Sunday, June 29, 2008

Endless Wisdom

The Gemara (Berakhos 40a) distinguishes between divine and human (i.e. physical) ways. When a cup is filled it can no longer hold additional liquid. However, when it comes to divine wisdom it is the exact opposite -- something empty cannot hold anything and something full can hold more. In other words, non-initiates cannot begin studying on their own while those who are learned can continue studying, and even at a higher level.

This is somewhat difficult because, while it is true that someone who studies Torah extensively is prepared to study at a higher level, it is also true in regard to just about any other subject matter. In any area of knowledge, someone who studies it at length will be able to find new depths and insights at an advanced level. If so, what can this Gemara mean?

Click here to read moreThe Torah gives an unusual requirement in the manufacturing of the menorah for the Mishkan and Temple -- the menorah must be made from a single block of metal. R. Yitzchak Abarbanel explains:

The lamp of the Lord is the soul of man. The seven lamps symbolise the seven degrees of wisdom to be found in the Divine law. All the lamps turned inwards to the middle one, towards the Holy of Holies symbolising that true wisdom must harmonise with the fundamentals of the Torah, housed in the ark. The candlestick was made of pure gold implying that wisdom must not be tainted by alien ideas. The cups, knobs and flowers symbolise the various sciences which branch out from each other. It was "beaten work" out of one piece, symbolising that all the various types of sciences have one common source.

(Quoted in Nehama Leibowitz [Aryeh Newman tr.], New Studies in Exodus, vol. 2 pp. 502-503)
All forms of wisdom are from God. While they may differ in terms of holiness, source and priority, all knowledge ultimately emanates from God. Rabbenu Bachya (Ben Asher) even writes that six of the wisdoms are all a ladder to reach the seventh -- knowledge of God (commentary to Avos 3:18 in Kisvei Rabbenu Bachya, p. 592).

That all wisdom comes from God is a common refrain among those who examine potential conflicts of Torah and science. For example, R. Yehudah (Leo) Levi writes in his Torah and Science (p. 16):
From the Torah viewpoint, both Torah and science are revelations of God's will. Science reveals God's will as imposed coercively upon the world...
This is regarding the hard sciences (see also R. Natan Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation, p. 37). But according to Abarbanel and Rabbenu Bachya, it applies to all wisdom. This is why the Gemara (Berakhos 58a) says that when we see a gentile scholar we recite a blessing to God for giving His wisdom to people, and the Mishnah Berurah (224:10) quotes the Peri Megadim as saying that this refers to a scholar who is expert in the "seven wisdoms" (i.e. everything, a renaissance man). Clearly, this wisdom is given by God.

If so, we can understand the Gemara better. It is referring to all wisdom that emanates from God, and not just Torah (which, as direct revelation, has primacy in holiness and priority). As our experience indicates, any area of wisdom allows for endless study of increasing complexity. The reason for this is its ultimate divine origin.

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