From time to time I attend a funeral at which the officiant begins by quoting these lines from Ben Sira: “Seek not to understand what is too difficult for you, search not for what is hidden from you, be not over-occupied with what is beyond you, for you have been shown more than you can understand.”
I always wonder how secular people take that sentiment, which strikes me as so offensive to the modern ear. “That which is too difficult for me?” “More than you can understand?” What happened to modern science, to exploration, to the idea that mystery is only that which I have yet to comprehend?*
But it’s certainly a Jewish perspective. See the mishnah in Chagigah (2:1), that one should not investigate certain matters related to Gd. See the innumerable Jewish sources delineating the ways in which a human being cannot comprehend the infinite.
I believe that this issue of a defined limit to human comprehension is one of the major points that separate Science and Religion within Judaism. Much about them is reconcilable, but this point, I think, is simply one of disagreement.
The scientific approach takes as axiomatic that given enough data, I will be able to reach an accurate conclusion. New tools/formulae may be required for data acquisition as well as analysis, but those, too, are within my grasp.
The religious approach of Jewish tradition, on the other hand, takes as a given that intellect is not the sole actor on the stage of exploration; other forces define/shape/limit my comprehension. These may include my spiritual character, the alienness of the subject matter, or some deus ex machina intervening to put a halt to my understanding, but there are non-neural factors which affect my ability to absorb and analyze.
This is on my mind because last night, while packing up some old tapes, I found a recording of a parshah class Rav Aharon Soloveitchik taught at Yeshiva University in the late ‘80s. I think it was Fall of 1989, because I was in my Junior year in high school, and the parshah under discussion was Ki Tavo.
One day I’ll have to blog about those classes, and the impact they had on me. I was looking for direction, and even though I only attended a handful of those shiurim, and I can’t say I grasped everything being said, they were still a key experience. But enough about that for now.
Rav Ahron discussed the problem of reward and punishment, and Divine oversight and theodicy. In the course of addressing various questions, he came to the Holocaust, and he said:
Because if one tries to explain the Holocaust, he will be nichshal [stumble] in one of two things. If he will try to explain the Holocaust under the secular perspective he will be nichshal in blasphemy. And if he will try to explain from a religious perspective, and point a finger at certain people, why the Holocaust took place, then he will speak stupidity and gasus haruach [arrogance].
[Speak might actually have been spout – it’s hard to tell on the recording, and my mental recollection is spout.]
From a scientific perspective, this answer is entirely unacceptable. I have data about Gd, I should be able to determine how Gd could permit the Holocaust. But from the religious perspective of Jewish tradition, Rav Aharon’s answer makes perfect sense – there is, indeed, a non-intellectual limit on what I will ever comprehend, so that none of my answers, from any approach, will ever be accurate.
One could, of course, try to harmonize the Science and Religion approaches. One could claim that what Religion calls the limit on comprehension, Science calls a lack of data – we cannot understand Gd because we lack the tools to collect the relevant data.
But I don’t believe that this is what Religion is saying; Religion, in Jewish tradition, states definitively that human beings will never possess the tools to collect the data. We will simply live in philosophical limbo, trying to contend with our world while avoiding blasphemy, stupidity and arrogance.
[*The use of Ben Sira is all the more remarkable to me because non-Orthodox officiants are the ones who cite this passage. Ben Sira is not generally considered to be in the Orthodox liturgical canon, his presence in the Talmud notwithstanding.]