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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Commanded to be Curious




Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith” have become a popular summary of Jewish belief, but they wouldn’t be a truly Jewish credo without a healthy history of debate. In fact, one of Maimonides’ most significant challengers argued that his entire concept of “principles of faith” was incoherent. According to Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, another heavyweight in the world of medieval Jewish philosophy, Judaism has no commandments involving belief at all.


That requires some unpacking. Crescas argued that a commandment can only apply to something that I could theoretically do or not do – otherwise, what’s the point of commanding me? But our beliefs, unlike our actions, are not really up to us. We don’t choose to believe that Paris is the capital of France or that two is the square-root of four. Our belief in these things is simply a consequence of the evidence.


Rabbi Crescas seems to have a good point. If beliefs are involuntary, then they can’t be commanded, and Maimonides’ entire project falls apart. At the same time, Judaism certainly seems to champion certain beliefs, many of which – like monotheism – have had a major impact on human civilization. How do we square all of this?


Enter Don Yitzhak Abarbanel, a heroic figure in Jewish history. Besides using his political clout to try to avert the infamous Spanish Expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Abarbanel comes to our rescue in the realm of Jewish philosophy as well. Facing Crescas head-on, he begins with a surprising counterattack: total agreement. Abarbanel concedes that our beliefs are an involuntary consequence of the evidence we encounter, and Judaism therefore cannot command beliefs.


But Abarbanel isn’t finished. In his view, Crescas has misunderstood Maimonides. Maimonides was not claiming that there are commandments of belief per se. Rather, we are commanded to involve ourselves with the types of knowledge and investigation that can bring us to those beliefs. When Maimonides described a certain belief as a commandment, he was describing a journey, not a destination.


This approach not only defuses Crescas’ challenge; it radically reshapes our understanding of Judaism. While most religions demand specific beliefs from their adherents, Judaism demands exploration. It maps out some of philosophy’s greatest subjects – the origin of the universe, free will, the balance between good and evil – and then sends us on an adventure of discovery.


When we realize that curiosity and intellectual exploration are essential to Judaism, it becomes little wonder that Jews are disproportionately represented among visionary artists and scientists. Grappling with big questions might even be the Jewish quality. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz cites the observations of Hectaeus, a Greek geographer active during the reign of Alexander the Great:


He remarked that he had heard of an interesting people who lived to the south of Syria: all of them were philosophers, that is, people who asked idle questions and were interested in wisdom for wisdom’s sake. This is a very nice statement about our people. [1]

We often undervalue curiosity, or we recast it in utilitarian terms. In an age with unparalleled access to information, curiosity is a vanishingly brief occurrence, a small inconvenience that lasts only as long as it takes to finish a Google search. But curiosity can be transformative if we allow it to change our experience of the present moment. Albert Einstein may have been tapping into this quintessentially Jewish quality when he recommended the following:


The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

According to Maimonides, this “holy curiosity” is the heart and soul of Judaism. In his view, one violates Judaism’s most foundational commandments not by failing to believe, but by failing to explore his belief. Indeed, according to another medieval Jewish philosopher, our exploration of reality might be at the heart of all the commandments.


For Gersonides, Judaism’s numerous commandments are intended to guide us on a tour of this world. Like any good tour guide, they encourage us to notice the wonders that surround us – things that were always there but somehow escaped our notice. This might help to explain Gersonides' extraordinarily broad interests. His writings include original works of philosophy, math, logic, physics, botany, zoology, and astronomy (famed astronomer Johannes Kepler was eager to study his astronomical tables). He even wrote poetry.


For Gersonides, all of this was the natural outgrowth of a passionately Jewish life. It was a life characterized by curiousity, thoughtfulness, and the conviction that life itself is worthy of exploration. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook expressed this conviction beautifully:


You must be familiar with the reality in which you live. Know yourself and your world. Know the thoughts of your own heart and of every visionary and philosopher. Find the source of life that is within you, that is beyond you, and that surrounds you. Know the glory of life of which you are a part. [2]


Notes


[1] https://steinsaltz.org/about/what-is-jewish-learning/

[2] Translation by Rabbi Ari Ze'ev Schwartz


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