What can we know?

I wrote this piece for school, as an attempt to synthesize the works we’d been reading in Classical Jewish Thought. Then I got sort of attached to it and decided to share it here, for the few hardy souls who are reading this blog.

אתה חונן לאדם דעת

fourth blessing of the Amidah

You, o Gd, grace us with the capacity to know.

Know what? NO. What?

What can we know? 

We live in an age when we think we can know anything, just by asking the robot inside our phone. Hey Siri, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1984? Hey Siri, how many tablespoons in a gallon? Hey Siri, tell me the temperature in Maui today… in Kelvin? 

Hey Siri, how did the world begin? What was there before? 

Bereishit Rabbah (1:10) comes to teach us that there are things we are not allowed to know. בראשית, Rabbi Levi teaches, the world was created with sharp-edged bet, closed on all sides but one. The tangible, remember-able world is our concern, what came before is above our pay grade. We are not permitted even to peek behind the bet. It’s the boundary, the backstop that keeps us from asking too many questions. It’s the lock on Pandora’s Box. Keep your head in the game. This game.

Bar Kapara drives the point home: look around at this beautiful, miraculous world. This is all you need. Don’t borrow trouble.

What can we know?

Rabbi Akiva reached middle age and found himself with a desire to know everything. Without a shred of book learning to his name, he looked at the stone and the water, and wondered at the way they affect each other. Water wears away stone; stone redirects water. 

What can we know?

What happens when we are faced with unfathomable mystery, with bone-crushing uncertainty, when we are hollowed by the understanding that there really are things we are not allowed to know? 

Ben Zoma tried to open Pandora’s Box. With his world in fragments, he went looking for answers, pushed himself to the brink. Deep in contemplation, he was investigating מעשה בראשית, looking behind the bet, when Rabbi Yehoshua tapped his shoulder, tugged at his sleeve. No answer. A whisper in his ear. Ben Zoma returned with a start! 

What I’ve seen… you wouldn’t believe… what seems so far away is right here. The difference between life and death is a sliver, three finger’s worth. It’s all right there; the horizon is so much closer than you think.

What can we know?

Gnostics say the world is a lie and Gd is the only truth.

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃

exodus 33:20

And Gd said: you must not look upon My face – a person cannot look at Me and live.

Don’t look at Me; look at each other.

One thought on “What can we know?

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