Wisdom & Reason

Moshe Ben-Chaim

“The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge…” (Proverbs 1:7) “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God…” (Psalms 111:10)  Kings Solomon and David make it clear: knowledge must eventuate in an appreciation of God. 

If gaining knowledge of God is not our goal when we study, then all we learn is false. For example, a scientist might harness the Earth’s resources and create amazing technologies. But if he does not view these materials and laws as created by the Creator, then his knowledge false. For he lacks the most primary understanding – the “existence” of the phenomenon. In fact, matter exists only because there is a Creator who willed it to be from nothingness. Matter cannot create itself. All matter possesses form, weight, color, dimension, etc. But most central to matter, is its existence…that the thing “is.” Errors concerning why something is narrow or green, are not as crucial as the error of how it exists. If the theories of Aristotle or Plato are followed, where matter always existed in some form, one denies God as “creator.” All studies will then be in vain.

If our discoveries do not imbue us with a great awe for the Creator, we have failed our mission in life. The multitude of creations, and their remarkable designs, enables man to continually discover new truths, and impress him with God’s wisdom. Knowledge of the world is not to end with the phenomena we study. If it does, and we walk away from a biology class impressed with the great design of the body, but we don’t view the body as evidence of the Creator and His wisdom, we do not truly understand the body. For the body has a purpose only in relationship to a life where God is central.

This being said, we must pursue truth over all other concerns. We must not cower to reputations, accepted norms, masses, fear of rejection, or anything else. If we understand something as false, we must treat it that way. The only path to living in line with truth, is reason. Belief has no place in this search for God’s wisdom. God granted each person the faculty of intelligence, so that “each” of us might engage this amazing tool to determine what is true and what is false. We are not to follow a Rabbi and rely solely on his words. Rabbi Bachya ben Josef ibn Paquda (author of “Duties of the Heart”) makes this point:

“Whoever has the intellectual capacity to verify what he receives from tradition, and yet is prevented from doing so by his own laziness, or because he takes lightly God’s commandments and Torah, he will be punished for this and held accountable for negligence.”


“If, however, you possess intelligence and insight, and through these faculties you are capable of verifying the fundamentals of the religion and the foundations of the commandments which you have received from the sages in the name of the Prophets, then it is your duty to use these faculties until you understand the subject, so that you are certain of it - both by tradition and by force of reason. If you disregard and neglect this duty, you fall short in the fulfillment of what you owe your Creator.”  

Devarim 17:8-10 states: “If a case should prove too difficult for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between (leprous) mark and mark, or other matters of dispute in your courts…you must act in accordance with what they tell you.”

The verse does not say simply accept them on the authority of Torah sages and rely exclusively on their tradition.” Rather, (Scripture) says that you should reflect on your own mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them from tradition – which covers all the commandments in the Torah, their principles and details – and then examine them with your own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth becomes clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written: “Understand today and reflect on it in your heart, Hashem is the God in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other.” (Ibid, 4:39)  

Maimonides on the obligation to use reason (“Guide for the Perplexed”, Book III, Chap. LIV):

“Our Sages further say, that man has first to render account concerning his knowledge of the Law, then concerning the acquisition of wisdom, and at last concerning the lessons derived by logical conclusions from the Law, i.e., the lessons concerning his actions. This is also the right order: we must first learn the truths by tradition, after this we must be taught how to prove them, and then investigate the actions that help to improve man’s ways. The idea that man will have to render account concerning these three things in the order described, is expressed by our Sages in the following passage: “When man comes to the trial, he is first asked, ‘Hast thou fixed certain seasons for the study of the Law? Hast thou been engaged in the acquisition of wisdom? Hast thou derived from one thing another thing’?” This proves that our Sages distinguished between the knowledge of the Law on the one hand, and wisdom on the other, as the means of proving the lessons taught in the Law by correct reasoning.” 

Ibn Ezra also expresses the vital role of thought and reason (Exod. 20.1):

“…The second category (of commandments) are commands which are hidden, and there is not explained why they were commanded. And God forbid, God forbid that there should be any one of these commands which goes against human intelligence. Rather, we are obligated to perform all that God commands, be it revealed to us the underlying “Sode” (principle), be it hidden from us. And if we find any of them which contradict human intelligence, it isn’t proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should consult the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if such a command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written [by them] we [must] search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we can fix it [determine the command]. If we can’t, then we abandon that mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it.”

Radak (Samuel I, 28:25 towards the end):

“…although the implications of the words of the Rabbis - blessed their memory - indicate from the Talmud that the (idolatrous) woman resurrected Samuel, we do not accept these words when our intelligence tells us the opposite.”

Radak rejects the notion that the woman idolater literally resurrected Samuel, as it violates all reason. Therefore, our reason is what we must follow, even when confronted with statements of the Rabbis which seem to imply the opposite. This lesson is most vital and even echoed by our greatest Rabbis. But it doesn’t stop there. As we said, God created the human intellect. He desires we engage reason and proof. This was exemplified to the highest degree when He orchestrated Revelation on Mount Sinai. This was performed in front of the entire nation of 2 million people, to serve as proof for them and all future generations. God desires we only accept that which can be proved. Had God given the Torah privately to Moses, no proof of its Divine origins could be substantiated. It would be Moses’ word against others, just like all other religions bereft of proof. 

Reason has many methods; deduction, induction, a fortiori arguments, and so on. As we proceed, I intend to share many lessons in correct thought. In this manner, you may grow in your capabilities, becoming more adept at distinguishing truth from fallacy, and fact from metaphor, so you might sharpen your analytical skills and so you might decipher God’s words and the words of His faithful followers – His Prophets – growing in your love of God.