Knowing the Unknowable (Part 2): A Fair Paradox

To review, Western philosophers have several theories as to what makes something true and how we know. All the theories encounter the problem of themselves being simply accepted beliefs. Some don’t even care what is true. How do we as Jews answer this colossal conundrum?

To begin, I think it’s perfectly fine to admit that our objective-truth-gathering abilities exist within a closed circuit, which fuses aspects of empiricism, rationalism, idealism, and constructivism in a deliciously sensible paradox. But if I were to put my answer in philosophical terms, I would say that our knowledge of our knowledge can be based on the infinitely fundamental nature of our coherent truths. I’ll explain.

What about HaShem? He cannot be defined, except extrinsically, by virtue of His very indefinability. He cannot be known by any method because His truth/reality is totally infinite, absolute and independent, which means He is the only true fundamental, the First Cause. We know all of this precisely because we understand what our universe is not. The epistemology we use is necessarily limited, but we have knowledge of how much we don’t know. The Torah provides us with an endless world of analysis (try studying all the innumerable rules of exegesis), and only through that analysis do we perceive of its endlessness.

Do I sound dogmatic? If belief in absolutism is dogmatic, so is absolute belief in relativism. Instead of getting tangled in the contradictions, we offer a humble “chakirah” (logical dichotomy): within the realm of the known, we can indeed know what we know. Beyond the knowable, we know that we don’t. Emunah is our qualifier of just how homogeneous those realities are. Both that which we know and that which we don’t are subsumed in an ultimate Emes. Is it a paradox? No, I think it’s more like the best love story ever; maybe Shir HaShirim should be viewed through the lens of reality-perceptions and their profoundly unified relationship. HaShem is sometimes called “Kel De’os” (Shmuel 1, 2:3) or “T’mim De’os/De’im” (Iyov 36:4, 37:16) (“Master” or “Complete of Consciousnesses”), which in our context signifies that His absolute infinity permeates even the most practical aspects of consciousness, thus both allowing and nullifying every epistemic method. The questions that are so commonly repeated about the existence of HaShem or the rationale of His Torah are good questions inasmuch as they are relevant to their relative categories. Any perception-bound questions about the intrinsic nature of that which is beyond perception are ultimately category errors, akin to asking if the color blue is good, or if calculus is chocolate.

In fact, in the “mystical” Jewish system, mistaken by many to be a purely emotional discipline (which would emphasize philosophical simplicity), there is widespread recognition of the importance of the intellect in the realization of the Infinite. On the other hand, in the “rationalist” Jewish system (neither system should actually be labeled as such), thought by many to be an intellectual discipline, there is still recognition of an absolute, undefinable, sovereign Truth that is beyond human intellect. The apparent paradox is actually an organized methodological structure of P’shat, Remez, D’rash, and Sod, and could arguably be compared to a complex mathematical object. (Maybe we could map out how this works. Somebody get on that.) As a teacher of mine once said of our grandparents’ devotion, “You might call it emunah peshutah (simple faith); I call it yediyah muchletes (absolute knowledge).”

How do the pieces fit together for us? Tune in for Part 3…

Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos (Part 1): The Crucial Foundation

Balancing Tradition & Intellect: A Case Study Of The Difficulties Of Thinking Jews