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Journey Beyond Knowledge

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

OLAM Founder and Editor David Suissa sat down with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at his home in Boulder, Colorado, for an evening of philosophy, learning and song. At one point, David asked, “Tell me – where does our knowledge end? What is it that we don’t know?” “Hit the record button,” Rabbi Zalman answered. “This is important.”

There is a psalm that goes as follows: “You fools among the people, try and understand, When will you fools get some wisdom? The One who plants an ear, does He not hear? The One who plants an eye, does He not see? The One who reproves the nations, does He not know? The One who teaches knowledge?” (Psalm 94:8-10)

There is some understanding we gain when we ask ourselves “How do we know what we know?” If something comes through the senses, then I don’t know what it is, until I label the experience by joining the collusion of people who say “This is brown, this is white.” The senses themselves do not naturally have words associated with them. So we have to give them words. Feelings are even deeper and more deprived of words, because we have to borrow words from sensation to describe them, as we say “this is bitter” or “this is so sweet.”

When it comes to the intellect, we have many words, but when it comes to intuition, we have no words at all.

The reason for this is that our brain is made in the following way: The bottom part of the brain is called “The Reptilian.”

It is very primitive, and it is all about my turf, my food, flight and fight. It corresponds to the lowest level in Assiyah, the world of action.

Then we have another part of the brain called the “Limbic Brain.” We share this part with mammals. It loves rhythm, loves to sing, enjoys being an “us” – and this is where feelings are. This is the region that vibrates to our connection with the world of Yetzirah, or formation.

Reason is contained in a third major component of the brain: the neo-cortex. Here we work with ideas and theories. In this part of the brain we can meet God in Torah. Here we vibrate with the world of Briyah, or creation.

Still, even the most conscious of us fail to use 85 percent of our brain capacity. It is like having a big hard drive with only 15 percent of it formatted. That unformatted part, where much of the neshamah (soul) is at home, has fractal attributes of the loftiest region. It is “the head that knows not and is not knowable.” (Zohar III Idra Zuta p.288b)

When we get information through our intuition, we don’t know where it comes from. And most of the time, this shocks people. They ask “How do you know?” and I say “I know, but don’t know how I know.” Because “The wisdom comes from the nothing place.” (Job 28:12)

If I want to get to wisdom, I have to be open to the nothing place.

If my attitude is that I know, then I don’t have an open vessel.

There is something about knowing that always has to do with the past and not the future. When I say “I know it already,” I am looking through the rear view mirror. When I say, “I don’t know yet,” I am looking ahead, through the windshield.

In Hebrew there are two words for the English word why. One is “lamah”, the other is “madua.” Madua is etiological, which means that I go back to the past and work out what caused me to do something.

The other word, lamah, has its root in the word “l’mah”, which means “To what end.” To what end do I want to do it? And that is in the future. In order to be able to get anything from the future, I have to be in the place of not knowing.

People whose minds are closed say, “If it isn’t in a text from before, then it doesn’t exist.” What we are saying is “What do you think? Did Hashem stop communicating with us now? In fact, there is a future that is drawing us.”

Of course, we don’t have all the answers yet. If we had all the answers, we wouldn’t need Mashiach. We do need Mashiach because we don’t know. The Talmud says “[When] I don’t know the answer to something I say teiku – which means Eliyahu will come and give us the answer to that.” Now, why should I have to wait for Eliyahu to come and give me the answer? Because our capacity for complexity has not yet been developed. When people want to make everything simple, they see it in black and white and run away from the complexity in the world.

An example of this is the white spaces of the Torah. Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asked: “Why is it that Az Yashir, the song of the sea, has to be written like bricks – with spaces in between?” He answered his question, saying: “Until Mashiach comes, we are only able to read the black letters. When Mashiach comes, we will be able to read the white spaces between.”

Translated into psychology, the black letters are the figures, the white letters are the ground. Reb Levi was pointing out that what connects the letters is the white space. No letter in the Torah can touch another letter, and it is the white spaces that prevent this. Now, there is a verse in Jeremiah that says “A female surrounds the male.” (Jerem. 31:21) The female, meaning the Torah of Shechinah, begins with not knowing. About the Shechinah, it says “It does not have anything by herself – she is like the moon. All the light that she has is the light that she receives.” Even in her dark light, the moon attracts the water and the tides; so, too, the Shechinah attracts the infinite. How does it attract the infinite? By asking questions, by not knowing.

So the Shechinah keeps asking: “Mi barah eileh? Who has created all this?” And when we talk about God, what do we mean? The collection of all the souls. And what do all the souls say? They all say “Fill me, God, teach me, God.”

So we come with our not knowing, and our not knowing is the white spaces between the letters – and if they weren’t there, if you were to print black on black, we couldn’t see anything. Therefore, if we can create the white spaces that are in our mind, we can achieve the state of not knowing which will enable us to see.

Following these thoughts was a discussion between Rabbi Zalman and David Suissa, transcribed below:

David Suissa: You know, in graphics, the white spaces are also important. They get you noticed. We live in a world where we are so bombarded with stimuli and so talked down to that it is almost suffocating. Ironically, it’s the white space – the visual silence – that screams the loudest. It gives the viewer a little space to enter.

Rabbi Zalman: Let’s try a shared, socialized meditation: I am going to say half a sentence and you are going to finish it. You don’t know what I am going to say, and I don’t know what you are going to say. Then you are going to have to say a half sentence in connection with the first, and the same thing. Let’s begin.

Rabbi Zalman: One of the functions of not knowing is…

David Suissa: To instill a sense of humility in us, so that we can rise up and… Rabbi Zalman: Encounter our own souls. Once we realize that our soul is…

David Suissa: Organically connected with God, then we are able to…

Rabbi Zalman: Experience that connection with joy and with ecstasy. That will bring us to a place where…

David Suissa: We can identify with the essential place of every other human being, which gets us to a place…

Rabbi Zalman: Where we see our sameness and the God within the other. When that happens there is…

David Suissa: True love. The love that comes from…

Rabbi Zalman: The shared experience of being children of God.

As you can see, David, because we both don’t know what is going to happen, it lets the spirit in you come out. It is written, “The question of the wise is half of the answer.” If we could provide a list of all the things that bother us, that would be half the quest. From our not knowing we might come to knowing.

If someone says, “I have the question and I’ve got the answer,” then it is a lie. They come with the answer before the question and they construct the answer around the question. Then it is not a real question, because it is tainted by smugness.

Smugness closes all doors so that one is locked in. There is no smugness in the white space of not knowing. A real question comes from ‘Eini yodea’ – I really don’t know. The admission of not knowing is the prelude to redemption and revelation. So Moshe Rabbenu himself said: “We won’t know with what we shall serve God until we get there.” (Exodus 10:26)