Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why We Learn Torah: Part 3 - Clarifying Truths

Rav Leibowitz

We are now ready to suggest an approach to understanding the value of Torah study and mitzvah observance.  To begin we must remember that we suggested earlier that man’s greatest faculty is his sophisticated mind that man can apply consciously and utilize to consider not only the practical but also the abstract.  Man’s elevated mind provides him with the ability to acquire wisdom and through that clarify the truths of reality.  We noted that the ultimate goal of acquiring wisdom is to acquire the ultimate truth, which is attainment of the correct perception of reality.  Or as the Rambam put man’s goal: “To form in his mind the truth of reality to the best of his ability and to understand all that he can possibly grasp.”  At that time we questioned what field of study would yield the greatest wisdom and hence lead to the clearest perception of reality? 

The answer is Torah study.  Hashem gave man the Torah so that man could study it with his elevated mind and through that better understand himself and the world around him.  Torah teaches man truth and defines for him how to live a life that reflects these truths.  For this reason, the Tanna, Ben Bog Bog encouraged his students (Avos 5:22) to expend all their energy studying Torah, “Turn it over and over, for all is in it.”  Study Torah as deeply as possible, for all truths are found in Torah.

Human-Conceived Truths of the World

This does not mean to say that Torah study is the only path to uncovering truths in the world.  Hashem created man with intellectual abilities, and man’s raw intellect can be used to arrive at many truths.  When man’s mind is free of foreign influences, it is able to lead man to many truths. 

This point is made by Rav Sa’adiah Gaon in the introduction to his magnum opus on Jewish thought, Emunos ve-Deos.  After praising Hashem for blessing man with a mind and the power of intellect, Rav Sa’adiah identifies three intellectual forces that are found within man’s mind that lead man to truths,
It is appropriate to mention that which leads man to truths and correct perceptions, for they are the sources for all information and the wellsprings of all knowledge… There are three such things that lead man to knowledge: The first is observation and sense perception (ידיעת הנראה), the second is intellectual intuition and rational insight (ידיעת השכל), and the third is inferential and logical reasoning (דבר שההכרח מחייב אותו)... (Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, Emunos ve-Deos, Introduction)   
Man was blessed by God with a mind that empowers him to arrive at truths on his own.  Often this is achieved through contemplation on nature.  Studying the natural world or other creations of God is an avenue that will lead man to some of the truths of reality.  By utilizing his ability to observe the world around him and draw logical inference, man can arrive at an understanding of nature and achieve a perception of truth via-a-vis the physical world around him.  A student of biology will learn through his study of biology truths about the human body and its processes, and a student of geology will gain through his study a perception of the structural elements of earth.  Hence, science and nature are certainly most fitting fields of study, for they will lead man to a true perception of the physical reality.  Acquiring this perception is a uniquely human endeavor and therefore assists man in assuming his elevated level in creation.

Beyond the actual truths of the natural world, Chazal teach us that even certain moral and emotional truths can be learned from studying nature.   Chazal state (Eruvin 100b), “We can learn modest from the cats, chastity from the doves, proper behavior from the chicken, and respect for other’s property from the ants.”

In addition to studying nature, man can also use his intuition and rational insight to arrive at certain self-evident truths.  We find an illustration of this in the Torah’s report of Moshe’s harsh criticism of the Jewish soldiers who returned from their war against Midian without killing all of the Midianites (Bamidbar, Chapter 31).  R. Yeshaya Horowitz (Shel”a, d. 1630) asks (Matos, Derech Chaim Tochachos, s.v. ויקצף) how Moshe could be so critical if he never explicitly commanded the soldiers who to kill and who to spare. The Shel”a answers that they should have used their logic and arrived at the correct conclusion on their own. They did not need a direct commandment, if their own logic would have arrived at the same conclusion.  

This approach of the Shel”a to the events with Midian was first stated in the Sefer Chasidim (#153)
We find in the Torah that anyone who is able to understand [a commandment], even if it is not actually commanded, is deserving of punishment for not realizing it on his own, as we find, “And Moshe was critical of the soldiers…” (Bamidbar 31:14)… Why didn’t they answer him, “You never commanded us!”… It must be that Moshe knew that they were wise and learned enough to apply a logical (lit. an a fortiori) argument…
According to the Sefer Chasidim and the Shel”a, a person is held accountable for sins or other non-desirable behavior if logic dictates that such an action should not be committed.  In the same vein, we find that Bilaam accepted blame upon himself when he hit his faithful donkey by stating, “I sinned, because I did not realize.”

Jewish Sages throughout the ages have drawn on this principle to explain the culpability of various people in history who were never explicitly commanded to refrain from sinful behavior.  For example, Rabbenu Bechaye (Bereshis 18:20) explains that for this reason the people of Sedom were deserving of punished for not helping one another.  He states that even though there was not yet any commandment to give charity or help another, such behavior is something the human mind should figure out on its own.[1]

An earlier explicit formulation of this principle was expressed by R. Nissim Gaon of Kairouan (d. 11th century), in the introduction to his Sefer Mafteach Man'ulei Ha-Talmud.  He writes,
All commandments that are products of logic and intuition, are already incumbent upon all – from the very day man was created on earth by God [i.e. before the giving of the Torah].  [These commandments] are [binding] upon him, his children, and for all generations.
Man’s raw intellect can teach a person wisdom and clarify for him truths.  He can conceive of moral truths and arrive at emotional insights.  The proper appreciation and regulation of kindness, modesty, compassion, empathy, and shame are some of the truths that man can arrive at through his mind.  In turn, man will then be empowered to make life-decisions that lead him to live an ethical, moral, and emotionally sensitive life.  For this reason, all of mankind – Jew and gentile – by dint of their being human, are obligated to live an elevated life that is defined by the above mentioned wisdom.  It is not surprising therefore that we find many people, divorced from any direct Torah influence, that live lives of morality, ethics, and emotional sensitivity.[2]

However, not all truths are self-evident and attainable through pure intellect, nor are they all perceivable through the study of nature.   While man can perceive on his own some of the truths of the physical world, and even some emotional and moral truths, many truths, especially the most elevated ones, are not attainable with the human mind operating on its own. 

Moreover, even those truths that are theoretically attainable through the human mind alone, are not readily acquirable on a practical level.  Indeed, there are great challenges that must be overcome if man is to arrive at truths on his own.  Many of the self-evident truths are only arrived at by man, if his mind is unfettered by other influences.  Personal agendas, carnal desires, foreign philosophies are but a few of the influences that are able to corrupt a person’s reasoning.  Shelomo states in Koheles, “God created man straight, but they sought their own machinations” (Koheles 7:22).  Even the most self-evident truths cannot be properly attained unless one’s mind is free of these other influences.

An additional problem is that when these truths are arrived at without Torah, man lacks direction of how to implement them in his life.  While he may be able to acquire a perception of truth, it is not always forthcoming how these truths can be translated into practice and implemented in a way that will lead a person to living an elevated life informed by the wisdom he has learned. 

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch notes the ability to learn truths from nature, but also records its shortcomings,
The realization that there must be a God could come to anyone who thoughtfully contemplates nature, and the heavens in particular… [But] the heavens and the world about us cannot answer the question of what man should do with his freedom of will and action.  By merely looking at the heavens and the earth, man will never discover the Divine Law, which sets a purpose for his being in this world.  Whatever answer he would derive from this kind of study would only enmesh him in hopeless confusion. (Commentary on Tehillim 19) 
In summary, we note that the human mind operating on its own is not enough.  This is because it is limited in three ways.  (1) It is only able to arrive at certain truths, (2) and even those truths can only successfully be attained if man is impervious to the many outside influences that can easily pervert his perception.  Lastly, (3) these truths have the potential to remain only as knowledge, and never translate into practice or become part of man’s actual life.  Therefore, we must conclude that the mind alone is not to serve as the lone source of truth.  Man must study Torah, as it alone can overcome these three shortcomings. (1) Torah is not limited, and contains within it all necessary truths.  Moreover, (2) it is objective and absolute, and therefore transcends outside influences.  Lastly, (3) Torah concretizes its wisdom and provides specific instruction for how to implement and live the wisdom of the Torah.

[1] It’s interesting to note the different formulation of R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, d. 1893) in his letter of approbation for the Chafetz Chaim’s Ahavas Chesed.  He states the Sodomites’ behavior went against basic human decency that should have been part of their natural human identity.  The same, he says, is why Kayin was able to be punished, even though there was no direct commandment not to kill.

[2] It goes without saying that much of the world today is heavily influenced by the ethics and wisdom of Torah.  Certainly most of the “Western world” is founded on so called “Judeo-Christian” ethics.  See the beginning of the Ramban’s Toras HaShem Temimah where he notes that influence Torah has had on the world at large, and how the most uncivilized and most unprincipled cultures are those that were never influenced by Torah. 

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