In our previous article, we began exploring the nature of chukim, and the potential limitations of reason and logic. To review, we framed out discussion with the famous line of the Vilna Gaon: “Where logic and human intellect ends, Jewish wisdom begins.” This implies that Judaism does not reject reason and logic, but builds upon it. We therefore began our discussion by exploring the purpose and utility of our intellect, and how it can help one ascertain logical proofs of spiritual truths, such as Hashem’s existence.
However, there are also flaws with human logic, and careful consideration of the previously mentioned proofs shows this clearly. One may logically conclude that Hashem exists; the world is so infinitely complex; there must be a Creator behind it. However, there is a fundamental limit to logic. Logic may enable us to know that Hashem exists, but it does not help us know anything about Him. We may know, through reasoning, that there is a Creator, but logic alone does not allow us to have a relationship with Hashem, experience Him, or deeply connect with Him.
Taking this idea a step further, we can question logical reasoning altogether. 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 truth.
This is the view that the Ramban takes, articulating this point in his commentary to Sefer Vayikra (Ramban, 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 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.
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 and implanted a set of memories into your brain to make you believe that you’ve had a past. 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 know the sun will rise tomorrow morning? (In science and philosophy, this is known as the “Sunrise Problem.” There is no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow; we simply cannot remember a single day that the sun did not rise, so we assume there is an overwhelmingly high probability that it will rise tomorrow. But this is not guarantee or a proof, only a probability.)
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 Hachaim 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 operate 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. They may have the free choice to do so, but the scalding hot flames are more than enough to stop them.
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 logic and human intellect ends, Jewish wisdom begins”? The answer is as follows: There is a deeper form of wisdom 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 but 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 or 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, and 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. 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. (Descartes’ proof is essentially as follows: The very fact that I can think and ask whether or not I exist is itself the very proof that I exist.) And this is not a rational proof but an experiential proof. Because I experience my own existence, I must therefore exist. 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? You know these truths because you experience them deeply within yourself.
Are You Awake Right Now?
How do you know that you are not dreaming right now? When you are dreaming, do you not believe that you are awake? Why else would we feel so relieved upon waking from a nightmare, or so disappointed when we wake up from a fantastic dream? If the nightmare was clearly illusory, why do we breathe such a sigh of relief when we awake and realize it was just a dream? Why do we wish we can go right back to that splendid dream? It is because they seem objectively real. How do you know with absolute certainty that you are awake? You know this because you experience it in the depths of your very self with the power of experiential knowledge. There is no rational way to prove that you are currently awake.
Free Will, Love, Beauty, and Spirituality
This is the secret behind free will. Rationally and scientifically, the claim of free will is difficult 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) transcends logic, a principle that the scientific mind or machine 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. Science can attest to the chemical and biological components of that connection, but the existential, spiritual, and consciousness expanding elements transcend intellect and reason. The same is true of beauty. Science cannot measure beauty, as there is no one thing that makes something beautiful. Beauty transcends the sum of its parts. 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 physical tools.
Yetzias Mitzrayim vs. Matan Torah
In Daas Tevunos, the Ramchal explains that this concept is the precise difference between the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim and the miraculous experience of Matan Torah (Daas Tevunos 146). The miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim revealed Hashem’s existence. Through the ten makkos, k’rias Yam Suf, and the miracles in the midbar, Hashem revealed to both Klal Yisrael and the world as a whole that He exists and controls every facet of this world. However, there was no deeper, experiential knowledge of who Hashem is, only an external knowledge of how Hashem expresses Himself in the world; this type of knowledge is limited to our five physical senses. Matan Torah was a miracle of a completely different quality; it was experiential, as every 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, and beyond the boundaries and limitations of reason and intellect.
The Purpose of Chukim
This is the purpose of a chok, a mitzvah that our intellect cannot fully grasp. A chok teaches us that complete truth lies beyond logic and reason. Logic leads us toward the truth, but ultimately, truth resides in a realm beyond reason. Only when we recognize the limitations of intellect can we experience deeper truth. This is why many commentators view chukim as more than just a means to submission and obedience. Chukim do have meaning behind them, but the full explanation lies beyond the grasp of human intellect.
This is why many commentators give rational explanations for the chukim, something that may initially appear ironic and counterintuitive. Truth is beyond the rational or the post-rational and experiential; it contains both. Judaism does not reject the rational, but views it as a stepping-stone to the transcendent. The rational is not rejected but rather used as a stage in the process of reaching the ultimate truth. The rational explanations for chukim are the finite, mundane expression of their full, transcendent depth, and understanding the rational is the first step toward accessing the transcendent.
The Power of Experience
A person can talk about Torah, spirituality, Hashem, tefillah, and mitzvos all they want – days, weeks, months, even years – but until Torah life becomes an experiential reality, one that is more than intellectual truth, it will remain limited and incomplete. You cannot understand the depths of spiritual truth without experiencing it. 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 toward truth, and to endlessly expand our experiential and existential understanding of the ultimate truth.