The Quality of Infinity and the Pardes

This is what I thought of this morning. Those of you who have actually read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert Pirsigshould recall that the narrator had had a type of nervous breakdown. He recalled it starting from thinking about what do we really mean by "quality." I thought of the fact that this parallels that of a mathematician (can't recall the name) who went mad from attempting to divide by zero. I'm sure he knew the answer is infinity but was not satisfied with that, which is really more of a representation of the answer than the answer itself. There is an elusive quality to the grasp of the infinite in both the realm of language and numbers when it comes to representation, or to use the jargon -- the attempt to bridge the gap between signifier and signified. (A couple of years ago, a Dr. Anderson proposed a solution based on a new number - 'nullity' - which sits outside the conventional number line, but despite the boasts of solving a 1200 year old problem, all this theory does is rename the signifier.)
And then there is the episode in the Talmud(Chagiga 14b):
"The Rabbis taught: Four [Sages] entered the Pardes [literally "the orchard."They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [he lost his sanity - Rashi]. Regarding him the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings [he became a heretic]. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace."
The ascent into the realm of pardes is fraught with danger because an instinctive response is wrong in this context. That is what R' Akiva warned the others about. The normal response to seeing what looks like water is to attempt to name it -- to pin it down in the way our mind categorizes in terms of language. But in the Pardes, what looks like water is not water, but something else, which in our account is called "pure marble stones," and a false naming directly in the presence in this realm of truth brings death, as happened to Ben Azzai. Ben Zoma's reaction is described in terms of eating too much honey with dire consequences. I would think that in his case, his attempt to contain the infinite, possibly by trying to define it in concrete terms in his mind, was what caused his loss of sanity (much like dividing by zero or thinking on the real meaning of "quality").
Just to briefly touch on the other two in the Pardes: the episode of Acher was one R' Silverstein regularly taught in his Michlalah course. There is a lot of background information to explain how it is not an episode but one's very base that is the actual source of loss of faith. His verse is the one from Koheles, "Tov acharis davar mereshiso," which, in context means, that the end of something is good if it is good from its beginning. As Elisha ben Avuya's father decided to that his son would be devoted to Torah because he saw its great power, there was a deficiency in motive from the beginning. (Then we went through the discussion of the encouragement to learn lo lishma versus the pronouncement of better for the fetus to have been smothered in the womb than to learn for the wrong motives. This thought just came to me now: After Acher's apostasy, he tells boys they should become tailors, builders, etc., rather than devoting themselves to Torah study. That is seen as his new devaluation of Torah, but perhaps it is a recognition of that quality of lo lishma in others that made him really believe that they should be pursuing other things. )

Of course, the hero in this story is R' Akiva whose reshis is good, as he enters in shalom and [consequently] leaves in shalom. Shalom, of course, means peace but is also based on the root shalem [whole]. R' Akiva left intact because he entered with a sense of wholeness. I would think that means that he was not missing something that he sought to obtain by attempting to "take in" the experience of Pardes and thus try to capture the infinite. He was the one who warned the others not to attempt to define what was revealed to them in their usual terms which would prove false in this context. He had the ability to see and appreciate the Pardes for what it was without forcing it into a more limited form of human understanding. He did not attempt to name what he saw. He doesn't even say that he gazed [perhaps that could mean scrutinize, attempt to analyze by observation]. It says merely that he entered. Thus I would say that R' Akiva had the ability to enter into the Pardes and was not attempting to make it enter him, so to speak. He had the "negative capability," (indulge me in the Keatsian term) to suspend the limitations of his human judgment and appreciate the Pardes for what it was without forcing it to conform to his own ideas or outside experience.

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" is one of the most famous quotes from Browning. The idea is that man pursues with the knowledge that he will never attain. It is the attempt to pin down the infinite by defining it in our finite terms that is doomed.

Related post: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/03/rabbi-akiva-said-of-himself-that-before.html

Comments

Chaim B. said…
>>>It says merely that he entered.

I like your diyuk.

What do you make of the "water, water" line? Why water?
Ariella said…
I don't really know myself, though water is one of the first things mentioned in Ma'aseh B'reishis where the ruach Elokim hovered above the water. But the key point seems to be the division of the waters, which is why it is mentioned twice. I did find a discussion of it here: http://www.ascentofsafed.com/cgi-bin/ascent.cgi?Name=pardes
it's rather too long to quote in the comment box and I am not really familiar with the institution behind the web page. It stresses the letter yud, and of course, in the word mayim, the yud stands flanked by a mem on each side -- I'm sure that vould prove significant, as 40 is a big number in Jewish thought.
micha said…
Please see if anyone has a fix for this template so that your blog can be printed. As it is, the majority of the blog runs off the bottom of the 2nd page.

Thanks from someone who only has time to read such things while commuting,
-micha

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