Knowledge Problems

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Unknowability of God In Jewish Mysticism, Part III (Existentialism)

We may mention alongside the mystical view also the existential or experiential attitude, wherein it is denied that our approach to God has anything whatsoever to do with knowledge; that is, God is not something that is known, but something that is experienced. In this sense, the kabbalistic (and rational) view that God is utterly Beyond — in the teasing words of Heschel (1951), that "the difference between Him and man is far greater than the difference between unconscious matter and conscious man; that man, consequently, may know as much about Him as a bubble knows about the theory of relativity; that God has nothing to do with this wretched globe; that he is aloft and so far above the forms of existence known to us that nothingness alone is where he dwells" — this view is not even wrong. There can be no sense at all in which God is Beyond or Unknowable, because the relationship between man and God is not characterized by "knowledge" at all. One cannot say that God is far beyond man's conception, because "conception" has nothing whatsoever to do with this relationship. The approach to God in this view is thus non-noetic, i.e., not by way of the intellect or by way of reason.

Since I can't claim to understand this approach well at all, I will let Heschel speak for himself:

The encounter with reality does not take place on the level of concepts through the channels of logical categories; concepts are second thoughts. All conceptualization is symbolization, and act of accommodation of reality to the human mind. The living encounter with reality takes place on a level that precedes conceptualization, on a level that is responsive, immediate, preconceptual, and presymbolic...

Particularly in religious and artistic thinking, the disparity between that which we encounter and that which is expressed in words and symbols, no words and symbols can adequately convey. In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement. We have an awareness that is deeper than our concepts; we possess insights that are not accessible to the power of expression...

Man's walled mind has no access to a ladder upon which he can, on his own strength, rise to knowledge of God. Yet his soul is endowed with translucent windows that open to the beyond. And if he rises to reach out to Him, it is a reflection of the divine light in him that gives him the power for such yearning. We are at times ablaze against and beyond our own power, and unless man's soul is dismissed as an insane asylum, the spectrum analysis of that ray is evidence for the truth of his insight. (heschel_56)

To think of God is not to find Him as an object in our minds, but to find ourselves in Him... God is neither a thing nor an idea; He is within and beyond all things and all ideas. Thinking of God is not beyond but within Him... He remains beyond our reach as long as we do not know that our reach is within Him; that he is the Knower and we are the known; that to be means to be thought of by Him... We often know Him unknowingly and fail to know Him when insisting upon knowing. (heschel_51)

While Heschel is always very eloquent in presenting his viewpoint (and probably the best poet-theologian we've had — or will have — for a long time), one has to wonder whether the view of God as "presymbolic experience" really captures the Jewish notion of the Deity. From my perspective, it does not. But regardless, it remains unclear to me in exactly what way Heschel believes man's mind to be "walled," and in what way this particular "wall" prevents knowledge of God. What is it about God that prohibits expression in words or symbols? Why is it that some things can be conceptualized, and some cannot? For Heschel to say that "no words and symbols can adequately convey" what this distinction might be is, in my opinion, to openly admit that he doesn't know what the distinction is, or, indeed, whether there really is one.

There is at least a superficial similarity between the existential approach and the Kabbalistic approach, not only in that both approaches for the most part elude my understanding, but also insofar as such Kabbalistic references to En Sof as "that which is not conceivable by thinking" (Isaac the Blind, in Scholem 1954) and "Who can in no way be comprehended by any thought" (Schneur Zalman, in Mindel 1969) also suggest a non-noetic relationship between man and God. However, it seems to me that many kabbalists do not truly reject the noetic approach in the way the existentialists do. They reserve a place for reason and intellect in the approach to God, and therefore the concept of "unknowability" retains its relevance for them.

Consider the following statement of Buber:

God is an unknown Being beyond this world only for the indolent, the decisionless, the lethargic, the man enmeshed in his own designs; for the one who chooses, who decides, who is aflame with his goal, who is unconditioned, God is the closest, the most familiar Being that man, through his own action, realizes ever anew, experiencing thereby the mystery of mysteries. Whether God is "transcendent" or "imminent" does not depend on Him; it depends on man... (glatzer_66)

This does not seem to be the same idea that the Kabbalistic writers were working from. For them, the concept of "unknown Being" is a coherent one, and is indeed ultimately the final and most satisfactory way that we can describe God-in-Himself. But beyond this, it seems that in both Kabbalah and rationalism the approach to God is precisely not by way of being "aflame" with some unidentified passion! The "ecstatic" approach to God, if that is what we should call it, would not require anything like the vast literature that the Kabbalistic or philosophical writers produced. Rather, both these approaches to God call for the meticulous and arduous study of a certain body of knowledge, which then enables one to begin to understand the Deity. In the case of Kabbalah, it is the esoteric knowledge of the Sefirot which requires meticulous study and contemplation:

Thus Scripture states, Know the God of your father and serve Him (I Chron. 28:9). [This verse] teaches that in order to serve [God] properly one needs [to acquire] knowledge concerning Him — that is, knowledge of his sefirot, His conduct with them, and His unification with them. (Cordovero, in robinson_94)

In the case of philosophy, it is obviously the proofs of physics, metaphysics, and logic that require mastery in order to begin the approach to God. Neither the Kabbalistic nor rationalistic approach disregards reason and intellect in the way that Heschel or Buber appear to. Moreover, while I will grant that expressions such as "God is neither a thing nor an idea; He is within and beyond all things and all ideas" are poetically masterful, I don't know what they mean. To me, such an expression evokes a feeling of mystery and awe, but does absolutely nothing to in any way clarify the situation in which we find ourselves vis-à-vis God. It is a Jabberwocky-esque collection of words that stimulates feelings but conveys no insight, knowledge, or information. I hate to say it, but this is what we in less delicate moments refer to as "nonsense," and in more delicate moments as "holy nonsense."

Frankly, I don't think anyone in the modern age (i.e., anyone, for example, who accepts the "neuron doctrine") will be able to formulate the approach to God other than in terms of knowledge or information. One can speak of "experience" and "encounter," but unless a radically dualistic theory of mind is entertained, all these phenomena must in some way be grounded in the nervous system, and there is every good reason to believe that the nervous system does represent concepts and knowledge. While only a small fraction of those representations may be consciously accessible, they are nevertheless legitimate knowledge representations. It is true that there are levels of the nervous system that one might regard as subsymbolic (spinal cord reflex, retinal processing, etc.) but it strikes me as very backward to situate our relationship with God in those surroundings. In any event, even these systems are representational and hence conceptual in the sense that they track features external to the nervous system, something we will discuss later.

On top of this, it seems to me that Heschel's approach transgresses against Berkovitz's claim that Judaism is essentially non-mystical. According to Berkovitz, if there is to be religion at all, there must be a relationship between distinct entities, one of them being man, and the other being the Deity. Man and God must necessarily be distinct, and the entirety of the Torah speaks to such a distinction:

God addresses himself to man, and he awaits man's response to the address. God speaks and man listens; God commands, and man obeys. Man searches, and God allows himself to be found; man entreats and God answers. In the mystical union, however, there are no words and no law, no search and no recognition, because there is no separateness (berkovits_04).

If there is to be a relationship between distinct entities, as it seems there must be on Berkovitz's analysis, this must then be a relationship based on knowledge of some kind. Hermann Cohen, for example, writes

Moreover only through reason, through the ability of knowledge does that man arise who can come into correlation with God... Reciprocity enters man's knowledge of God in accordance with correlation. It is as if God's being were actual in man's knowledge only, so tremendous is the effect of the correlation. Man is no longer merely God's creature, but his reason, by virtue of his knowledge and also for the sake of it, makes him at least subjectively, as it were, the discoverer of God...

Prayer also recognizes this relation to knowledge. In the main daily prayer, the "Eighteen Benedictions," the first of the supplications reads: "Thou favorest man with knowledge." It is as if it were to say: the first of God's favors is the endowment of knowledge, and there can be no other kind of favor but that which is dependent on knowledge. Thus knowledge plainly becomes the fundamental condition of religion, of reverence for God...

While I don't pretend to completely understand Cohen's view of the man-God relationship, it seems clear enough that its basis is in knowledge and reason, those unique capacities of man which differentiate man from other animals in the classical view.

Finally, to the extent that the man-God relationship is not one based on knowledge or information, then it is not the topic of this paper. Here we deal with issues related to knowledge-based or information-based relationships between man and God, which are the kind of relationships that I believe are indicated when people speak of God being unknowable. If one insists that the relationship between man and God is not through knowledge in the first place, then there is no meaningful sense in which to say that God is "unknowable," and we have no need to complete this paper. However, my opinion is that — while knowledge- or information-oriented approaches to the relationship between man and God may ultimately fail to lead to religion (cf. Sherwin_06, p.57) — approaches to the relationship between man and God that are not based on knowledge or information will ultimately fail to lead to coherence and comprehensibility. From the perspective of one who seeks understanding, the latter is far worse. I will take my chances with the former.

Next time, the Philosophers...


  • I am completely with you re Buber and Heschel. I just don't get it and I feel that they cross over into what to me is defined as idolatry.

    I grew up in a Chassidic surrounding and the Chassidim I was associated with liked the idea of Emunah Pshuta. (unlike chabad, kotsk et al)It was great until I reached an age of reason after that I rejected it and had to find a way on my own.

    Please get rid of this verification business. It has eaten up more comments of mine than you can imagine. I posted what I thought was a thoghtful one on your last piecde and it disaapeared.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at Dec 5, 2006, 12:39:00 PM  

  • Are you Chassidic by upbringing then, David?

    Per your request, I got rid of the verification thing. I didn't like it either (but it did prevent spam at least). I wasn't aware that it was also preventing legitimate comments! Sorry about the lost comments. If you can reconstruct them, I would still like to hear them!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Dec 5, 2006, 2:55:00 PM  

  • Yes my family is chassidic for generations Viznitz on both sides. I lived in various places, France, Brazil and eventually here in the US so I got a taste of different communities and made my choices. I was always an independent type.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at Dec 6, 2006, 11:38:00 AM  

  • Wow. Is there a particular "chassidus" (if that is the right term) that Vizhnitz is known for?

    Also, I managed to get the English version of that Idel article you sent me ("Window of Opportunity"). If you would like a copy, let me know.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Dec 6, 2006, 1:51:00 PM  

  • Vizhnitz claims to have ahavat ysrael. I am not sure how exactly they define it . Also emunah peshuta as their chassidim were spread out in villages all over the Carpathian mountains.

    I would love the english version if you can email it. Thanks.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at Dec 6, 2006, 4:01:00 PM  

  • hey big-s skeptic,

    can you email me at b.spinoza.42 at please? or give me your email? Thanks

    By Anonymous B. Spinoza, at Dec 29, 2006, 3:58:00 PM  

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