DAVID BIRNBAUM METAPHYSICS
DAVID BIRNBAUM PHILOSOPHY
by D. N. Khalil
Jewish philosophy is often resigned to the assumption that fundamental descriptions of God and the universe are beyond the grasp of the human intellect. Questions of Jewish philosophy are generally posed in the context of a mysterious framework that is rarely examined per se. Such a mindset is often more concerned with man’s place, role, and duties in the world, than it is with the contours of the universe and the latter’s relationship to the Eternal:
“[The reason of Jewish philosophy] is the reason that we find in chess…Chess offers the greatest possible scope for calculation…But all this takes place in accordance with a set of rules that determine which moves are permitted and which are not and how the pieces are set up. The rules themselves are the limits of reason in chess. They are not questioned nor need they be justified because the rationality of chess begins after the rules have been set down…This is Jewish intelligence…[it] has a sense of limit, of the vanity involved in hurling questions at the limits…”
– Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith I, 3.
Of course, there have been noteworthy attempts to defy this generalization. Maimonides is perhaps the most prominent example of a Jewish philosopher who would analyze – if not challenge – Judaism’s fundamental suppositions. In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides describes a Judaism that dovetails seamlessly with an understanding of the universe as established primarily by Aristotle. As Maimonides holds Judaism to the light of Aristotle’s logic, he finds concordance on all topics, with merely one exception: the question of eternalism.
Aristotle is the ‘eternalist,’ believing that the universe is eternal and that God comes into existence at some point in time. Maimonides asserts the converse: that God is eternal and that the universe is actively brought into being. It is striking that Maimonides, who accepts Aristotle’s position on an array of topics, including the essence of both God and man, cannot find agreement with Aristotle on the relationship between God and the cosmos. It is even more astounding that neither Maimonides nor Aristotle claim to prove their respective positions vis-à-vis God’s relation to the cosmos. It is as if both men probe to the depths of metaphysics together in complete accord, only to resign, quite openly, to their respective presuppositions at the end
of the journey.
Both sides appear to be missing tools that are essential to complete this journey. And both sides admit their respective unpreparedness by abandoning the very thought-process that brought them to this point:
“As for the matters concerning which we have no argument or that are too great in our opinion, it is difficult for us to say: why is this so? For instance, when we say: Is the world eternal or not?”
– Aristotle, Topica I, 11
“The eternity of the world or its creation in time becomes an open question, it should in my opinion be accepted without proof… it is not in the power of speculation to accede.”
– Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, II, 16
It is at this juncture that David Birnbaum enters the forum. He does so by delineating the relationship between God and eternity in the context of a unified metaphysics that concurrently addresses the relationship of God to the cosmos and the cosmos to eternity.
Such is the philosophy expounded in his first work, God and Evil. It is this simultaneous solution that lays the foundation for the work’s understanding of the existence of gross evil in the world. Birnbaum’s is a solution that has been left almost entirely unchallenged in the eighteen years since its publication in 1988. In the current work, God and Good, Birnbaum has looked further into the implications of this metaphysics and found the individual to be central. Here the individual is revealed as the engine of cosmic evolution. The relationship of man to God, man to the cosmos, and man to eternity thus become the focus of this work.
Birnbaum feels no compulsion to obey the rules that his intellectual predecessors followed. Building on the foundation of ancient Jewish principles, particularly Kabbalistic ones, he is not afraid to draw on Eastern principles of temporal circularity, concepts from biology and physics that have yet to be applied to metaphysical issues, or insights from other scientific and humanistic disciplines that have been left untapped in philosophy.
Asserting that previous attempts to characterize the essence of the cosmos have fallen short for their lack of an adequate conceptual arsenal, as exemplified by Maimonides’ and Aristotle’s impasse, he consolidates these eclectic influences into a defined set of metaphysical ‘tools.’ Birnbaum presents these tools at the outset of God and Good. He then uses them to build a model that is applicable to all the arenas from which its influences were initially derived.
The implications of Birnbaum’s original – markedly straightforward – doctrine therefore, range from the most general to the most specific. The doctrine is unified by the central thesis that unbounded potentiality pulls both the individual and the cosmos towards a Divine ideal. Potential is universal. Potential is the nexus:
“One of the great afflictions of man’s spiritual world is that every discipline of knowledge, every feeling, impedes the emergence of the other…This defect cannot continue permanently. Man’s nobler future is destined to come, when he will develop to a sound spiritual state so that instead of each discipline negating the other, all knowledge, all feeling will be envisioned from any branch of it…No spiritual phenomenon can stand independently. Each is interpenetrated by all.”
– Abraham Isaac Kook, Lights of Holiness, I, p. 22
Interestingly, in spite of its novelty, the paradigm elaborated by Birnbaum is no less firmly anchored in Biblical and Talmudic concepts than the previous Jewish perspectives that were restrained by these same influences. For instance, God’s self-identification as “I will be that which I will be” (Exodus 3:14) is perhaps the single best articulation of God and Good’s description of potentiality’s association with God.
In his first work, Birnbaum meticulously dissects Adam’s Garden of Eden dilemma (Genesis 2:17), understanding it as humankind’s choice between potential/infinite growth and bliss/limited growth. Birnbaum then goes on, throughout God and Evil and now God and Good, to reveal the theme of potential in traditional Jewish narratives and even Judaism’s specific commandments.
At the outset of God and Evil Birnbaum boldly asserts that he aims to provide an integrated and novel solution to the problem of (1) the origins of the cosmos, (2) the nature, as it were, of God, and (3) the presence of gross evil in a world governed by an omnipotent God. At this point, the expectation, at least for this reader, is for a complex, convoluted theory too abstract to be considered objectively. The result, however, a “potentiality model,” is just the opposite: profoundly discrete, yet overarching enough to satisfy the three initial aims.
With the presentation of the second book, this model now has four distinct dimensions. First, in God and Evil, it is thoroughly rooted in Biblical and academic theology. Second, in part one of God and Good, the metaphysical implications of the model are described. Third, in part two of God and Good, the model is presented in the form of 120 mythical Angels, adding texture to the metaphysics and drawing it into the realm of daily human reality. And finally, in the third section of God and Good, the ‘potentiality model’ is translated into a practical template for self-actualization.
It is difficult to recall a metaphysics as unified, yet as widely applicable, as the one presented here. The model’s foundation is concrete, while its implications are personal and thus varied. Each reader, therefore, will glean that which augments his or her own spiritual sensibility. As an Orthodox Jew, I find much in Birnbaum’s two works that bolsters my understanding of traditional Judaism.
No less sui generis than the scope of Birnbaum’s work, is its relentless appeal to profound innate human understandings that cannot be adequately explicated in standard prose. Birnbaum employs a linguistic ensemble that at times resembles the water-tight, nitty-gritty reasoning of God and Evil, while at other times feels like terse jolts to the psyche. The author has turned away from the prevalent style of philosophy that so fervently analyzes metaphysical mysteries only to expose its own limitations. In breaking from convention, Birnbaum has taken a risk. He has gambled acceptance by refusing to succumb to a more traditional framework that would inevitably fail to fully represent the depth of ideas presented here.
The test lies in the heart of the reader. For all of its details and implications, the core of this work is unabashedly simple: potential drives existence. Does this concept seem foreign? or does it feel natural? If Birnbaum is successful, the reader will detect that the idea has an inherent organic power. This power can be explained in certain general contexts using standard language, but in others – particularly in the context of the individual – traditional explanations do not suffice.
Birnbaum posits that the force driving the cosmos pulsates within the soul of each individual, and so only a visceral response from the reader can fully reflect its impact. Is this achieved? Do the grand, general, cosmic principles yield to an understanding of the self? Does this awareness, in and of itself, have meaningful and practical implications for daily life? If it does, then Birnbaum has achieved something utterly unique. He has raised a preciously simple metaphysical centerpiece and enshrined it through its intrinsic affinity for the mind and the heart of the reader.
“I will cause a new utterance to be heard in the land:
Peace peace to the far and near, said the Lord.”
D. N. Khalil
Cold Spring Harbor
Dr. D. N. Khalil is a scientist with the National Institute of Health.
He teaches Jewish Philosophy at Long Island University.