Sunday, April 24, 2011

Early Impressions On Sefer Yetzira with Commentary of Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.

I am still working my way through Sefer Yetzira (SY) with the commentary of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) and here are some of my early impressions and thoughts.

  1. Resag explains SY as a philosophical treatise on Jewish theology based on an Aristotelian concept of physics and metaphysics. I am not well versed enough in the different schools of Aristotelian thought extant during the Middle Ages, to identify into which school Resag placed the SY – but I know enough to recognize the general concepts. For example, in the third chapter SY talks about the various letter combinations and the number of combinations possible with words of different sizes. Resag explains it as a representation of the variables that result from the combination of the basic substances Air, Water, Fire, and Earth and derivatives thereof. In another place, he interprets SY as discussing the natural position of the substances. This type of discussion is one of the central themes of SY according to Resag. A reader of SY who is steeped in Aristotelian thought would understand it this way without too much trouble even though it is written in a much-abbreviated form containing many code words.
  2. Considering the above and knowing that Resag lived in 882/92 to 942 and the fact that he places the authorship of SY to the same time the Mishna was composed and written, Greek philosophy and Judaism are quite old friends. Resag believed that the Tannaim already had a tradition of rationalizing religion and seeing it from a rational perspective. Even if SY was written later than Resag suggests, it apparently was already accepted and canonized at his time. Consequently, it must have been authored, at the latest, during the era of the early Geonim or late Amoraim.
  3. Clearly, Rambam was not an innovator when he explained Judaism rationally and in concert with the science of his time. This was an accepted way of thinking going back to antiquity. It does not take away from the greatness of his work and the thoroughness and completeness of thought he presents. It however mutes the criticism leveled against him that he was misguided by the Greeks. On the contrary, he was doing what Jews were doing for generations while his detractors had lost touch with their tradition.
  4. SY accepts astrology as science. Resag clearly does not. In fact the way he puts it when he explains the astrological propositions, “This, God will make you understand, is the central theme of the author of this book”. At the end of the presentation, he closes by saying “I expand on this so much only because the author of this book has made it the central theme of his work”. Rav Kafieh notes that in his introduction to Iyov, Resag comments that astrology is a plain theory that has no basis in reality other than being a theory. 
  5. Resag has no problem disagreeing with a book that apparently was widely accepted as authentic to the point that it had a tradition of being written by Avraham Avinu. At the same time, he finds it valuable to write a commentary to it and accept those things he finds worthwhile. He indeed sees it as a precursor to the theology presented by the Torah. The torah accepted some of these ideas and rejected others, adding its own theology.

I just wanted to share some thoughts for the upcoming Chag.

Chag Sameach.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Defining the Unknowable.

In my last post, I discussed Rav Sa’adyah Gaon’s understanding in his Pirush on Sefer Yetzira on the limits of human knowledge. The question then comes to mind, if humans cannot aspire to apprehend what I refer to as the “whys” of existence how are we to understand Sefer Yetzira, which is attempting to explain that same unknowable? 

Should one ask, considering that Iyov, Agur (the author of the Mishlei verses that support Resag’s position] say clearly that this [knowledge] is unknowable and Moshe Rabbeinu indicates that he agrees, how could Avraham [the author of the ideas in Sefer Yetzira] argue that he arrived at this knowledge?  Our answer is that Avraham did not argue that he arrived at a true understanding of the process of creation. He just described how he imagined in his mind the appearance [coming into being][1] of existence [literally: the created]. This is just like we, the members of the communities of monotheists, picture in our minds that He created things not from something while at the same time we cannot understand how something can be created from nothingness. So too he [Avraham] pictured that as words [speech to be exact] parted space[2] and [simultaneously] their [word’s] letters formed, drawings were drawn producing forms that were differentiated from each other. Some of these drawings and forms gathered parts from space and as they were squeezed, Water was formed. Some of these parts lifted up the water leaving behind a matter that looked like detritus which became Earth. Some heated Space making it brittle and sharp thus forming Fire. All these are the Creators actions not ours, just as to our mind, creation is for His sake not for ours.”

In other words, although we know that there is no way that, a human being can understand God and His actions; it still is a religious necessity to try to depict in our minds, using human points of reference, the act of creation. That is how we humans are able to internalize creation from complete nothingness. To do that, Avraham tried to picture the process in his mind using familiar human terms, knowing full well that the actions of God are totally other.

The last few words - just as to our mind, creation is for His sake not for ours – are exactly how Rambam in a discussion of the purpose for existence, explains in MN 3:13 the verse in Mishlei 16:4 –

ד  כֹּל פָּעַל יְהוָה, לַמַּעֲנֵהוּ;    וְגַם-רָשָׁע, לְיוֹם רָעָה.

Thus it says: The Lord has made everything lama’anehu [for His sake or for its sake] where the third person may refer to the complement [everything][3]. If however it refers to the subject, the interpretation of the word would be: for the sake of His essence, may He be exalted – that is, for the sake of His will, as the latter is His essence …” 

Apparently, Resag concurs that we cannot know the purpose of creation. All we can say is that He willed it with wisdom which is one with Him.

The ten numbers - 0 to 9 - take on great significance in Sefer Yetzira. Both the letters and numbers are slowly developed as we continue reading Sefer Yetzira and explained by Resag, into multiple forms used to depict existence and its relation to God. Here is the first introduction to this system.

Aristotles proposes ten categories that define all that exists. The following is quoted in Wikipedia:  

“Of things said without any combination, each signifies either substance or quantity or qualification or a relative or where or when or being-in-a-position or having or doing or being-affected. To give a rough idea, examples of substance are man, horse; of quantity: four-foot, five foot; of qualification: white, grammatical; of a relative: double, half, larger; of where: in the Lyceum, in the market-place; of when: yesterday, last-year; of being-in-a-position: is-lying, is-sitting; of having: has-shoes-on, has armor on; of doing: cutting, burning; of being-affected: being-cut, being-burned.”

Resag after listing the ten categories as above explains –

Once the wise men defined these ten categories, nothing that can be known in the universe has been excluded except for the Creator, who is beyond any category or spatial limits.”

Interestingly, similar to Rambam Resag holds that one must know well the physical to know what God is not. He however goes one-step further and says that Sefer Yetzira lists ten names of God, to contrast with the ten physical categories. Resag thus presents a level of apprehension that cannot accept complete unknowability. In fact, that was Avraham Avinu’s level of apprehension of God that was improved on by Moshe Rabbeinu, giving us absolute negative knowledge.

Tying this in with the Pessach theme, may I suggest that the number 10 has significance in the ten Makot and subsequently, at the culmination of the Exodus story – the Ten Commandments. I will discuss some of this in future posts.

I would like to end with the following thought. Man has to accept that there are things that are unknowable and approach those issues with humility. At the same time, we have to define the unknowable. For that, we need to understand our reality and the way it is. All that knowledge is part of Torah as it is the only way we can come close to God by understanding the Ultimate Unknown that He is – indeed that is the goal of Torah and Mitzvot.

Chag Kasher Vesameach to all.

[1] Rav Kafieh in a footnote understands this to mean that he was imagining the development of the substances from the original matter and the whole of creation from those substances. Based on the next sentence, I think Resag is suggesting that Avraham imagined the unknowable namely creation from nothingness.
[2] Rav Kafieh translated Avir = air. However considering that Ruach = air is one of the four substances which compose matter as understood by the ancients; I think “space” makes more sense. However, supporting Rav Kafieh is the continuation where Resag discusses the formation of only three of the substances ignoring air (Ruach).
[3] Indeed, Robert Alter in his Books of Wisdom translation reads – Each act of the Lord has its own end -; even the wicked, for an evil day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Unknowable Knowledge

Continuing to read the commentary of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) on sefer Yetzira, I was intrigued by a discussion on different types of knowledge. Sefer Yetzira refers to the subject it discusses as Pela’ot Chochma – wondrous knowledge. Resag discusses at length the meaning of these words.

And I propose that there are two types of knowledge - one is the kind that human beings can grasp; another is one they cannot. The one they cannot grasp, is to know how things came into being, how the wise Creator made them, existents  from non-existents and how He instilled into each of the substances [the four basic ones: fire, air, water and earth -DG] the nature that is observed in it.  This is knowledge that one cannot find a way to aspire to nor to [ever] arrive at. All wise men found honor in admitting their lack of knowledge in this matter as Iyov says…. He [Iyov] then informed that this knowledge which the wise acknowledge to be hidden from them is the nature of the substances and their uniqueness. For were we to ask the wisest of the wise, “do you know why the nature of fire is to rise, the nature of water to go below, the nature of air to be ungraspable and the nature of earth to sink?” His only answer would be that that is how they were created and that is the nature that was instilled into them….

The way I understand it is that knowing and observing nature is not the knowledge that is hidden from us. It is to understand why nature acts the way it does, why the laws of nature are this way and not different, why a different alternative law of nature would not work, is the elusive knowledge. Rambam makes a similar argument in MN 3:13, as part of a discussion about the purpose of Creation and existence. Rambam refutes the popularly accepted notion that everything was created for humankind so that it exists to serve God.

“…It is likewise thought that the finality of all that exists is solely the existence of the human species so that it would worship God, and that all that has been made, has been made for it alone…. However if this opinion is carefully examined, as opinions ought to be carefully examined by intelligent men, the flaw in it becomes clear…. The final end being the existence of man, is the Creator able to bring him into existence without all these preliminaries, or was it possible for him to be brought into existence only after they were carried out?”

The question is also could humanity exist with a different set of natural laws? Why is the universe the way it is? The answer Rambam finally gives, and is the only answer for those who accept an eternal universe,

“Necessarily and obligatorily the argument must end with the answer being given that the final end is: God has wished it so, or: His wisdom has required this to be so.”  

Of course, the limits of where human knowledge ends keeps on being pushed back as we understand our universe and its workings better, but we know that certain questions, what I call the “whys” of existence, will never be explained away. Those answers can only be addressed by theology.

Resag uses a series of verses in Iyov and Mishlei to support his argument. Depicting the difficulty in grasping this kind of knowledge, he quotes Iyov 28:20-22,

  וְהַחָכְמָה, מֵאַיִן תָּבוֹא;    וְאֵי זֶה, מְקוֹם בִּינָה.
20 Whence then cometh wisdom? And where is the place of understanding?
כא  וְנֶעֶלְמָה, מֵעֵינֵי כָל-חָי;    וּמֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם נִסְתָּרָה.
21 Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air.
כב  אֲבַדּוֹן וָמָוֶת, אָמְרוּ;    בְּאָזְנֵינוּ, שָׁמַעְנוּ שִׁמְעָהּ.
22 Destruction and Death say: 'We have heard a rumor thereof with our ears.'

On the last verse, Resag makes an interesting comment.

His reference to destruction and death, namely someone who has died and is lost to us, his path in this knowledge is no different then our own path. One should not presume that the earlier generations, those who already died, had a greater apprehension of that knowledge.” 

We are brought up on the idea that the earlier sages knew more about how things are than we do. There is a quasi-mystical certainty that the early sages, those closer to Sinai and Creation knew more about the “whys” of things than we do. Resag dissuades us from this notion.

Like Rambam, he arrives at the same conclusion, continuing with the above verses.

Having summarized how elevated this knowledge is from humans, he [Iyov] turns to God who is Exalted saying

כג  אֱלֹהִים, הֵבִין דַּרְכָּהּ;    וְהוּא, יָדַע אֶת-מְקוֹמָהּ.
23 God understands the way thereof, and He knows the place thereof.

When he says that God knows its ways and location, he is not suggesting that knowledge is a substance that is located in a specific place and that God knows that place, for it is negated that wisdom and its place be two things in addition to the Creator. Having said [allegorically] that a human cannot know the way to it or its location; he reversed it for God saying He does know them. The meaning is that this knowledge belongs to Him, He is its source; it is He.”

Resag’s question and answer follows very much the same path Rambam used.

In the verses,

כד  כִּי-הוּא, לִקְצוֹת-הָאָרֶץ יַבִּיט;    תַּחַת כָּל-הַשָּׁמַיִם יִרְאֶה.
24 For He looks to the ends of the earth, and sees under the whole heaven;
כה  לַעֲשׂוֹת לָרוּחַ מִשְׁקָל;    וּמַיִם, תִּכֵּן בְּמִדָּה.
25 When He makes a weight for the wind, and metes out the waters by measure.

He includes the four substances Air, Water, Earth and Fire to tell us that He created these substances and instilled their particular unique nature with such wisdom that no man can aspire to apprehend it.”

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah and in many places in MN talks about the two kinds of knowledge, Ma’aseh Breishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah as esoteric subjects that have to be taught with caution. I was always bothered why Ma’aseh Breishit, which traditionally is understood to refer to the sciences, should be restricted. In fact, Rambam in other places argues that the sciences are the basic stepping-stones to knowledge of God. In view of the above, I believe that a reassessment of the parameters of what Ma’aseh Breishit is is needed. I am sure I will come back to this theme.

Chag Kasher Vesameach to all. 

Friday, April 01, 2011

Resag and The Authorship of Sefer Yetzirah. Avraham Avinu May Have Been Wrong!

Rav Sa’adyah Gaon here, is known as the author of Emunot Vede’ot an early and probably the first Jewish philosophical work written in the middle ages.  Less known is that he was also the author of an Arabic translation and commentary on the Sefer Yetzira. Traditionally, Sefer Yetzira is thought to be a mystical/kabalistic book transmitted from antiquity attributed to Avraham Avinu. Rav Sa’adyah (Resag) explains it in a philosophical rationalist way. I got interested in it through reading a chapter in Yosef Dan’s History of Kabbalah where he dissects Resag’s commentary. Rav Kafieh Z”L, the great and prolific Yemmenite scholar and writer, translated the commentary into Hebrew and made it accessible to a contemporary reader. I started reading it and if I have the fortitude and perseverance will continue to do so and comment as I come across interesting subjects. As a start I will translate a short segment in the introduction which I find fascinating and again illustrates how close-minded and far we have come from our great medieval Halachists and thinkers.

Sefer Yetzira deals with creation as the name suggests. It discusses the transition from absolute nothingness to existence. Resag explains that it does not discuss science as we know it but how science came into existence. It is not metaphysics which deals with the non-physical; it is also not physics which attempts to understand physical existence. It attempts to understand what we would call in modern parlance the moment of the “Big Bang”. As I was reading this, I had an insight about how Resag understands Ma’aseh Breishit as opposed to Ma’aseh Merkavah from one side and Physics from the other. Ma’aseh Breishit is the divider or rather the transition from one to the other. I am not sure if Rambam agrees with that though I have a hunch he may. I will have to think further about that as I read further. Sorry, I am digressing.

In the introduction, Resag presents nine different theories about how the world came into existence starting from the Aristotelian eternal universe ending with the Torah creation from nothingness and every other rational possibility in between. The eighth theory argues for God creating what he calls “air” and placing “numbers” and “words” in it. The idea is that everything can be described mathematically considering everything physical has substance that can be represented by numbers while the concept that holds things together is represented by words. This is the idea described in Sefer Yetzira and Resag suggests that as we read on we will get a clearer picture. I will come back to this in a separate post as Resag gives a very interesting insight on what occurred at Sinai. The ninth theory, is what Resag calls the Torah approach and the correct one which holds that physical existence came into being in one leap without the intermediate period of “air”, “numbers” and “words”. This theory accepts that there are “numbers” and “words” but they are part of existence as we know it rather that the cause for existence. The cause for existence is God and we do not know, nor can we ever know, how that transition from nothingness to existence came about.

This presentation indicates that the proponent of the eighth theory, namely the author of Sefer Yetzira, though not wrong intrinsically, is however wrong conceptually. In other words, his concept of creation is lacking as he conflates process with actuality. Now comes the surprising and shocking to some, very instructive to others, part which I will translate verbatim (almost).    

Having presented these nine theories…. We will now complete the introduction to this book by commenting on the tradition that we received from the ancients as well as it is noted at the end of this book itself, that Avraham Avinu authored this book, and that once he understood God appeared to him. They are not suggesting that he [Avraham] set down the words [orally or to paper] in this form but rather that he developed these ideas [concepts] in his mind, establishing that words and numbers are the source of everything as we will explain [in the book and commentary]. He taught these ideas to himself and to his monotheistic followers. These were transmitted continuously orally within our nation [community], just as the Mishna was transmitted orally and unwritten and as parts of the Scriptures were transmitted orally, for example Shlomo’s parables which were copied by Chizkyahu the Judean king and his people. At the time that the nation’s sages gathered to collect the ideas [concepts] of the Mishna and attach their own words to them thus setting them down so too did they do with the concepts of this book. That is why we find [in this book] some verses and this [specific] order. (I am not sure what these last few words mean – DG). The place this book was written is Eretz Israel, as the letters are based on their language where there are two Dalets and so on and Resh with a Dagesh and without as is their custom.”

I find this fascinating especially in view of the traditional point of view that is common in our contemporary community. First, it tells us that when a sefer is attributed to someone it means that it is based on that person’s ideas rather than authorship. But even more fascinating is that it presents Jewish theology as an evolving process. In other words, Avraham developed his own ideas about God and creation which were not necessarily complete until Sinai (see the first chapter in MT Hilchot Avodah Zara for an identical presentation and my article here for a discussion on the subject as it pertains to the apprehension of God). It is at Sinai that the completed Jewish theologies of creation was established and were put to words in the first chapters of Breishit. Avraham’s ideas were a stepping-stone to the concepts at Sinai but fell short of the true understanding of creation.

I leave you with these thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom.