Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why We Learn Torah: Part 6 - Acquiring Knowledge of God Himself

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

Man can arrive at an understanding of many of the truths of our world, but to grasp the ultimate truths and to gain the clearest perception of reality, a person must turn his attention to understanding the greatest reality that exists.  That is, the source of all reality – the Creator.  Knowledge of the Divine is mankind’s greatest intellectual pursuit.

The acquisition of any wisdom distinguishes man from the rest of creation, but use of the intellect in pursuit of the Divine is what most distinguishes man from the rest of creation and earns him his most exalted position in the hierarchy of creation. 
Intellect is what distinguishes mankind from the other species of living beings.  For man is an intellectual being.  And the meaning of intellect is the ability to form in the mind concepts and ideas… The most elevated intellectual conception is when man forms in his mind the unity [or uniqueness] of God, and other related divine knowledge.  Indeed, all other wisdom is only to develop the mind to be able to grasp knowledge of God. (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishna)
When man utilizes his free will and applies his abstract thinking in pursuit of divine knowledge over other fields of knowledge, he is engaging a deeper level understanding of life and a truer perception of reality.  For this reason, the Rambam writes in Moreh Nevuchim (III: 54) that the study of divine knowledge is what makes man – man.
True human perfection is [achieved] when man attains intelligence, which is, formulating conceptual thoughts.  Through this one learns knowledge of the divine truths, which is the ultimate goal and that which completes and perfects man.  This is uniquely human, and through this he can gain eternal existence.  This is what makes man, man. 
While it is not possible to fully know God, man is nonetheless charged to seek out knowledge of the divine to the best of his ability.  But how does one attain knowledge of God?

Human-Conceived Knowledge of God

Man’s mind operating on its own can, to a degree, bring man to a knowledge of God Himself.  The power of human intellect to come to truth in the realm of knowledge of God Himself, is confirmed by the Ramchal,
These truths [about God] are known to us through a tradition from our forefathers and the prophets…. However, logical reasoning and analysis can also lead one to know these truths… (Derech Hashem 1:1)
Perhaps the most accessible source for this knowledge of God is the natural world. Studying nature and the world can lead a man to an appreciation for, and a knowledge of, God Himself.  The Navi Yeshaya states (40:26), “Raise up your eyes and see who created this all of this.”

Similarly, we find in the earlier referenced passage from Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch,   
The revelation at Sinai was not essential for the recognition of the fact that there must be someone who is the omnipresent creator, regulator, and ruler of the world. The realization that there must be a God could come to anyone who thoughtfully contemplates nature, and the heavens in particular.

Contemplation with the human mind and the study of nature does not only bring belief that God exists.[1] It can even lead a person to knowledge about God’s essence.  Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pekuda writes,
Intellectual contemplation of God’s creations is an attainable way of clarifying God’s existence, and it is a clear path to know God’s true essence (Chovos Ha-Levavos, Section 2, Introduction)
Rabbenu Bechaya goes as far as to say that this form of contemplation is an absolute obligation upon man.  He argues that if God gave man intellect that is powerful enough to recognize God through analysis of nature, it is logical to assume that man must not ignore this God-given gift of intellect, and therefore man is obligated to use it to gain a better perception of God.  If man ignores this responsibility, he is rejecting his own humanity.
When man thinks and contemplates he is elevated above the animals (in a degree that is commensurate to his level of understanding), and if he ignores his intelligence, he is not like an animal, but is much worse than one. (Chovos Ha-Levavos, Section 2, Chapter 1)
In fact, the Midrash teaches that Avraham Avinu arrived at a level of understand of Hashem by pondering the world around him.  When Avraham was a mere three years old, he started to think, “Who created the Heavens, the earth, and me?”  His first reaction was to worship the sun, but after more thought and contemplation he recognized that there must have been a being that created the sun.  This process of thought eventually brought him to belief in God.

Due to the tremendous potential latent in the study of nature, the Rambam encourages a person to study nature.  Such study does not only educate man about God, says the Rambam, but it also cultivates tremendous love of God. 
What is the path to love and fear [of God]?  When one contemplates [God’s] deeds and His wondrous and great creations, and he sees [God’s] infinite wisdom that knows no bounds – he immediately [reacts with] love, praises, and glorifies [God], he also is overcome with a tremendous desire to know God…  Based on this [working assumption] I will explain some of the general principle of God’s works [i.e. nature] in order that there will be an opening for one who understands to love God.  This is what our sages teach regarding love [of God], “Through this you will come to recognize the One who said ,There should be a world [i.e. the Creator].”  (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei ha-Torah, 2:2)
For the next few chapters of Hilchos Yesodei Ha-Torah the Rambam provides a description of cosmology and other scientific fields connected with nature.  The message of the Rambam is very clear – study nature and through this gain a true perception of the world, an appreciation for the essence of God, and a burning love for Him. 

The connection between knowledge and love is reiterated by the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Teshuvah, where he writes that love is the result of knowledge.  
Love of Hashem is a function of one’s knowledge of Him.  That is, commensurate to the degree of one’s knowledge [of God], will be his love [of God] – If [he knows] less, [his love will be] less, and if [he knows] more, [his love will be] more. (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva, 9:4)
The Rambam ends by encouraging a person to study those things that will lead him to knowledge and ultimately love of God.
Therefore, a person needs to set aside time to understand and conceptualize those areas of wisdom and knowledge that will enlighten him about his Creator.  This should be done commensurate to one’s cognitive abilities, as I explained in Hilchos Yesodei Ha-Torah.
Seemingly the Rambam refers to the above quoted passage that encourages a person to study nature and the world around him.  Thus confirming that the study of nature can lead a man to understanding Hashem.

[1] It has even been argued that certain knowledge of God is self-evident and obvious.  R. Elchonon Wasserman writes,
When one considers it he will find that belief that God created the world is obvious to any intelligent person… How can any intelligent person say that the world emerged on its own… In fact, the real question is the opposite: How did some of the greatest philosophers ever err and think that that the world emerged on its own… 
It is absolutely and completely obvious that God revealed and informed man what He wants, that He revealed His [divine] will through a spiritual medium, and this is the divine Torah.   (Kovetz Maamarim, Maamar al Emunah)

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