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Isn't it pretty?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Accepting Ignorance

"For in much wisdom is much vexation; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
---Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 1:18

I went to a shiur last night. The topic was Koheles (Ecclesiastes), specifically about the balance between desiring and pursuing knowledge and knowing the limitations of the knowledge that you can expect to obtain. The speaker was very good; my friend who encouraged me to come was worried about me enjoying it until she saw me take out a pen and piece of paper and start taking notes. Then she knew that I was at least interested.

The speaker was saying that it is important to use our intellect in order to try to understand the ways of the world and our place within it. But...it's also important to know the limits of our ability to comprehend everything. For example, she said that there is no way for us to understand G-d. He is beyond comprehension, and we shouldn't not even attempt to understand the whys of what He does.

She also spoke about balancing our wisdom with the opposite - of being accepting of those things that we don't know, and being able to admit them, of having humility. She used the quote from Pirkei Avos that the wise man is he who learns from every person. This is because there are so many things that each of us do not know that someone else does. If we just take some time, we will discover these things and learn from our fellows.

This balance between striving for knowledge and wisdom and acknowledging those things that are beyond comprehension brought me to the topic that bothered me a bit - and that is blind faith. The speaker said that because we can acknowledge the fact that G-d's ways and reasons can not be comprehended, we also have to accept Him and His rules with blind faith. Without even trying to understand, because He is so far beyond what we are capable of.

I don't know if I agree with this approach. But I'm not sure if I totally disagree with it either. To me, there is definitely some leap of faith that one must take in order to accept G-d, and especially to accept all His commandments and requirements in life. But should we step back and say that we should not even attempt to understand? Doesn't that take the meaning out of it? Doesn't that make us into zombies, and as many would say, a cult?

It's a very difficult balance. G-d gave us amazing brains, capable of understanding so much. So why would He want us to give up on that and say that some things are just too tough? I think the effort, the attempt at understanding, is important. And that is makes the jump you take smaller, and hopefully easier. Though maybe not.

In many ways, I agree with the quote from Koheles above. With knowledge, does come pain. Thinking and wondering doesn't come easily, and certainly it's not without its cost. But does that mean we should shirk from it and give up? Accept ignorance without a fight? Should we avoid all pain in life? Or can it lead to the greatest reward?

10 Comments:

  • Good post..
    I think..on one hand God has supplied us with reasons for most of the mitzvos on so many different levels..
    I believe that even that that we do know is just scratching the surface. God has this incredible incomprehensible thing called the Torah ans the way we can grasp it...is through Pshat and our intellect..just as one would grab onto a pot by its handle...as a means of acquiring it..even though the pot is sooo muchy more than the handle.

    By Blogger David_on_the_Lake, at 9/28/06, 2:37 PM  

  • on one hand God has supplied us with reasons for most of the mitzvos on so many different levels

    I'm facinated! Tell me more! So far as I know Torah only provides some sort of rational for two mitzvot. The rest are left simply as moral imperatives we must do cause HaShem says so!

    By Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham, at 9/28/06, 4:54 PM  

  • Great post!
    I think about this in the same way I always feel bittersweet when my kids learn to read. On one hand I know it's the only way their mind can expand and learn on the other hand it marks the end of innocence.
    G'mar Chasima Tova!

    By Blogger kasamba, at 9/28/06, 5:02 PM  

  • Shoshana,

    You wrote:

    "and that is blind faith"

    "To me, there is definitely some leap of faith that one must take in order to accept G-d, and especially to accept all His commandments and requirements in life."

    I don't think there really is such a thing as blind faith. People who believe in G-d have overwhelming evidence that fills their senses that we could not possibly be random, inconsequential accidents of fate. In fact I think that people who believe that we are random accidents are the ones who are making an incomprehensible leap of "blind" faith.

    Even the people at Sinai did not have blind faith - they had lots of evidence leading up to Sinai that a Higher Power was taking care of them. I don't think we have any examples in the Torah of blind faith. There is just too much overwhelming evidence that Hashem exists and is guiding our lives.

    As far as the Mitzvos I don't see the leap of faith either. They make a ton of sense and I would encourage everyone to think about the Mitzvos and why would Hashem want us to do them. Hashem wants us to strive to understand life, ourselves and our surroundings and to Emulate Hashem's attributes. The Mitzvos clearly help elevate our lives on a personal level. They bring us discipline, introspection, humility, love for our fellow man and many more characteristics that shape us in a higher level of existence.

    I think the warnings are for people who are on very basic levels and when they encounter pain or difficulty they take a very short sighted view and can't see beyond their immediate pain for the longer view.

    P-Life ;-)

    By Blogger Passionate Life, at 9/29/06, 2:03 AM  

  • P-life, you said:

    'I don't think we have any examples in the Torah of blind faith.'

    i am not expert in the Torah but what do you think about Abraham our father did when he was first called by G-d from about his tribe...i think that it is blind faith to follow someone who he didn't see and didn't know...

    from the post:
    'She also spoke about balancing our wisdom with the opposite - of being accepting of those things that we don't know, and being able to admit them, of having humility. She used the quote from Pirkei Avos that the wise man is he who learns from every person. This is because there are so many things that each of us do not know that someone else does. If we just take some time, we will discover these things and learn from our fellows.'

    i don't say that i am wise (because usually the wise are humble :))
    but like i used to say, i will always learn...till and even on the day of my death. on that day, i will learn what is death and how to die... :)

    By Anonymous h2oil, at 9/29/06, 3:08 AM  

  • David -
    I like the pot analogy - thank you.

    Yoel -
    You're right, Hashem doesn't supply us with His reasoning. It's more that, for a lot of the mitzvos, we can find some reasoning for ourselves that help us make sense of it. But not for everything.

    Kasamba -
    It is kind of a bittersweet, but necessary, step we each must take.

    P-Life -
    There is no PROOF for G-d, just as there is no proof in the other direction. We can use our intellect, and what evidence we have, to attempt to make sense of it, but ultimately, you cannot prove either way. At some point, there is a leap one must make in order to believe.

    As for the mizvos, yes, we can understand some of them. But there are some that we can't make sense of also. Shatnez (the prohibition of mixing wool and linen in a garment) is a good example of this. Those commandments are accepted as part of the package - as the Torah says, we will listen and we will do. No understanding there.

    h2oil -
    I think it makes for a very meaningful life to strive to learn each day of it - great attitude.

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 9/29/06, 8:09 AM  

  • The Rambam would say the exact opposite: he'd say it's imperative that we use our intellect to try to understand Hashem.

    By Anonymous debbie, at 9/29/06, 9:36 AM  

  • H2oil,

    You wrote:

    "i am not expert in the Torah but what do you think about Abraham our father did when he was first called by G-d from about his tribe...i think that it is blind faith to follow someone who he didn't see and didn't know..."

    Abraham used his mind and senses to realize that stone idols could not create the world. Once he realized how complex and amazing the world is he became aware that there is a G-d. Then when G-d spoke to him, I certainly would not call that blind faith, he had very compelling evidence - intelligent conversation with a non corporeal being.

    Shoshana,

    This post was not about proof but rather about blind faith. There is a difference between

    1. absolute proof,
    2. KNOWING something is true, and
    3. blind faith.

    I think that belief in Hashem and Judaism is much more than blind faith, its a level just below absolute proof.

    For example I KNOW that Sabrina loves me. Do I have absolute proof? No. Could it be that she is being super nice and saying the right things because she wants a ring on her finger, prestige, or other motivation? Sure its POSSIBLE. But I am willing to bet my life on it that she genuinely loves me.

    I think our relationship with Hashem is the same thing. We have overwhelming circumstantial evidence that Hashem Created us and loves us. We all know it deep in our hearts, even if we sometimes have motivation to block out the overwhelming circumstantial evidence and sense of KNOWING.

    By Blogger Passionate Life, at 9/29/06, 12:54 PM  

  • Shoshana,

    As far as Mitzvos like Shatnes, there is a beauty and purpose to it, but it takes introspection and being involved with the Mitzvah to understand it. For example Shabbos is a Mitzvah that because we are so involved with it we have so many multiple understandings of how and why it elevates us on so many levels.

    Before you make a statement that there is "no understanding there" I would ask you if you have given Shatnes one tenth of the thought that you have given to Shabbos?

    If you are really interested, spend a day in the Shatnes laboratory and speak to the people who spend their lives being vigilant about Shatnes. I am sure they will have an incredible perspective on it, far beyond the surface purpose of living life with awareness and vigilance that EVERY thing we do has consequences and effects on all kinds of levels. The notion of mixing and separating aspects of life runs deep and Shatnes is all about that.

    Mitzvos have deep and complex wisdom and significance. One can not expect to understand and comprehend them on one foot. The notion that we shouldn't study or try and understand them is missing half the purpose. True understanding only comes through study and introspection. Seriously, go visit the Shatnes lab and talk to them.

    By Blogger Passionate Life, at 9/29/06, 12:59 PM  

  • P-Life -
    Shatnes is specifically a chuk, which we are told we are not able to understand and have no reason for. It's nice of you to try and give meaning to it, and to those who commit themselves to taking steps to make sure people don't wear it, but for you to attempt to explain the reasoning for it is not founded in Torah. I'm not talking about understanding anything in a few minutes, or even days. What I am talking about is the attitude that we should not even attempt it.

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 10/1/06, 11:34 AM  

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