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Da’at Tevunot (“Knowing the Reasons”)

Prologue

Imagine sitting knee to knee with someone very wise, with the chance to ask anything you’d like. Well, that’s the setting to Ramchal’s Da’at Tevunot 1, which functions as a dialogue between a seeker and a sage … actually between a soul and reason itself. (Ramchal wrote other books in a dialogue format, but Da’at Tevunot was the best of them by far.)

The soul asked reason to explain a few things about the most important themes in Jewish Thought, which have come to be known as “The Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith”. For as the soul put it, “While I certainly accept all of them as true without hesitation, some of them I accept indeed and understand as well, while others of them I simply accept on faith without really understanding them”. And he was hoping that reason would spell them out to him.

It’s important for our purposes here to know that Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, 1135-1204) listed thirteen fundamental things about the Jewish religion we’d need to accept in order to claim to be believing Jews in all honesty: That G-d exists, is the only G-d, is wholly spiritual and incorporeal, is eternal, and that He alone should be worshipped; that He revealed His wishes to us through the prophets, and that Moses was the greatest among them; that G-d's Torah was given on Mount Sinai and is absolute; that G-d is omniscient, and rewards all good deeds and punishes all wrongful ones; and that the Messiah will come and the dead will eventually be resurrected 2. But as the soul explained, he needed to have G-d’s omniscience, reward and punishment, the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead explained to him, since he doesn’t quite understand them. And therein lays the premise of the book. We’ll come back to that shortly, but let’s first touch on the response to Da’at Tevunot in the Jewish world and its modern publication.

2.

Like all spectacular works of revelation, deep insight, and overarching truth, Da’at Tevunot seemed destined to be adored by those exposed to Jewish Thought and Kabbalah, and to go about unnoticed by others. And that indeed was what happened for the longest time.

Some of the greatest Jewish thinkers took to it right away, including but certainly not limited to the Maggid of Mezritch (the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov) and The Gaon of Vilna (it should be said that though it would seem awkward to many to cite those great individuals side by side, but the fact that these “warring” giants both revered this work speaks to the greatness and universality of Ramchal); Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (a distant cousin of the Ramchal, who was a great scholar in his own right), Rabbi Shlomo Eliyashav (1841-1925, known as The Leshem, in commemoration of his great series of Kabbalistic works), and others. But many learned Jews knew nothing of this vital work until Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (the mashgiach of the Ponevitzh Yeshiva, who was a student of Rabbi E. Dessler) offered it to the Jewish world in the 1980’s.

Rabbi Friedlander examined various manuscript versions of Da’at Tevunot in libraries and private collections throughout the world, and presented us with the most accurate edition to date. He then set the book in a more readable type, positioned whole sections of it as independent units, explained the difficulties, and elucidated many of the more elusive, erudite points.

He also connected Da’at Tevunot to certain shorter works of Ramchal’s (the Klallim) that were related to it on an arcane level. For Ramchal contended that the Ari’s works were to be read and understood symbolically rather than literally (see below for a discussion of this). So, Ramchal encapsulated the Ari’s thoughts in his Klallim (and elsewhere), and then “translated” the symbols into terms more easily grasped in Da’at Tevunot. (Let it be known that not everyone agreed with Ramchal's approach to Ari's writings or to the idea that he "translated" Ari's symbols, but that's beyond our scope here.)

Rabbi Friedlander connected the works in his edition, showed how one reflected the other, and thus allowed readers to follow both the esoteric and exoteric perspectives. (Rabbi Friedlander edited and made many more of Ramchal’s works readily available as well in his relatively short life, and we all owe him a great debt.)

Da’at Tevunot was then translated into English by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein (who termed the work “The Knowing Heart” which, while inexact as a translation of the title, nonetheless served to transmit the main thoughts of the work), and several commentaries have been written to it aside from Rabbi Freidlander's, including those of Rabbis Mordechai Shriki, Avraham Goldblatt, Yoseph Spinner, and Binyamin Effrati. As such, many who would never have had access to this masterpiece of Jewish Thought now do.

3.

Though Da’at Tevunot does indeed expound upon the great themes of G-d’s omniscience, reward and punishment, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead as we’d said, it actually uses them to express some of Ramchal’s own greatest ideas. We’ll treat them one at a time, but in fact they come to G-d’s sovereignty, the role of evil and wrong in the world, the meaning of life, and G-d’s plans for the cosmos. Ramchal explained many other vital, overarching themes too in this work, but space will not allow us to delve into them as well. So we’ll concentrate on the ones just cited and present Ramchal’s ideas about them in our own words.

One of his major points is that we very often misconstrue the extent of G-d's reach. Most of us who believe in Him -- including many who have experienced honest and even profound apprehensions of His presence in the world -- certainly accept the fact of His existence. But while we accept His presence in the Heavens or perhaps even on earth as well, few of us though accept the idea that He’s everywhere, throughout the cosmos. And that He’s not only present everywhere, but He’s also in command throughout the cosmos, too.

That’s to say that G-d not only created everything and sustains everything as well -- He also holds ultimate and exclusive sway over everything! For G-d’s sovereignty and rule is absolute and can never, ever be thwarted. There is nothing that can get in His way, nothing that can challenge His intentions.

“Wait a minute!” you’re bound to say. “Didn’t He grant us the freedom to do what we will; and don’t many, many people use that to seemingly go against His will often enough?” -- and you’d be right. So let’s use the opportunity to first explain Ramchal’s view on the next subject at hand, the role of evil and wrong in the world.

Only the most innocent and pure-hearted among us can say with aplomb that everything is for the good and as it should be. Yet we’re taught outright that “G-d is good to all and merciful unto all His handiwork” (Psalms 145:9) … so why don’t the rest of see that all around us? Ramchal would offer that we simply don’t know what we’re looking at when we catch sight of things, and that everything is indeed for the good. His explanation for the truth of the idea that everything is for the good is that bad and wrongfulness only serve as vehicles for the ultimate good (much the way fever serves to burn away infection, and surgery often carves out cancerous growths). His point is that wrong and misfortune -- while certainly painful and daunting -- serve as means to an end that are far greater than the pain involved.

Thus while we’re indeed free to do as we will, in the end nothing can ever truly go against G-d’s will, despite appearances; everything serves His purposes.

That brings us to the meaning of life and G-d’s ultimate plans for the cosmos, as Ramchal reveals them to us in this astounding work. At bottom, we’re taught here, what’s expected of us is to draw as close to G-d as we can by following His will. The irony however is that we’ll all manage to do that in the (ultimate) end -- either directly, by adhering to His expectations for us, or by enduring the sort of remedial “surgery” we alluded to above. Our having arrived at that juncture will then enable us to experience G-d’s full, rich, and overarching omnipresence. And our having come to that point will serve to have been the fulfillment of G-d’s ultimate plans for the cosmos.

But let it be underscored that the single greatest theme that Ramchal set out to explain in Da'at Tevunot is G-d’s utter and all-encompassing Sovereignty (his Yichud in Hebrew). For as we were taught G-d said, "I am the L-rd and there is no other; besides Me there is no G-d … there is no one besides Me. I am the L-rd and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:5-7). Ramchal also indicated that we can hasten the revelation of G-d’s Yichud if we choose.

4

There's one other point to be made about this work. As we indicated above, like so many others of his books, Da'at Tevunot is deeply rooted in the works of the Ari (1534–1572). Anyone who has ever ventured into those writings can’t help but be struck by their inscrutable terminology and imagery.

The reader finds him or herself strolling about somehow in a universe (five universes in fact!) swollen with legions of alternatively whirling and still, descending and ascending, exploding and imploding bold and invisible things and non-things termed “worlds”, “spheres”, “faces”, “emanations”, “vessels”, “lights”, and “letters”. He’s also thrust in the middle of something that could only be termed the melding and severing of parts with the whole, and into instances of infinity and near infinity; and he’s faced with unexpected depictions of G-d Almighty’s will and much more. Could anyone not help but wonder what’s going on in all that?

Some of the Ari’s references have entered into contemporary Jewish Thought, but much of it eludes even the greatest Jewish scholars. In fact many who do use the terms on a more or less sophisticated level don’t really understand the underpinnings of the system well enough to saunter about it comfortably and methodically. As a consequence, many works that go about elucidating the Ari’s universe don’t actually explain it so much as allow the various parts to all fit neatly and precisely within the system itself, without offering the big picture and without explaining what’s being said at bottom.

Some great souls did indeed grasp the whole, though. They understood and were able to express what the Ari was talking about in plain-enough terms. For as the Gaon of Vilna and his disciples understood, the Ari’s imagery is utterly allegorical and was meant to depict the largely inexplicable through bold metaphor and imagery 3.

Ramchal also understood that. As he put it at one point, “The science of Kabbalah is only (meant) to (have one) understand how the Supreme Will governs, and (to explain) why G-d created all the various beings, what He expects of them, what will come about at the end of the universal cycle, and how these worldly phenomena are to be explained” (Klach Pitchei Chochma 30).

So, he set out to articulate Ari’s various themes one by one in several of his works, but most especially, vividly, and successfully in Da’at Tevunot. For rather than explain all the minutia of the Ari’s imagery there, what he set out to explain was G-d’s interactions with humankind based on Ari’s revelations and in lieu of his terminology. One final thing, touching on the makeup of this work. The truth of the matter is that the dialogue form that Ramchal used in Da’at Tevunot is no longer popular or easy to read. It’s too cumbersome and artificial for our tastes, since the questioner (the soul) seems to act as a mere catalyst for the responder’s (reason’s) answers and the give-and-take seems too turgid and belabored.

So we’ve taken the liberty of laying out Ramchal’s statements in our own words, largely; and we’ve taken some excursions along the way that either touch upon things that are only mentioned in Da’at Tevunot cursorily which Ramchal went into in more detail elsewhere, or in order to offer our own insights. As such, this work actually serves as an adaptation of Da’at Tevunot.

May the merits of the righteous Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of blessed memory draw us all close to G-d Almighty! Footnotes:

1. Da’at Tevunot was first printed in Warsaw, Poland in 1889 by the well known scholar and bibliophile, Rabbi Shmuel Luria.

2. See his comments to Mishna Sanhedrin 10. We’ll expand upon this in Ramchal’s Introduction to follow.

3. See Nephesh HaChaim 3:7; see a letter written by Rabbi Avraham Simcha of Stislav cited in p. 236 of Rabbi Friedlander's edition of Da’at Tevunot; also see Rabbi Friedlander’s Iyyunim (#61) on p. 214 there for a discussion of the parabolic nature of prophetic visions in general.


Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various locations on the Web.


 

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