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. 


  1. וכבר בארנו בחיבורינו בהלכה 18 כללים מסוג זה והעירונו על עניינים רבים. והזכרנו בהם כי מעשה בראשית הם מדעי הטבע

    Is what we call "science" what Rambam meant by
    מדעי הטבע?

  2. the problem is if ma'asseh breishit is science why must it be kept secret? Resag however differentiates between science and the "hows" and "whys" of existence which he argues is not humanly knowable and science which he includes under Torah and Mitzvot as I will show in an upcoming post.

  3. Depending on circumstances, the teaching of מעשה בראשית can be resticted from either of two sides:

    [1] qua דבר גדול, with respect to which many people have intrinsic limitations; but also

    [2] qua תורה, which requires certain virtues in a student.

    It seems to me that one of the perils to be forestalled is the emergence of "blue chip" syntheses of מינות, against which most people are quite defenseless — consider the story of עכן. In our age Freud's oeuvre provides several examples.

    [BTW, I like your blog's new design.]

  4. P.S. I didn't count on your new theme's handling of hyperlinks; sorry. The following phrases are all links to mechon-mamre.org:

    qua דבר גדול
    qua תורה

  5. שלום לבעל הבלוג
    אני כותב לך כאן כי לא מצאתי הפניה למייל שלך בבלוג
    הלינק שלך לספר "בתורתו של ר' גדליה" שגוי.
    הלינק הנכון הוא

    חג כשר ושמח

  6. Thank you for bringing to my attention. I have fixed it. Chag Kasher gam lemar.