Friday, September 11, 2015

Beyond Paradox: A Sense of Wonder

The following is the speech I will be giving this Shabbat at Sephardic Bikur Holim, Seattle, WA.
I asked to speak this week in memory of my beloved mother-in-law, Esther Alfi, ע"ה, whose yahrtziet was on Friday. She possessed a simple piety and ahavat Hashem (love of Hashem) that will always be an inspiration to my family. Sefer Tehillim never left her side and rarely was there a moment that it left her lips. I hope the following words convey something of her spirit which, for me, breathes through every word of the songs of David.
In this week’s Parasha we are presented with a simple instruction (with obvious relevance to the upcoming yamim noraim):
הַֽעִדֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַֽחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֨וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: that I have set before you life and death; the blessing and the curse; choose life, so that you may live, you and your children.
Simple and straightforward advice. But yet, underlying this verse is one of the most fundamental problems in Jewish philosophy: how to reconcile man’s free-will with G-d’s foreknowledge. Quite simply put, if G-d knows what we are going to do, in what way are we masters of our own destiny? This knotty question is seemingly unavoidable—we can neither deny G-d’s foreknowledge nor man’s free-will.
Rambam, in Hilkhot Teshuva, famously answers the question by denying our ability to grasp the answer. As he puts it, we don’t have the capacity to understand how G-d knows what He knows—our difficulty grasping the solution to this paradox is really just another expression of our inability to truly know Him, as it says: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי—for no man can see Me and live.
Rabbeinu Avraham ben David, the Ravad, otherwise known as the Ba’al haHasagot, the Critic, in his famous critique of the Rambam, questions his inclusion of this difficult philosophical problem in his code. What right does the Rambam have to expose the innocent reader to such perplexities? Wouldn’t it be better to preserve the reader’s purity of belief? Why present this question to the masses?[1]
In my very humble opinion Ravad got the Rambam wrong on this one. The Rambam was, in fact, not corrupting the masses, but actually trying to return them to their innocence. The denial of free-will was already a popular belief in his day. He felt compelled to respond to, what he describes as, הַטִּפְּשִׁים הוֹבְרֵי שָׁמַיִם, the foolish astrologers who claim man has no free-will and that the fate of each man has already been decreed. In other words, the philosophical problem was not a genuine problem, but one manufactured by fools who try to paint man as a fated, helpless creature who…and here’s the clincher, bears no responsibility for his life. 
The Rambam, however, goes one step further than dismissing the question because of its questionable motivation. He explains why there is, in fact, no paradox. It comes down to a simple fact: G-d is unknowable. We have no idea what it means to say that G-d knows everything: כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי—“My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways.”
Saying “G-d knows everything” or “G-d knows the future” is really just as unfathomable as anything else we might try to understand about G-d. The profoundest truth we can know about G-d is that we really don’t know anything at all. This also explains why the Rambam describes the answer to this question as being vaster than the expanse of the earth and sea: the progress we make towards fully realizing our lack of knowledge—our limitations—knows no bound; the infiniteness of G-d can just as well be described as the infiniteness of our ignorance.
I believe there is one chapter of Tehillim that gets to the heart of the issue that the Rambam is pointing to:  פרק קלט, chapter 139. The Ibn Ezra describes this chapter as being, and I quote, “quite glorious—there is none other like it in all the five books of Tehillim—and in accord with the depth of one’s understanding of the ways of Hashem and the ways of the soul one may contemplate its meaning.” Let me take you on a quick tour. (I highly recommend spending some time reading it carefully.) Consisting of 24 verses it divides neatly into four sections, or stanzas, each containing six verses.[2] The first section expresses the idea that not one of our thoughts—not a single word—escapes G-d:
אַתָּ֣ה יָ֭דַעְתָּ שִׁבְתִּ֣י וְקוּמִ֑י    בַּ֥נְתָּה לְ֝רֵעִ֗י מֵֽרָחֽוֹק:
It is You who know when I sit and when I rise, You fathom my thoughts from afar.[3]
The sixth verse sums it up beautifully:
פְּלִ֣יאָֽה דַ֣עַת מִמֶּ֑נִּי  נִ֝שְׂגְּבָ֗ה לֹא־א֥וּכַֽל לָֽהּ:
(Your) knowledge is too wondrous for me, high above—I cannot attain it.
The next section (7-12) moves from a feeling of wonder to a feeling of, for lack of a better word, dread—the shock that there is literally nowhere to hide:
אָ֭נָ֥ה אֵלֵ֣ךְ מֵֽרוּחֶ֑ךָ    וְ֝אָ֗נָה מִפָּנֶ֥יךָ אֶבְרָֽח:
אִם־אֶסַּ֣ק שָׁ֭מַיִם שָׁ֣ם אָ֑תָּה    וְאַצִּ֖יעָה שְּׁא֣וֹל הִנֶּֽךָּ:
Where can I go from Your spirit, and where from before You flee?
If I soar to the heavens, You are there, if I bed down in Sheol—there you are.
The third section describes the boundaries, or the lack there of, of G-d’s knowledge—G-d has known our innermost being—not to mention our entire fate—from the moment our bodies began to take shape. Reading the following verse it’s hard to miss a deep resonance with our conception of Rosh Hashana. 
גָּלְמִ֤י ׀ רָ֘א֤וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ    וְעַֽל־סִפְרְךָ֮ כֻּלָּ֪ם יִכָּ֫תֵ֥בוּ
יָמִ֥ים יֻצָּ֑רוּ    ולא (וְל֖וֹ) אֶחָ֣ד בָּהֶֽם׃
My unformed shape Your eyes did see, and in Your book all was written down.
The days were fashioned, not one of them did lack.
Finally, in the fourth and final section, David makes a simple petition: that G-d destroy the wicked, because, after all, all of David’s hatred is only against those who hate G-d.
The chapter ends with an envelope structure, returning to the opening verses:
חָקְרֵ֣נִי אֵ֭ל וְדַ֣ע לְבָבִ֑י    בְּ֝חָנֵ֗נִי וְדַ֣ע שַׂרְעַפָּֽי׃
וּרְאֵ֗ה אִם־דֶּֽרֶךְ־עֹ֥צֶב בִּ֑י    וּ֝נְחֵ֗נִי בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ עוֹלָֽם׃
Search me, G-d, and know my heart, probe me and know my mind.
And see if a vexing way be in me, and lead me on the eternal way.
What is so fascinating about this chapter is that this deep awareness of G-d’s absolute, unfathomable knowledge does not lead to philosophical befuddlement. G-d being all-knowing is the furthest thing from an impediment to David the Psalmist’s exercise of free-will—it is the foundation and opening for prayer!
What I believe is most important is that David did not lose his sense of wonder (which is nothing other than being struck by the fact that one does not understand) as he says in the central verse:
אֽוֹדְךָ֗    עַ֤ל כִּ֥י נֽוֹרָא֗וֹת נִ֫פְלֵ֥יתִי
נִפְלָאִ֥ים מַֽעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ    וְ֝נַפְשִׁ֗י יֹדַ֥עַת מְאֹֽד:
I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart,
            wondrous are your acts,
            and my being deeply knows it.
G-d’s omniscience is not a philosophical problem, but the ultimate source of wonder!
It is my prayer that as you enter the Yamim Noraim you should find inspiration from the wondrous fact that no thought, no step, no breath is beyond the Holy One blessed is He.  

[1] The Ravad (here) does not leave his critique at that. He is also bothered by the fact that the Rambam doesn’t really give an answer. Though there might not be a decisive solution to the paradox, the Rambam could have offered some resolution. The Ravad, magnanimous as he was, dutifully proceeds to offer one. Here’s the basics of his solution: if G-d knows something, then it must be so. His knowledge and his gezeirah (his decree) should be identical. So, if G-d knows the future how do we have free will? The Ravad suggests that when G-d gave man free will He actually undid the connection between His knowledge and His decree—in the words of the Ravad, “He removed this dominion from His own hand and gave that authority to man.” Though G-d’s knowledge should, in a sense, be equivalent with His decree, He has willed that this not be so, so that man can chose his own path.
Of course, this is not the most satisfying answer: it basically avoids having to answer the question by saying that G-d, being all powerful, simply willed it to be that way. It’s kind of like a theological “because He said so” answer. In defense of the Ravad, he does end-off this suggestion with the words: וכל זה איננו שוה—which, loosely translated, means “this is unsatisfactory.”
[2] See, Meltzer, F. P’nei Sefer Tehillim. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1982. p. 410.
[3] All translations of Tehillim taken from Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms. New York: Norton, 2007.