Jewish Epistemology 

By: David Yagudayev  |  February 16, 2023

By David Yagudayev

Faith, both in God and Judaism, has been challenged in every century and location our people have been situated. From the time the world was dominated by paganism to today’s post-modern questions, fierce debates continue to rage regarding the epistemology of Judaism. Although many believe that the belief in God ultimately stems from Divinely-inspired Emunah (faith) and Bitachon (trust), the key Jewish epistemological debate remains between Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides, two of Judaism’s great Sephardic thinkers, who delve far past blind faith, into a world of nuanced complexities and complicated philosophical principles.

The first significant difference in their respective worldviews is how they view God. According to Maimonides, God is first identified as the God of all creation, and he is not specifically associated with Judaism or the Exodus. Halevi, on the other hand, believes that God is directly associated with being the God of Abraham, and that knowing the God of Creation comes from understanding his special relationship with the Jewish people.  

The Maimonidian approach is philosophically oriented at first and only comes to include the Jewish people after knowing that there is a God. In the first chapter of the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, Maimonides states that God is a primary being (מצוי ראשון) and that everything else’s existence is contingent on God. He continues analyzing God through a purely theoretical lens, stating that since truth is something that is not contingent on anything else, so is God, as God is truth. Employing Aristotle’s argument of the unmoved mover, Maimonides believes that God is the only necessary existence and sustains the whole world since there cannot be a universe without a creator. 

In The Kuzari, Halevi articulates that to know God requires us to understand his relationship with the Jewish people first. According to Halevi, Jews have an unbroken oral tradition that they witnessed all of God’s miracles during the exodus from Egypt and, soon after. the revelation at Mount Sinai. Unlike Maimonides, Halevi does not believe that one has to delve deeply into “knowing” God, but rather that one can comprehend God’s existence through the retelling of, and living through, the story of the Jewish people. 

However, both approaches face difficulties. It is strange that despite claiming that he knows the Exodus occurred because of the truth of the Torah, Maimonides does not use this as his source for God’s existence. Instead, Maimonides adopts the Aristotelian argument of the unmoved mover, which has no indication of a particular relationship between God and the Jewish nation. He uses this argument as the foundation for his first commandment in Sefer Hamitzvot. Maimonides reads Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” and only includes the first half of the verse, “I am the LORD your God” as his source for God’s existence. However, Maimonides neglects the second half of this verse which includes God’s unique and particular relationship with the Jewish people. Maimonides seems to be deemphasizing the role of miracles in Judaism as a proof for God and instead establishes a philosophical defense for his existence. Halevi’s argument also contains flaws. In today’s post-Talmud and post-modern age, the Jewish oral tradition is especially weak. Stories of the past, like the revelation at Mount Sinai and the miracles of the Exodus, are unlikely to be passed down with an unbroken tradition by one’s father throughout the generations as Halevi states. This is a critical flaw relating to Halevi’s argument.

Both the Rambam and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi had an unwavering belief in God and Judaism. Although their approaches differed, their conclusion was nonetheless identical. One can be a rationalist, like the Rambam, who believes that the nature of God could be comprehended by philosophical understanding alone. You can assert that God is one, unchanging, and without any physical attributes. Like Maimonides, you believe that the goal of religious worship was to come as close as possible to understanding God through the use of reason and intellectual pursuits. Similarly, like Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, you can emphasize the emotional and intuitive aspects of religious experience. You can believe that the true knowledge of God could only be achieved through direct experience and personal encounters with the Jewish people. You can argue that Judaism is not just a matter of intellectual assent but a lived reality that involves a personal relationship with God. Whichever approach you relate to, pursue it with great fervor and passion in order to develop a closer connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. This is only a surface-level exploration of Jewish philosophy featuring the clashing ideas of Rambam and HaLevi regarding the Epistemology of Judaism. I highly recommend those who are interested and seek to develop a greater understanding of Judaism and enhance their connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu to delve deeper into Jewish Philosophy, a field rich in meaning.