Perception and Reason
Moshe Ben-Chaim

The Talmud in Chagiga (11b) discusses what man is allowed to ponder. This is of great impact, as this prohibition limits topics allowed to be studied by Torah law. But this presents a difficulty: are we not to use our minds in all areas? If so, how can any imposed limit on our minds be acceptable, and condoned by the Torah?
The source for this prohibition is found in our Parsha VauEschanan, 4:32, "When you now ask of the earlier days that were before you, to the days that God created man on the land, and from one end of the heavens to the (other) end of the heavens..." The Talmud says, "you might think it permissible to inquire of matters preceding Creation, therefore we are taught, "from the first days". Meaning, up until Day One we may inquire, but no earlier. The Talmud continues, "you might think you may ask what is above (the heavens) and what is below (the Earth), therefore we are taught, "from one end of the heavens to the (other) end of the heavens."
The Talmud concludes that one may not investigate what is above the heavens or below the Earth, nor what is before Creation or what will be at the end of time. So our question is an emphatic, "why?" To compound this question, we are told by none other than Rabbi Bachaya ben Josef ibn Paquda, author of "Duties of the Heart", that we are not to simply listen to the Rabbis, but we must earnestly study their words until we see, with our own reason, the truth of their teachings, and the teachings of the Torah. And if we fail to do so, we commit a grave injustice. Rabbi Bachaya ben Josef ibn Paquda says, " should reflect on your own mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them from tradition - which covers all the commandments in the Torah, their principles and details - and then examine them with your own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth becomes clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written: "Understand today, and reflect on it in your heart, Hashem is the G-d in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other". (Ibid, 4:39 - Another quote from this weeks Parsha.)
Based on Rabbi Bachaya's teachings, and the words of the Torah, we must use our minds. So I reiterate the question: how can the Torah also demand we halt our investigation in certain areas? And what is the significance of these areas?
My first step is to suggest that as God willed we all have intelligence, then, we are to use this intelligence in all areas of our lives. If our mind has a question on God's universe, His justice, or any other matter, we should investigate it to the best of our abilities. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is man's highest level, as he is naturally interested in God's creation. Similarly, if we are faced with a subject matter beyond our abilities, we should be equally honest and say, "I don't know", or "I can't figure it out." The bottom line is honesty, and this pervades both scenarios; A)when we have not exceeded our abilities, and B)when we have. Knowledge means "knowledge of reality", and if we have no honesty, we have no knowledge.
An illustration of A, when our abilities are not exceeded, is easy: We are asked at 12:00 noon, while standing next to an apple tree, "what color is this apple is in front of us?" Our abilities of perception and comparison are fully functional. We have not exceeded our abilities. An honest answer is possible. (I say comparison, as identification of color requires a comparison to our memory of all other colors. In truth, all knowledge is based on comparison, which our minds do without will, and by design, just as our hearts pump without will.)
An illustration of B, exceeding our abilities, would be as follows: One who is blindfolded, and led into a pitch-black room is asked to describe the room. He must abandon any attempt to describe the wallpaper, the furniture, or any object requiring visual perception. Honesty in this scenario demands one admit his perception has been completely inhibited.
But these two cases deal only with "perception". There is one other area wherein man has a limited scope of ability, and which contributes to man's thinking: I refer to "reasoning" Here too, man can exceed his ability. Suppose we were asked to judge a robbery case, before we learned what robbery meant. We would be incapable, as our reasoning would be lacking an essential element. Similarly, if a judge was complimented by a litigant, he would be biased towards him, and again, possess a flaw in his reasoning abilities, this time due to an exaggerated opinion of the litigant, and not due to lacking a principle. But in both cases, "reasoning" has been distorted, and incapable of seeing reality.
We learn from these cases that our thinking is compromised when one of two abilities are lacking; 1)either we cannot perceive the facts, or 2)we have the correct facts, but our reasoning of these facts is corrupt, either due to a lack of principles, or to a distortion of a principle - usually due to an emotion. So when "perception" or "reasoning" is compromised, so must our thinking be compromised, and we will produce fallacy. We will not see reality. The verses (Exod., 23:8 and Deut. 16:19) express this exactly, "...a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and distorts the words of the righteous." Note that these verses refer to "eyes", and "words". "Eyes" means perception, and "words" means that which expresses one's reason. The Torah defines the two areas in which a judge's rulings - his thinking - will be compromised. Again, perception and reasoning, if not pure, will result in fallacy, and Torah study. Comprehension of God's one reality requires 100% honesty.
We return to our Talmudic teaching, "limiting" our study. I do not believe our verse above commands us to cease our investigation into specific 'topics' per se. The topics mentioned are mere illustrations of a greater rule. Studying history, "When you now ask of the earlier days", or studying the heavens, "from one end of the heavens to the other" comes to illustrate what we have said. This verse commands us to recognize our limited ability to "perceive" and to "reason". The prohibition not to study what is above the heavens means, "don't try to perceive with your eyes what is out of your range of vision." Of course, now, with the Hubble space telescope, our range is significantly increased. But it too has a range. Trying to look further than this telescope's range is futile. "...from one end of the heavens to the other" means, do not try to exceed your perceptual limits. But not only is perception limited, but so is our reasoning. This is taught by the limit imposed on our timeframe of study, "When you now ask of the earlier days". The Talmud says we cannot study that which occurred before Creation. Scientists today concur, stating accurately that since reasoning is based on cause and effect relationships, in an epoch where cause and effect had not yet operated - before Creation - our minds are useless.
All our thinking depends on two faculties, perception, and reasoning about that perception. There is nothing else required for man's thought. Therefore, only perception and reason are those issues discussed when treating of the subject of man's thought.
Our initial, incorrect understanding that the Talmud makes certain topics a 'taboo', is now replaced with an accurate understanding: The Torah warns man from delving into perception and reasoning that exceeds his capabilities. The Torah once again proves to be perfectly in line with the reality of the workings of the universe. God created both, Torah and creation. Therefore, both must be complimentary, by definition.