- Perception and Reason
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- The Talmud in Chagiga (11b) discusses
what man is allowed to ponder. This is of great impact, as this
prohibition limits topics allowed to be studied by Torah law.
But this presents a difficulty: are we not to use our minds in
all areas? If so, how can any imposed limit on our minds be acceptable,
and condoned by the Torah?
- The source for this prohibition is found
in our Parsha VauEschanan, 4:32, "When you now ask of the
earlier days that were before you, to the days that God created
man on the land, and from one end of the heavens to the (other)
end of the heavens..." The Talmud says, "you might
think it permissible to inquire of matters preceding Creation,
therefore we are taught, "from the first days". Meaning,
up until Day One we may inquire, but no earlier. The Talmud continues,
"you might think you may ask what is above (the heavens)
and what is below (the Earth), therefore we are taught, "from
one end of the heavens to the (other) end of the heavens."
- The Talmud concludes that one may not
investigate what is above the heavens or below the Earth, nor
what is before Creation or what will be at the end of time. So
our question is an emphatic, "why?" To compound this
question, we are told by none other than Rabbi Bachaya ben Josef
ibn Paquda, author of "Duties of the Heart", that we
are not to simply listen to the Rabbis, but we must earnestly
study their words until we see, with our own reason, the truth
of their teachings, and the teachings of the Torah. And if we
fail to do so, we commit a grave injustice. Rabbi Bachaya ben
Josef ibn Paquda says, "...you should reflect on your own
mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them
from tradition - which covers all the commandments in the Torah,
their principles and details - and then examine them with your
own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth becomes
clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written: "Understand
today, and reflect on it in your heart, Hashem is the G-d in
the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other".
(Ibid, 4:39 - Another quote from this weeks Parsha.)
- Based on Rabbi Bachaya's teachings, and
the words of the Torah, we must use our minds. So I reiterate
the question: how can the Torah also demand we halt our investigation
in certain areas? And what is the significance of these areas?
- My first step is to suggest that as God
willed we all have intelligence, then, we are to use this intelligence
in all areas of our lives. If our mind has a question on God's
universe, His justice, or any other matter, we should investigate
it to the best of our abilities. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge
is man's highest level, as he is naturally interested in God's
creation. Similarly, if we are faced with a subject matter beyond
our abilities, we should be equally honest and say, "I don't
know", or "I can't figure it out." The bottom
line is honesty, and this pervades both scenarios; A)when we
have not exceeded our abilities, and B)when we have. Knowledge
means "knowledge of reality", and if we have no honesty,
we have no knowledge.
- An illustration of A, when our abilities
are not exceeded, is easy: We are asked at 12:00 noon, while
standing next to an apple tree, "what color is this apple
is in front of us?" Our abilities of perception and comparison
are fully functional. We have not exceeded our abilities. An
honest answer is possible. (I say comparison, as identification
of color requires a comparison to our memory of all other colors.
In truth, all knowledge is based on comparison, which our minds
do without will, and by design, just as our hearts pump without
- An illustration of B, exceeding our abilities,
would be as follows: One who is blindfolded, and led into a pitch-black
room is asked to describe the room. He must abandon any attempt
to describe the wallpaper, the furniture, or any object requiring
visual perception. Honesty in this scenario demands one admit
his perception has been completely inhibited.
- But these two cases deal only with "perception".
There is one other area wherein man has a limited scope of ability,
and which contributes to man's thinking: I refer to "reasoning"
Here too, man can exceed his ability. Suppose we were asked to
judge a robbery case, before we learned what robbery meant. We
would be incapable, as our reasoning would be lacking an essential
element. Similarly, if a judge was complimented by a litigant,
he would be biased towards him, and again, possess a flaw in
his reasoning abilities, this time due to an exaggerated opinion
of the litigant, and not due to lacking a principle. But in both
cases, "reasoning" has been distorted, and incapable
of seeing reality.
- We learn from these cases that our thinking
is compromised when one of two abilities are lacking; 1)either
we cannot perceive the facts, or 2)we have the correct facts,
but our reasoning of these facts is corrupt, either due to a
lack of principles, or to a distortion of a principle - usually
due to an emotion. So when "perception" or "reasoning"
is compromised, so must our thinking be compromised, and we will
produce fallacy. We will not see reality. The verses (Exod.,
23:8 and Deut. 16:19) express this exactly, "...a bribe
blinds the eyes of the wise, and distorts the words of the righteous."
Note that these verses refer to "eyes", and "words".
"Eyes" means perception, and "words" means
that which expresses one's reason. The Torah defines the two
areas in which a judge's rulings - his thinking - will be compromised.
Again, perception and reasoning, if not pure, will result in
fallacy, and Torah study. Comprehension of God's one reality
requires 100% honesty.
- We return to our Talmudic teaching, "limiting"
our study. I do not believe our verse above commands us to cease
our investigation into specific 'topics' per se. The topics mentioned
are mere illustrations of a greater rule. Studying history, "When
you now ask of the earlier days", or studying the heavens,
"from one end of the heavens to the other" comes to
illustrate what we have said. This verse commands us to recognize
our limited ability to "perceive" and to "reason".
The prohibition not to study what is above the heavens means,
"don't try to perceive with your eyes what is out of your
range of vision." Of course, now, with the Hubble space
telescope, our range is significantly increased. But it too has
a range. Trying to look further than this telescope's range is
futile. "...from one end of the heavens to the other"
means, do not try to exceed your perceptual limits. But not only
is perception limited, but so is our reasoning. This is taught
by the limit imposed on our timeframe of study, "When you
now ask of the earlier days". The Talmud says we cannot
study that which occurred before Creation. Scientists today concur,
stating accurately that since reasoning is based on cause and
effect relationships, in an epoch where cause and effect had
not yet operated - before Creation - our minds are useless.
- All our thinking depends on two faculties,
perception, and reasoning about that perception. There is nothing
else required for man's thought. Therefore, only perception and
reason are those issues discussed when treating of the subject
of man's thought.
- Our initial, incorrect understanding that
the Talmud makes certain topics a 'taboo', is now replaced with
an accurate understanding: The Torah warns man from delving into
perception and reasoning that exceeds his capabilities. The Torah
once again proves to be perfectly in line with the reality of
the workings of the universe. God created both, Torah and creation.
Therefore, both must be complimentary, by definition.