The Right to Investigate Philosophy
Avraham B. Shimon

Philosophical questions are bound to arise in the minds of all people. They might be in regard to the existence of G-d; the purpose of life or why do people suffer. A Jewish person will have additional questions. These might be in regard to the authenticity of the Torah or the need to do mitzvoth. Naturally the one with the question will ask someone whom they believe has knowledge to answer their inquiry. A person might attend a lecture and ask of the lecturer, or a young student in yeshiva might ask his rebbe or parent. Unfortunately, many times the questioner is answered with "you're not allowed to ask such a question" or they might be called an ignoramus or a heretic. Why are they answered in this way? Is it prohibited to ask certain questions? If they ask, are they now heretics? Indeed, there is a popular opinion in today's religious world, which states that the study of philosophy leads to heresy. It is apparent that these responses stem from this opinion. We must understand where this opinion comes from. Is it in line with our mesora? Did our sages throughout the generations hold of this opinion?
Let us first analyze this opinion from a logical standpoint. This notion maintains that the study of a subject leads to disbelief in that subject. In other words, the study of the philosophy of the Torah will lead a person to deny the Torah. This is a very strange idea. If a person studies physics will he now deny physics? On the contrary, the more he studies the greater the knowledge he will have. He recognizes physics as a reality and he's simply trying to understand the concepts and proofs. The same is the case with philosophy. If one studies the philosophy of the Torah properly, using our mesora as a guide, he can never become a heretic. He can only have a greater recognition of the truth of the Torah. Sadia Gaon deals with this problem head on. He writes in The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Introductory Treatise, Chapter VI), "Now someone might, of course, ask: 'But how can we take it upon ourselves to indulge in speculation about the objects of knowledge and their investigation to the point where these would be established as convictions and become firmly fixed in the mind, when there are people who disapprove of such an occupation, being of the opinion that speculation leads to unbelief and is conducive to heresy?' Our reply thereto, however, is that such an opinion is held only by the uneducated among them." He then states that some people think that the sages of the Mishna forbade investigation. To this he writes, "we would reply that it is inconceivable that they should have prohibited us from [engaging in genuine speculation]." G-d gave man a mind that has the ability to perceive His infinite wisdom. It would be crazy to prohibit its use. Of course, there is a method of investigation which Sadia then discusses. He states that our investigation must be based on the Torah and the Prophets and "not on any private notion that might occur to an individual". The mesora contains the facts. A person cannot put aside the facts and draw his own conclusions. This is the case in any area, which demands investigation. An astronomer does not draw conclusions about the universe without first looking through his telescope. A doctor must know the patient's symptoms before he can give a diagnosis.
There is, however, a particular subject matter within philosophy, which our sages forbade the average person to investigate. The Mishna in Chagiga (11b) warns against teaching the Ma'aseh Mercabah to more than one and the Ma'aseh Bereishis to more than two. Very few people, if any, are on the level to perceive these deep concepts. The Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (Part 1, Chapter 34) gives five reasons as to why this is. After he discusses these reasons he concludes, "For these reasons it was proper that the study of Metaphysics should have been exclusively cultivated by privileged persons, and not entrusted to the common people. It is not for the beginner, and he should abstain from it, as the little child has to abstain from taking solid food and from carrying heavy weights." It is clear from the Mishna and Rambam that we have no right to investigate this area of knowledge before we are ready. If we made the attempt, it would cause great confusion and harm as these areas contain deep ideas that cannot be grasped by the average person. Just as the little child would become harmed if he were fed solid food before he was ready. However, once a person has reached the high intellectual level and perfection of character that is required to study these areas, he has every right to investigate them. Chazal actually restricted even a perfected individual from studying these areas until the age of forty (Avos 5, 21; Chagiga 13a; Sota 12a). He must first shed his youthful emotions before engaging in speculation of these areas.
The prohibition of the Mishna is only limited to a particular body of knowledge, not the whole realm of philosophy. The Mishna does not prohibit other areas of philosophy. In fact, there are many areas that MUST be taught to all people. The Rambam continues in the Moreh (Part 1, Chapter 35) to explain which ideas should be taught to the various types of people based on their intellectual ability. He writes, "That G-d is incorporeal (not physical), that He cannot be compared with his creatures, that he is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity, and they must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that G-d is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshiped." Many gaonim and rishonim including the Ramban and Ralbag discussed at length various philosophical concepts that every Jew must know. Obviously, they had to study philosophy before they could write about it. Are we to say, then, that some of the greatest men in Jewish history were heretics? On the contrary, we can learn from these great men that not only is it permissible, it is obligatory to investigate according to ones intellectual abilities. Rabbeinu Yitzhak Abuhab states in his Menoras Ha'meor (Fourth 'Ner', Part 3, Chapter 1), "They did not warn us about understanding and investigating into areas of knowledge save for those things which are detrimental to all people." He quotes the areas discussed in the Mishna in Chagiga as the knowledge, which is detrimental due to its difficult nature. He continues to explain that it is good for a person to involve himself in different types of knowledge according to his intellectual capabilities. He then shows that many members of our Chazal were well educated in different areas of science and philosophy. Certainly, they were not heretics.
People who feel that we are prohibited from studying philosophy often cite the famous responsa of the Rashba. In it, he forbade the study of philosophy until the age of twenty-five. The nature of the knowledge that he forbade was the Greek philosophy and science, not Torah philosophy. We must note that he did not forbid it after twenty-five. Of course, this age is not some magical number where any person who reaches it can now begin to delve into these concepts. The Rashba was referring to a person who had been spending his youth involved in the study of Talmud. Thereby his mind would now be trained to think logically and rationally and would be able to comprehend these concepts.
Interestingly, the Mishna states, "Whoever speculates about the following four matters would have been better off had he not been born; namely, What is below and what is above, what was before and what is behind." It does not say "whoever asks". There is no source that prohibits one from asking his teacher a question of any kind if he is seeking truth. One merely is not allowed to investigate based on his preconceived notions. Chazal in Bereishis Rabba, however, state, "Into that which is greater than you, do not seek; into that which is more powerful than you, do not inquire; about that which is concealed from you, do not desire to know; about that which is hidden from you, do not ask." Is this not a prohibition against asking in general? No. Chazal are not prohibiting asking per se. They are merely prohibiting the various methods a person will use in personal investigation. When a person seeks knowledge of a particular area, he must first pose questions to himself. They are telling us not to investigate areas of knowledge which we are not ready for. The proof is the conclusion of their statement, "Contemplate that which is permitted to you, and do not engage yourself in hidden things." They prohibited the various methods of personal contemplation.
Unfortunately, many people in prominent teaching roles do not know the answers to many questions posed to them. They do not know how to prove the existence of G-d or explain an idea properly. This ignorance is what leads to the harsh responses they give to the questioner. They cannot admit that they don't know so they lay the ignorance on the inquisitor. This is dishonest and could very well turn a person away from studying the Torah. Many times a young student, after receiving a harsh response, will simply reject the Torah as being nonsensical. He might think there is no rational reason to keep the mitzvoth, "so why should I bother". He will come to despise his teacher and despise learning. On the other hand, he might decide to accept what his teacher said regardless of whether it made sense for fear of being humiliated if he dared ask. He will keep the technical mitzvoth but he will never gain understanding and will live a life of confusion and ignorance.
Most philosophical questions that arise in the minds of people are of the permissible realm of knowledge not of the prohibited. If someone asks within the prohibited realm, 'what is below and what is above etc.', we respond, 'We do not know, perhaps as we get older and gain more knowledge we will be able to comprehend these areas. First let us study areas, which we are able to comprehend'. We do not call him a heretic for asking. If a person is honestly searching for truth, approaches the study of Torah properly and finds a competent teacher he will find the answers to his problems. The Torah is the greatest source for knowledge and understanding. He can never become a heretic by studying it.

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