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Thursday, June 27, 2013

"God is Truth"  --  Talmud
The goal of the secular kabbalist is the revelation of transcendent reality.  As Einstein said, "There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap."  This is a scientist's view of transcendent reality.  However, in science, that "leap" is limited by our prior knowledge of demonstrated reality.

In the case of the metaphysicist, that limitation is not necessarily present.  As discussed in an earlier article ("The Search for Reality"), much of our "reality" is a creation of our mind.  That "reality" is based on words.  It varies from person to person depending on how each of us chooses to interpret those words.  Our faith is the product of words.  Then, how can we leap into transcendent reality with any degree of confidence?

From this, we see that the greatest barrier to transcendent reality is the self.  Our world is largely of our own making and we stubbornly protect it.  The "I" stands guard firmly at the gate.

What is needed is a singular reality against which our self-imposed reality can be tested.  Further, we need a process for carrying out the test.  Maimonides has provided us with a model for the former.  "There is nothing else in existence but God and His works, the latter including all existing things besides Him: we can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works."  Then, creation itself provides us with the external standard we seek.

Now, we need the means to get beyond the "gate".  That process is doubt.  The typical view of faith and doubt is that doubt implies lack of faith.  From the perspective of the secular kabbalist, a proper balance of faith and doubt is the means to a meaningful leap into transcendent reality.  Unconstrained faith leads to fantasy.  Unconstrained doubt leads to cynicism and rejection.  When held in proper balance they provide passage through the "gate of I".

In the previous article on faith, almost every paragraph contained a question.  This was done to illustrate the number of questions that a simple word like faith can generate.  Questions are the tools of doubt.  The most important step in resolving doubt is finding the right question to ask.

These ideas are not new.  The Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard thought that to have belief is at the same time to have doubt.  In Zen Buddhism, Koans e.g. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" are meant to provoke the "Great Doubt".  The concept of doubt is very important in the Linji school of Zen.  The Zen master Dahui Zonggao warned his students that they must doubt words to not be fooled by them. -- "Within great doubt there necessarily exists great enlightenment."  He also said that this practice is also a form of meditation that "can be carried out by laymen in the midst of their daily activities."  Another, Wumen Huikai, said, "... [understanding Zen is] just a matter of rousing the mass of doubt throughout your body, day and night, and never letting up."

Similar, a secular kabbalist must provoke the "Great Doubt" by raising questions about every word and assumption that created our inner reality.  This process is very difficult and, possibly very dangerous.  Our inner reality defines our identity.  That is why our "I" fiercely guards the "gate" of our identity.  In order to take us out of ourselves and into meaningful transcendent reality we must confront and challenge our identity.  This is the path to empowerment.  As the "Ethics of the Fathers" teaches, "Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations."

Then, let's take the first step.  Examine your own doubts and choose one.  Formulate a question that relates to that doubt.  Next, during the week, use every available moment to focus your thoughts on that question.  Be persistent and see if this brings some light to the inner darkness of your world.

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"God is Truth"  --  Talmud

In both metaphysics and science, faith is an important element.  Most people do not associate faith with science.  Einstein did make the connection when he said, The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap."  This is transcendent reality in the view of a scientist.  The essential question is, how far can that "leap" go before it is no longer connected to demonstrable reality?

Maimonides sought to answer that question in metaphysical terms.  He said, "… for there is nothing else in existence but God and His works, the latter including all existing things besides Him: we can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works; His works give evidence of His existence, and show what must be assumed concerning Him, that is to say, what must be attributed to Him either affirmatively or negatively." 

The Talmud states that God is Truth.  Maimonides asserts that the only way to acquire knowledge of God is through God's works, i.e. God's Creation.  Then, does this imply that our faith should be anchored in that Creation?  This takes us to the nexus of science and secular kabbalism. 

Thus, God, Truth and Reality are inextricably connected.  In the Bible, the Hebrew word for faith, trust and truth are the same (emun).  If you believe that God is the Creator, then God created reality.  This applies no matter what your personal view of the nature of God may be.  Therefore, it follows that reality must reflect the nature of God, just as a painting or symphony reflects the nature of its creator.  From the perspective of the secular kabbalist, faith is constrained by reality.  It challenges us to ask, how far can we "leap" into transcendent reality?

When we look into an ephemeris (astronomical almanac) to determine sunrise for a future date, we have considerable faith in its prediction.  Barring an unexpected cosmic catastrophe, it will happen.  In a medical emergency, when the physician says that the patient has a good chance of surviving we have faith in his prognosis.  However, we prepare ourselves for an adverse outcome.  When the local weather report says storms in a month, we do not take it too seriously.  Our faith in these events depends on experience and repeatability.  Should these also be our criteria for that leap of faith into transcendent reality?

Of the words in the vocabulary of theology, faith has been the subject of considerable debate.  For example, in the New Testament, James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul have distinct views.  James asserts, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (James 2.17).  Whereas, Paul declares, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2.8).  The various texts on this subject have had a variety of interpretations.  Nonetheless, there are clear distinctions between the two points of view.

In this instance, the Torah (Pentateuch) is closer to the view of James.  It repeatedly insists that faith is demonstrated by works and, conversely, positive works are the products of faith.  From this point of view, you might ask, if God is known to us through God's works, then are we "known to God" by our works?

The Bible is the root of much of Western theology and metaphysics.  As we in the West have become more aware of other sacred texts, they have contributed greatly to contemporary theology and metaphysics.  Over time, the word faith has taken on a number of meanings.  Then the relation of faith and truth must be reexamined in the context of evolving metaphysical thought.  In particular, how do we find the meaning of faith in the context of the education of a Secular Kabbalist?

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"God is Truth"  --  Talmud

{This is a revision of the previous post of 5 June 2013}

The ancient sages described humans as "speaking animals".  In the Bible, speech was the first capability given to humans that separated them from the animals.  It was speech that provided the means for choice.  And, it was choice that made it possible for humans to seek transcendence.  In Genesis 3:22 we find, "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of us (gods), knowing good and evil" [parentheses added by author].  As Rabbi M. M. Schneerson taught, "Man alone is capable of transcending the very bounds of self."

The tools of the metaphysicist and mystic are words.  However, we all know that words can lead us either to knowledge and empowerment or to deception and depravity.  Therefore, the metaphysicist or mystic must first learn to be extremely careful in the use of words.

Indeed, the first words we will consider are mysticism and metaphysics.  The dictionary provides two definitions for mysticism. One is "belief in or experience of a reality surpassing normal human understanding or experience, especially a reality perceived as essential to the nature of life."  The other is "vague, groundless speculation and obscure or confused belief or thought."

In the contemporary usage, "mysticism" has become an umbrella term for all sorts of non-rational worldviews. William Harmless even states that mysticism has become "a catch-all for religious weirdness".  At its worst, it becomes "snake-oil mysticism".  It adds to the power and wealth of the so-called "mystic" through deceit and fantasy at the expense of the innocent believer.

Since, contemporary usage determines how words affect our thinking today, we will dispense with the use of the word mysticism in order to avoid ambiguity.  Empowerment does not come through words related to fantasy!  Empowerment comes from confrontation with reality.  Very specifically, it comes from confrontation with transcendent reality.

The dictionary definition of metaphysics is "the philosophical study of the nature of reality, concerned with such questions as the existence of God, the relationship between mind and matter, the external world, etc."  Metaphysics differs from science in that it denotes enquiry that goes beyond the limits of current measurement and demonstration. 

Einstein captured the spirit of the metaphysicist in the following statement.  “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. ….. It was the experience of mystery – … -- that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something  we cannot penetrate, …”

Both science and metaphysics are linked by a single word i.e. "reality".  Science is the search for empirical reality.  Its tools are measurement and demonstration.  Metaphysics is the search for transcendent reality.  Its tools are observation and words.  Unlike science, which is grounded in demonstration, metaphysics must struggle to maintain proper linkage with measurable reality.  That linkage is sustained by the proper use of words.

The dangers of turning reality into fantasy are illustrated by an allegorical tale from the Talmud.  Four men entered the transcendent realm, namely, Ben ‘Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and R. Akiba.  R. Akiba warned them that they must not confuse illusion with reality saying, "When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, say not, water, water!"    For it is said, "He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before mine (God's) eyes."  Three fell into the trap of self-deception.  Ben ‘Azzai cast a look and died.  Ben Zoma looked and became demented.  Aher became an apostate.  Only R. Akiba departed unhurt.

This tale teaches that the metaphysicist must have a clear recognition of reality.  Maimonides taught that before studying metaphysics, one should study logic, mathematics in all its forms and science.  There was a tradition that one should be forty years old, educated, married and have children before embarking on the study of Kabbalah. 

Anyone who is familiar with a thesaurus knows that a single word can have many meanings and connotations.  When you compare words of different languages, as in a concordance, the problem becomes even more complex.  This is why mathematics became the "language of science".  It provided clarity and precision of thought.

Words are necessary to formulate and communicate ideas.  In the metaphysicist's search for transcendent reality, words must be clearly defined and linked to the world of empirical reality.  Words are the necessary tools of reason.  Human beings are not always rational.  But, they are rationalizing.  It is that trait that makes it possible for them to use words to transform reality into fantasy.  The metaphysicist is always in a state of tension between the rational and the rationalizing.  That is why the first challenge to the education of a secular kabbalist is that of linking one's words to demonstrable reality.

-- More to come --