Cause and Effect

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Divergent conceptions of the relation between cause and effect (or agent and act) can be found throughout Jewish religious and non-religious literature from ancient times to the present. Indeed, this relation clearly underlies many of the most characteristic affirmations of the Jewish faith, e.g., that God is the Creator of the universe and of all creatures in it, who, in turn, have established ways of behaving and interacting; that God exercises providence as the Lord of history, acting as the past and the future Redeemer of Israel and other peoples, miraculously or otherwise; that God reveals his will and his laws to chosen individuals and peoples, establishing covenants with both human beings and even parts of the created universe and expecting willing adherence to these laws and covenants; that human beings are free to obey or disobey God's mandates; that God both rewards and punishes human behavior, yet human beings have the power to repent; and that God both hears and responds to prayer).

Until the modern era, virtually all claims expressing the cause-effect relation presupposed some form of the doctrine of causal efficacy, namely, that causes (or agents) produce their effects and can be known to do so. In general, it is possible to distinguish between three different conceptions of how this cause-effect relation actually works. First, there is the view that God is the sole and direct cause of all things that exist – objects, persons, processes, and states of affairs. Thus, causal efficacy resides in God alone. This view is closely associated with the classical rabbinic idea of God's having originally created the world ex nihilo. It may also have a connection with later rabbinic teaching, formulated in the liturgy, that each day God continually renews the work of creation. The most radical theoretical expression of this view was the occasionalist teaching of the Islamic theologians that God continually creates the world by recreating, moment by moment and out of nothing, the ephemeral atoms and accidents of which it is comprised in whatever configurations He wishes. (See *Kalam and occasionalism.) The second view holds that there are many non-divine causes, variously called "intermediate," "secondary," or "natural," which produce specific kinds of effects that act as causes in their own right. On this view, causal efficacy is widely diffused throughout creation, i.e., the natural world, but is nevertheless constrained to produce only those effects that are in accordance with the specific character or nature of their causes interacting with the objects or circumstances that they affect. These intermediate causes may or may not have their ultimate source in God. (If the latter is granted, it was generally held that God is able to miraculously interrupt or suspend these causes either by divine intervention ad hoc, or the unanticipated use of other existing causes in ways not guessed at.) This view is closely associated with the biblical teaching that causal efficacy is given to plants, animals, and human beings to reproduce and populate the earth and otherwise behave in ways that characterize their different kinds. It may also reflect the rabbinic teaching that "the world follows its customary course" (olam ke-minhago noheg). Third and finally, there are those who consider human beings to be unique and independent causes (or agents) in their own right, in that they are capable of producing an astonishing array of antithetical kinds of effects through choice; these considerations serve to vindicate claims asserting human free will. This view is associated with biblical sources asserting the unique status of humankind in creation, others emphasizing human consent as a prerequisite for entering into covenants with God, specific divine mandates to choose good over evil, and rabbinic teachings about the soul's two inclinations and God's endorsement of human liberty.

In the Bible and rabbinic literature, of course, no clearcut definition or developed theory of causality is enunciated. The two basic assumptions are that God works in nature and history in various ways and that man has freedom of choice. In medieval Jewish religious philosophy, however, articulate positions are taken with respect to these positions under the influence of Greco-Arabic philosophic speculation. Thus, for example, it is highly likely that there were Jewish intellectuals who were attracted by Islamic occasionalism and its metaphysics of atoms and accidents, which considered God the sole direct cause of everything that exists in the universe. The clearest evidence of this is the length to which *Maimonides goes to refute this doctrine of Kalām (Guide, 1:73). Others were drawn to a rigorous and all-encompassing theory of causal necessity such as that held by *Avicenna. According to this view, effects both inhere in, and necessarily follow from, their causes in a manner that seems to be modeled on the necessity implicit in logical systems, where certain propositions necessarily follow from others. This way of understanding the cause-effect relation clearly allowed for expanded and ever more refined knowledge of the natural world, but it left virtually no room for human freedom, despite Scriptural verses to the contrary. Among medieval Jewish philosophers and theologians, Hasdai *Crescas' views come closest to supporting this deterministic position. Nevertheless, the majority of these thinkers accepted the reality and efficacy of intermediate causes, thus remaining within the shared Neoplatonic and Aristotelian framework they inherited, while at the same time maintaining each person's responsibility for his/her actions. *Judah Halevi embraces key elements of all three conceptions of the cause-effect relation discussed above, but also includes the operation of chance. Thus, he states that everything derives from God's decree, but adds that the effects of God's decree may be divided into divine, natural, coincidental, and freely chosen effects (Kuzari 5:20). Still, the most popular classification of types of causes in the medieval period was the fourfold division of Aristotle into formal, material, moving (i.e., efficient), and final causes, since it provided the fullest possible account of the various kinds factors that explain existing things. Ultimate explanations, however, would necessarily have to identify that cause or group of causes on which all else depends. Thus, Maimonides finds that God alone satisfies this requirement to the fullest possible extent. Moreover, he defends the designation of God "the First Cause" against the position of the scholastic theologians of Islam, who preferred to speak of "the Maker of the world," on the ground that He is the efficient cause of the world, its form, and its end (Guide, 1:69). Another popular designation for God was "the Cause of causes." One even finds God referred to as "the Cause of the cause of causes" in a work by Nathanel b. al-Fayumi (Yemen, 12th century), who was influenced by heterodox (Ismaili) Islamic ideas. In modern times careful consideration of the relation between cause and effect is far more common with general philosophy than theology. Even so, developments within the first domain have continued to elicit serious and thoughtful responses within the second.


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[Lawrence V. Berman /

Barry Kogan (2nd ed.)]