messiah. Who’s the Messiah? And Albo is telling them the Messiah is not the engine of history. The Messiah is a symbol of its culminating point, but it doesn’t drive history. The Messiah is just a branch, maybe a twig. It’s an important branch, but it is not the engine of Jewish history, it is not an ikar of Jewish thought. Jewish thought relies on a far greater universal picture – not that the Messiah is not a universal idea – but certainly, in terms of the way it was being interpreted by the Christian Church and it’s very, very specific embodiment as an individual who comes in history and changes everything. We want to believe that, we want to know that that’s going to happen. And it’s perfectly acceptable to believe that and according to Albo, you should believe that, but it’s not an ikar.
The reason I’m stating that is to show you how Albo’s rational system is reflected in the challenges that he’s facing. Notwithstanding that, that systematic theological restatement of Judaism, of Jewish belief, that happens on the eve of the great new era that is about to happen is going to have remarkable consequences that we’re going to look at. And combined with his teacher Crescas, who’s really the umbrella for this whole type of movement of Jewish thought away from Aristotle that happens in the 14th and 15th centuries, now is going to set us up for all of the changes that are going to happen.
So, I’m hoping that you’ll come back next week because I’m going to be jumping headfirst into the Enlightenment and we are going to be doing you know who, who was of course sitting up the back of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in the 17th century reading, Hasdai Crescas and becoming deeply soaked and influenced by that.
I hope that this lecture has made some kind of sense. Crescas and Albo are dealing on the one hand with a thought revolution that moves away from knowledge towards an existential dimension of love, and at the same time that Albo is creating a rational systemic that is peeling away the layers of erroneous belief.
This fifth talk in David’s eight-part series, A Journey Through Jewish Philosophy, was delivered on Zoom for Caulfield Shule in 2020.