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Jewish Intellect

by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner

Each of us likes to think of himself as an objective, dispassionate seeker of truth. And we would like to believe in our capacity to achieve objective understanding. In reality, however, our intellectual activities -- especially our search for the meaning and purpose of life -- are inevitably colored by our desires. There is no escaping our subjectivity.

The choice of topics to which we direct our mental energies are themselves a function of some pre-existing will or desire. Why does one person walk into a bookstore and gravitate to the section on Chinese cookbooks, while another browses through the works of Greek philosophy? Only some of pre-existing connection to one body of knowledge or another can explain the choice.

If subjectivity plays such a large role in the selection of information from which we forge our understanding, then it necessarily colors the results of those efforts as well. Different raw material inevitably yields different results.

Desire and will determine not only what information a person processes, but how it affects him. One can acquire factual knowledge without an affinity or interest in those facts, but information thus acquired will never change one's vision of himself or the world. That is what our Sages meant when they said, "A person does not learn Torah except from a place (i.e. a topic) that his heart desires" (Talmud - Avoda Zara 19a).

The emphasis here is on the word "learn." Without interest, education cannot take place. All successful educators are superior motivators, for without motivation teaching is impossible. Before we learn Torah for the first time every day, we recite the blessing. Within that blessing we include a short prayer that God should make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths (Talmud - Brachot 12b).

No other mitzvah is preceded by a similar petition: Before we put on tefillin, for instance, we do not ask God to please make the mitzvah enjoyable. But learning Torah is different. Without the sweetness, we cannot internalize the Torah.

Recognition of the correlation between our interest and our ability to absorb leads to some disturbing conclusions. For interest and desire are not only a means of internalizing knowledge; they are also a means of coloring it. If we pay attention only to those bits of information that interests us, then there is obviously a large subjective component to any intellectual investigation. Information that we perceive as beneficial to us takes on an exaggerated importance, and other information that threatens us in some way is filtered out.

The Torah makes this very point in the Shema, the basic affirmation of Jewish faith. In the third paragraph of the Shema, we are enjoined, "Do not go astray after your hearts..." (Numbers 15:39). The Talmud interprets "going astray after one's heart" as referring to the pursuit of false ideologies and distorted beliefs about God (Talmud - Brachot 12b).

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the great leaders of European Jewry in the generation leading up to the Holocaust, asked: If the Torah warns against false ideologies and philosophies, why does it speak of the heart and not the mind? He answers: False beliefs are raised not so much by a defective intelligence as by a perverted heart. The heart is the seat of our desires and will, and those desires are the source of all distorted thinking.

To be sure, it is possible to reduce one's subjectivity. To the extent that a person gains control of his desires, he reduces the problem of bias. That is why purification of character is a precondition for greatness in Torah study.

Yet no matter how much we minimize our self-interest, the challenge raised by suffering confronts us with other inherent limitations. The ultimate answers to our questions necessarily depend on knowledge of God's ways and how he runs the world. As finite beings, however, we cannot know the ways of an infinite God. Our intellect cannot comprehend His.

As Maimonides writes: "His wisdom is not like the wisdom of the wisest of people, and the difference between Him and His creatures is not merely quantitative, but absolute."

Confronted with these barriers to intellectual understanding, what are we to do? Should we simply throw up our hands? Such a response is deeply unsatisfying. It is also un-Jewish.

Judaism, more than any other religion, demands rigorous, ongoing intellectual effort. We are not, of course, only thinking creatures, but as Jews and human beings, intellect is a crucial part of our essence. Any relationship with God that does not engage our intellect fails to move us at the deepest levels of our beings. We must pursue our intellectual inquiries as far as we can, even as we remain mindful of our inherent limitations. We can neither abjure our intellect nor fully depend upon it.

Judaism does not view thought as the sole source of knowledge or truth. Nor does it limit truth to only those statements that can be verified in the same way as a logical proposition. Limiting our knowledge of the world to what can be philosophically or scientifically proven trivializes thought by confining it to a very narrow sphere. It equates the powerful, but limited, vision of science with the entirety of reality, and thereby excludes from the realm of legitimate inquiry all moral questions, as well as the nature of God and our relationship to Him.

God in His essence is unknowable, but that does not mean He does not exist. The totality of His ways is unfathomable, but that does not mean He has no ways.

Intellectual endeavor remains crucial, but it must be coupled with another element: trust. Trust is what we are left with when we have gone as far as we can toward intellectual understanding and have still not obtained satisfactory answers. Trust is the certainty that there is sense to God's ways -- even when we are denied access to those ways.

Reprinted with permission from and excerpted with permission from "MAKING SENSE OF SUFFERING." Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY.



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