Crescas, Hasdai (1340–1410)

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The Spanish rabbi and philosopher Hasdai Crescas was born in Barcelona, the scion of a distinguished family. He exercised considerable influence both in the Jewish community and at the Aragonese court. After the 1391 persecution of the Jews, in which his only son perished, Crescas moved to Saragossa, where he engaged in literary activity until his death.

Crescas's purpose was to defend Judaism from both internal and external subversion. To this end he composed his Spanish "Refutation of the Principles of Christianity" (extant only in Hebrew translation), a rational critique of Christian dogmatic theology, and his masterwork, The Light of the Lord (Or Adonai ), conceived as an introduction to a legal code that was never composed. Crescas wrote in the tradition of those thinkers, such as Judah Halevi and Nahmanides, who rejected the rationalistic compromising of Judaism with the teachings of Aristotle, but he differed from them in that he chose to combat the philosophers on their own ground. In this respect his position may be compared with that of Muhammad al-Ghazālī in Islamic philosophy. The Light is arranged as a dogmatic treatise, beginning with an exposition of the primary concept of God's existence and unity and followed by expositions of certain fundamental and subordinate doctrines. The first section, in which Crescas presents and criticizes the twenty-six basic propositions of physics which Maimonides (Guide, Part II, Introduction) culled from Aristotle, is concerned less with advancing a new system than with indicating the inadequacy of those of his forerunners. Crescas conceived of time as duration independent of motion and insisted on the possibility of a vacuum based on a conception of space as extension independent of body. These two notions enabled him to establish the existence of infinite time and space, thereby destroying the concept of the Aristotelian prime mover. Furthermore, the debate over creation ex nihilo is dismissed as futile since, in any event, all is derivative from God, who is the only necessary existent.

Crescas maintained both the literalness of the Biblical attributes and God's unity by advancing the Kalam-like theory of essential attributes compatible with God's absolute simplicity. These attributes are related to the subject as light rays are to the source of luminescence, one being inconceivable without the other, and are bound together by the unifying principle of the divine goodness. It is this goodness or perfection which characterizes the Divinity, rather than the Aristotelian concept of self-thinking thought.

The return of Crescas to the biblical conception of God is best exemplified in his treatment of the problem of the conflict between divine foreknowledge and human free will. Maimonides had taken refuge in the notion that God's knowledge has nothing in common with humanity's while Gersonides sacrificed divine knowledge of the future and the particulars to unconditional human free will. Rejecting both points of view, Crescas felt it unnecessary to reconcile divine knowledge (which he considered absolute) with free will but rather free will with causality. Definitely inclined toward determinism, he maintained that an act is contingent when considered in relation to itself but necessary in relation to its causes and to God's knowledge. Human consciousness of free will consists in the pleasure or disapproval felt when an act is committed.

Divine providence, prophecy, and immortality are not dependent on intellectual perfection, as in Maimonides and Gersonides, but rather on love and reverence for God, which is the purpose of the Divine Law and the universe. It is the substance of the soul itself, rather than the acquired intellect, which survives death.

Crescas's independence of Aristotle helped pave the way for such Renaissance thinkers as the younger Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno. Of particular interest is Crescas's influence on the thought of Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, who knew his work well.

See also al-Ghazālī, Muhammad; Aristotle; Bruno, Giordano; Gersonides; Halevi, Yehuda; Islamic Philosophy; Jewish Philosophy; Maimonides; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


The editio princeps of the Or Adonai (Light of the Lord ) appeared at Ferrara in 1556 and has since been published several times. The first section, which deals with the 26 propositions, has been edited and translated into English by H. A. Wolfson in Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929). The section on free will was rendered into German by Philipp Bloch in Die Willensfreiheit von Chasdai Crescas (Munich, 1879).

Crescas's thought has been surveyed in M. Waxman, The Philosophy of Don Hasdai Crescas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1920) and M. Joel, Don Hasdae Crescas' religionsphilosophische Lehren in ihrem geschichtlichen Einflusse dargestellt (Breslau: Schletter, 1866). His influence on Spinoza has been discussed by Joel in Zur Genesis der Lehre Spinozas (Breslau: Schletter, 1871) and by D. Neumark in "Crescas and Spinoza," in Essays in Jewish Philosophy (Cincinnati, OH, 1929). For a full bibliography, see Encyclopedia Judaica (Berlin: Eschkol, 1928), Vol. V, pp. 698ff., 708.

Frank Talmage (1967)