Entre Nous

Western neo-Platonic thought is good at two things: (1) creating binary oppositions (i.e. light, dark; good, evil), and (2) privileging one element of the binary over the other (i.e. light is better than dark; good is better than evil).  One of the principle binary oppositions we receive from Plato is the aesthetic, or the senses, and the noetic, or the mind.  When it comes to religious experience, the aesthetic is often privileged of the noetic.  In other words, we must “feel” G-d’s presence rather than “think” G-d’s presence.

However, privileging the hylic path to G-d is counter to much of Jewish (and to a lesser degree Christian theology) since the middle ages.  Guilea chronicles the shift from the noetic turn in Jewish thought beginning with Philo of Alexandria writing in the First Century C.E. and continuing with Rambam, Judah Halevi, and Levi Ben Gershon during the Middle Ages.[1]  Philo represents a movement from the prophetic and the apocalyptic towards a noetic understanding of G-d as the intellect of the Universe. Drawing on Plato’s distinction between the aesthetic (sensible, sense perceptible, visible) and the noetic (intellectual, invisible), Philo “articulates a doctrine of the intellect as the power of the soul able to perceive, beyond the sensible universe, something of the noetic world.”[2]

Eleven centuries later, Rambam continues to extol the noetic in religious studies.  In The Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam directs his student, R. Joseph Ibn Aknin, that before he can begin any serious religious study he must first master the “elementary studies” of mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, natural science, and metaphysics.  These disciplines must be mastered, Rambam asserts, before the one is ready to venture to find G-d.  “When you have arrived by way of intellectual research at a knowledge of G-d and his works,” Rambam counsels, “then commence to devote yourselves to Him, try to approach Him and strengthen the intellect, which is the link that joins you to him.”[3]

So, if the intellect is the link that joins us to G-d, why is it so often demeaned as not “spiritual”?  Why has religion come to be synonymous with ignorance?  Just because I enjoy intellectual pursuits does not make me an atheist.  Just because I practice religion does not make me a Yahoo.  Faith and intelligence are not binary oppositions, nor are they mutually exclusive terms.  Faith is not the result of the exhaustion of reason: it is the beginning of wonder.


[1] Giulea, D. A. (2011). The Noetic Turn in Jewish Thought. Journal For The Study Of Judaism: In The Persian Hellenistic & Roman Period, 42(1), 23-57. doi:10.1163/157006310X529218.

[2] Ibid, p.34.

[3] The Guide for the Perplexed. (1956) M. Freidlander (trans). Second edition.  New York: Dover Publications, p.385.

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