The Blossoming of Knowledge

Perhaps the most important change in the face of our society is the information revolution. Superior knowledge has become the hallmark of superior cultures, a dynamic force fueling our economies and inspiring creativity. And this is not merely an abstract matter, it is affecting every dimension of our lives. To cite the most obvious example: Probably 90% of the people reading this book are employed in either creating, processing, or selling information.

To better understand the role of knowledge today and in the future, it is worthwhile to take a brief lesson from the past: About 200 years before the Common Era, there were two cities in Western society renowned for their wisdom: Athens and Jerusalem. Athens produced poetry, philosophy, art, and drama. In Jerusalem, rabbis bent over scrolls studying the Law, thinking about how to apply that Law within the changing context of their contemporary experience.

Superficially, the Greek civilization looked more alive, more open-minded, more attuned to humanity. But an interesting thing happened when the two cultures interacted -- the Greeks revealed an underlying narrowness and rigidity. When the Jews refused to adopt the Hellenistic lifestyle, the "liberal, enlightened" Greeks sought to destroy them, killing even mothers and babies because they wouldn't accept the allegedly superior Greek ideas and ideals.

Let's come closer to the present. At the turn of the 20th century, the world leader in philosophy, arts, and the sciences was Germany. Jewish wisdom had not disappeared, but was again viewed by many as more restricted, and perhaps a drop stale. The scrolls had been printed as books, and the number of books had proliferated, but the rabbis were still concerned with the same questions: What is the source from which a law is derived? And how can the Law be applied within the changing context of contemporary experience?

But as before, the culture which appeared more humane and advanced was built on the sands of pride. Its "wisdom," "knowledge" and "enlightenment" were all too easily perverted by the equally "human" and more compelling qualities of arrogance and brutality. Germany used its scientific knowledge to develop a fine-tuned murder machine which killed millions -- attempting to offer a final solution to the questions confronting Jewish wisdom.

A clear message emerges. Wisdom is not enough, not even wisdom with humanistic values. Before it can serve as the basis for a synergistic society, human wisdom must itself be judged against the backdrop of an objective, external standard of good. And this standard must allow for the protection of wisdom, so that it cannot be abused by people or nations. Wisdom can then reach beyond itself toward spiritual goals.

At no time in history have these lessons been more relevant than today, for we are experiencing an explosion of knowledge that has placed previously undreamt-of power into human hands. Biotechnology, for example, is giving us access to the levers of Creation -- the power to develop man and beast as we see fit. Or the power to kill billions.

This explosion of raw information has a price. Miraculous inventions go unseen because component A is in one discipline while component B is in another, and the scientists involved are too busy trying to keep abreast of advances in their own narrow field to be aware of what's being done in others.

The overwhelming sea of information submerges us, dwarfs our sense of self. How often have we met people who are struggling to feel their vitality, and who are challenged in their search for meaning and purpose?

As more and more of us are freed from manual labor, we are being given time to think. We all feel the need to live better lives. We want the wonders of technology to be balanced by a response to the spiritual demands of our human potential.

These needs are beginning to resonate throughout our society. In our schools we hear calls to change from educating for a particular task to educating for a lifetime of learning -- not merely occupational training, but training for life, learning to be more human, to develop personal discipline, internal values, and integrity.

It is important to apply the lesson taught by the failure of the Greeks and Germans. Being merely human, we are imperfect. So in our quest to become fully human, we must strive for values that transcend humanity and search for the spiritual.

The Zohar,1 the fundamental text of the Kabbalah, contains a stirring prophecy: "In the six hundredth year of the sixth millennium, the gates of sublime wisdom will open and the wellsprings of lower wisdom will [burst forth, to] prepare the world to enter the seventh millennium."

The six hundredth year of the sixth millennium began in 1839. The term "sublime wisdom" refers to the teachings of the Torah, and more particularly, to the mystic knowledge of the Kabbalah. "Lower wisdom" refers to secular knowledge, and "the seventh millennium" to the Era of Redemption, which like the Sabbath which follows the six ordinary days of the week, will be characterized by rest, comfort, and spiritual activity.

There is no need to elaborate on how the Zohar's prophecy has been fulfilled. We are all aware of the sweeping changes that have taken place since 1839. Advances in science and technology -- the "bursting forth of lower wisdom" -- produced the Industrial Revolution, and the post-industrial societies of today.

The Zohar, however, is emphasizing that these advances must proceed hand-in-hand with spiritual growth ("the sublime wisdom") if we are to avoid the grotesque errors of the past. Were we to focus solely on the lower wisdom, the progress achieved might enrich our pockets, but not our lives.

Recent decades have seen understanding of the Torah and its mystic dimension blossom. Where we have fallen short is in integrating the higher and lower spheres of knowledge. As we understand more about our environment, we must also understand more about ourselves, and the greater spiritual reality in which we live.

The Zohar stresses that the goal of both these paths of wisdom -- the worldly and the sublime -- must not be abstract knowledge, or even individual enlightenment, but to bring mankind as a whole to a deeper, more complete realm of experience.

There is another aspect to the symbiotic relationship that exists between these two planes. Just as spiritual awareness complements our knowledge of the world around us, so too scientific knowledge can contribute to our conception of spiritual truth, allowing a more tangible understanding of these concepts. Take for example the Theory of Relativity: The notion that all existence is an interrelated flux of energy and matter can give us a more concrete understanding of how G-d's oneness permeates the universe.

Or take the following example: In 1987, a Canadian scientist working with a new tool to detect activity in the brain, discovered that the time it takes a signal to reach the cerebral cortex -- that part of the brain which thinks -- is always the same, regardless of age, sex or race. The time? Approximately 1/16 of a second.

The editor of the scientific journal which published this finding had been studying a tract of the Talmud2 which focuses on the verse:3 "G-d's anger lasts but a moment, His favor for life [eternal]." They ask: "How long is a moment?" and, through divine inspiration, arrived at the answer: 1/58888 of an hour, approximately 1/16 of a second. Our editor thought, "It seems that G-d's anger lasts for precisely the amount of time required for a human being to realize the fact."

Balanced progress in both the natural sciences and the sublime wisdom of the Torah will help transform the dream of an ideal future into a functional blueprint for society. It is impossible that it could be otherwise. For a future dependent on secular knowledge is a future based on the interaction of human minds. A future dependent on divine knowledge is a future based on the interaction of human souls. When human minds and souls interact, true communication can begin. And with true communication comes understanding. And with understanding comes compassion. And with compassion comes a natural movement towards universalism.


1. Vol. I, p. 117a.

2. Berachos 7a.

3. Psalms 30:6.

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