Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Flowing Between Intellect and Faith


This past Sabbath the Rabbi of my synagogue presented a gleaming gem from a teaching delivered by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson o.b.m. in 1962. The teaching centered around an enigmatic comment of Rashi on the verse, "If you will follow My statutes..." (Leviticus 26:3). Rashi explains that in this context "following statutes" means to toil in Torah study. Rabbi Schneerson asked, "What's the direct connection between following statutes and toiling in Torah study?"

The statutes are the Biblical commandments taken on faith. Unlike many other commandments, they're the ones which the intellect cannot produce any understanding of. Therefore, a person needs to draw on a soul level higher than intellect in order to relate to them. In the human soul, where comprehension ends, faith begins - as both comprehension and faith are separate, but, neighboring soul regions. At her uppermost boundary, intellect borders the lowermost boundary of faith. Metaphorically, if this were charted on a globe, intellect would be south and faith would be immediately north. Of course, this relationship is spiritual. Physical notions of space don't apply. However, at times a crude physical explanation makes for a good starting point.

This boundary between intellect and faith is truly elastic. Sufficient study can bring comprehension to ideas formally accepted on faith, expanding the boundary of intellect to encompass into what was once part of the soul's region of faith. True to the character of the spiritual, nothing given away is ever really lost. When a soul cedes her region of faith to intellect, she receives a new flow of even higher levels of faith. It's a single continuous download of spiritual light. The whole system spiritually lights up in a single chain of growth. In exchange for what faith gave away on her lower border, she receives fresh spiritual terrain on her upper border. Thus, she moves up the spiritual ladder.

This is exemplified by King Solomon's declaration that as hard as he tried, all his wisdom couldn't unravel the mystery of the Temple era purification rites performed with the ashes of the red heifer. Yet, precisely this mystery was understood by Moses prophetically. Moses understood what King Solomon had to take on faith. Does this mean that Moses exhausted his soul's resource of faith? Does this mean that having attained an understanding of such a great mystery that his intellect had engulfed his whole region of faith and now he was all intellect and no faith? Of course not! Moses' faith simply moved up the spiritual ladder to yet higher levels.

This isn't surprising because every answer opens doors to new questions. The more knows the more s/he realizes that s/he doesn't really know. So very often there's greater revelation of "not knowing" than actual "knowing" that accompanies a growth spurt in knowledge.

Therefore, by delving into the sweet depths of divine wisdom, one is doing something a lot more than merely accumulate new facts and intellectual approaches. One is actually growing his/her region of faith, making the soul taller by the standards of the spiritual ladder. This is similar to the way the body growth tall, in the sense that the whole body grows holistically in concert. The legs, torso and head all grow together helping the human body reach new heights. When the water level rises, so does the boat perched on the water. This is part of how studying divine wisdom works to elevate the soul.

What I take from this teaching right before the holiday of Shavuot, is a fresh perspective on the role of Torah study in our spiritual growth.

Separately, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad o.b.m. teaches that a person who mostly devotes his daylight hours to earn a living is a soul working on faith and one who mostly devotes these hours to Torah study is a soul working on wisdom. In light of the above, shouldn't the person studying Torah be characterized as one who is working on faith? Also, if one can attain faith by studying Torah then why is there a need to work for living?

It seems to me that Rabbi Yosef Chaim is just addressing a starting point, not a goal. Both types of souls will eventually attain both gifts, faith and intellect. It's just that their growth starts at a different point. It's wiser to start any program of growth with the inner resources that a person already brings to the table. If someone is exceptionally scholarly, then starting the person on Torah makes the most sense. As explained above, this approach will eventually lead the person to grow in faith as well. 

However, if a person is more experiential in nature, this means that in some sense the person already tastes the Creator in real life and therefore, is inherently less interested in books. Tasting the Creator as a real life presence is an experience of faith rather than of intellect. For a person more at home with faith than with intellect an experiential pursuit, like earning a livelihood, is a more natural starting point - as it's relating to the level where the person is holding. Eventually, the sensation of faith will well up, overflowing and flooding the person's intellect. The intellect will grow from faith and the person will understand divine wisdom as never before. Being singular and integrated, the whole soul grows together harmoniously in unison. 


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