Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why We Learn Torah: Part 4 - The Absolute Truth of the World

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

Torah study is the most valuable pursuit because the greatest clarifier of truth is Torah.  Truth in our world is a rare commodity.  In fact, our sages teach that the Hebrew word for “world” – עולם – comes from the same word as “hidden” – נעלם.  The truths of our world are not immediately perceptible.  They are hidden, and need to be uncovered.  The Talmud (Bava Metzia 83b) explains the verse in Tehilim 104:20, “You bring darkness and it is night (תשת חושך ויהי לילה),” as a reference to physical world.  Our world is one of darkness, where perceptions are dulled and the truth is concealed.  However, “Torah is light (תורה אור)” (Mishlei 6:23), and contains the ability to enlighten those who study it.[1]

Torah is the greatest tool for attaining a correct perception of reality.  This is readily seen in the realm of ethics and morals.  Left to their own devices, human culture throughout history has arrived at different moral “truths,” cultural relativism dictating what is just and what is not.  However, the teachings of the Torah define the objective truth of morality.  Understanding and internalizing the Torah’s definition of what is “just” and what is “right” sharpens one’s perception of the reality, as it direct him to true morality.[2]

For example, the Torah teaches that abortion is a "form" of murder and is generally deemed to be an immoral act, unless the life of the mother is at stake.[3]  The immorality of non-halachically sanctioned abortion is not a subjective human opinion that is subject to cultural influences.  It is an absolute moral truth of Hashem.  This being said, the Torah student can and should be sensitive to a woman’s psychological pain in carrying a baby she does not want.  The Torah student should also have genuine concern over the baby’s future if it will be born to a mother who is not able or willing to care for it.  However, these appropriate concerns – also reflective of the Torah’s values – do not change the objective truth as defined by the Torah.

The same is true in regards to philosophic and emotional truths.  For example, the Torah and Chazal teaches us that Hashem not only created man, but also maintains a providential relationship with man after creation.  This basic philosophic truths has a great impact on daily life, yet has been repeatedly denied throughout the ages by those who did not look to the Torah as their guide.[4]   Similarly, the Torah and Chazal teach that God is incorporeal, containing no form or image.  This truth is the reality, and one who does not study Torah will not necessarily gain this correct perspective on reality.  

In the realm of emotional truths, the Torah also clarifies what is truth.  For example, the Torah teaches that it is not morally proper or even healthy for one to keep his hatred for another inside him.  Moreover, sometimes anger is best to be expressed, as the verse reads, “Anger is better than laughter” (Koheles 7:3), and the Talmud state that sometimes feigned rage is advisable if it can serve pedagogic purposes. 

Less obvious, are the truths taught by the Torah in realms that are not moral, philosophic, or emotional. Yet, even in regards to its various laws, the Torah teaches man the ultimate truths of the world, and attains for him correct perceptions.  Take for example, the laws of ritual purity (tumah and taharah).  The intricate system of purity laws are not a contrived body of laws that are disconnected from reality. Quite the contrary, they reflect a reality that is unperceivable to human eyes, and is only accessible via the study of Torah.  When one studies the intricate laws of tumah and taharah, one gains access to a truth that governs our world and is yet invisible and unknowable to the average human. 
This should not be too surprising to us.  We know that the world contains scientific truths.  Many of them imperceptible to some of our sense.  For example, the laws of physics teach that wood does not conduct electricity, whereas metal is conductive.  Hence, if an electrical charge comes into contact with a piece of scrap metal there will be a transference, but if it comes into contact with a wooden tree stick there will not be a transference.  This reality is not perceptible by many of our sense.  But just because we cannot see it with our limited human eyes, does not mean that electrical conductivity is not a truth of reality.  Indeed, one who studies physics gains perceptions of truth that the average person is not aware of.

Similarly, there are meta-physical truths that also function in our world, although they are not readily perceptible.  When a dead body (avi-avos ha-tumah) comes into contact with that same piece of scrap metal the metal will contract ritual impurity, i.e. there will be a transference.  However, if a wooden stick touches a dead body there will not be any transference of tumah.  Much like the scientist who only knows about the electrical transference if he has studied physics, so too, only one who has studied Torah is aware of the tumah transference. 

The same is true regarding the study of more mundane topics, such as the laws of damages.  When one studies the Torah’s perspective on damage payments, one becomes educated regarding what is the correct and true monetary payment for a given damage.  The Torah’s laws on damage payments are not part of a haphazard or arbitrary system, but reflects a divine conception – the truest perception – of tort law.  The amount of payment and the criteria that require payment are all details of this divine truth.  One who studies and comprehends these laws has internalized a truth of the reality. 

The more one studies and understands Torah the more one understands the truth of reality and the more one’s perception of the truth is refined.  Consider the difference between the astronomer observing a star in the sky, as opposed to the average person incidentally looking up at the stars.  While the average person merely sees a small flickering light, the astronomer sees gases, chemical reactions, etc.  Both are observing the same phenomena, but it is the educated astronomer with his refined perception who had a greater view of the true reality.[5] 

[1] So are the mitzvos, as the verse in Tehilim 19 states, “The mitzvos of Hashem are clear, they enlighten the eyes (מצות ה' ברה מאירת עיניים).” 

[2] Rabbi Ovadia Bartenua explains in his commentary on tractate Avos that the tractate begins with tracing the transmission of Torah from Sinai in order to teach that the Torah’s morality and ethics – the topic of Avos – is not based on the subjective perspective of the rabbis, but is based on the objective truth of the Torah.

[3] I write “form of murder” and “generally deemed” as there are a range of opinions on this complex issue, and there are even opinions that permit abortion in limited cases.

[4] This is not the place to discuss in detail the apparent opinion of the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim that not all human beings are governed by divine providence.  Indeed, many interpret the words of the Rambam to not be completely denying every human being a providential relationship with Hashem.  

[5] Similarly, we can consider the difference between the layman and the well versed retired judge reading about a Supreme Court decision.  While the layman only understands what the final ruling was, the well versed judge is aware of the various arguments and counter-arguments, the reliance on precedence, and the novel constitutional interpretations that are the basis of the ruling.  The layman knows the results, while the well versed retied judge sees the truths that underlie the ruling.

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