1. I dare say that there’s nothing we seriously misconstrue as much as we do G-d. We’re either too naïve about Him (i.e., picturing Him sitting in Heaven with a long white beard on a throne and making quick ad hoc decisions about humankind and the cosmos), or we’re too sophisticated about Him (i.e., referring to Him esoterically and essentially meaninglessly as “The first cause”, “The greatest conceivable being existent” and the like). And we seriously — tragically — misunderstand His expectations of us. To my mind, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Da’at Tevunot helps explain Him and His intentions to us as clearly as anyone could hope for.
For while there are quite a number of our holy books that I personally go to again and again when I need succor and insight, and which I draw upon when somehow feeling cornered in my being, the one I go to most often is Da’at Tevunot. What follows is something of a preamble to this seminal works of Jewish Thought based on my years of studying it again and again. (See our original introduction to Da’at Tevunot here. )
2. Anyone who has ever ventured into the writings of the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572, who is known as “the Ari”), can’t help but be struck by his inscrutable terminology and imagery.
The reader finds him or herself strolling about somehow in a universe (five universes in fact!) swollen with legions of 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 1. Could anyone not help but wonder what’s going on in all that?
Some of the Ari’s references have entered into everyday working Judaic vocabulary, 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. In fact, so 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. 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 great “Gaon of Vilna” (Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720- 1797) and his disciples understood, the Ari’s imagery is utterly allegorical and was meant to depict the largely inexplicable through bold metaphor and imagery2 Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746, known as “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 (found here), 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, Ramchal set out to articulate the Ari’s various points one by one in several of his works, but most especially, vividly, and successfully in Da’at Tevunot, the book that forms the basis of this work 3For 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 while drawing on Ari’s revelations in lieu of his terminology.
3. Ramchal fashioned Da’at Tevunot in the form of an exchange between a Soul and Reason, and had the Soul ask Reason to explain some of the most important themes in Jewish Thought, known as “The Thirteen Fundamentals of the (Jewish) Faith” as elucidated by Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (1135-1204) 4.
But rather than ask for an explanation of all thirteen of them, the Soul only wanted clarification of a few of the more pressing ones that touch on our relationship to G-d, as we’ll see.
The truth of the matter is that while Ramchal did indeed explain these themes, he actually used them to explain some of the greatest and most vital themes of all: how we might know G-d’s ways and the ways He administers the cosmos, how to draw close to Him, why we were created, and how we might perfect ourselves. For, we’re instructed to “know the G-d of your father, and (to) serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind” (1Chronicles 28:9), and Ramchal set out to facilitate that with this work.
But that actually ties in with what we cited above as well. All of the above is discussed in the Ari’s writings (as well as in the works of other great Jewish thinkers and kabbalists), but while the Ari explained all of that in his own way, Ramchal thought it necessary to explain it in ways the rest of us could more easily understand.
In point of fact the single greatest theme that Ramchal set out to explain here was G-d’s utter and all-encompassing Sovereignty (his Yichud in Hebrew), as we’ll soon see.
For we were taught that, “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’s point will be that we can hasten the revelation of G-d’s Yichud if we choose to, and that in fact it would behoove us to do just that as believing Jews.
4. A note about the makeup of this work is called for, though. 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 statements seem too turgid and belabored.
So we’ve taken the liberty of laying out Ramchal’s statements in our own words in the chapters to follow; and we’ve have 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 serves as an adaptation of Da’at Tevunot.
1 Understand of course that the Ari didn’t originate the terms he used, as his revelations came after many centuries of other Kabbalists’ writings. The point is that he has come to be taken as the Kabbalist par excellence, and the one upon whose authority many others have based their own kabbalistic writings.
2 See Rabbi Chaim of Volzhin’s Nephesh HaChaim 3:7; see a letter written by Rabbi Avraham Simcha of Stislav cited in Da’at Tevunot – Sefer HaKlallim p. 236 (along with a discussion of Rabbi Chaim Vitale’s awareness of the issue); also see Rabbi Chaim Friedlander’s Iyyunim (#61) on p. 214 of his edition of Da’at Tevunot for a discussion of the parabolic nature of prophetic visions in general.
3 Da’at Tevunot was first printed in Warsaw, Poland in 1889 by the well known scholar and bibliophile, Rabbi Samuel Luria.
4 See Maimonides’ comments to the Mishna, Sanhedrin 10. We’ll expand upon this in Ramchal’s Introduction to follow.
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.