Thursday, November 6, 2008

Parshas Lech Lecha: The Master of the Mansion

Our tradition begins with Avrohom Avinu. He is the physical, but even more so the spiritual, father of the Jewish people. The narrative of the Chumash does not enlighten us on the youth of Avrohom Avinu or the origin of his awareness of Hashem. Upon our “introduction” to him he is already receiving the prophetic instruction to leave his homeland for Eretz Ca’anan. Chazal, whether by tradition, inference from the text, or homily, provide us much more information about this period. We are given a glimpse into the world of Avrohom and how he came into recognition of the Holy One blessed be He. This information was not transmitted out of mere historical or biographical curiosity, but in an effort to implant the emunah of Avrohom into our own hearts.

בראשית רבה לך לך לט:א

א"ר יצחק משל לאחד שהיה עובר ממקום למקום. וראה
בירה אחת דולקת. אמר תאמר שהבירה הזו בלא מנהיג. הציץ עליו בעל הבירה. א"ל אני הוא
בעל הבירה. כך לפי שהיה בעל העולם

In the B’reishis Rabba on Parshas Lech Lecha (39:1) R. Yitzchak relates that Avrohom Avinu was like a traveler who encountered a certain mansion. The traveler wondered if it were possible that such a mansion could be without a master. It is not consistent without our experience for mansions to occur on their own. The existence of the mansion leads one to infer that there is a master responsible for its existence and maintenance.

Rav Sa’adia Goan uses a similar analogy in his “Emunos v’Deos”:

Furthermore I say that if they are right, so far as their doctrine of chance is concerned, let them show us or state that it is possible for the parts of a house, namely the stones and the wood, to unite by themselves and fall into order and combine so as to constitute a house.[1]

Avrohom Avinu, with his great spiritual sensitivity and purity of heart, was able to perceive that the very existence of the world implied that there was a Creator. This point was made later on by the Creator Himself in His rhetorical question to the prophet Yeshayahu, “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these, who takes out their host by number; all of them He calls by name; because of His great might and because He is strong in power, no one is missing.” (Isaiah 40:26) Similarly we read in T’hillim, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of His handiwork” (19:2).

Avrohom Avinu was able to see more clearly the very basic inference which is at the heart of the nearly universal human search for the divine. We must therefore attempt to understand why the entire world isn’t similarly enlightened by this truth even as they maintain a basic cognizance of it.

First we must recognize the nature of the inference here. The Rambam in his Moreh Nuvachim[2] addresses this inference, and employs it, but does not find it sufficient. Due to the prevailing (and ancient) disagreement among the philosophers about whether the universe had a beginning or not, the argument would not be compelling, not be conclusive, for those who held the opinion that the universe was eternal (a position that I do not believe has much relevance today). The Rambam felt that it was the best approach to take was to provide such arguments that would not be refutable. The Rambam wanted the existence of the Creator to be demonstrated conclusively. Similarly we have the Kuzari who argues that Moshe Rabbeinu identified God as the “God of the Hebrews” when speaking to Pharaoh (Ex. 7:16) rather than as the “God of heaven and earth” or as the Creator, since Pharaoh would have denied creation.[3] We must therefore consider the two types of arguments as are known from the science of logic, a deductive argument and an inductive argument. A deductive argument is one where, insofar as the premises are correct, the conclusion is demonstrably proven from those premises and nothing more could be added that could possible change the truth of that conclusion. An inductive argument, on the other hand is one where the conclusion follows logically from the premises but there remains a possibility, even if it is an exceedingly remote one, that the conclusion could be shown incorrect if other proof where presented. While fools can grandstand and ignore the truth of any conclusion no matter how firmly established, the correctness of an inductive argument is clearly more subjective and it is much easier to ignore such an argument’s strength and still hold a pretext of reason. Both the Rambam and the Kuzari seemed to recognize that our inference was of this later category of inductive reasoning and felt that in the various contexts another approach was more appropriate.

We should not, however, mistakenly assume that this represents a חסרון in the reasoning חו״ש. Much of what we “know” is based off of inductive reasoning, and insofar as very few premises, if any, are actually known with absolute certainty, most of our reasoning has a strong inductive element. Despite all of the interesting and perhaps at times useful philosophical/epistemological questions one might pose, we would be intellectually paralyzed without such inductive reasoning. While the Rambam, like other philosophers, would prefer a deductive argument which provides demonstrable proof, I believe that the majority of our Rabbi’s (especially among the Acharonim) have guided us down the path of Emunah Peshuta. We are not asked to believe that which there is no reason to believe, but we are expected to content ourselves with the very basic truth that if not impossible, then it is inconceivable that creation not have a Creator.

Furthermore, this cloud of uncertainty, as slight as it is, plays a very important, even essential, role. Insofar as the existence of the Creator is the fundamental truth with which mankind must reckon, God’s plan for man having free choice (which cannot be dealt with at length here) would require that there be an alternative explanation to the existence of the world than a Creator. While this alternative does not have to be “possible” strictly speaking, it must at least seem plausible enough that those who so chose can grasp onto such a position, while at the same time not so compelling as to render one blameless for accepting it.

With this in mind it is worthwhile to consider the moshol used by Rabbi Akiva to illustrate this idea (which I have not seen inside yet). It is related that a certain heretic approached Rabbi Akiva challenging him to demonstrate God’s existence. Rabbi Akiva replied by asking that the heretic demonstrate how his garment came into being. The analogy of a garment is particularly apt, since the purpose of a garment is to conceal. A person is both concealed by his garments, and identified with them as was the case with Yosef when he approached his brothers. Nature, creation, conceals the Creator while testifying to His existence.

On the one hand we should beware and recognize that while we can infer the Creator from creation, we can infer very little else. Knowledge of the Creator, His will and His attributes, cannot be attained by philosophical speculation but only Revelation. We might suppose certain things based on analogy from human intelligence but that is an exceedingly imperfect analogy (though perhaps more fruitful than a dogmatic agnosticism in absence of Revelation). Ultimately even Avrohom was dependant upon the “Master of the Mansion” revealing Himself and the Divrei Chaim on this parsha explains that had this not been the case even Avrohom Avinu would have been ensnared by the pitfalls of philosophical speculation חו״ש. We can rightly infer that there is a Creator of creation but we should not conflate that conclusion with evidence for a specific theological system (correct or not) since that is a matter of revelation and not philosophical enquiry.

On the other hand we must not engage in sophomoric attempts at denying this very basic inference from analogy. Again, analogies are often precarious things, and formalizing them begs us to analyze whether they are sound. But analogy is not either/or, it is a matter of judgment. It seems to me that when our initial instinct does not find it plausible that everything is the result of chance, as is the case with most people, this is a less biased analysis than an overly technical one which tries to find dissimilarities when in any other situation we would not conclude that something observed was merely the product of natural chance. We must refuse to find philosophical loopholes to avoid this obvious realization. We may not be able to find a philosophically sound definition of knowledge, by comparison, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t fail a lie detector test if we denied ‘knowledge’ of an event we had witnessed.

And we must beware, then, that we do not become presumptuous and dismiss this fundamental evidence for the Creator based on a mere “possibility” to the contrary. It is certainly a ploy of the yetzer hara for us to dismiss an argument found in the Rishonim, Geonim, Chazal, and the Nevi’im! One should know that to “believe” in something that one feels there is no reason to believe in is an impossibility. Such “belief” is fantasy and make-believe, one doesn’t believe, they wish it to be. That is not to say, חו״ש, that those who profess such a position are not believers. Indeed the descendants of Avrohom are “believers the sons of believers” and I recall hearing, in the name of one of the Rebbes from Ger I believe, that even when faced with doubt one must have emunah that one really has emunah. Rather an individual does have reason, correct or otherwise, to establish their emunah, but such a denial has a corrosive effect which will damage their emunah or even lead them or those they influence to a place of bitter waters ר״ל.

The path of Avrohom is, it seems to me, the path of Emunah Peshuta, an embrace of the simple recognition that creation has a Creator and embracing that the Creator has revealed Himself, to Avrohom through prophecy and to us through His Torah. One does not need to engage in endless enquiries in search of demonstrative proofs but recognize that we have sufficient reason to believe. Conversely emunah does not require that one does not ‘know” one’s belief is true, the Torah tells us that the B’nei Yisroel had faith in Hashem and Moshe even though they certainly “knew” as well, having witnessed open miracles and having attained prophecy. Rather we should not concede that it is even logically possible that the world not have a Creator. We should not pretend that we can believe in that which we deny reason to believe in, but we should neither pretend that our intellect is the final authority and is capable in finding all of the answer about the metaphysical realm.

[1] The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Rav Sa’adia Gaon page 75 trans. Samuel Rosenblatt, Yale University Press.
[2] See page 110, 111
[3] 1:25, Metzudah page 3, 5.

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