Imagine sitting knee to knee with someone very wise, with the chance to
ask anything you’d like. Well, that’s the setting to Ramchal’s Da’at
Tevunot, which serves as a dialogue between a seeker and a sage … actually
between a soul and reason itself. (Ramchal wrote other books in a dialogue
format, but Da’at Tevunot was the best of them by far.)
The soul asked reason to explain a few things about the most important
themes in Jewish Thought known as the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish
Faith. For as he put it, “While I certainly accept all of them as true
without hesitation, some of them I accept indeed and understand as well,
while others of them I simply accept on faith without really understanding
them”. And he was hoping that reason would spell them out.
It’s important for our purposes here to know that Rambam (Rabbi Moses
Maimonides, 1135-1204) listed thirteen fundamental things about the Jewish
religion we’d need to accept in order to claim to be believing Jews in all
honesty: That G-d exists, is the only G-d, is wholly spiritual and
incorporeal, is eternal, and that He alone should be worshipped; that He
revealed His wishes to us through the prophets, and that Moses was the
greatest among them; that G-d's Torah was given on Mount Sinai and is
absolute; that G-d is omniscient, and rewards all good deeds and punishes
all wrongful ones; and that the Messiah will come and the dead will
eventually be resurrected.
But as the soul explained, he needed to have G-d’s omniscience, reward and
punishment, the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead
explained to him, since he doesn’t quite understand them. And therein lies
the premise of the book.
We’ll come back to that shortly, but let’s first dabble into the response
to Da’at Tevunot in the Jewish world.
Like all spectacular works of revelation, deep insight, and overarching
truth, Da’at Tevunot seemed destined to be adored by those exposed to
Jewish Thought and Kabbalah, and to go about unnoticed by others. And that
indeed was what happened for the longest time.
Some of the greatest Jewish thinkers took to it right away, including but
certainly not restricted to the Great Maggid (the successor to the Ba’al
Shem Tov) and The Gaon of Vilna (it should be said that though it would
seem awkward to many to cite the two of them side by side, the fact that
these “warring” giants both revered this work speaks to the greatness and
universality of Ramchal); Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (a distant cousin of
the Ramchal, who was a great scholar in his own right), Rabbi Shlomo
Eliyashav (1841 to 1925, known as The Leshem, in commemoration of his
great series of Kabbalah works), and others. But many other learned Jews
knew nothing of this vital work until Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (the
mashgiach of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, who was a student of Rabbi E. Dessler)
offered it to the Jewish world in the 1980’s.
Rabbi Friedlander examined various manuscript versions of Da’at Tevunot in
libraries and private collections throughout the world, and presented us
with the most accurate edition to date. He then set the book in a more
readable type, positioned whole sections of it as independent units,
explained the difficulties, and elucidated many of the more elusive,
He also connected Da’at Tevunot with certain shorter works of Ramchal’s
(the Klallim) that connected to it on an arcane level. For as we’d
explained, Ramchal contended that the Ari’s works were to be read
symbolically rather than literally. So, Ramchal encapsulated the Ari’s
thoughts in Klallim (and elsewhere), and then “translated” the symbols
into terms more easily grasped in Da’at Tevunot. Rabbi Friedlander
connected the works in one edition, showed how one reflected the other,
and thus allowed readers to follow both the esoteric and exoteric
perspectives. (Rabbi Friedlander edited and made many of Ramchal’s works
readily available as well, and did very much to make him accessible to all
of us in his relatively short life, and we all owe him a great deal.)
Da’at Tevunot was then translated into English by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein
(and termed “The Knowing Heart” which, though inexact, served to transmit
the main thoughts of the work), and several commentaries were written to
it, including those of Rabbi Mordechai Shriki, Rabbi Avraham Goldblatt,
and Binyamin Effrati of late (we ourselves are in the midst of preparing
an English language adaptation with comments to Da’at Tevunot as well). As
such, many who would never have access to this masterpiece of Jewish
Thought now do.
Though Da’at Tevunot does indeed expound upon the great themes of G-d’s
omniscience, reward and punishment, the coming of the Messiah, and the
resurrection of the dead as we’d said, it actually uses them to express
some of Ramchal’s own greatest ideas (though he does offer cogent
explanations of the cited themes, to be sure). We’ll treat them one at a
time, but in fact they come to G-d’s sovereignty, the role of evil and
wrong in the world, the meaning of life, and G-d’s plans for the cosmos.
Ramchal explained many other vital, overarching themes as well in this
work, but space will not allow us to delve into them as well. So we’ll
concentrate on the ones just cited and present Ramchal’s ideas about them
in our own words.
One of the things we most often misconstrue about G-d is the extent of His
reach. Most of us who believe in Him -- including many who have
experienced honest and even profound apprehensions of His presence in the
world -- certainly accept the fact of His existence. But while some of us
accept His presence in the Heavens, or perhaps even on earth as well, few
of us though accept the idea that He’s everywhere, throughout the cosmos.
And that He’s not only present everywhere, but He’s also in command
throughout the cosmos as well.
That’s to say that G-d not only created everything and sustains everything
as well -- He also holds ultimate and exclusive sway over everything! For
G-d’s sovereignty and rule is absolute and can never ever be thwarted.
There is nothing that can get in His way, nothing that can challenge His
“Hey, but wait a minute!,” you’re bound to say. “Didn’t He grant us the
freedom to do what we will; and don’t many, many people use that to go
against His will all the time?” -- and you’d be right. So let’s use the
opportunity to explain Ramchal’s view on the next subject at hand, the
role of evil and wrong in the world.
Only the most innocent and pure-hearted among us can say with aplomb that
everything is for the good as it should be. Yet we’re taught outright
that “G-d is good to all and merciful unto all His handiwork” (Psalms
145:9) … so why don’t the rest of see that all around us? Ramchal would
offer that we simply don’t know what we’re looking at when we catch sight
of things, and that everything is indeed for the good. Because bad and
wrongfulness only serve as vehicles for the ultimate good much the way
fever serves to burn away infection, and surgery often carves out
cancerous growths. His point is that wrong and misfortune -- while
certainly painful and daunting -- serves as a means to an end that’s far
greater than the pain involved. And thus while we’re indeed free to do as
we will, at the end of the day, nothing can ever truly go against G-d’s
will, despite appearances; everything serves His purposes.
And finally, that brings us to the meaning of life and G-d’s ultimate
plans for the cosmos, as Ramchal reveals them to us in this astounding
work. At bottom, we’re taught here, what’s expected of us is to draw as
close to G-d as we can by following His will. The irony however is that
we’ll all manage to do that in the (ultimate) end -- either directly, by
adhering to His expectations for us, or by enduring the sort of
remedial “surgery” we alluded to above. Our having arrived at that
juncture will then enable us to experience G-d’s full, rich, and
overarching omnipresence. And our having come to that point will serve to
have been the fulfillment of G-d’s ultimate plans for the cosmos.
May the merits of the righteous Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato of blessed
memory draw us close to G-d Almighty!