Knowing the Unknowable (Part 3): Heaven Upon Earth

I suggested that the Torah preempts the “How do we know that we know?” cycle by including all epistemological methods within a paradoxically unknowable knowledge. I’d like to bring this into focus.

A former philosophy professor of mine claimed to be religious, but remarked, “We are not dealing with God’s word, we are dealing with the structure of the universe.” His primary error was in thinking that “God’s word” (as he called it) was some kind of Flying Spaghetti Monster with no relation to the universe. The Torah, on the other hand, proclaims: “It is not in the sky… it is not across the ocean… it is very close to you, in your mouth and mind to do it.” The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 8:5) states proverbially that when Man was created, HaShem “threw emes to the ground” in response to the complaint that Man is too prone to falsity to be worthy. The angels are legitimately confused: How could the One Who is glorified in His Truth simply dismiss that very Truth? The Midrash assigns a pasuk to HaShem’s response: “Emes will grow from the ground.” In this vignette, truth is not denied; it is planted in the deepest soil of subjectivity so that it may develop skyward back to its source, thus taking all of reality with it. That is man’s ultimate function.

It is important to begin with the essential truth of the Torah; namely, that HaShem is infinite. The obvious problems arise within our created existence, where we cannot possibly hope to accurately derive from that truth every truth of our existence by ourselves. If you were building an intricate, two-dimensional world of nuance and choice, the only way your world’s inhabitants could perceive of you would be through some kind of methodical puzzle that would solve all of their questions about their 2-D existence — from the most practical necessities, to the more dynamic interactions of life, to the more abstract logical truths. The more enlightened your creatures are, the more they know how you create. The more they know how you create, the more they understand how beyond themselves you are. The methodology you grant them must be measured, clinical, and ordered. There must be modes in their lives that correspond to the modes of their world. They will make effective use of the coherent constructs you create for them, they will reach the most ideal forms in their perception, they will utilize their endowed reason, and attempt to make sense of the nature of their world. Ultimately, though, what is beyond them “just is.” (The metaphor is obviously limited, since, unlike you, HaShem is actually indefinable. If any of this sounds at all familiar, see my other article about the Torah.) These methods are the middos that make up our internal and external lives. They are measures of action, measures of character, measures of thought, etc. They have the quality of being manifest and simultaneously inconceivable. We embody them in every way, and yet we cannot understand from whence they come. This oscillating (but eternally ascending) phenomenon of consciousness is sometimes called “ratzo va’shov” (running and returning). You get close to something essential, and as soon as you think you’ve reached it, you find yourself infinitely far away. (The term actually describes a meditative experience, but can be applied to the evolution of everything just as well.)

In fact, the most intuitive answer to “How should I know what to do with my life?” is probably “Figure it out.” But as I said, that’s not very helpful. For that reason, we’re part of an ancient, revolutionary continuum (mesorah) that’s literally not afraid of any question. On a personal level, ma’amad Har Sinai boils down to understanding what you’re reading in the s’farim. People who see the whole Torah-galaxy as a single object tend to have no problem with accepting their ancestral tradition. Climbing the tree of middos brings you up to bright skies of expansion. All of the work in attempting to understand is necessary, but without realistic humility, the philosopher ends up building an epistemological idol to get high with. Let’s not do that.

Prophetic Formulas (Part 2): Deconstructing Gog U’Magog

Letter To The Editor: Rabbinic Thought, Individual Roles, & Communal Discourse In Modern Judaism