Monday, March 14, 2011

Shabbat and self discovery

In the previous post we explored the two fundamental motivations of toelet and taaung. It is in our nature to begin acting on the basis of taanug, sensory entertainment for its own sake. With experience, we tend toward toelet, a function based calculus of action. It is critical to note that Toelet includes sensory based entertainment in it, just not for its own sake. The wise person seeks entertainment as a part of a broad-based quest for functionality and well being.

How broad based this quest will be, depends upon the level of self discovery of the individual. It is for this very reason that the Ralbag’s perush al- Hatorah centers on the gleaning of toelet from the torah story. It is precisely the quest into self discovery, helping man attain ever more profound insights into his own functionality, that the Torah is intended to promote. 

We left off with the question of a “starting point”- where does the quest for self discovery begin? What is the critical first step in transitioning from taanug to toelet?

The simple answer to this question is- Shabbat. Abstaining from melacha once a week is the key to beginning the path of self discovery and therefore, it lies at the foundation of the Taryag system.Why is this so? As the great Philosophers said, the first step in knowledge, is knowing one’s own self.

יראת ה ראשית דעת חכמה ומוסר אוילים בזו
 Awe of Hashem is the beginning of knowledge, while arrogant fools have contempt for wisdom and self discovery

The great obstacle to knowing ones own self, lies in pretending that what I myself am, is obvious, even self evident. It is precisely this phenomenon of false self evidence, which blocks the entire enterprise of self discovery.

 "דרך אויל ישר בעיניו, ושומע לעצה - חכם" משלי יב טו

The way of the arrogant fool seems right in his own eyes, but he who listens to advice is wise.

It is this self evidence that causes our preoccupation with means rather than ends. Exploration of ends presupposes an exploration of the self as an organism, an examination of what we are and what our functions are. In essence we must come to realise that man as an organism, is part of the great Craft of Creation and is therefore an object of discovery. Here again Einstein presents the point very well.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of piece of mind.
The New Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice (Princeton University Press, 2005: ISBN 0691120749), p. 206

When we think about it, what we are, in essence, is a mind operating through a body. Abstention from melacha on Shabat involves an insight into our identity as human beings. Specifically, we abstain from overindulgence in melacha precisely because to work 24/7 precludes our mission as minds. To be sure a mind, will act rationally in its practical affairs. It will use wise plans to conquer the material world, to the degree that it can be conquered. But a wise person will also note, that securing material resources is of little benefit, if it becomes an end in its own right.  A life  mission founded on pursuit of conquest of the world, for its own sake, condemns man to a life of frustration and failure. Instead, we must do melacha, in proper measure, to live the life of mind as an ultimate end.

  ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך. ויום השביעי שבת ליהוה אלהיך לא תעשה כל מלאכה
 Six days you shall labor, and do all your craft, but the seventh day is a Sabbath dedicated to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any craft

As Einstein says:

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms-it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, Secaucus, New Jersy: The Citadel Press, 1999, p. 5.

Shabbat initiates man into this experience of mind, Einstein is speaking of. As such it is indeed at the foundation of the Dibrot and therefore of taryag Mitzvot. In the next post we will explore the Halachic significance of “self discovery”.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Toelet vs Taanug

In the previous post, I noted that Ralbag emphasizes a purposeful approach to life. This emphasis expresses itself in Ralbag's approach to mitzvot, which are founded on the notion of “toelet”, aiding man in his proper pursuit of benefit. This commitment to toelet underlies the distinction between abstaining vs not doing of melacha. Clearly, abstaining from melacha involves a shift to a superior focus rather than merely an absence of melacha behavior. What remains to be understood is the nature of this superior focus saught through abstention. What is this superior focus pursued on Shabbat?

To answer this, it is critical to note that Shabbat is one of the 10 dibrot, a mitzva that has a special role in the purposeful life. For Ralbag, the 10 dibrot are the archetypes of the purposeful life, collectively articulating the essential elements of Toelet for the Taryag system as a whole. Each and every one of the mitzvot, in some way, builds upon the life mission of toelet articulated in skeleton form in the 10 dibrot. Given his view of Dibrot, it is clear that Ralbag's understanding of Shvita memalacha lies at the very heart of the pursuit of toelet underlying the Mitzva system. As a dibrah, Shevita mimelacha is clearly fundamental to the pursuit of toelet. To understand Shabat then, presupposes insight into the role of “toelet” in human action generally.

Toelet is best understood in contrast with its alternative- Taanug. Taanug is the basis of action of the unreflective person whose motivation is limited to pursuit of pleasure alone. A wise person acts on the basis of Toelet - the richer sense of opportunity afforded by reflection. One who is motivated by Toelet has a much wider sense of functionality that includes sensory pleasure in proper measure among other human needs.

To understand this distinction, it is instructive to consider the case of the dieter. Clearly the overeater's over indulgence in food, is not simply ignorance in the area of calorie intake. One could provide the overweight person with a clear diet and still find them overeating on a regular basis. Overeating results from attraction to perceived benefits following from food pleasure, rather than a mere ignorance of calorie counts. In its extreme taanug form, the perceived benefit from food pleasure can be all encompassing. Lacking a realm of human function beyond the sensory, the pleasure of eating is called upon to compensate, leading to overeating. eating becomes the basis of comfort and celebration distraction and self reward. To succeed, the overeater must gain insight into the underlying fact that his notion of benefit is limited to taanug and learn to seek toelet.

The successful dieter therefore is not one with superior “will power”. Rather, the successful dieter must gain an insight into himself as an organism, come to appreciate his opportunities in the world at a deeper, richer level. This recognition of the possibility of a richer life of toelet is liberating. Toelet removes the act of eating from the framework of pleasure alone and opens up the possibility of considering it in a much broader sense of a broad based sense of human functionality.

Ralbag teaches that this process of insight allowing for the shift from sensory pleasure to the possibility of functionality is fundamental to human development generally. It is not only “eating” that can be limited by the pursuit of sensory entertainment for its own sake. Every human act begins as sensory entertainment, from eating and drinking to sexuality from play to art.

Insight into the functionality of human behavior is not a one time event. The release of the self from a habitual taanug orientation, does not give way to a fully formed sense of toelet- no exploration works in this way. What insight opens up is the possibility of growth in the toelet concept, there are many many stages in this process. As such, true success depends on an education that challenges man to seek ever more profound formulations of functionality. But where does this recognition of toelet begin? It is here that the notion of dibrot and Shabbat enter the picture. The next post will explore this extension of the notion of the toelet concept.