Monday, December 31, 2007

Chapters 3-6: The Sublime, Wonder, And The Sense Of Mystery

The Sublime

“Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of its resources is taken to be the chief purpose of man in G-d’s creation. Man has indeed become primarily a tool-making animal, and the world in now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of his needs.

The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use. To Bacon we owe the formulation, “Knowledge is power.” This is how people are urged to study: knowledge means success. We do not know any more how to justify any value except in terms of expediency. Man is wiling to define himself as “a seeker after the maximum degree of comfort for the minimum expenditure of energy.” He equates value with that which avails. He feels, acts, and thinks as if the sole purpose of the universe were to satisfy his needs.

To the modern man everything seems calculable; everything reducible to a figure. He has supreme faith in statistics and abhors the idea of a mystery. Obstinately he ignores the fact that we are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend; that even reason is a mystery to itself. He is sure of his ability to explain all mystery away. Only a generation ago he was convinced that science was on the way to solve all the enigmas of the world.

In the words of a poet:

Whatever there is to know
That we shall know some day.

Religious knowledge is regarded as the lowest form of knowledge.

…In the place of G-d, humanity – the grand etre – becomes the supreme object of adoration. However, what is considered an achievement from the perspective of modern man may be judged a privation by the post-modern man. “In future generations, people will find difficulty in understanding how at one time generations existed who did not regard the idea of G-d as the highest concept of which man is capable, but who, on the contrary, were ashamed of it and considered the development of atheism a sign of progress in the emancipation of human thought” (Walter Schubart - 1950)

Dazzled by the brilliant achievements of the intellect in science and technique, we have not only become convinced that we are masters of the earth; we have become convinced that our needs and interests are the ultimate standard of what is right and wrong.

Comfort, luxuries, success continually bait our appetites, impairing our vision of that which is required but not always desired. They make it easy for us to grow blind to values. Interest are the value-blind man’s dog, his pathfinder and guide.” (pg. 34-35)

In this brilliant piece Rav Heschel hits the root core of modern man’s folly. “Knowledge is power” is something that we all grew up with and respected as the highest form of allowing us to achieve. Until I read it in this context I never gave it a second thought. What is the power that we refer to? What is the achievement we aim for? The power of, as Rav Soloveitchik labels it, “Majestic Man,” to become “a tool-making animal” to achieve, “the satisfaction of his needs.”

The aim and achievement of our greater society is primarily a heightened level of survival climbing towards thriving. This in itself is not a negative goal or purpose. The problem starts when this becomes its only purpose.

When Rav Heschel writes, “Religious knowledge is regarded as the lowest form of knowledge.” Combined with the quote from Schubart, that is when society starts running into problems. When we don’t realize that becoming a “a tool-making animal” is only the first step of our achievement towards comprehending our purpose, we become no different then a cat who has no greater purpose then its own satisfaction and survival.


“As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines.

…The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

…Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” (pg. 46)

For a better idea what Rav Heschel is referring to, watch this five minute video.

What a wonderful world.

There are a million feelings and sensations that can overwhelm our senses with wonder. The diversity and satisfaction of colors, feeling blades of grass with your bare feet, a cool breeze across your cheek. I can fill pages and volumes just with the vast sea of sensations that touch our lives. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the many other wonders we can perceive. When we are present in the moment, how can we not feel the divine all around us?

Mu Rabbah Masecha Hashem – How wondrous are Your Creations Hashem!

Daily Miracles

“The sense for the “miracles which are daily with us,” the sense for the “continual marvels,” is the source of prayer. There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living. No routine of the social, physical, or physiological order must dull our sense of surprise at the fact that there is a social, a physical, or a physiological order. We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. Each time we are about to drink a glass of water, we remind ourselves of the eternal mystery of creation, “Blessed be Thou… by Whose word all things come into being.”

A trivial act and a reference to the supreme miracle. Wishing to eat bread or fruit, to enjoy a pleasant fragrance or a cup of wine; on tasting fruit in season for the first time; on seeing a rainbow, or the ocean; on noticing trees when they blossom; on meeting a sage of Torah or in secular learning; on hearing good or bad tidings – we are taught to invoke His great name and our awareness of Him. Even on performing a physiological function we say “Blessed be Thou… who healest all flesh and doest wonders.”

This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.” (pg. 49)

The antidote to being “tool making animals” is to be aware of the sublime. By practicing active awareness, stopping and making conscientious blessings before each and every seemingly mundane and rote act of human existence; elevates us into a constant state of awareness and appreciation for the divine in all things.

Without this form of constant and active appreciation mediation, life takes on a dull veneer. The miraculous becomes rote and hum drum (been there, done that) and the divine is regulated to dusty old books of the past.

However, as Rav Heschel is about to warn us, one can not allow his faith to solely be ruled by his or her emotional sensations. Nor can we dismiss these sensations as mere emotionalism. The key, as always, is balance. The appreciation of both core abilities, emotional sensations, and intellectual discernment, must go hand in hand.

“The sense of wonder and transcendence must not become “a cushion for the lazy intellect.” It must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate. It must, however, remain a constant awareness if man is to remain true to the dignity of G-d’s creation, because such awareness is the spring of all creative thinking.” (pg. 51)

The Sense Of Mystery

“This is one of Ecclesiastes’ central insights: “I have seen the task that G-d has given to the sons of men… He has made all things beautiful in its time; but he has also implanted in the hearts of men the mystery, so that man cannot find out what G-d has done from beginning to the end” (3:10-11). (pg. 54)

“We explore the ways of being but do not know what, why or wherefore being is.” (pg. 56)

“The deeper we search the nearer we arrive at knowing that we do not know. What do we truly know about life and death, about the soul or society, about history or nature? “We have become increasingly and painfully aware of our abysmal ignorance. No scientist, fifty years ago, could have realized that he was as ignorant as all first-rate scientists now know themselves to be.” (Abraham Flexner – 1930) “Can we not see that exact laws, like all other ultimates and absolutes, are as fabulous as the crock of gold at the rainbow’s end?” (Gilbert N. Lewis – 1926) “Beware lest we say, we have found wisdom” (Job 32:13). (pg. 57)

“The Torah, we are told, is both concealed and revealed, and so is the nature of all reality. All things are both known and unknown, plain and enigmatic, transparent and impenetrable. “Hidden are the things that we see; we do not know what we see.” The world is both open and concealed, a matter of fact and a mystery. We know and we don’t know – this is our condition.

Strange are the words which conclude the Pentateuch. After telling us all the details about where Moses was buried:

and he was buried in the valley
in the land of Moab
over against Bet Peor

the Torah concludes

And no one knows of his grave unto this day.

The Torah, the Rabbis said, teaches us the way of faith. Though we know the site of Moses’ grave and all the signs of its geographic location, we must realize that we know nothing at all about its whereabouts.” (pg. 59)

The duality of knowing and not knowing is something that humans have a hard time accepting. I saw somewhere (What the bleep do we know) that we are only aware of 2000 bits of information out of the 400 billion bits of information we are processing per second. That would partially explain our intuitive process. More importantly it’s a great example of the concept of knowing but not really knowing. We can comprehend that our mind has many capabilities, yet we don’t understand the extent of its powers.

Many times in different fields, be it psychology, medicine, or the evolutionary sciences, we try to squeeze and deduce theories and grand solutions from very limited information. The magnificent mysteries of our existence requires much more data, comprehension, and even more importantly, personal growth and enlightenment. We rush to connect the dots and solve the mysteries, far before we are ready. We are children playing detective in the majestic mystery of the universe.

We pride ourselves on our achievements with our 2000 bits but we don’t have an inkling of what we would comprehend with 400 billion bits. It’s the height of arrogance and foolishness, as Rav Heschel alludes to in quoting Flexner and Lewis, to assume we understand the grand design and solved the great mysteries with our 2000 bits.

We have a very hard time with duality. We want it to be one or the other. We seemingly can’t find peace with both. The solution is to realize that the universe is not one or two dimensional and neither are we. There are multiple levels within all fields. The higher levels of comprehension and discernment, moral and personal development, and particularly spiritual enlightenment, must be mastered in order to have the best possible chance of knowing (to a degree) the unknowable.

Finally, here are two excerpts (from Imperial College Science Magazine) that showcase how believing that we have solved and removed the mystery is actually detrimental. Our ability to discover the truth and uncover the next layer of understanding about the continual mystery of life requires “humility of thought.”

“When Darwin first presented his theory of evolution it challenged the established way of thinking, whereas now it is almost taboo to challenge it. What is doubly ironic is that it is exactly these constraints that seem to fire creative genius into action. According to Ken Arnold, “Creativity is measuring itself against rules and external constraints. The prompt to creativity is frustration.” Nothing encourages creativity more than being told you can’t do something.”

“Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher, described genius as humility of thought. She felt that only when the mind stops thinking it knows, is it open to learning something new. Instead of piling up more and more information, all the hard work goes into clearing away the false ideas.”

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