Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Reflections on Rabbi Luzzatto’s Definition of Kabbalah

“…the entire Wisdom of Truth (i.e. the Kabbalah) comes only to demonstrate the truth of faith.”

~ “138 Openings of Wisdom”, Opening One.

The above quote is likely Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s definition of theoretical Kabbalah – i.e. a wisdom of truth that demonstrates the truth of faith. The notion of faith is very central to this definition. So for this definition to work at all, there needs to be clarification of Judaism’s core faith based beliefs. Since Judaism’s articles of faith were first voiced during the Middle Ages, it’s not likely Rabbi Luzzatto is referring to experiential Kabbalah which predates the current formulation of these articles of faith; a device designed to help Jews define their position on questions raised in dialogue with other belief systems.

This does not mean that they were invented at that time. It just means that Judaism’s vast body of teachings had to be carefully examined to extract out Judaism’s inherent template of core beliefs. Until then it was like a beautiful piece of music played without a drummer. For the music to be truly moving, there had to be an inherent beat all along - one silently followed by the musicians. One day a competing ensemble questioned the integrity of their inherent beat. So the musicians were forced to add a drummer to their ranks. Thereby, exposing their beat and quelling the scandal.

Unlike experiential Kabbalah, it seems like theoretical Kabbalah really took off from the Middle Ages onward - coinciding with the period when the articles of faith were more clearly exposed. It’s the mind trying to play a catch up game with the mystical experience and while going very far, never really catching up - for mystical experiences comes with facets beyond the grasp of the highest reaches of the human mind.  
Rabbi Luzzatto’s definition seems to bring wisdom to bear on faith, as Kabbalah is a wisdom of truth that demonstrates the truth of faith. One would expect wisdom and faith to be opposites. Wisdom indicates thinking. Whereas, faith applies to what’s beyond the highest reaches of human thought. Once a faith based concept is fully proved by the mind, removing any potential for doubt, the concept transfers from the category of faith to the category of wisdom, i.e. intellect.  Moreover, the term “wisdom of truth” seems to further underscore intellectual verifiability – as “truth” is something the mind usually arrives at only after careful deliberation.

In 10th grade geometry, I learned that every geometric proof relies on accepted axioms. These axioms aren’t provable. They’re just accepted as true. By the time I finished high school, I realized that this applies across board to any wisdom, not just to geometry. I realized that the ancient philosophers had their axioms that they must have worked off of to build their arguments. Science takes the experimental method and mathematics as axiomatic. The axioms are like the soul of the wisdom and the information overlaying the axioms forms the body of the wisdom. This is a basic structure of every discipline, be it history, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, mathematics and yes, Judaism too.

Judaism’s articles of faith are the axioms of Judaism. That’s why they are taken on faith. What Rabbi Luzzatto seems to be explaining is that theoretical Kabbalah is a wisdom which is built on Judaism’s articles of faith. Take Judaism’s axiomatic articles of faith and with deliberate logic work out their major implications to the fullest extent logically possible. The outcome of the endeavor will be theoretical Kabbalah. For example, work out the real implications of the Creator’s Oneness and it’s impossible to explain how the world exists without resorting to notions of divine emanations, spiritual realms, angels and the like. Another example, the notion of a messiah means that the world is moving towards a goal and every event no matter how big or small somehow feeds into that goal. To explain how this is so, one has to come onto concepts like “repairing the world”. Again, another mainstay of theoretical Kabbalah.

Since faith forms the axiomatic foundation and wisdom builds the logical structure, Kabbalah embraces both wisdom and faith at once. This clarifies why Kabbalah is characterized as, “A wisdom of truth that demonstrates the truth of faith.” However, working from the foundation of axioms, one might expect Rabbi Luzzatto to write something like, “A wisdom of truth built upon the truth of faith.” Why does he use the word “demonstrates”?

Usually, axioms are used to demonstrate the truth of a wisdom. The truth of a wisdom is not normally used to demonstrate the truth of its own axioms. It seems like Rabbi Luzzatto is saying that the body of wisdom demonstrates the truth of the axioms used, which can be viewed as going in the wrong direction - a misalignment with the normative path of logic.

Sometimes, a wisdom’s accumulated body of knowledge is more psychologically impactful than the axioms which it was built on. Once enchanted by the wisdom, the person can possess a greater appreciation for the axioms that were used to build these beautiful ideas.  I remember how uninterested I was in the technical side of physics during my college years. Later on, I learned about some of Einstein’s theories, like relativity and time dilation.  I was hooked! I loved the idea of how matter and energy are just two sides of the same reality and I also loved the notion of time travel. Suddenly, I was interested in what was behind these theories; such underlying notions like the speed of light's constancy (whether you are running towards a light beam or away from it, it still approaches you at the exact same speed) or the relationship between mass and energy. The underlying building blocks came alive to me. I acquired a thirst for the axioms.

Like well-behaved children reflect positively on their parents, the beauty of a wisdom can reflect back on its axioms, and inspire someone to look in their direction and ultimately, accept them as truths.  This seems to me to be what Rabbi Luzzatto is conveying. Once a person is enchanted by the beauty of Kabbalah, the articles of faith which it is built upon will suddenly become more fully alive. It won’t be such a struggle to believe. It will be a joy!

Why did Rabbi Luzzatto refer to theoretical Kabbalah as “The Wisdom of Truth” and not by another commonly used term, “The Hidden Wisdom”? I don’t know for sure. It seems likely to me that “The Wisdom of Truth” is the body of mystical teachings which are derived from the articles of faith (as discussed above). Whereas, the “The Hidden Wisdom” might be mystical teachings more closely associated with revelations, i.e. experiential Kabbalah.

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