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.

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