Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Acquiring Providence - an arduous task. Part 1.

This is the first in several posts on this subject. It is impossible to fully discuss this issue in one manageable post so please bear with me and read them together as I write them. I also suggest you have MN 3:51 open next to you while reading these posts.

When I was writing the posts on Providence, this little voice kept on nagging me. A person that decides he is partaking in God’s creation, setting goals that are also God’s could be quite dangerous. There were quite a few megalomaniacs in the History of humankind that perpetrated Genocide and other abominations using this argument. The point is how does one know that he is doing the right thing? That he is interpreting correctly what he is observing especially if it leads to actions whose results, many times, are assessable only after long periods of time? Clearly it is crucial that one follow a very controlled process of observation and analysis to insure as much as possible that one arrives at a correct understanding. Rambam in MN 3:51, a key chapter in the Moreh, explains the process at length. He introduces the chapter as follows:

“… explaining the worship as practiced by one who has apprehended the true realities peculiar only to Him after he has obtained an apprehension of what He is; and it also guides him toward achieving this worship, which is the end of man, and makes known to him how providence watches over him in this world until he is brought over to the bundle of life.”

Rambam says that this chapter will teach someone who has reached a level of understanding of God and His ways, how to proceed to the next step and act based on this information (worship) which is the goal of a man’s life. (Note: the goal is to act, not stop at the philosophizing.)It also will describe how Providence relates to such a person and his eventual death and the passage to the “Bundle of Life” (Tzror Hachaim). All these things, worship, apprehension, Providence, death and reaching the “Bundle of Life” are interconnected.

This chapter is quite complex and has many parts. The first part addresses the learning process per se. Rambam uses a metaphor of a palace with a king residing at the center in a great throne room. To enter the room one must pass through corridors that abut at an entrance door. People are floating around the palace and all over the city facing in every direction, some are going away, others are coming closer, the usual busy street. Then there are those who are outside the city itself. (Much has been written about this metaphor and interpretation. I am proposing my own reading which is a composite of the various commentaries I have read.)

Here are the groups in order from the least developed to the highest level. I understand that Rambam is depicting the process of learning and how a person is viewed at each stage of development.

Group 1: Those outside the city represent man as tabula rasa with untapped potential. It is those who have not reached any level of inquiry and completely lack any interest in understanding what they observe if they even do so.

Group2: Those inside the city with their back to the palace, walking away, are those who have inquired and arrived at erroneous conclusions. They came to them on their own or follow others who have done so. These people, the more they stay with their ideas, the further they get from the palace. The fact they entered the city, have speculated and erred makes them dangerous as they have the potential to become the megalomaniacs I described earlier.

Group3: Those inside the city facing the palace but have never seen the palace itself, are the plain folk who follow the Law blindly, “the ignoramuses who observe the commandments”. The way Rambam describes them they know there is a palace but do not know where to find it. The way I read this is that they believe that by doing the Mitzvot alone they are doing a good deed but have no clue why.

Group 4: Those inside the city at the wall of the palace walking all around it are “the jurists who believe true opinions on the basis of traditional authority and study the law concerning the practices of divine service, but do not engage in speculation concerning the fundamental principles of religion and make no inquiry whatever about the rectification of belief.” Note how these people, the jurists, are not even aware that one has to find the entrance to the palace. They are happy just walking around it.

Group 5: Those inside the city and walking around the palace looking for its entrance are the people who are aware that one must find the key and are willing to go through the arduous task of preparatory study. They are at the stage of accumulating information and observations but have not come yet to the stage of analyses.

Group 6: This group is composed of those who passed the palace’s entrance and are roaming in its corridors. This group is the most startling as Rambam assigns to it two seemingly different people. First he includes in this group those that “have plunged into speculation concerning the fundamental principle of religion”. He then includes those that “have understood the natural things”, those who have started analyzing all the information and observations they have accumulated. They are into scientific research and understanding the physical world. What we have here are two separate people, a theologian and a scientist, both partners in the search for God. I see this as parallel tracks that have to be pursued in the search for existential answers. One cannot reach next level without following both tracks simultaneously.

Group 7: Those who entered the inner chamber, the throne room, comprise this group. Again Rambam portrays two separate people that slowly merge into one, confirming my understanding of group 6. First he portrays someone who “has achieved demonstration to the extent that that is possible, of everything that may be demonstrated; and who has ascertained the divine matters to the extent that that is possible, everything that may be ascertained; and who has come close to certainty in those matters in which one can only come close to it”. [1] It is not clear whether he refers to someone who has been dealing with the “fundamentals of the law” that he mentioned in the earlier sentence, or he includes general knowledge. But later he places at the same level one that “has achieved perfection in natural things and has understood divine science”. I believe he sees theology, physics and metaphysics as the necessary components for entering the king’s chamber.

Group 8: This is the culmination of all this development process. It is those who sit in the king’s council. “There are some who direct all their mind toward the attainment of perfection in the divine sciences, devote themselves entirely to God, exclude from their thought every other thing, and employ all their intellectual faculties in the study of the beings, in order to derive from them a proof with regard to Him so as to know in every possible way how God rules all things; they form the class of those who are present in the king’s council, namely, the class of prophets.”

The last group, the utopian man, the one that has developed his potential must go through a rigorous process of development. From tabula rasa to a renaissance man, having a fully rounded education comprising theology, science and metaphysics, only such a person may feel comfortable in deciding what is God’s will.

To summarize: The learning process starts with man following commandments by rote (group 3) joining group 4 who are the general learned yeshiva person and their Rashei Yeshiva and Possekim. Stopping here does not even bring one to the level of knowing that there is a door to look for. Sciences and metaphysics combined with Torah knowledge so that one can keep the commandments leads one to his goal.

Much more to come on this subject.

[1] It is very important to note the caveats on the limits of knowledge in these descriptions.

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