OPINION Sight, Belief and Knowledge

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?”: Sight, Belief and Knowledge.

Lack of knowledge is one of the most difficult places to be in, to think in. We always want to know, to be in control. Upon lacking knowledge, the ensuing feeling is usually one of anguish and uncertainty. Prayer, as it is commonly considered, places the individual in a dialogue with the Divine, and allows him or her to rely on the presence of a knowing entity that will protect, and direct events as wewish them to take place. Relying one’s consciousness upon God in praying soothes that sense of difficulty, and turns despair into a Divinely based hope. While conscious of the numerous discussions on this matter present in the rabbinical tradition, I would like to propose in this short article my own perspective on the duty of prayer. Given that any statement made on the Divine and Divine intention would be a senseless projection of personal yearnings and fears, what I would like to do as an exercise is to elide God from the discussion on prayer – to allow myself, that is, to focus on what the prayer should do to me, and ignore the widespread understanding of it as a moment of dialogue with the Creator. Within the framework of this rather unappealing idea of solipsistic liturgy, I’d like to argue in favor of a prayer conceived as a process, structured upon repetition, of cognitive refinement, in which the individual ascends from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge. Belief is not really the issue at stake here – what I am going to try to state is that it is a process of intellectual / cognitive refinement and ascent, by virtue of which the praying individual pulls himself out of the inert “thingness” of ignorance, and climbs up a cognitive ladder to a place of understanding.

While in Psalm 120 the speaker stresses the critical importance of sincerity and the semantic fullness of words when praying to God in times of distress, in Psalm 121 the speaker inquires into the actual provenance of salvation. From a textual point of view, we are indirectly invited to assume that the speaker does not know where to look, and that he is actually trying to understand where he is and where God is and how their paths will intersect. This process is presented in the metaphorical terms of sight perception – understanding the will of God entails lifting one’s eyes, just as Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the three angels approaching towards his tent, and then lifted his eyes again as saw (from afar) the “place God had chosen” for Isaac’s sacrifice, and then lifted his eyes one more time and saw the ram he was supposed to sacrifice instead of his son. Physically seeing is not paramount to seeing with the mind’s eye, with understanding / cognizing the thing perceived, just as hearing is not always paramount to actually listening and understanding. So upon lifting his eyes, the speaker in Psalm 121 is not merely looking for a physical sign of a yearned-for salvation, but is actually describing his cognitive search for God’s redemption. The inquiry a sign of doubt, of lack of understanding – why, we might then ask, does the speaker give voice to this uncertainty? The inquiry is immediately answered – “My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.” The speaker’s understanding, or acquisition of knowledge bubbles out of the preceding state of uncertainty, and leads him to one of univocal and immovable clarity – “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved” for God never “slumber[s]”. The moment of understating is accompanied by a cognitive encounter with a God that never loses that clarity, never changes nor interrupts his protection of Israel – “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” In this state of certainty, God truly is the protector, truly is the keeper and right hand of Israel, the one who will not allow the sun to smite during the day or the moon at night – God is the one who envelops the speaker is a unerring state of consciousness.

Seeing is knowing; and knowing is, needless to say, quite different from the accepted concept of believing. But while one always perceives with one’s eyes, knowing what one is seeing is actually a totally different thing – the transition from one to the other entails a refinement, a cognitive ascent to a state in which the reality perceived through the eyes is also known by the mind. In this state of cognitive perfection there is still a difference between the seer and the seen, between the subject and the object, but the encounter between the two nevertheless leads to a moment of clarity. In this state, there is no need to be assured, as in Psalm 81, that God is the Lord that redeemed the people of Israel from Egypt, nor is it necessary to invite the reader to open his “mouth wide” in order for God to fill it – the reader knows, and his mouth is always open for God to fill it with his truth.

The second stage in this short argument in favor of sight and faith, looks to the sin committed by the spies sent by Moses into the Land of Israel as an example of imperfect sight, and thus imperfect knowledge. Ten men travel incognito into the Land, looking for information, trying to understand whether the objective is actually realistic, and to bring back signs of the land’s abundance. What the spies actually bring back is a narrative, a story of great enemies, giants, buttresses and fortresses, an impossibly strong local population against which the people of Israel cannot fight. This ill-report influences, fashions the consciousness of the people, leading them into a state of despair. The spies have seen, but have not understood – they have physically perceived a state of affairs, a reality, but have not been able to understand / know what that reality actually means. The spies’ sin is committed with their eyes – and the correction of this sin passes through the eyes:

(Numbers 15:37ff): “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring; That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”

The mitzvah of tzitzit is given to the people of Israel as a correction of the people’s imperfect and, might we say, faithless sight: thus states the Sfat Emet on parshat Shlach Lecha. The word tzitzit (ציצית) comes from the verb “to peek into” (להציץ), for, according to the same Hassidic exegete, thanks to the fringes and their blue thread the individual can hope to attain a partial perception of ” the wonders of God” (וע”י מצוה זו יכולין להביט ולהשיג נפלאות ה’). The cognitive line of thought of the Sfat Emet is, to me, rather clear – the blue thread in the fringes is conceived by the Torah as a mnemonic device, channeling the consciousness of the individual and thus allowing for a process of refinement of the perception / understanding. Rashi describes this in the terms of a veritable ascent, a cognitive climbing of the individual from the “here and now” to the blue color of the tzitzit, to the blue color of the sky and from there to the throne of God. In the Shema Israel, continues the Sfat Emet, both the tefillin and the tzitzit are mentioned as intimately relatedwithin the framework of what is perceived as an act of witnessing (עדות) – reciting the Shema Israel without phylacteries is paramount to being a false witness. For, explains the Sfat Emet,
“…there are two types of witnessing: there is the witness who saw and there is the witness who knows; and the people of Israel [who had assisted to the giving of the Torah at Sinai and had seen the wonders of Revelation] were not mere vocal witnesses, but actually saw the Divine revelation and acquired an understanding of it; for by means of these two mitzvot one can actualize the potential of seeing and knowing; for it was upon sinning [in the Garden of Eden] that good and evil mixed up, and ever since these two elements have necessitated man’s discernment, and the people of Israel received with the Torah a set of instruments for them to carry out this separation… and mitzva of seeing the tzitzit is a part of this act of discernment, for as it is written [in Genesis upon describing the reaction of Adam and Eve to their having picked and eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge] ‘and their eyes were opened and they saw [knew] that they were naked'”

The visual perception described here is not a platonic one, by virtue of which the individual can aspire to see the essence of things. The post-Socratic distinction between essence and appearance, between internal and external, between what cannot be seen and what can, is irrelevant to the Jewish conception of sight, where one either sees clearly or sees a blurred confusion of things. The refinement of sight is performed by the individual himself, who endeavors to see through and beyond the chaos of post-Lapsarian confusion, beyond the frightening reality of facts presented to him by those who are pragmatic and realistic (the spies in Shlach Lecha), and ultimately perceives the same reality of facts from a totally different perspective: that of he who manages to lift up his eyes and see beyond the hills, see beyond the suffocating immediacy of the “here and now.” To see does not always mean to know – at times the reality of facts appears to be ultimately compelling and, alas forces a change upon the cognitive stance of the individual (as in the case of thespies). The change we are called to make, therefore, is that of an ongoing process of cognitive refinement, taking one from a place where, to use Qohelet’s words, “nothing’s new under the sun,” to one where truth is perceived, seen and understood, and where there is no place left for uncertainty. The reality we live in is one made up of signs, of revelatory fragments, of puzzling combinations of elements, and of uncertainty, in which we are called to act courageously as witnesses of a different state of mind – the refinement of sight is thus a perpetual process of cognitive ascent from the imperfection of ignorance and pragmatism (the open eyes of post-Lapsarian reality) to the perfection of true perception / knowledge.

*Ph.D., Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University