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Friday, October 16, 2009

Why Learn Gemara - Part IV: The Expansion of the Self

In the previous post on this subject I suggested that learning is emphasized more than doing because it is possible to imagine more situations than are practically possible, and "infuse" them with the will of Hashem. Now I will elaborate on the role of the imagination in learning.

Menachem Ekstein in T’nai ha’Nefesh l’Hasagat ha’Chasidut (translated at Visions of a Compassionate World), explains that throughout life Man must his emotional capabilities in order to feel alive. If he follows this path he will eventually be able to experience the manifestation of Hashem. This is, he writes, the goal of the Torah – to expand our emotions so that we may sense the Presence of Hashem – but this aspect was neglected. Thus the Baal Shem Tov taught that one must do this through contemplative meditation. Thus, in his book, he advocates visualizing situations which will evoke all different types of emotion. However, it is implied from this words that one could use the Torah to expand his emotions through fully delving into the different situations, primarily through the thoughts and feelings of people involved in the situations. Similarly, he can experience different emotional situations through the imagery of the gemara.

In a broader sense, recognition of Hashem, the Infinite One, can only occur when one moves beyond their self-centered existence. Thus, when one learns halakha he is getting a taste of the broadness of life and moves beyond his own self-centered existence. Only through contemplating and visualizing all of existence, both its physical and moral manifestation, and perceiving the will and wisdom of Hashem will one come to this state.

Below I quote two very different thinkers on this idea: R. Shimon Shkop and l'havdil, Bertrand Russell. Even though they are not talking about gemara (especially Russell!) I think that their words are equally applicable to gemara.

R. Shimon Shkop, Sha'arei Yosher

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and
body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And
above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am not
for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?”13 It is fitting for each
person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to
understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain,
limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts.

Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, The Value of Philosophy

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value -- perhaps its chief value -- through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes...The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable.... In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife...[T]hrough the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.


micha said...

However, one has to be careful to distinguish between expansion of the self to include soul, Hashem, and others, as R' Shimon describes and (for a bad example) Levinas's concept of Other. Levinas rejects the concept of expansion of the self, but he defines G-d as the ultimate Other, and thus limits the experience of the Divine to that which we experience when we encounter the otherness of the people we interact with. Whether one expands oneself to include G-d among "me and mine" or the expansion of one's self IS the inclusion of G-d -- without dealing with His Personhood and having a relationship with Him directly.

I think this distinguishes your quote of R' Shimon (is that from my translation? I didn't check) and what Russel's words would imply to a religious person.

Yona said...

1) Yes that was your translation.

2) I view it that anexpanded sense of self is a pre-requisite for connecting with the Divine. Being that G-d is infinite, a person who is stuck in their little box will have difficulty realating to the infinite one. R. Kook writes (I don't have the source in front of me, but email me if you are interested) that this is why "Love thy neighbor as thy self" is the "klal gadol ba'Torah." Also see Tanya, Chapter 32.

I once speculated that perhaps this is the spiritual meaning to the revelation of the vastness of the universe, and specifically to the modern man. This is another step towards Moshiach.

3) I specifically quoted Russell because of his point that philosophy teaches one to doubt - i.e. to think deeply about one's worldview instead of taking the opinion of the man on the street. This is very applicable to Gemara as well; we learn to analyze religious and ethical situations deeply and expand our ideas of what is involved in making a decision. I quote from Shiurei Da'at, Vol. II, Chapter 17:

"There is a great difference between the calculations of small person and that of a big person. The mistake of a small person is not like the mistake of a big person, for he does not have much room to make a mistake. In a small field with a few trees there is not much room to error, since every way he turns immediately he reaches its border.

"However, in a big forest, thick and thorny, with many trees and foxes to no end, there a person may make a major mistake. In a simple calculation of 5 x 5 or 3x 3 there is not much room for error, but in a high number rising to the thousands, and with many multiplcations there a person may easily error."