Torah 57: Medicine, the Sage’s Wisdom and the Tikkun of Eating – part 3

Rav Shagar • 2008

The third part of the shiur on Likutei Moharan 57: on the relation between language and reality, and on the similarity and differences between the postmodern concept of language and the kabbalisitc one.



Science and Postmodernism

Richard Rorty wrote:

Science is one human activity among many, not a field in which people find a non-human, ‘solid’ reality. According to this approach, eminent scientists propose theories of the world that allow us to describe it in a critical manner and predict what will occur…What is needed…is a rejection of this course of thought, that any thing – a spirit or material, in me or in the world – has an inner nature that can be expressed or represented…The statement that ‘the truth can’t be found out there’ is like saying, ‘without phrases, there is no truth’: for phrases are the basis of human languages, and human languages are human constructions…The world does not speak. Only we speak. After we have programmed ourselves in language, the world can supply us with beliefs. But it cannot suggest a language for us to speak in.

In this sense, Rav Nachman explains that the Torah is the ‘founding’ text of the world. Postmodernism says the world is a ‘text’ – a story – and therefore, there are no isolated, objective facts; every ‘fact’ is part of a story that gives it meaning. The Torah is this story, and this is the meaning of Rav Nachman’s words here: he suggests a ‘language game,’ which is the only force that gives man and nature a spiritual meaning. If one takes this approach, his relationship to questions of illness and treatment change.

Our intuitive perception tells us that there is a reality, and then we come along and inquire about its nature. In truth, however, man participates in shaping reality through his own beliefs and perspectives. This can be illustrated through the viewpoints of the Rishonim commentators. For example, the Rambam claims that Divine Providence over a person depends on his level of spiritual perfection, his intellectual adherence to G-d; ‘providence’ is the force of the intellect, given to a person at birth, which allows him to control himself. Thus, divine providence is essentially the implementation of man’s ability to monitor and watch from above. According to the Rambam, divine providence is not something that ‘happens’ to a person – rather it is something that he himself creates. Similarly, Rabbeinu Bechaye claims that one who believes in nature and relies upon it is delivered into its hands. This is how, in Torah 13, we explained Rav Nachman’s description of providence as a ‘light that returns.’

Considering this, can it be said that if I don’t believe in G-d, He does not exist? This is a paradoxical thought. For we are not speaking of the essence of G-d – for a thought cannot encapsulate him, and the kabbalists said, “You are not permitted to contemplate this.” What we do create with regards to this matter is the element of a divine revelation – always from our perspective and according to our own mental categories. If so, if we do not believe in G-d – then G-d will not be revealed.

We must now distinguish between a postmodern description of a ‘language game,’ ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ as the foundation of the world, as opposed to the description of the kabbalists and hassids (Rav Nachman among them) regarding the Torah and divine speech. There are two major differences.

The first – which I have discussed elsewhere – is that postmodernism presents a very precarious picture of the world: everything is the product of human construction, a simulation, a narrative. On the other hand, the kabbalist picture is stable:  a mystical dimension is added to this human construction, for it understands the power of human construction – at least that of the tzaddik – as a force of divine creation, one which brings a substance and authenticity back to reality.

The second difference is that at the final stage of postmodern claims, every field – as with the example of science – is represented as part of a particular language, thus creating an opportunity for a different construction of a different language. These postmodern claims create many possible worlds, as with the disciplines of art and poetry. They uplift the pluralistic approach: a multiplicity of language games and possible narratives. But there is a great difficulty here: for we are embedded in our language, describing each thing in its words and terms. How, then, can we escape from this language and speak a different one? According to the rules of our own language game, any attempt to speak a different language is ‘nonsense’: for this, we need inspiration, revelation and miracles. It is only through these that we can pass from one language to another and speak of a plurality of languages; and this stems from the power of faith in a divine language that preceded any human one.

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