There are things about our existence that cannot be proven empirically. There are limits to human knowledge. We can understand our physical world and eventually we hope humankind will get to know it well enough to insure its continuity. We however cannot empirically prove how things came about. Were they created in time? Assuming the Big Bang theory is correct, how did that singularity happen? What was there before? The Rabbis have a term for it “מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים מה לאחור” “what is on top, bottom, before and after”. In modern parlance, we refer to this type of knowledge as Metaphysics. The questions that we try to answer are intimately tied in with the empirical sciences, as they are the questions that science leads to but cannot answer. The answers to these types of questions are subjective and are addressed by religion through what we call revelation – Nevuah. These answers are very important because they have a lot to say about how we behave, act and what we do with the scientific knowledge we have acquired. As an example, one of the most important questions is whether the world was created in time. Depending on how we answer this question, God has or does not have will. The implications are obvious. The answers to these types of questions are alluded to in the Torah which is revelation par excellence. It is our task to decipher these ideas correctly and apply the lessons to our daily life. To understand the importance of this task we have to turn to Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11-12.
וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה;
ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר,
וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא
האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה--ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא
ביום, ובתורה תשע: אותן התשע--קורא בשלוש מהן, בתורה שבכתב; ובשלוש,
בתורה שבעל פה; ובשלוש, מתבונן בדעתו להבין דבר מדבר. ודברי קבלה, בכלל
תורה שבכתב הן; ופירושן, בכלל תורה שבעל פה; והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל
ולא יהיה צריך לא ללמוד תורה שבכתב, ולא לעסוק תמיד בתורה שבעל פה--יקרא
בעיתים מזומנים תורה שבכתב ודברי השמועה, כדי שלא ישכח דבר מדברי דיני
תורה, וייפנה כל ימיו לתלמוד בלבד, לפי רוחב ליבו ויישוב דעתו.
A person is obligated to divide the time he devotes to learning into three parts. One third [of his time should be devoted] to the written Torah; one third to the oral Torah and one third he should [dedicate to] understanding how to deduce and compare one thing and another using the hermeneutical rules. Thus, he will understand the foundation of the hermeneutics, how one can know what is permitted and prohibited and other such things deducing them from things received through aural transmission. This [last category of learning] is referred to as Talmud.
For example, if one is an artisan, he should labor three hours each day and the other nine, learn Torah. From those nine hours, three should be used for learning the written Torah, three for the oral Torah and during the other three one should meditate and deduce one thing from another. Kabbalah [received information] are included in the written Torah category. Their explanation is included in the oral Torah category. Those things that are referred to as Pardes [literally: orchard] belong to the Talmud category.
That is only at the beginning when a person starts to acquire knowledge. However, once a person acquired wisdom and no longer needs to study the written Torah nor always study the oral Torah, he should read at specified times the written Torah and the transmitted laws so that he does not forget one of the Torah precepts. He should free his days and apply himself exclusively to Talmud commensurate with the breadth of his heart and how settled his mind is.
Rambam has given us several definitions in these halachot that clarify things. Written Torah includes Kabbalah, not in the sense we know it today as mystical concepts, but rather in its classical one - transmitted laws. Oral Torah includes the explanation of the written law category. These two categories jointly are referred to as מפי השמועה – heard [aural] transmission. This corpus is the basis used in developing rules and laws that are applied to our daily life and the new circumstances that may arise. The process of developing these new applications of the laws forms a part of what is called Talmud. [A discussion of these categories and the implications to practical Halacha is a lengthy subject which I plan one day to tackle. Rambam discusses them in his introductions to the Pirush Hamishna and to MT and in Hilchot Mamrim and Hilchot Sanhedrin].Talmud itself is the total intellectual development of an individual and it includes Pardes – the orchard. In Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 4:13 Rambam defines Pardes as comprising Ma’aseh Breishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah – sciences and metaphysics. When Rambam said
האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה
I understand “other such things” - וכיוצא בהן - to refer to Pardes. Talmud, the category of learning a person should dedicate his time to, after absorbing all the transmitted information which includes Metaphysics, is an extension of and is deduced from that received information. Once a person understands the science of the world we live in and inquires about the Metaphysical questions, he has to base the answer on received aural knowledge (מפי השמועה) just like the permitted and prohibited. I also understand that not only the sparse clear theological statements but also many of the laws that we study help us in that process of developing a metaphysical understanding of our existence. Not only the theological laws like Shabbat for example are an important tool for that but also so are the societal laws. If the ultimate goal of the metaphysical knowledge is to act and emulate God, knowing His thinking about how we should interact with our fellow man is also a good indication of how He expects us to act in general. The same thinking applies to all Mitzvot. Torah in Rambam’s eyes is the integration of all possible human knowledge with the goal to know God and emulate Him. It is meant to take each individual person and teach him how to become a perfect human being. It also takes the human race, which is composed of these potential perfected individuals, and over millennia and generations will make it into a perfected humanity.
Reading Rambam this way starts to bring to our minds a picture of how integral keeping the Mitzvot and studying them is in our intended goal of emulating God. Not only to they train us to be better and less narcissistic human beings, disciplined and aware of our environment thus allowing us to have a less biased outlook when dealing with subjective Metaphysical questions, it also suggests answers to those questions. To properly address these questions we therefore have to first acquire basic information both as it relates to Mitzvot and science, analyze and develop answers to the questions about our existence based on this knowledge while at the same time, improve ourselves by keeping the Mitzvot. As we develop these answers, we slowly learn of God’s ways and try to emulate them. In Rambam’s world, Torah, Science, Philosophy and Metaphysics with all leading to action, form the integrated perfected human being. He rejects out of hand and as wrong, the schizophrenic theological world we unfortunately live in.
In my next post, I will try to address where and why the great Rishonim had different opinions in this area.
To be Continued...
 See my post http://yediah.blogspot.com/2007/05/is-rational-belief-possible-or-are-they.html for a discussion how to deal with this information.