Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas (c. 1340 - 1411) was a Jewish philosopher, theologian, and a renowned "halakhist" (teacher of Jewish law). During the catastrophic period of Spanish-Jewish history between 1391 and 1492, Hasdai Crescas wrote a treatise, Or Adonai (Light of the Lord, written in 1410, and printed in Ferrara in 1555) seeking to define and strengthen the Jewish faith in the face of constant attack from Christians and the threat posed by Aristotelian philosophy. The book sets out to protect traditional Judaism by criticizing the Aristotelian formulations proposed by such Jewish philosophers as Moses Maimonides (1186-1237) and Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) (1288-1344).
Hasdai Crescas was the first European philosopher to argue against Aristotelian cosmology. He asserted that there is no contradiction in the idea of empty space or an infinite magnitude; and that all bodies have weight, not a natural tendency upward or downward. Citing the Talmudic view that God governs 18,000 worlds, Crescas argued for an infinitely extended cosmos. He insisted that Maimonides erred in treating belief in God as a commandment, when it is a presupposed condition of any divine commandment. He replaced knowledge with love as God’s highest purpose, and declared that love, not the attainment of knowledge, brought humanity into communion with God and assured his immortality.
He is considered important in the history of modern thought for his deep influence on Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza (1632-1677) accepted many of the views of Crescas, who opposed the extreme rationalism of Maimonides. His emphasis on the emotional side of religious observance influenced Renaissance figures such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).
Hasdai Crestas was born in 1340, in Barcelona, Spain. He came from a family of scholars, and by 1367, was known as a merchant and a community leader in Barcelona. Crescas was a disciple of the Talmudist and philosopher Nissim ben Reuben, known as The RaN. Following in the footsteps of his teacher, he became a Talmudic authority and a philosopher of great originality.
While Crescas did not occupy an official position as rabbi, he seems to have been active as a teacher. Among his fellow students and friends, Isaac ben Sheshet (known as the RIBaSH), famous for his "responsa," takes precedence. Joseph Albo is the best known of his pupils, but at least two others have won recognition, Rabbi Mattathias of Saragossa, and Rabbi Zechariah ha-Levi. In 1378, Crescas was imprisoned on a false accusation and suffered personal indignities because he was a Jew. After the coronation of John I of Aragon in 1387, he became affiliated with the royal court of Aragon and was given the title, “member of the royal household.” He settled in Saragossa as the crown’s chief rabbi, empowered by a royal decree to exercise juridical and executive jurisdiction as enumerated by Jewish law.
Crescas’ first known work is a chronicle of the massacres of Jews in Barcelona in 1391, during which his only son was killed, written in the form of a letter to the Jewish community of Avignon. A man of wealth and prominence, he was appointed sole executor of the will of his uncle Vitalis Azday by the King of Aragon in 1393.
In order to reaffirm Jewish principles under severe persecution of the Jews in Spain, Crescas wrote a treatise, Refutation of the Principles of the Christians (1397-98), a critique of ten principles of Christianity. He became an adherent of the pseudo-Messiah of Cisneros. In 1401-02 he visited Joseph Orabuena at Pamplona at the request of the King of Navarre, who paid the expenses for his journey to various Navarrese towns (Jacobs, l.c. Nos. 1570, 1574). He was, at that time, described as "Rav of Saragossa."
Philo of Alexandria (c.25 B.C.E.-c. 40 C.E.), the first to attempt a reconciliation of Jewish Scriptural theology and Greek philosophy, had emphasized the transcendence of God. This emphasis was characteristic of the doctrine of the ''Kabala'' as modified by Greek Platonism. The Kabala consisted of two works, the Jezirah (Creation), which was composed after the middle of the ninth century C.E., and the Sohar (Brightness), which was created from the beginning of the thirteenth century and committed to writing by a Spanish Jew around 1300. The Sohar reflected the neo-Platonic philosophy of Solomon Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron, 1021-1070). Gabirol added a peculiar doctrine concerning the divine will by which all lesser beings are created, substituting Will for Logos. From God, by way of the divine will, proceeds the World-Soul, which is inferior to God and is composed of matter and form. This doctrine of universal hylomorphic composition influenced the tradition of Christian Scholasticism which was developed by St.Bonaventura.
Another important Jewish philosopher of the medieval period was Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). In his, Guide of the Doubting, Maimonides tried to give theology a rational basis in the philosophy of Aristotle, whom he said should be revered as the greatest human intellectual apart from the Prophets. Maimonides was more successful than Solomon Ibn Gabirol in reconciling Greek philosophy with Jewish orthodoxy; however the influence of Aristotle is most evident in the theory of Moses Maimonides. Hasdai Crescas was the first European philosopher to reject Aristotelian cosmology and oppose the extreme rationalism of Maimonides.
Three of Crescas’ writings have been preserved:
A commentary on the Talmudic tractate Gittin, historically attributed to the thirteenth century Rabbi Yom Tov Asevilli (Ritva), has been more recently attributed by many scholars to Hasdai Crescas.
Crescas’ concise philosophical work Or Adonai, The Light of the Lord (1410), became a classical Jewish refutation of medieval Aristotelianism, and a harbinger of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century. Aristotelianism, through the works of Maimonides, influenced by Arab philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Gersonides (Ralbag), and Ibn Roshd (Averroes), was threatening to blur the distinctness of the Jewish faith. While Maimonides, in endeavoring to harmonize revelation and faith with philosophy, refused to follow Aristotle to the exclusion of Moses, his successors seemed to uphold Aristotle as infallible. Well-versed in philosophical literature, Crescas demonstrated that Aristotle was far from infallible. He believed it was time to probe the proofs of “the Greek (Aristotle) who darkens the eyes of Israel in these days.” His aim was to “establish the roots and the cornerstones upon which the Torah is propped, and the pivots upon which it turns."
Crescas asserted that there is no contradiction in the idea of empty space or an infinite magnitude; and that all bodies have weight, not a natural tendency upward or downward. Citing the Talmudic view that God governs 18,000 worlds, Crescas argued for an infinitely extended cosmos
For a long time, Crescas exercised a perceptible influence among Jews only through his pupil, Joseph Albo, though he was studied by Don Isaac Abravanel (who controverts especially his Messianic theories), and by Abram Shalom in his Neveh Shalom. Crescas' work was of prime and fundamental importance through its role in the shaping of Baruch Spinoza's system. Spinoza's distinction between attributes and properties is identical with Crescas' distinction between attributes subjectively ascribed and their objective reality in God. The connection between Spinoza's views on creation and free will, on love of God and of others, and those of Crescas has been established by Joël in his Zur Genesis der Lehre Spinoza's (Breslau, 1871).
Or Adonai (Or Hashem) is composed of four main divisions (ma'amar), subdivided into kelalim and chapters (perakim). The first discussed the foundation of all belief, the existence of God; the second, fundamental doctrines of the Jewish faith; the third, doctrines which, though not fundamental, are binding on every adherent of Judaism; and the fourth, doctrines which, though traditional, are without obligatory character, and which are open to philosophical construction.
The first main division opens with a thorough criticism of the twenty-five (or twenty-six) Aristotelian propositions ("hakdamot") which Maimonides accepts as axiomatic and out of which he constructs his idea of God. Crescas presents all the demonstrations for these theorems, especially those adduced by Tabrizi; in the second, he shows the inadequacy of these ontological and physical propositions, and thus demolishes Maimonides’ proofs for his concept of God. Crescas asserts that revelation alone is competent to establish the unity of God. He also introduces a new element in his concept of God. His predecessors had contended that God’s highest happiness was His knowledge; Crescas rejects this as inadequate, and instead posits God’s love, always intent upon communicating itself and doing good. He argues against Maimonides that divine attributes do not imply multiplicity or composition in God. From the human subjective point of view, attributes may appear to suggest differences in God; but this does not mean that they do so in God objectively. In God, the Absolutely Good, they merge into unity.
In the second division he enumerates six fundamental doctrines as presupposed by revealed faith, without which Judaism would fall: God’s omniscience, providence, and omnipotence; the belief in prophecy; freedom of the will; and belief that the world was created for a purpose.
God's omniscience embraces all the innumerable individual beings; God has knowledge of what is as yet not in existence; God knows which of all possibilities will happen, though the nature of the possible is not altered by this. God's knowledge is different from that of man: inferences from one to the other are not valid. (Here he sides with Maimonides against Gersonides.)
God's providence embraces directly and indirectly all species and individuals. It rewards and punishes, especially in the hereafter. Crescas rejects the theories of Maimonides and Gersonides on this point. Since love, not knowledge (intellect), is the bond between God and man, and only what is good proceeds from God's love, punishment is also inherently good. God's omnipotence is not only infinite in time, but also in intensity.
Revelation alone makes God’s intention clear. Natural law does not limit God, but whatever is irrational proves neither God's omnipotence nor His lack of power; God acts reasonably.
Prophecy is the highest degree of human mentality. Connection and communion with God are not brought about by knowledge, but by love and reverence, leading us to God if we keep His commandments.
Crescas inclines toward rejection of the freedom of the will, or least toward its limitation. The law of causality is so all-pervasive that human conduct can not withdraw itself from its operations. Moreover, God's omniscience anticipates man’s resolutions. But the Torah teaches the freedom of choice and presupposes man’s self-determination; Crescas concludes that the human will is free in certain respects, but determined in others. Will operates as a free agent when considered alone, but when regarded in relation to the remote cause, it acts by necessity. Man feels himself free to make choices; therefore he is responsible and must be rewarded or punished for his actions. Humanity’s willingness (or unwillingness) to perform an action makes him responsible for it.
Maimonides had rejected as futile and unwarranted all inquiry into the ultimate purpose of the world. Crescas asserted that there is an ultimate purpose and assumes it to be the happiness of the soul. In this life the soul is intently striving after union with the divine; obedience to the laws of the Torah helps to realize this union. After death, in the higher existence, the soul will enter upon greater possibilities of love. Former thinkers made immortality depend on the attainment of knowledge. This is contrary to the teachings of religion, and also utterly unreasonable; knowledge does not produce the soul. Man's highest perfection is attained principally through love, the longing for the fountainhead of all good. Man's ultimate purpose, his highest good, is love, manifested in obedience to God's laws. God's highest purpose is to enable man to participate in eternal bliss. "The soul is the form and essence of man, a subtle spiritual substance, capacitated for knowledge, but in its substance not yet cognizant."
The third main division deals with the theories concerning Creation. Religious tradition is so heavily in favor of the assumption that the world and matter are created, and Gersonides' counter-reasoning is so inconclusive, that Crescas regards the denial of creation as heterodox. Whatever theory one chooses to believe, however, does not affect belief in miracles and revelation. Immortality, punishment, reward, resurrection (a miracle, but not irrational), the irrevocability and eternal obligation of the Law, the belief in urim and thummim and Messianic redemption, are the other tenets treated as doctrines which should be accepted, but which are not strictly speaking, basic.
The fourth division enumerates thirteen opinions as open to speculative decision, among them the questions concerning the dissolution of the world. (Crescas holds the earth will pass away while the heavens will endure.) Have there been other worlds besides our own? Are the heavenly bodies endowed with soul and reason? Have amulets and incantations any significance? What are the "Shedim"? What about metempsychosis?
Crescas was also dissatisfied with the method of Maimonides’ code of law, the Mishneh Torah, due to the absence of citations of its sources, the rare mention of divergent opinions, and the lack of general principles of universal application which could be used in considering new situations. (Or Adonai, Preface).
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