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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 --

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