Love and Knowledge of God

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: It seems that your views of Judaism are heavily Maimonidean in scope and substance. I am wondering how you respond to views of other Rishonim, such as Hasdai Crescas, who critique the Maimonidean approach. 

In "Or Hashem", Crescas tries to prove that the soul – not the mind – holds the potential for knowledge. After this step he argues that the true goal of the soul is not rational knowledge but the love of God. In this argumentation, Crescas criticizes the opinion of Maimonides that love of God is a function of knowledge. According to Crescas, love is related to the will, which itself is the concordance of the appetitive and imaginative parts of the soul and is not related to the mind. Moreover, the true essence and the true goal of the soul is not to acquire knowledge on this view, but to delight in loving God. 

According to Crescas, the easiest way to express love for God is to do what He commands. It is the reason why the Torah and particularly the commandments that are integral to it are the best way to attain spiritual reward after death.  After the separation of the soul from the body, the soul stands by it and naturally wants to express its true essence (loving God). If the soul loves God in this world, it becomes joyous and can now love Him more, as bodily temptations no longer distract us. This rapture is the reward of the just individuals in the hereafter. But if a person does not fulfill the love of God in this world, the soul becomes despondent at his or her rebellion against God in the corporeal world, an error that it plainly understands after the death of the body. 

In his critique of the Aristotelian position on these subjects, Crescas tries to construct a philosophical defense of what he considers to be the traditional Jewish view. He first tries to prove that the opinions of the Aristotelians are philosophically mistaken, and then goes on to argue that what he considers to be the traditional view is philosophically true. 

In the opinion of Maimonides, the majority of the commandments (and all of the practical commandments) are only intermediaries to achieving philosophical knowledge, which is the supreme goal of human endeavor. This opinion is one of the more problematic aspects of Maimonides from a traditional point of view. Through his critique of the Aristotelian view, Crescas builds a defense of what he considers to be the traditional view of the commandments as the way to achieve the highest religious and spiritual goals.

Rabbi: Firstly, Maimonides does not stop at knowledge as the final objective; love of God is a command that he endorses. Secondly, Maimonides teaches, "In proportion to one's knowledge is his love of God." Now, according to your view of Crescas, how can one love something without knowledge of the loved object, or more than one's knowledge allows? A man cannot love a woman he has never met. But once he meets her, love is possible; his continued acquisition of his knowledge about her fine qualities can also increase his love. One cannot love God, if he has no knowledge of God. Would you not agree?

Reader: I agree that one cannot love X without having at least some knowledge of X. Indeed, one cannot have any attitude toward any X without having some knowledge about what it is that his attitude is directed toward. However, the fact that some knowledge of God is necessary for love of God doesn't entail that (a) knowledge of God is sufficient for love of God or that (b) the state of knowing God alone is superior (in terms of the perfection of the individual who is in that state) to the state of loving God. 

For instance, it is possible for one to know everything that there is to know about a paperclip, or one's wife, without that knowledge translating into love of the paperclip or one's wife. Nor does this mean that one's knowing about one's wife is better than loving one's wife. It is true that one must know one's wife in order to love her, but it is not the case that knowing one's wife entails loving her, or that knowing her is better than loving her. 

Moreover, as Maimonides himself suggests, our knowledge of God is exceedingly limited. Indeed, He is unintelligible in any positive terms, thus, "he who affirms [positive] attributes of God" argues Maimonides...unconsciously loses his belief in God. For "in reference to God, in whose real existence there is no plurality, it is impossible that one thing should be known, and another unknown." (LX.88) However, despite the epistemic constraints present on our knowledge of God, it seems that our love of God is not limited.  

So, perhaps human perfection consists not in the little knowledge of God that is obtained by negation, but rather in love of God.  The little knowledge of God that we may have perhaps serves only the "fix the reference" of our love, i.e., to direct our love toward the proper aim. 

Rabbi: Would you say that 2 people can have identical "knowledge" of God, but experience highly divergent degrees of "loving" God?

Reader: It certainly seems plausible for two people to have identical knowledge of God, but for one to manifest love of God more than the other.  Person A and person B might have the same knowledge, but A could disregard God's commandments while B abides by them. Having knowledge of X doesn't seem to entail love of X. 

Forgive the anthropomorphism, but two brothers may have the same knowledge of their father, but one follows his father's word and manifest love more-so than his brother. The source of the former's insubordination needn't be a lack of knowledge.

Rabbi: I question your conclusion. I suggest that if two people have identical knowledge, they will have identical love.

However, if their love varies, then this must be explained by the one with lesser love as having faulty knowledge (lesser) knowledge. He in fact cannot express his love due to some ignorance; i.e., he values money more than is proper, so he spends less time loving God. This would be considered lesser knowledge of God, since money is overestimated and belittles his potential love of God. But two people with identical knowledge, and no emotions clouding the expression of that knowledge or obscuring the knowledge itself...will have identical love.

Alternatively, if both people possess identical knowledge, but one is more expressive in his love, I question that this is true "love", or love of "God." It may simply be an emotion to "express" more, with nothing to do with his knowledge, in such case it is not a better state, but worse.

Reader: I am not doubting whether knowledge and love are related; indeed they must be — one cannot love anything without having some knowledge of that thing. Knowledge seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for love.

Rabbi: You say "Knowledge seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for love."  I ask, what else can generate love, if it is not knowledge? I contend there is no other means to loving God, other than that single faculty of intelligence; the single highway to understanding God as far as humanly possible.

Reader:  The key question can thus be put crudely as follows: what is Man's ultimate felicity? Contemplation of God through the acquired intellect or love of God?  While the latter may require a certain degree of the former, is the perfected person the one who merely knows the good, or the one who loves the good and desires it? Does the Torah establish a political order in which only an intellectually gifted few can attain perfection, or does it provide tools capable of enabling and ennobling all? 

Rabbi: 1) Perfection is attained on many need not be all or nothing. 2) I maintain that when one is impressed with a marvel of creation, this automatically results in a certain appreciation, or love of the Creator, unlike your paperclip example where knowledge does not necessitate love.  

Additionally, when marveling at creation and God's wisdom, one wishes to probe further. The knowledge is the sole catalyst for the love, which is expressed naturally as a result. I do not argue whether knowledge is of the faculty of intelligence, or if love is a function of another faculty called soul. I merely contend that love is a natural result, and not due to some volition despite our level of knowledge. It is natural to admire the Orchestrator of our stupendous creation. A person cannot artificially manufacture love from another source of his psyche or soul.

In the end, we can only recognize God through our intellects, our soul. He is not perceptible via the senses. And as all we possess are these two faculties (intellect and senses) it is the intellect alone that offers us knowledge of God. Until we possess true knowledge of Him, we cannot love Him. But once we do attain such knowledge, we can love Him, and grow in that love in direct proportion to our knowledge, as Maimonides taught. 

You suggest Crescas maintained all man needs is some knowledge of God, and then he can engage in loving God to the nth degree. But I see no reasonable explanation that would explain how one can love God more than his knowledge dictates.