Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 4 - Final - the Holy of Holies of a Person - Emunah.

The last chapter of Mevakshei Panecha I found fascinating. It is entitled “The Holy of Holies of a Person” and it is a response to a Rav Sabato question to Rav Lichtenstein about faith. The first paragraph I believe is probably the most important one and really defines the idea of Emunah – faith – in a rational Jew.

“You want to talk about my Emunah in God? Is that what you want? That is the Holy of Holies of man! That is his Inner Sanctum! That is the most intimate of intimacies!”

We can talk about God, what we think He is, try to define him in words but ultimately we are just walking around a wall that can never be breached by an outsider. The paradox of Emunah is that we work and spend a lifetime searching for God in our surrounding but ultimately we find Him in the silence of the self. Rambam in MN 1:50 when he begins the chapters that discuss God’s attributes and how we can understand them without violating God’s unity (uniqueness) he introduces the subject with the following statement:

כאשר תפשוט מעליך את התאוות והמנהגים17 ותהיה בעל הבנה ותתבונן במה שאגיד בפרקים הבאים על שלילת התארים - תהיה לך בהכרח ודאות בעניין זה, אזי תהיה מאלה המציירים לעצמם18 את יִחוד השם ולא מאלה האומרים אותו בפיהם מבלי לציירו לעצמם19, שהללו בבחינת מי שנאמר עליהם: קרוב אתה בפיהם ורחוק מכִליותיהם (ירמיה י"ב, 2)19. אלא צריך אדם להיות בבחינת מי שמציירים להם את האמת ומשיגים אותה, אף אם אין הם מבטאים אותה, כמו שנצטוו אנשי המעלה ונאמר להם: אִמרו בלבבכם על משכבכם ודֹמו סלה (תהלים ד', 5)20.
Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, "Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins" (Jer. xii. 2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, "Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah." (Ps. iv. 5.)

Clearly Rav Lichtenstein has internalized Rambam’s admonition. A singular and unique entity which cannot be sensed with human senses, cannot be conceived with human mind, can only be intuited through inductive and deductive reasoning, such an entity cannot be verbalized outside the self, and that is true Emunah. Contemplating this brings us to an understanding of Negative Knowledge which is the key of Rambam’s thought in this matter. See my article here  .

Rav Lichtenstein then proceeds to discuss the subject in a general without getting into specifics. First he addresses a well-known thought that I grew up with and always made me uncomfortable.

“Rav Elhanan Wasserman said that faith [in God] is simple and easy. However the Yetzer Hara interferes and keeps man from worshipping God. I do not accept these words. Firstly, to my mind, that is factually untrue. Secondly, this argument is somewhat insulting. It argues that were it not for bad urges, others too would aspire to faith. True that our natural senses may bring a person to believe, but to argue that it is easy and simple, were it not for our urges, I cannot agree with that. A certain effort is required for one to arrive at belief. The concept of faith is complex. Specifically, one cannot give one answer that one can say with certainty that it will convince every denier.”

Rav Lichtenstein makes two points that always bothered me about Rav Elhanan’s approach. He says that Emunah is self-evident. If it were so why does every thinking person struggle with it? He also accuses those who don’t accept it succumb to their bad urges. We know many ethical and moral people who have no Emunah.  

“When I teach a Sugya –subject - and offer two possibilities as potential explanations, I tell my students, don’t forget that there also is a third possibility; both explanations are correct. Not always must we accept one position and refute the other. In Halachik sugyot it is possible that the resolution depends on circumstances. At times we will rely on one principle and others on another. So too with Emunah one cannot say that it all depends on one argument only. There different perspectives; from a historical and national one I find myself turning to a certain aspect of my personality while for other perspectives I turn to others.”

Rav Lichtenstein then spells out some of what I would term conflicting perspectives. We have to accept that certain truths and arguments that were considered axiomatic during the Middle Ages are no longer applicable. On the other hand reliance on subjective experiences does not work for many and triggers many questions.

“The historical perspective has two sides to it. Some people are inspired by it and it strengthens their Emunah while to others the historical perspective itself is the source of doubt. To anything you tell them they find analogies elsewhere, in the Caribbean or Antarctica. Of course the strongest historical proof is the contemplation of Jewish history and the wondrous survival of the Jewish nation against all odds, one lamb amongst seventy wolves.  That strengthens one’s Emunah. The impetus for religious Emunah is multi-faceted; learning Torah, relying on the Tradition of generations, contemplation of the universe and its perfection, the Historical record and the personal instinct and experience. I hope that we don’t have to choose amongst these. I believe that they are all interdependent each supporting the other. In such a setup, some things are more central and important than others but altogether they lead us to experience Emunah without us having to choose one over the other.”  

Rav Lichtenstein is talking about Emunah very generally without specifying a particular question or particular subject of belief. During the Middle Ages, basing themselves on the science of the times, the Rishonim felt that certain issues of belief can be proven scientifically while others were based on what I refer to as “plausibility” when taking into account all aspects of an issue. Rambam in MN spends several chapters in the beginning of Part 2 differentiating between the different types of arguments for the existence of God and His unity which he bases on what he considered as scientifically objective arguments while will, creation from nothingness and prophecy are based on plausibility rather than irrefutable proofs.  Plausibility is based on a combination of various related propositions that support a certain point of view. This approach is used in matters that are beyond human comprehension, areas that humans cannot experience with their senses and is generally referred to as metaphysical questions. Considering the current state of scientific knowledge, Rav Lichtenstein seems to use the latter argument, the argument from plausibility as the basis for his understanding of Emunah. He also emphasizes that the process of searching, learning and contemplating these issues brings one closer to HKBH and ultimately Emunah becomes a combination of the rational and the experiential – the experiential being internalized and personal which does not lend itself to verbalization.  

I highly recommend for anyone that has the fortitude and facility with the Hebrew language, to work his way through this very interesting, challenging and enlightening book. We need to take advantage and appreciate the few great talmidei Chachamim and thinkers in our community – and unfortunately they are few and precious.

In Memory of My Mother A’H who’s Yahrzeit is today the 22nd of Tevet.   



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