Shomer Emunim, #14-15

31 Jan

Shealtiel: But the books of the Mekubalim also contain many strange, illogical things. I’ve asked the Mekubalim about this, but haven’t received any satisfactory answers. At times, their answers just cause the questions to grow larger, and to even add other questions!

Yehoyada: It’s true that are things that can’t be understood unless you delve deeply into the real essence of the Wisdom. The Zohar says, “Not all intellects can carry this, only those that are wise and holy”. But most of the rest of the topics that are dealt with can be understood normally, as long as you make the effort. And if they seem foreign or odd to one who has never studied this wisdom intently, that’s his fault for not studying the introductory frameworks. Certainly if this same man – even if he is wise and learned in Halachah- would look at a random book of Kabbalah, he wouldn’t be able to understand what it’s really talking about. And even if he asks about what he learns, nobody would be able to explain them to him on one foot (ie, right there). He first has to learn the subject matter in the proper order. If he wants to ask before he learns the basics and the frameworks, he’ll never be able to understand.

This idea isn’t only applicable to Kabbalah. It applies to any subject. The Rambam writes in the ‘Moreh’, Part 1, Chapter 34: If someone learns any of the branches of Wisdom without learning the frameworks first, many new questions and problems will arise which will be unanswerable. He will end up confused, with false ideas. [See there, where he goes on at length about this.] And in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, he brings a good parable to explain this. Say there was an intelligent man who was knowledgeable in Medicine, Logic, Music, and Natural Science, but had no knowledge of Math or Astronomy. Now let’s say we would say to this man, “What would you say about a man who claims that the body of the sun that we see as a small circle, is actually a ball 166 and 3/8ths times the circumference of the earth. The body of the earth, on which we’ve based all these measurements, is a ball whose circumference is 24,000 miles. Through measuring the earth, we have come to know the size of the sun.” [1] There no question that this man, as keen as his intellect is, who has mastered all of the other subjects we’ve mentioned above, will still not be able to find within himself room to accept this belief. These new ideas are unfathomably foreign to him. He’ll think, “How can a man standing on the space of one hands-breadth of earth, know the exact measurement of the sun, as if he were measuring a plot of land? Also, the sun is exceedingly far away. We can’t even see it’s true size, we can only feel it’s rays. So how can a man reach it in order to measure it, and to the precision of 3/8’s of a size? This is the most inane thing in the world.” He won’t even have a question as to whether the idea is stupid and impossible.

However, when this man starts learning the books of measurements, and the branch of wisdom regarding the construction of spherical objects and the mathematical relationships between different shapes; and then goes onto the next step, which is the book on the construction of the heavens ie, ‘The Almagest’ [2]; then the truth of this claim will become clear to him, and he will have evidence for it. There will be no difference to him between the claim that the sun exists, and that it has this precise measurement. His mind will believe in the thing that was at one point the furthest thing imaginable, with total faith. This scenario is very possible to happen, even with an intelligent man of character who knows all the different branches of knowledge that he does, and even with a question about plain science, not Godliness. So most certainly this will be the case if we ask a totally uneducated man -who hasn’t trained in the ways of knowledge, who has gone from his mother’s wisdom straight to his wife’s- a question on the topic of Godliness. There’s no question that they will be as far-off in his eyes as the heavens are from the earth, and his mind will fall short of understanding a single thing. [See there, where he goes on at length.]

Now since this is all speaking about human wisdom [3], we can be doubly certain when we are speaking about this lofty Wisdom. How is it possible for someone who is ignorant of this topic, to immediately understand deep things like this? Therefore, don’t wonder if you see things in the books of the Mekubalim that look strange to you. And don’t become suspicious of this knowledge and these scholars who’s wisdom and understanding have been verified, and to who’s ankles you do not reach. Because the hearts of the early sages were as wide as the entrance to a great hall, while the hearts of the later ones are as wide the eye of a small needle [4]. Be careful with their coal, lest you be burned. If you want to understand the books of the Mekubalim, learn the basics and foundations of this Wisdom, in steps and in the logical order. Then you will come to understand the ideology, and the words will not be strange to you.

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[1] These numbers are off by modern calculations, but were accepted science at the time of the Rambam. They are based on the works of the 2nd century Roman mathematician Ptolemy.

[2] Influential astronomical treatise written by Ptolemy.

[3] As he has noted before, the author sees Rambam’s study of Godliness as being based on Western, Aristotelian, Metaphysics.

[4] Paraphrasing Tractate Eruvin 53a.

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