Rav Kook, Midot Harayah: El Hamidot
"A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone."
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is known for his stress on the importance of simple faith. In line with this is his story of “The Clever Man and the Simple Man.” The simple man eventually becomes the king’s prime minister. The clever man is an arch-skeptic who questions everything: the existence of the king who has summoned him, the authenticity of the wonder worker who can help him, and the identity of the devil and his demons who are tormenting him.
In brief, I would like to suggest a contrarian view of the story in which the skepticism and this-worldly cleverness of the “clever man” is actually a positive value.
Rav Kook once said, “I am the soul of Rabbi Nachman.” Rav Kook was known for blending and balancing apparently opposing dynamics: “These and those are the words of the living God.” More radically, one may therefore retroject and say that Rabbi Nachman was Rav Kook, and that he too sought to balance opposites more than was superficially apparent—perhaps because he considered that such an approach was not appropriate to be shared openly with those about him in his particular cultural and historical milieu.
Perhaps both characters in the story are incomplete and need to be balanced with the quality that the other possesses.
The Hebrew terms for “clever” and “simple” are both ambiguous. Chacham, “clever,” also means “wise.” Tam, “simple,” also means “simple-minded.”
When the king (who in the story presumably represents God) summons the simple man to his presence, he is pleased to find that the simple man has been schooled by one of his ministers in the “wisdoms” and “languages.” If this-worldly “wisdoms” and “languages” are so irrelevant to true wisdom and simplicity, why should God be pleased that the simple man has acquired them?
One may say, as Rabbi Nachman says, that the true tzaddik should study this-worldly wisdoms, because he is able to elevate the hidden sparks of holiness within them.
As for the clever man, he is mocked for questioning the presence of the king particularly because it goes against the universal assumption that the king does exist. Later on, when he questions the authenticity of the wonder worker, he is beaten. But being mocked, going against a group consensus and being beaten are not an argument against truth.
Indeed, Rabbi Nachman himself preached skepticism not only toward non-religious belief systems but toward other Hasidic leaders.
Therefore, the problem with the clever skeptic may be not that he applies radical doubt but that he applies it unreasonably so that it becomes his obsessive idée fix.
He too is on a path of truth-seeking. Unlike the simple man, his path is more tortuous and takes longer. Like the simple man, in the end he too acknowledges the truth.
Rabbi Natan teaches in Likutei Halachot (Hilchot Pesach 8) that the difference between matzah and chametz, between holy thought and foreign thought, is in the realm of reality that can be used either for good or for evil. That difference can be extremely slight.
Skepticism cannot be a recommended path and faith cannot be discouraged. Yet, as Rav Kook teaches, “there is such a thing as denial of faith that is like acknowledgment of faith. And there is also such a thing as acknowledgment of faith that is like denial” (Orot Ha’emunah).
And to end with another teaching from Rav Kook:
" In too great a measure, faith destroys the world. This is true not only of false faith. It refers even to true faith, when that faith affects the individual and communal soul more than necessary to bring about a proper balance with other energies, spiritual and this-worldly.
"At that point, faith weakens the world.
"That is why the world always contains so many factors that diminish faith—despite the fact that the tendency toward faith is so strong. The situation then remains in balance. The world receives the good within faith in proper measure.
"This process pertains not only toward faith but also toward wisdom, ethics and every ability. Just as every positive phenomenon has factors that support it, so does it have a unique set of influences that disturb it.
"When each case is looked at in isolation, we would think that those factors that support the good help the world, and those that disturb it harm the world. But when looked at in a total context, we see that both of them build the world—the first positively and the second negatively.
"Usually, the final generation of an era utilizes negative energy. This is because an era comes to an end when the finest aspect of its spiritual strength has worn out its ability to influence.
"Before, it had influenced so much that it had gone beyond its measure. The preponderance of goodness that it had brought had made the world unable to accept it.
"Now the world attempts to shatter it.
"And so the generation that ends one era and begins the next uses negative energy.
"But as soon as that negativity is revealed, its purpose of finalizing matters—of “smoothing the bushel”—is completed. At that point, the weakness and emptiness within the negativity are exposed.
"That negativity sets its own limits, which keep it from excessively spreading. The undue expansion of its first appearance now is rectified in the over-all balance.
"Nowadays, we see a movement toward denial of faith, as part of a characteristic arrogance of the times. For instance, there is biblical criticism, with its pretense toward scientific authority. On the other hand, there is a revelation of new information that supports faith.
"These two constitute the divine symmetry of the balanced spirit of faith."
Orot Ha’emunah, p. 24
Hat tip to:
Gila Fine's Strangers in Strange Lands: Tales of Traveling Rabbis
Prof. Don Seeman's Love and Fear: The Ethics of Rav Kook