Ramchal’s introduction to “The Way of G-d” isn’t really what we’d expect it to be. It isn’t for example a rationale for studying G-d’s way in the first place, or a justification for the idea that we humans can explain it. It has other, closer-to-the-bone ideas in mind which it presents quite subtly and it offers other things, too 1. But it doesn’t touch on the sorts of things that a book that lays out so many fundamentals of the Jewish Faith would be expected to and we’ll try to explain why.
His first point is that it’s far, far better to know things in a structured and orderly way than in a haphazard one. He compares haphazard knowledge to a wild, chaotic forest, and structured knowledge to an orderly, symmetric garden. He offers that we become befuddled when we confront things that are set out in a hodgepodge fashion, and that we can’t determine a correlation between the whole and its parts, or between the parts themselves. Our mind becomes taxed then, he says, and we shut down. For we find ourselves lost in a great jungle of data that we have to sift through exhaustingly. And as a consequence the very thing that excited us so much from the start — the possibility of understanding something clearly — proves to be our nemesis. The opposite is true, though, when we come upon data that’s laid out in order and by category: we’re delighted and pleased.
Now, on the surface Ramchal seems to be offering a reasonable-enough insight that matches our experience and goes far to explain mental-stress. But that isn’t what we’d have expected. It’s clear that he’s conveying a deeper message here. Ramchal seems to be addressing the inner life. He’s apparently contrasting a perplexed, torn, tortured G-dless soul who can’t see the connection between things, with the person of faith and religious erudition who can. For the tortured soul often finds himself in the midst of a wild, chaotic forest of anguish day after day. He never knows what he’ll come upon from moment to moment, and can’t be sure he’ll know what to make of it once he comes upon it given that things are often muddled and haphazard for him. But the person of full faith and knowledge walks about a veritable Garden of Eden laid out in full splendor. Each and every thing he meets confirms his faith in an orderly way and meaningfully, and reveals the shrewdness and wisdom of the Great Planner.
Ramchal’s intention seems then to be to provide us with the great master plan laid out in order, and to thus allow us the great bliss and airy-ease that true and knowledgeable believers enjoy. But then Ramchal seems to turn a corner and to begin advising us how to analyze things, which we’ll examine next time.
His first point is that it’s far, far better to know things in a structured and orderly way than in a haphazard one. He compares haphazard knowledge to a wild, chaotic forest, and structured knowledge to an orderly, symmetric garden. He offers that we become befuddled when we confront things that are set out in a hodgepodge fashion, and that we can’t determine a correlation between the whole and its parts, or between the parts themselves. Our mind becomes taxed then, he says, and we shut down. For we find ourselves lost in a great jungle of data that we have to sift through exhaustingly. And as a consequence the very thing that excited us so much from the start — the possibility of understanding something clearly — proves to be our nemesis. The opposite is true, though, when we come upon data that’s laid out in order and by category: we’re delighted and pleased 2.
Ramchal’s first rule for an orderly and logical understanding of things is that we’d need to consider everything in its own context, and in relation to the whole. And he contends that we’d best do that by knowing that there are four general categories under which things fall: they’re either an entire entity or part of one, a general instance of this or that or a particular one, a cause of something or an effect of something else, and an essential phenomenon (i.e., a thing itself, like a tree) or a quality of one (i.e., something about that thing, like the tree’s width) 3.
In short, he advises us to keep in mind that if something is a part of something else, then we’d need to know the whole it’s a part of, and vice versa. If it’s a cause of something, then we’d need to know its effects, and vice versa. If it’s a quality, then we’d need to know the essence associated with it, and vice versa. And then we’d need to know whether the thing we’re analyzing is a general principle or a detail, and vice versa 4, since doing all that helps to provide us with a complete picture. The astute reader couldn’t help but notice that “The Way of G-d” is structured just that way; and while it would serve us well to point out how, we haven’t the space to lay that out.
Now, all of this is logically elegant and essential if we’re to ever understand things in this world of change and derivation. But on a deeper level we also find that Ramchal has offered us another profound lesson in self-knowledge along the way. His point thus seems to be that if we’re ever to determine who we are and to better ourselves, we too would have to see ourselves in our own context, and in relation to the whole. For while we’re each unique with wants and needs of our own, we still and all must fit into the universe in its entirety. In certain instances we cause things to happen, and in others we’re affected by others’ initiatives; sometimes we’re essential to a situation, and other times we’re happenstantial and quite secondary, etc.
That’s to say that knowing ourselves and avoiding being the sort of perplexed, torn, tortured G-dless soul we spoke of above hinges upon our knowing our context and our relation to G-d Himself, to people, and to everything else. Alternatively, he seems to be underscoring the point that G-d’s presence is the most overarching principle behind everything, and that each one of us is a particular part of His world who is directly affected by Him and beholden to Him.
And indeed, that’s what ‘The Way of G-d” is all about in the end. It’s a methodical manual for delving into our beings and catching sight of G-d’s presence within ourselves and the universe, and for going on from there to apply that to our daily lives.
Ramchal makes one final point, though, which is that he wrote the book in order to lay out not only the main theological themes of the Jewish Faith about how G-d governs the world, but also to lay out the ways we’re to serve G-d knowing all this. That’s why the entire final section is dedicated toward explaining a lot of what we do as Jews in light of all that 5.
1 Our point will be that while it might be argued that the book’s title is derived from the verse that reads, “they have become foolish, for they did not know the way of G-d” (Jeremiah 5:4), which underscores the importance of knowledge in the service of G-d, the title is actually based on another verse which has a whole other meaning
2 Ramchal spoke of the importance of orderly thought in other places his writings as well. See, for example, Ma’amar HaVivuach Bein Chokeir U’Mekubal (in Sha’arei Ramchal p. 76), Derech Tevunah p. 183, the beginning of Iggerot Chochma v’Da’at, his comments to Arimit Yadi b’Tzalotin (as found in Ginzei Ramchal p. 229), and in Yichud HaYirah (as found in Adir Bamarom 2, pp. 142, 146) where it’s discussed on a very esoteric level.
3 He focuses a lot on these sorts of logical constructs especially in a little known work entitled Sefer HaHiggayon (“The Book of Logic”), as well as in two other works entitled Derech Tevunot (“The Way of Understanding”) and Sefer HaMelitzah (“The Book of Rhetoric”), which were all written shortly before “The Way of G-d” itself, toward the end of his life. So it’s clear that these ideas were the fruit of his later thinking. His earlier works don’t focus on this.
4 He goes on to speak here of the importance of concentrating on overarching principles rather than on each and every detail, since doing that will prevent one from getting lost in a morass of details while forgetting the main point. Our sages themselves said as much, as Ramchal notes it in the text, in the Sifrei (Ha’azinu 32:2), and Ramchal made the point in Da’at Tevunot 83-84 and elsewhere in his works.
5 That’s also why rather than contending that the book’s title is derived from “they have become foolish, for they did not know the way of G-d” (Jeremiah 5:4), which underscores the importance of knowledge in the service of G-d. as we indicated in note 1 above, we hold that the title is actually based on the verses that reads, “And Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him … because he commands his sons and his household after him to keep the way of G-d” (Genesis 18:18-19). For the latter verses point to the important notion that the ideas presented here are meant to direct us toward living G-d’s ways rather than merely understanding them.