Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Fear Protects Wisdom

כל שיראת חטאו קודמת לחכמתו חכמתו מתקיימת. אם אין יראה אין חכמה, אם אין חכמה אין יראה. --אבות ג:יב,טו
One whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom will retain his wisdom. If there is no fear, there can be no wisdom, and lack of wisdom implies lack of fear.

Of God's creations, humanity is the only one that is compared to Him by being made in His image. Rav Soloveitchick writes that the quality that represents this is our creative mind. Man can freely create and invent, using his intellect to participate in the creation process that God began.

However, this intellect also has the free-willed ability to rebel against He who endowed it. History is full of rebellion against God, and seldom does rebellion come without innovative philosophical support for it. Man doubts God or His word with the very intellect whose existence testifies to Him. Some believe in God, yet doubt the veracity of the Torah. I have heard people confindent in the impossibility of a flood or an exodus or a forty year sojourn in the desert, based on flimsy archeological excavation that is far from complete, and far from convincing. And when these methods (which are far from science) fail, they miss the lesson of the inherent problem with the way they study archeology, that לא מצינו אינו רעיא, lack of evidence is proof of nothing.

And yet, skeptics say, what are we to do? We cannot be intellectually dishonest. We must rely on the minds that we are blessed with, and accept whatever seems to us to be true, no matter where it leads. To this, masechet Avot responds.

Proper fear of sin holds our imaginative intellect in check. A world-view which admits that there is a source of wisdom above us provides us with a sine qua non of intellectual study -- humility. The understanding that there are things we may not know, that the best of our methodologies do not always lead us to certainty, this forces us to be less confident in what we think we know. When we have proper humility and a deep-seated fear of sin, of mistake, we can begin to search for truth. With the lesson of Avot we can be confident that our search for truth will not end in falsehood rooted in haughty assumptions. The world's intellectual history is full of those, and fear of Heaven is the gift, the rabbis teach, that can defend us from them, even as we plumb the depths of the unknown.