In honor of the 19th of Kislev, we will study an excerpt from chapter 8 of the Tanya, in which the Alter Rebbe relates to the study of the lower wisdom, the natural sciences (as opposed to the higher wisdom, the wisdom of Torah). The Alter Rebbe writes:
Occupying oneself with the intellectual disciplines of the nations of the world is likewise included in the category of engaging in inconsequential matters insofar as the sin of neglecting the Torah is concerned, as is explained in the Laws of Torah Study. Moreover, the impurity of the intellectual disciplines of the nations is greater… (for when a person studies it) one clothes and defiles his divine soul’s faculties of ChaBaD (intellect) with the impurity of the husk of nogah contained in those sciences, whither they (the sciences) have fallen, through the “shattering of the vessels,” out of the “hinder-part” of chochmah of holiness, as is known to the students of the Kabbalah.
First, let us clarify that “the intellectual disciplines of the nations of the world” do indeed refer to science, including modern science. Additionally, it is important to note that the Alter Rebbe does not object to the study of science with the argument that it is not correct or true. Rather, he cites two reasons. The first is connected to the time that one invests in studying these disciplines, which could have been devoted to the study of Torah. (We will not explore this issue in this article). The second is connected to the shattering of the vessels, a topic deduced in Kabbalah from the deaths of the kings of Edom, about which we read in the Torah portion of Vayishlach.
Chaos Precedes Rectification in Nature
The kings of Edom, who reigned before there was a king in Israel, represent a spiritual stage referred to as chaos prior to the state of rectification. Just as in the creation of the world, darkness preceded the light, (“and it was evening and it was morning”) so it is with all natural phenomena: the state of chaos precedes the state of rectification.
The eight kings of Edom – the forces of chaos – all died, except for the last king, Hadar. Hence, the seven kings parallel the emotive powers of the heart. However, in the world-state of chaos, the keter (crown) and intellect (wisdom and understanding) also existed. Even though they did not fall due to shattering, they nonetheless did experience a fall: The keter (the hind part of its attributes of netzach [victory], hod [acknowledgment] and yesod [foundation], as explained by the Arizal) was blemished – while the (hind part of) the wisdom and understanding were nullified and hence came to the husk of nogah. The bitul (nullification) that damaged the intellect of the world of chaos represents bitul that damages the intellectual abilities of all those who make use of the intellectual disciplines of the nations of the world or of any scientific method (even a person who offers a “scientific” version of a Torah book).
Positive Bitul in the Torah and Negative Bitul in Science
This approach seems to collide with Chasidut, which teaches that there is nothing more positive than bitul. Why then, is the bitul of the intellect in the world of chaos so negative?
Chasidut explains that rectified bitul trains us to negate our feeling of separate existence. All mental illness begins with a person who nurtures his ego, seeing himself as being separated from God and so autonomous that he negates God’s Divine Providence upon him or even His very existence. Hence, a person who engages in the intellectual disciplines of the nations of the world – particularly modern science – must first nullify not only his own sense of existence and the existence of the physical world – but also the existence of the Creator, at least temporarily, so that he can relate to the object of his research as something that exists and is tangible. Science establishes the existence of reality, while the Torah and positive bitul negate it, opening the way for man to understand that “God is all and all is God.”
The goal of the sciences is to research reality. This type of research is based on the premise that reality is autonomous and exists on its own. Conversely, the foundation of the Jewish faith is that nothing has any existence without God’s will, which brings it forth anew from nothingness to existence at every moment. The Jewish lower wisdom –science in the Jewish version – begins with the premise that God created permanent laws of nature, about which King David wrote “Blessed are You, God, teach me your statutes” (Psalms119:12) and we can reveal these laws of nature in a precise manner only by investigating reality. But – and this is a major caveat – a law or fact of nature that does not reveal, but rather conceals God – defiles the intellect. The only antidote for the negative bitul found in the natural sciences is the true, positive bitul in the soul. This is the foundation of the Tanya and the teachings of Chasidut to which the Alter Rebbe, whose redemption we celebrate on 19 Kislev – devoted his life.