Act and Comprehend

By Ofir Haivry

Both Judaism and Zionism were predicated on the idea that human fulfillment can only come of correct action. Today’s confusion is the result of the exaltation of principle over deed.

I. Content and Form
In his well-known composition The Content of the Form, the historical methodologist Hayden White attempted to determine the extent to which the literary structure of historical writing conditions the reader’s understanding of the information conveyed in it—in other words, to what extent does the form of a composition determine its content.1 It is widely understood and accepted that in a literary composition, such as a comedy or a tragedy, form is the main factor in the shaping of influence upon the reader. But is a historical work, which seeks to ascertain the truth, also a story in which form prevails over the importance of the information? White’s answer is unequivocal: As the title of his book testifies, he is convinced that the form of a historical composition is the essence of its content. There are far-reaching implications to White’s viewpoint. Is it legitimate, for example, to describe World War II as a story in which it is the German nation that is the victim? Or is it the case, quite to the contrary, that the substance of events possesses an essential and inevitable form which limits the possible configurations that one can reasonably give to those events? The issue here is not the distortion of the dry facts, but of the different interpretations it is possible to ascribe to them. That is, is every formal interpretation legitimate, or is there an essential bond, of moral significance, between the substance and the form of things? There are of course those who disagree with White’s conception, but this is not the place to expand upon the difficulties inherent in his theory—particularly in relation to the possibility of determining historical truths or morals if it is true that the form of a composition is indeed more important than its content. It suffices that this determination serves to open the inquiry into the relation between the content of things and their form, and the nature of their influence upon one another.
II. Intention and Deed
It is no coincidence that Yehuda Halevi’s philosohpical work The Kuzari opens with the question of the Khazar king as to the meaning of a sentence which returns to him repeatedly in his dream: “Your intentions are pleasing but not so your deeds.”2 For Halevi sees in this the basis of the explanation of Judaism’s uniqueness—the joint importance of both intention and deed.
In The Kuzari, Halevi suggests that human history contains two general, divergent currents of thought as to the proper way to find truth or salvation. In the Western trend—represented by Greek and modern philosophy, and by religions such as Christianity and Islam—the revelation of truth springs from a single clear principle or abstract idea; while in the Eastern tendency—Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism—the illumination of truth lies in action.3
Thus in Western tradition salvation is found through right belief: The wicked actions of the most sinful of Christians will not be an impediment to this end; it is enough that he believe in the Holy Trinity for his soul to be saved. In other words, the essence is the unmitigated adoption of the content and intent of the one truth. In Eastern tradition, on the other hand, human salvation is achieved by virtue of proper behavior, and perpetual repetition of a mantra will pave the way to nirvana for a Tantric Buddhist. In other words, what is essential is following the path of correct action.4
Judaism, in contrast to both of the above, is unique in the emphasis it places on an indissoluble combination of faith and deed. As the Jewish sage explains to the Khazar king, the latter’s good intentions and pure heart have no value if his deeds are incorrect; likewise, good deeds without the right intentions are merely lost labor.
Even though the foundation of Judaism is the belief in a covenant with an eternal and omnipotent God, faith cannot make a person into a Jew, and in fact the Jewish religion does not explicitly demand belief.5 On the other hand, while Judaism consists entirely of exacting ritual and rules of behavior, this ritual and these rules are intended to express belief in the Rock of Israel. Here it is important to emphasize that this does not mean that intention and action are equally important in Judaism. The place of faith is extremely limited, and the weight of the deed is the principle that occupies the overwhelming majority of the thought and creative production of the Jewish people from Horev until our day.6 The reason for this remarkable ascendancy of deed over intention lies embedded in the very foundations of Judaism, in the need to deal with the ramifications of the belief in one God.
III. Principle and Ritual
In placing the affirmation “We will act” before that of “We will comprehend” at the time of the Tora’s revelation, the religion of Moses expressed, at the very moment of its birth, the supremacy of the form of ritual over the content of belief. Twice more in the book of Exodus the Israelites commit themselves merely with “We will act,” without even mentioning “We will comprehend,” as though to make use of this potent principle only in the smallest measure.7 And the principle represented by the “We will comprehend” was, indeed, something new in the history of the world: The principle of generalization. Generalization, which seems to us today to be a trivial component of human culture, science and thought, was not obvious at all in human history, and it is not even clear at precisely what point it appeared. The early civilizations of the ancient world—Sumer, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia—did not know what generalization was. These cultures, in which writing, the wheel and the calendar were invented, were based entirely on eclecticism—on the collection of details in order to store them—without determining any universal values or seeking any sort of general principles.8 Even though it is clear that a certain amount of abstraction and generalization are inherent in human thought, the concept of generalization was unknown during the first few thousand years of human history.
Then, suddenly, in the thought of Greece of 2,500 years ago, we find the principle of generalization occupying a central place. Thales, considered to be the first philosopher, determined that “everything is water,” and with this generalization established the nature of wisdom, truth and knowledge as we still understand them today—that is, no longer as a mere collection of details and ideas, but as an expression of general and absolute principles.9
However, although generalization as a defined principle was born in ancient Greece, we find its essence appearing on the stage of history about a thousand years earlier, with the appearance at Sinai of the Israelite concept of God as one, unique and all-encompassing. Just how far-reaching the influence of this concept was one can learn from the exceedingly roundabout way in which the religion of Moses carefully covered and fenced in the content of this principle by means of the form of ritual.
IV. Orchard and Road
The enormous danger that the Jewish tradition perceives in exposure to absolute principles is underscored by the well-known talmudic figure of four sages from Rabbi Akiva’s generation who “entered the orchard”10—i.e., who were exposed to the secrets of hidden knowledge. One of the four looked upon the secrets and died, a second looked and went mad, a third “uprooted the saplings” (ceased to keep the Jewish faith), and only Akiva came out safely.
The Jewish tradition throughout its history emphasized the danger of direct exposure to the shechina (the Divine Presence), an exposure which, like looking directly into the sun, blinds the viewer and is apt to cause complete blindness. For thousands of years, this has been an important and consistent element in Judaism, from the Tora’s warning that whoever looks directly upon God will die, to the strict precepts governing how close one might approach the sanctuary in the days of the Temple, up to the traditional injunctions against learning kabbala without having first undergone the necessary training.11

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