Brawn & Brains: Reconciling Action, Prayer, and Study


Binaries.  Binaries are not only basic to computer operating systems, they are primary in many philosophical system as well.  In most Western philosophies, binaries are oppositional: light/dark, up/down, good/evil.  But, binary oppositions beget choice, and choice begets privilege, and privilege is the root of many of humanities problems.  In many Western religions, a much-debated binary is deed versus creed: which is more important (i.e. privileged), what you believe or what you do.  In most Eastern religions, such as Judaism, binaries such as deed/creed exist, but they are not oppositional.  Binaries are seen not as opposing forces but as forces to be balanced, opposite poles which guide the believer along the middle way between the binaries, what Rambam calls The Golden Mean.

The debate over which is more important, action or prayer, often includes a third element: study.  There are those who believe action is the most important element of faith, while there are those who privilege prayer, and there are also those who believe that study is the highest expression of faith.  But if we are to follow the sages’ advice and follow a middle way, how do we reconcile the triangular forces of action, prayer, and study?  Before we can address that question, we must first take a moment to explore the rivulet of philosophy called epistemology, the study of how we know.  Then we can begin the process of de-privileging action, prayer and study.

Let’s begin with how our mind works.  We think in symbols, in systems of representation called “language” that operate through the use of signs[1].  These signs are made up by the joining of two elements: the signifier (Sr) and the signified (Sd).  The signifier can be thought of as the “word” or symbol used to represent the signified, which is the thing or idea being represented by the signifier.   Joined together, the signifier/signified becomes a sign.  However, in our mind we always only have the signifier, never the signified: we never have “the thing itself,” only the representation of the thing.  Even outside our mind, in the material world, the thing does not exist, only a representation of the thing.  This is because a signifier can never represent one and only one signified at one and only one time and place.  It must be able to be applied to many different things in the class of things the signified belongs to.  In this way, even the thing, the signified, is merely a representation of a class on things and therefore a signifier itself.

It must also be noted that there nothing in the nature of the signifier that denotes the signified.  For example, there is nothing in the way of “chairness” in the word chair.  The word chair works as a signifier for the thing we call chair simply because we have agreed to associate that word, that signifier, with that object.  There is nothing inherent in the sound waves produced by the pronunciation of the sounds, /CHer/ that denotes an object a person can sit on.  Even as you are now reading the word chair, you are not seeing a chair: you are only perceiving a series of self-refreshing glowing pixels produced by currents flowing over transistors in a micro-chip.  There is nothing “chairy” about any of this[2].  So, how do we make “sense,” or rather “meaning,” out of all this? With metaphors.

Metaphors are fundamental to how we think.  Since the signifier is only a metaphor for the signified, and we never have the signified, only more signifiers, the only meaning we know is the metaphor.  In other words, metaphors allow us to “know” things that are unknowable, things beyond our experience, knowledge, or even our ability to know.  Metaphors, then, are more than just a rhetorical device we use to explain things we do or do not know, they are  what allow us to know anything in the first place.

Simply put, metaphors function by linking a sign we know to sign we do not know.  The link is made by transferring one, some, or all of the qualities of the known sign onto the unknown sign.  In this way, we say we now “know” the previously unknown sign.  It is imperative, if the metaphor is to work, that the qualities of the known sign are so well known that there can be no possible confusion.  And so, when trying to know the most unknowable of unknowable signs (The Divine and our relation to The Divine), the most commonly used metaphor is the human body.  Is there anything else we know as intimately?  In an almost unbroken tradition since at least the prophets, we have used the human body as metaphor in attempt to describe, explain, and comprehend The Divine.

According to the kabbalists, there are ten sephirot, or creative forces, in the universe.  In discussing the sephirot, Kabbalah uses the metaphors of the mishkan (The Tabernacle), the Tree of Life, and the human body.  Sephir Daat[3] (Knowledge) is associated with our head.  So, we will use our head, the site of “thought” and knowledge to explain action, prayer, and study.

There are three levels of knowledge.  Each of these levels has a function and is analogous to one of four spiritual worlds.  The first level is our brain; the organ which sends signals to every part of our body.  It is the brain that commands our heart to pump blood, our lungs to take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  The electrical signals from our brain are what allow our eyes to see and our ears to hear.

The brain is analogous to the world we occupy, the World of Action.  A physical organ, the brain apprehends the sensory input through which we perceive this world and controls our bodies by which we act in this world.  Our brain allows us to “know” this physical world. It is our brain that enables our agency in the World of Action and thus fulfill our responsibilities in our partnership with The Divine in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) as the completion of creation.  It is our brain that directs our bodies as we perform mitzvot, which repair the world, or perform acts of evil, which, to the same degree, delay that perfection of the world and the arrival of The-World-to-Come.

The second level of knowledge is the mind.  In a Schrodingerly feline way, the mind is both physical and not physical.  The mind is the product of our brain’s synaptic active and chemistry, and so occupies a space both in the World of Action and in the higher World of Ideas.  In discussing the World of Ideas, it is important to note that the concept of “higher” here is not meant in a spacial sense, but in the relationship of the world to The Divine.  While The Divine is present in all Worlds, as we ascend through each World, The Divine which is present is closer to a fuller complete Divine.  In other words, as The Divine descends into each World, it is only a smaller and smaller portion of The Divine which enters the “lower” worlds. Therefore, each World is said to be “higher” or “lower” in terms of its relationship to The Divine.  In this way, we say that the World of Ideas is higher than the World of Action.

As the “Crown of Creation,” we occupy a unique position: we exist in the World of Action but can, at times, perceive and affect the World of Ideas.  The mind is our bridge between these two worlds becuse  it is the mind which brings kavanah (intention) to our performing of mitzvot in the World of Action.  Under direction of the brain, our performing of mitzvot has a finite, proportional effect on the World of Action.  However, when performed with kavanah, with intention, the effect of the mitzva performed is increased ten-fold and effects not only the World of Action but the World of Ideas as well.  Action (the domain of the brain) gives mitzvot form; intention (the domain of the mind) gives mitzvot purpose, direction, and meaning.

Above the World of Ideas is the World of Emanation, and above the mind is the intellect.  As the mind serves as a bridge between the Worlds of Action and Ideas, the intellect is the bridge between the Worlds of Ideas and Emanation.  The brain allows us to perform mitzvot, the mind gives mitzvot meaning, and the intellect brings us knowledge (at least as much knowledge as we can have of an unknowable Divine).  In other words, the intellect connects us to the soul, that spark of Divine presence in each of us.

The Soul is a gift from The Divine, lent to us to perform Tikkun Olam.  It is each Soul’s purpose to work on a specific part of Tikkun Olam, but the Soul requires a body in order to function the World of Action, and so each Soul is given a body, and each body is given a Soul.  As the Soul is divine, we cannot comprehend it with our brain and can only glimpse it briefly and tangentially with our mind.  But the intellect, with its connection to the World of Emanation, and therefore to The Divine, allows a greater understanding of the purpose and actions of the soul.  The intellect creates the signifier for the signified “Soul.”  The intellect is the metaphor for the Soul and, therefore, functions as our soul.

Having laid out the three levels of knowledge (brain, mind, and intellect), it must now be stated that these levels do not function independently from each other.  The functioning of one is contingent on the functioning of the other two.  We require the brain in order to act; we require the mind in order to give that action intention; and we require the intellect to give our intention holiness.  The mind occupies a level higher than the brain, and the intellect occupies a level higher than the mind.  However, each level is higher than the previous only in their relationship to The Divine, not in function nor in privilege. Therefore, action cannot be privileged over prayer, nor can prayer be privileged over study.  All three must work in concert if we are to perform Tikkun Olam, to complete the work of creation and usher in the World to Come.

[1] For a systematic explanation of signs and semiotics, look to the works of semioticians such as Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, or De Man

[2] If all of this sounds very “circular,” it is.  The inter-play between signifiers and signifieds does not result in a neat horizontal structure leading upward toward some ultimate signified, as Husserl espoused, but rather collapses in upon itself in endless circular patterns in what Barthes term, “infinite signifiers in infinite play.”

[3] Daat is actually an eleventh sephir composed by joining the Sephirot of Binah (Understanding) and Hochmah (wisdom)

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