Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Acknowledging the Limitations of Man's Knowledge and Chag Sameach. (Subjects Unrelated ).

This will probably be my last post before I close shop for Pessach.

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (2:2), before he engages in the discussions of Ma’aseh Breishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah, legislates[1] as follows:

והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו, ויראתו: בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו

הנפלאים הגדולים, ויראה מהם חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ--מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח

ומפאר ומתאווה תאווה גדולה לידע השם הגדול, כמו שאמר דויד "צמאה נפשי

, לאלוהים--לאל חי"

ב וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא

ויפחד ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים

דעות, כמו שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו"

What is the path to loving Him and fearing Him? When a person contemplates His deeds and the wonderful and great things that He created, thus apprehending His infinite and incomparable wisdom, immediately he loves, praises, aggrandizes and feels a great urge to know the Great Name. That is what David said, “my soul thirsts towards God – the living God.”

But when he thinks about the particular things themselves, he is immediately impelled backwards, he fears and trembles knowing that he is a small, lowly and dark creature, who stands with a lightweight mind in front of the most perfect of minds. That is what David meant when he said, “When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast established; what is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou think of him?” (Tehilim 8:4-5).

Note Rambam’s language carefully. Contemplating the sweep of God’s works and creation one is overwhelmed with awe. When one thinks about the particular workings themselves, one realizes one’s limitations; the macro is awe-inspiring, the micro is humbling. The micro of nature is humbling – trying to understand the laws of nature can be a humbling experience. Rambam acknowledges man’s limitations and before getting into the physics and metaphysics of our existence, he warns us that we must be aware that we cannot understand it all. There are areas we just have to humbly step back and acknowledge our limitations. Rambam is warning us that we are not to step over into areas we cannot know. I believe he is referring to the attempts of the Kabbalists to explain the Sefirot, the emanations and the transition from the transcendental to the physical. We may contemplate the mystery of that transition but not try to decipher the workings and details. Whatever we apprehend in that area is the fruit of our imagination and untrue.

Similarly, after presenting the summary of physics and metaphysics Rambam concludes –

בזמן שאדם מתבונן בדברים אלו, ומכיר כל הברואים ממלאך וגלגל ואדם וכיוצא

בו, ויראה חכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא בכל היצורים וכל הברואים--מוסיף אהבה

למקום, ותצמא נפשו ויכמה בשרו לאהוב המקום ברוך הוא; ויירא ויפחד משפלותו

ודלותו וקלותו, כשיערוך עצמו לאחד מהגופות הקדושים הגדולים, וכל שכן לאחד

מהצורות הטהורות הנפרדות מן הגלמים, שלא נתחברו בגולם כלל. וימצא עצמו,

שהוא ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה, ריק וחסר

Again, we are presented with a mixture of awe and humility. That dialectic, that tension between self-awareness of man’s great ability and also a realistic understanding of the limitations we are saddled with, keeps us thirsting for knowledge of Truth and an understanding of our existence. (I was too lazy to translate that last quote.)

I leave you with this thought and wish you all a Chag Sameach – Thank you for reading, learning and teaching me with your insightful comments.

[1] I use the word legislate every time I quote Rambam in MT. I believe that everything he wrote in the “Chibur” was legislation.

1 comment:

  1. Hazaq Barukh on your blog, I believe you have a very important shelihuth. I have the will and the inspiration to do it, but I lack the knowledge and writing skills you possess.

    It can be difficult getting along in today's religious Jewish society for a person who doesn't believe in Qabbala. How many widely respected Rabbi's of this generation do you know that oppose Qabbalistic superstitions? The closest I get is Leibovitz, and he is not so well received in the yeshibhoth, or maybe mori Qafih who, although being a Rambamist in halakha, never voiced strong criticism to Qabbala in general.

    Ever since I "came to my senses" -after having studied with Rabbis from various Qabbalistic schools, from Berg to Eliyahu- I have many times been called a "koifer" and a Karaite when I stated my views.