Simple Complexity

While trying to slog through yet another, let me say well-intentioned, book on New Age consciousness, I was struck with the reason I can never get beyond the first few chapters with my eyes open.  There is an underlying assumption, deeply embedded in western thought, that we really are clever enough to figure everything out.  The quest for a “magic bullet”, complete theory of everything, all-encompassing ideology just won’t go away.

Immediately after ritually washing hands upon awakening, we traditionally recite the phrase ‘ראשית חכמה יראת ה, Reishit Chachma Yirat HaShem,  the beginning of wisdom is awareness/awe of God (focusing on the root of the word,  יראה, Yira, which is ראה, Re’eh, to see, rather than fear).

Beyond simplistic “God is the boss/I am the servant” models, what we’re really called on is to realize that God is the uniquely infinite while we are, each of us, ultimately limited.  Although we can make infinitely more new connections and innovations, this is the same principle in basic mathematics that between any two fixed points on a line, an infinite number of points exist.  This is a bounded infinity, a paradox, of course, but a distinction we often lose sight of.  The infinite nature of God is a totally different concept, first in that we can’t even comprehend it, but second in that it involves no boundaries whatsoever.

In other words, the first requirement to acquire wisdom is the realization that not only do we not know everything to begin with, but that no matter how much we do learn, there will always be infinitely more that we can never know. There is no “magic bullet” that will fully explain everything, no instant or even complete “enlightenment”.

Judaism is, among other things, the art of relishing paradox.  While we’re commanded to “know God”, we’re also told that this is an impossible task.  Even the story-level telling of our tradition emphasizes that our greatest mind, Moses, was imperfect and limited.  And even for him, there wasn’t a moment of “Total Knowledge”, but a slow process of endless effort in order to learn.  We often think of the supernatural revelation on Sinai, but seem to forget the forty sleepless, foodless days and nights Moses spent acquiring the Torah.

The genius of our tradition, for me, is that we can acknowledge the material and the empirical while, at the same time, reminding ourselves daily that it’s really just a “drop in the ocean”.  Rather than presenting our deepest ideas as the complete truth, every Torah book I’ve ever encountered or even heard of, repeatedly reminds the reader that it’s only talking in metaphor and that the true reality is, by definition, beyond our possible grasp.  I’ve yet to find another wisdom tradition that allows for infinite growth and discovery while avoiding the arrogant illusion of being able to know it all.

Ultimately, when we warn of Avoda Zara, strange (idol) worship, it’s not a triumphalism or evolving beyond “primitive” superstitions that “sticks and stones” might be God, but rather worshiping our own egos which pretend to understand everything.  Any attempt to define and delineate God/Reality/The Universe (or which tries to equate those three) implies that either we are infinite or that God is finite.

Of course this is very tempting–it’s hard-wired into our very natures as humans.  Which is why we have the daily vaccine of Reishit Chachma Yirat HaShem.

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