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What is the Jewish Approach to Philosophy? (Parshas Chukas)

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 29, 2020



It was that time of year again. Once a year, for a single day, the legendary Buddhist guru would emerge from his place of solitary meditation and greet the public. Thousands upon thousands of people would come flocking to this far-flung spot to greet him. Some came to ask questions, seeking his wisdom and advice; others came just to lay eyes on this legendary figure.

The moment had finally come, and a hush fell over the crowd. The guru slowly emerged, and the crowd immediately swarmed towards him. Those in front began reaching out to him, and one by one, he began addressing of their questions. The aura of reverence was suddenly broken by a commotion in the back of the crowd. An older woman began pushing her way through the crowd, trying to make her way to the front. Everyone began muttering, wondering why she was so desperate to meet the guru. She must have a deep, philosophical question. Was she looking for the path towards peace and truth? When she finally reached the front, she grabbed onto the guru’s arm:

"Moishy, enough of this foolishness! It's time to come home and get a job!"

Very often, people believe that true depth and wisdom lies only in far off places, in Eastern spirituality or Western philosophy. However, the deepest wisdom lies within the innermost chambers of Jewish thought. One must only seek, and they will find.


The Purpose of Chukim


The power and proper use of intellect is an oft misunderstood concept in the Western world, making Parshas Chukas all the more important to understand. Parshas Chukas introduces us to the paradigmatic chok, the mitzvah of parah adumah (the red heifer). A chok is commonly understood in contrast to a mishpat.

  • A mishpat represents a rational, intuitive Torah law, such as the prohibitions against murder and stealing and the command to give charity. Such laws appeal to the human intellect and align with the innate moral compass present within all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, or ethnicity.
  • A chok, on the other hand, refers to a Torah law that seemingly defies human logic and rational explanation, such as the parah adumah, kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), and shatnez (the prohibition of mixing wool and linen).

If there is no logical explanation for these mitzvos, what is their purpose? Why would Hashem command us to do something with no justifiable reason? One possibility is that this type of command engenders obedience and submission to Hashem's will. A life of truth is a life aligned with a higher will, Hashem's will. Such a life requires commitment and discipline. An effective way to discipline oneself is by obeying laws, regardless of whether they are understood. Comprehension and understanding are valuable, but chukim are necessary to create a firm structure of pure obedience to Hashem's will.

However, it is possible that while chukim do not appear to have any rational or logical explanation, this is true only from the viewpoint of human logic and reason. In other words, there is, in fact, a reason behind chukim, but these reasons transcend human logic, residing in a realm far beyond our intellectual capabilities. Within this line of thinking, it is possible that while our human intellects cannot grasp the entirety of a chok’s meaning and depth, we can access shards of its meaning. A clear expression of this is the fact that many commentators have attempted to provide explanations for chukim, despite their supposed incomprehensibility. This suggests at least a partially comprehensible aspect to chukim, despite their elusive and transcendent nature.


The Nature of Intellect


The topic of chukim and our ability to intellectually grasp them raises a more general question: What exactly is the nature and purpose of our intellect? Within Western culture, the intellect is lauded as the be-all and end-all of truth itself. Scientists, philosophers, and atheists often claim that Judaism is dogmatic and irrational, rejecting logic and reason. Is this so? What is the role of intellect within Judaism, and conversely, what is its limit? Do we reject reason, embrace it, or perhaps take a middle ground? The Vilna Gaon famously said, "where philosophy ends, Jewish wisdom begins." It seems, therefore, that Judaism does not reject reason and logic, but builds upon it. Let us explore what this means.


The Purpose and Usefulness of Logic


Philosophy and logic are useful, often necessary, tools for approaching spiritual truths. For example, one of the most famous methods of proving Hashem’s existence is the “proof by design” approach. The universe is so infinitely complex and vastly beautiful, with endless layers of depth and organization. Examine just a single human cell, and you will be astounded by its sophistication. Analyze the principles of chemistry, and you will be blown away by how perfectly everything fits. The only logical reaction to a universe so organized and sophisticated is to conclude that there must be a Designer who created it. Such a work of art does not simply happen by accident. This proof is a logical one, using the logical alternative of a creator not existing to prove the existence of one.


Intellect Provides Limited Knowledge


However, there are also flaws with human logic, and careful consideration the previously mentioned subject shows this clearly. One may logically come to the conclusion of Hashem’s existence: the world is so infinitely complex; there must be a Creator behind it. However, there is a fundamental limit to logic. Logic may help us know that Hashem exists, but it does not help us know anything about Him.We may know, through deductive reasoning, that there is a creator, but logic alone does not allow us to experience Hashem, or deeply connect with Him.But the limits of logic expand far beyond this example.

Immanuel Kant, an 18thcentury philosopher, revolutionized the study of philosophy by questioning the very validity of human intellect itself. (It is essential to point out that while in the Western world, Kant is credited with this novel idea, Jewish thinkers have already been teaching this concept for thousands of years.) He proposed the following idea: The entirety of physical human experience is transmitted through our five senses.Therefore, our entire conception of the physical world is based solely on our personal, subjective experience.We don’t experience reality itself, we experience reality only as it is subjectively experienced through the filter of our own physical senses. We imagine that sounds are the way we hear them, sight is the way we see them, and tastes are the way we, personally, perceive them. However, the idea that our "translation system" - our five senses - allows us to sense things as they truly are is merely an assumption. There is no way of knowing if the world as I experience it is consistent with the objective reality of the world. Perhaps there is an infinite array of possible experiences that our five senses are simply unable to transmit to us. For example, our eyes happen to experience the world through a specific optic lens. But say our eyes were created to see at the quantum level, our perception of reality would be fundamentally different.

Similarly, there is no way of knowing if the world as I experience it is identical to the world as you experience it. Meaning, we could each be living in our own subjective reality. Say that what you experience as blue, everyone else calls green, and what you experience as green, everyone else calls blue. When you were young, you were taught to call what you experience as blue, "green", and what you experience as green, "blue". In essence, there is no way of knowing what anyone else is experiencing; we each experience our own subjective reality.

Taking this idea a step further, we can question logical reasoning and conclusions as well. If the rules of physics and logic are based on personal, limited perceptions of a physical reality, human logic is extremely limited.As such, the Western world may be using the wrong tools to understand the ultimate truths.

This is the view that the Ramban takes, articulating this point in his commentary to Sefer Vayikra. (Ramban Al Ha’Torah- Vayikra 16:8) The Ramban criticizes the assumption that logic is the ultimate tool for determining truth, pointing to the Greek philosophers as a paradigm of those who made this mistake. They denied anything that their intellects could not grasp, anything they could not scientifically quantify. They therefore created a limited subjective truth, confined only to that which they could explain logically. The fault in this lies in the simple fact that rational knowledge is always limited. Let us explore this idea briefly.


Inherent Limitations of the Intellect


If someone were to ask you to prove that you exist, you would seriously struggle to do so. One’s own existence simply cannot be rationally proven. This realization can startle the delicate mind, as it becomes clear that there are actually many aspects of our lives that we take for granted, without being able to logically prove them. How do any of us know that our past experiences actually occurred? Perhaps someone created you a mere five minutes ago, simultaneously implanting a full set of memories into your brain to make you believe that you've had a vibrant past. Perhaps the whole world itself popped into existence five minutes ago! How do you know you're Jewish? How do you know your parents are even your parents? Do you have absolute, unwavering proof? How do you even know the sun will rise tomorrow morning?

Rational knowledge is never perfect. Absolute rational proof of Hashem, or anything for that matter, is impossible. The reason for this is simple: Hashem created us with free will, granting us the ability and responsibility to choose the truth. If Hashem's existence was transparently obvious, or even fully derivable, there would essentially be no free will - you would be forced to act in accordance with Hashem’s will.The Nefesh Ha’Chaim explains that this is the nature of angels. They understand reality with such a crystal-clear lens that it is virtually impossible for them to do anything but live in line with the truth. While they do have a very limited sense of free will, doing something wrong as an angel would be akin to walking into a fire. You may have the free choice to do so, but you know the scalding nature of fire too well to enter those flames. 

If this is true, though, and logic is in fact limited, what lies beyond reason and logic? What did the Vilna Gaon mean when he said: "where philosophy ends, Jewish wisdom begins."? The answer is as follows: there is a deeper form of wisdom, one that we can refer to as post-rational, experiential wisdom. The intellectual, philosophical mind cannot grasp this wisdom, as it cannot be put into finite words. These truths cannot be proven, only known deep within the core of one's soul. This spiritual wisdom should not be confused with that which is irrational, nor should it be mistaken for emotional experience. These truths do not contradict reason, they simply cannot be explained by it. The following are a few examples of this concept.


Does Life have Meaning and Purpose? 


Rationally, there is no proof that your life has any meaning or purpose. Perhaps you are an evolved chimpanzee, a meaningless accident floating around on a random ball of matter in space. There is no way to prove that you are unique and destined for greatness, that you were created to fulfill a mission that you alone are uniquely qualified to achieve. There is no proof that you are a consciousness, a spiritual being, a neshama, that you have a moral conscience. And yet, we all deeply know this to be true.

To take it even further, there is no way of proving that you, or anyone for that matter, exists. How do you objectively know that you are here, right now, existing? It is impossible to get outside of your reality in order to rationally prove your own existence. Even Descartes’ proof of "I think, therefore I am" is only good enough to convince yourself that you exist. And this is not a rational proof, it's an experiential proof. Because I experience my own existence, I must therefore exist.  But even so, this does not prove anyone else's existence. How do you know that there is a genuine consciousness within other people's bodies? Perhaps everyone else in the world is a robot, with a nice layer of skin on their shell. You know these truths because you experience them deeply within yourself. 


Are You Awake Right Now?


How do you know that you're not dreaming right now? When you are in fact dreaming, do you not think you are awake? Why else would we feel so relieved upon waking from a nightmare, and so disappointed when we wake up from a fantastic dream? If the nightmare was clearly illusory, why would we breathe such a sigh of relief when awaking? Why do we wish we can go right back to that splendid dream? It is because they seem objectively real. If so, how do you know you are not dreaming right now? How do you know with absolute certainty that you are awake? You know this because you experience it with a deep level of experiential knowledge. There is no rational way to prove that you are currently awake. 


Free Will, Love, Beauty, and Spirituality


This is also the secret behind free will. Rationally and scientifically, free will is hard to justify. Based on determinism, modern brain scans, and scientific evidence, decisions appear to be merely mechanical. The cause of anyone’s actions is simply a response to all the incoming stimuli. However, you know that you have free will. You feel the tug and pull every time you face an inner spiritual battle. You feel the pain and regret that comes with failure and the joy and pride that comes with victory. But will (ratzon) is something that transcends logic, a principle that the scientific mind can never comprehend. 

This is also the secret behind the concepts of love, beauty, and spirituality. There is no rational explanation behind the experience of love. All science can attest to is the chemical and biological components of that connection. The existential, spiritual, and consciousness expanding elements transcend intellect and reason. The same is true of beauty. What exactly makes something beautiful? Science cannot measure beauty, as there is no one thing that makes something beautiful. It is when contrasting parts melt together into a harmonious oneness that beauty emanates. Spirituality as well transcends reason. Science cannot measure anything other than that which is physical and quantifiable. That which is transcendent and experiential is deemed non-existent, as it lies in a realm beyond the capacity of their physical tools.


Yetzias Mitzrayim vs. Matan Torah


In Da’as Tevunos, the Ramchal explains that this concept is the precise difference between the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim and the miracle of Matan Torah. The miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim merely revealed Hashem's existence. Through the ten makkos, kriyas yam suf, and the miracles in the midbar, Hashem revealed to both Klal Yisrael and the world as a whole that He exists. There was, however, no deeper, experiential knowledge of who Hashem is, only an external knowledge of Hashem through our five senses. Matan Torah was a miracle of a completely different category; it was experiential, whereby each member of Klal Yisrael had a personal experience of nevuah. Each individual had a post-rational, consciousness-expanding, transcendent experience of Hashem Himself. We didn't witness Hashem outside ourselves, we experienced Him within our own consciousness, within ourselves, beyond the boundaries and limitations of reason and intellect.


The Purpose of Chukim


This is the purpose of a chok, a mitzvah which our intellect cannot fully grasp. It is to teach us this important principle: Complete truth lies beyond logic and reason. Logic may lead us towards the truth, but ultimately, truth resides in a realm beyond reason. Only by recognizing the limitations of intellect can we experience deeper truth. This is why so many commentators view chukim as more than just a means to submission and obedience. Chukim do, in fact, have meaning behind them, but the full explanation lies beyond the grasp of human intellect. This leads us to a deep revelation.

The reason why many commentators counterintuitively give rational explanations to the chukim is perhaps an expression of everything we have just explained. Truth is beyond the rational or the post-rational and experiential, it contains both. Judaism does not reject the rational, but sees it as a stepping-stone to something transcendent. The rational is not rejected, but rather used as a stage in the process of reaching truth. This is true of chukim as well: the rational explanations are merely an expression of their transcendent, post-rational truth.


The Power of Experience


You cannot understand any deep spiritual truth without experiencing it. You can talk about Torah, spirituality, Hashem, tefilla, and mitzvos all you want, but until Torah life becomes an experiential reality, one that is more than intellectual or emotional truth, it will remain limited and incomplete. The journey of a Jew is the journey of emunah, of faithfulness, of seeking out higher and more genuine expressions of truth. May we be inspired to enjoy every step of that process, to embark on a genuine journey towards truth, and to endlessly expand our experiential and existential understanding of the ultimate truth.


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