by R. Gil Student
I’ve had a few more thoughts about this issue since I wrote the original essay on the topic. I took another look at Dr. David Berger’s book, Cultures in Collision and Conversation. Aside from a chapter that directly addresses the question, many parts of the book discuss it. This is a topic that has been recently debated among the experts. What follows are a few of my amateur thoughts after a summer of teaching classes on the Semak:
- As we discussed last week, the Semak, in the mitzvah of fearing God (no. 4), utilizes the philosophical argument that Jews are obligated in mitzvos as a matter of gratitude. This argument was also proposed by R. Sa’adiah Gaon and R. Bachya Ben Pakuda. The Semak does not cite a source for this argument but it is still a philosophical argument. It is noteworthy precisely because it is so unusual.
- In the mitzvah to learn Torah (no. 105), Semak speaks at length about the need for constant, devoted study. More briefly (no. 15), Semak also lists a prohibition against failing to study Torah. In both places, he condemns non-Torah-related speech (albeit with a nuanced difference). Someone who adopts this strict regimen of Torah study who is interested in studying philosophy would have to allow for the time spent on it (as Rambam does in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 1:13). It seems to me that one would omit this permission for any of three reasons: 1) you believe it is obviously forbidden and unworthy of discussion, 2) you believe it is obviously permitted, 3) you do not want to take a stand on such a controversial subject. I find it most likely that Semak follows the first view.
- In the mitzvah to follow God’s ways (Aseh, no. 7), Semag (not Semak) includes a brief anti-philosophical polemic. He tells how, in his travels, he explained to the wise men of Spain that the verse “Know the God of your father and worship Him” (1 Chronicles 28:9) refers to acts of kindness (as proven by Jer. 22:15-16). I can imagine him saying this with a gentle, mischievous smile to Spanish philosophers or to rabbis in Spain who are anti-philosophy. Either way, he seems to knowingly albeit implicitly denounce the philosophical definition of knowledge of God.