World and Meaning in the Sefer Yetzirah

This is a supplemental writing to a larger “Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah“. It contains thoughts relevant to an interpretation of the context of the Theory of Knowledge guide as given in its latest release, though those unfamiliar with the text of the Sefer Yetzirah or the Tarot may find some of its references difficult to follow. It may shed some light on the core themes as well as how knowledge, understanding and meaning are understood in the writings on this blog. It also sheds light on how I have come to understand the saying of Simone Weil: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love.”

The concept of “world” used here is from the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was an anti-Semite and a Nazi. Heidegger is the only great German philosopher who did not have a Protestant Christian background. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was a product of the Roman Catholicism of the rural Germany in which he grew up. Heidegger’s “tragedy” is that he did not pay sufficient attention or give sufficient thought to the Delphic command to “know thyself”. Heidegger’s comments were that Jewish “rootlessness” caused them to be be, historically, without “world” i.e., that they were not human beings in the full sense but mere beasts. The Jews were not connected to the “blood and soil” that Heidegger saw as necessary to having a “world”. After the war, Heidegger was silent (for the most part) on the Shoah, but there are some notes he left behind that would seem to suggest that he was aware of the death camps and that he approved of them. What is being said about modern philosophy when its most consummate practitioner found appropriate political expression for his thought in the base inhumanity of National Socialism?

World and Meaning in the Sefer Yetzirah

Being the ‘perfect imperfection’, as human beings we desire to know the “reality” of whatever is, how it “is” as it is whatever it is, and the being of whatever has being. For the Sefer Yetzirah, as it was for the Greek philosopher Aristotle, “presence” (ousia) is what constitutes the reality of the things that are. Two questions predominate: what is the thing’s nature (essence)? what is its source (arche)?

In the Sefer Yetzirah, the study of the first question, the “what” question, is metaphysics. The study of the second question, the “how” question, is theology (“natural theology” as opposed to “revealed theology”, although these, too, are interrelated). For Aristotle, the nature of the being of the real is energeia. The ultimate source of the being of the real is “pure” or “perfect energeia”. Some thing is real if it is, and is some thing. For Aristotle, a thing’s form is its “ideal” way of being; it is what the thing is supposed to be.

We may compare Aristotle’s concept and that which is in the Sefer Yetzirah to the metaphor of the athlete and the ascetic: to athlon “the prize to be won in a contest”; athleo “to contend for the prize”. Contending for the prize requires that the athlete continuously work out in order to get in shape. Being an athlete requires being an ascetic, someone who constantly works to get in form or stay in shape. The Sefer Yetzirah is a training manual for the ascetic, and in this characteristic it shares a number of similarities with the writings of the Gnostics.

To apply the metaphor to the concept of “presence”: the only thing perfectly in shape is the divine, the ideal form. Everything else is striving for its ideal form or shape.  To be real does not mean being in one’s form but becoming one’s form. Human beings are not yet in their finished form like a completed work of art. Human being is “still on the way” to a goal. With this view, “being real” can be still becoming one’s ideal form or already being it, either still moving to perfection (kinesis) or already at rest with one’s fully achieved self (stasis). In the Sefer Yetzirah, the ideal forms or shapes are the Sephirot, the Ten. The being on the way for human beings is the achievement of a unity or a harmony with the emanations of the divine that are the real as revealed through the Sephirot.

This unity or harmony is attained by human beings in a lived context within a world where things (such as the Sephirot) are encountered. A “world” is the matrix of understanding which is intelligibly structured by human interests and purposes. In this world of understanding (what is referred to as Binah in the Sephirot of the Sefer Yetzirah) beings become “meaningfully present” in the world of Yetzirah, one of the four worlds of the Sefer Yetzirah. Yetzirah means “formation”, although it is oftentimes translated as “creation”. In our modern context, it is the world dominated by that form of seeing, knowing and making that is called “technological”.

“The world worlds” i.e., contextualizes things, gives meaning to things found within it by providing the medium whereby they make sense. The meaningful and what it is is what appears in understanding and what allows it to appear. The meaningful is what shows up in the understanding of its meaning to human beings. “Presence” is not to be understood as a spatio-temporal “out there” but as what is “significant” to us, meaningful to us. The word parousia, so important in understanding the Sefer Yetzirah, is what means “near to our concerns though far away in distance”. This meaning is also to be considered with its other meanings of “between”, “alongside”.

What constitutes the meaning of things is the context of human involvement within which those things are met, the matrix of human purposes ordered to human interests and to human survival i.e., a world. This is the world of Yetzirah. Each human world discloses or unlocks the meanings that can occur to the things found within a world. A world discloses by providing a sense of possible relations in terms of which the things as they appear get their significance. In the language of the Sefer Yetzirah these are the ‘paths’ or ‘the gates’ that are travelled or met on the soul’s journey. (This is not to deny that the thing itself has its own telos or purpose outside of human involvement. This is dealt with in the discussion of the beauty of the world in another segment.)

Human beings live in many distinct worlds at the same time, but they are encompassed by the One world. A mother can make business calls from home while rocking her baby to sleep. Each world – her job, her parenting – has the function of providing the range of possibilities among the sense-making activities within its specific area.

You will note that meaning is to be derived in the lived world from the practical activities within that world. The Greeks understood this as praxis i.e., the activity of the parent, student, athlete, artist, and it is from these activities that one could attain “splendour” or “social prestige” through proficiency in the knowledge and skills required in those activities, the “know how”. “Know how” was called techne by the Greeks.

A world is any place wherein human beings live out their interests and purposes, the “relations” whereby the things within that domain get their meaning and significance. A world is a range of human possibilities in terms of which anything within that context can have significance. All such possibilities are teleologically (limited, possible of completion) ordered to human beings by way of fulfilling human purposes; however, in the perfection of their imperfection, human beings still hold a belief in the possibility of re-uniting with the Good wherein they will find their own “completion”. The world, the relational context which constitutes the meaning which is ordered by Love, is ordered to the final cause of human fulfillment that lets things in our everyday world make sense. This is the manner in which the relations between the Sephirot, the paths, and the gates are to be understood and interpreted in the Sefer Yetzirah. Meaning is given in the hierarchical order given to things in their relation to the Good. It is the Good which makes us give priority to our world of parenting over our world of business or the job, or to give priority to study rather than to merely whiling our time away in mindless pleasures and activities.

There is a fundamental difference between the meaningful thing and its meaning i.e., between any particular instance and its class, between a Sephirot and the thing or event it signifies, between the Tarot card and the experience it illuminates. Things do not come with their meanings built into them but get made as meaningful. Discursive meaning, meaning that is obtained by knowledge and reason and is able to be communicated to others, is a synthesis between distinct elements that are synthesized into a meaningful whole. Affirming that so and so is an athlete assumes that she does not exhaust the class “athlete” – she and the class are distinct – even though she can be identified, in a synthesis, as being a member of that class. In analyzing “world”, the structure of synthesizing and distinguishing (dianoia and diaresis) relates not only to the random acts of making sense (e.g., “She is an athlete” – an assertion), but also towards the world itself where such athletic acts are performed. Synthesis and differentiation (what Plato termed dianoia and diaresis) is the condition of all discursive sense-making. (See the discussion of Plato’s Divided Line in the Appendix to the “Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah.”)

“World” is both static and dynamic, at rest and in motion. The world as static is the place of meaningfulness. Viewed dynamically, the world is the placing of things in meaning. This placing of things in meaning is done through the logos: contextualizing things within a set of possibilities that makes things able to be known and used in terms of their possibilities. “Being” as static is “presence”; taken as dynamic it is the “presenting” of things, the act of allowing things to be meaningfully present. This letting things be meaningfully present is done through Love acting as it does through sight which allows the things to be seen meaningfully.

The place where things become meaningful is in “the open that opens things up”. For Aristotle, “the soul” is the topos eidon, “the place where meaning shows up”. In the static world, it is the open field in which all forms of meaningfulness occur. (The Chariot card of the Tarot in the Rider-Waite deck, for example, is placed in an open field, outside the city.) In the dynamic world, this open area opens things up for possible use and appropriation i.e., makes them accessible and significant, lets them “be”. In Greek philosophy, the condition of “being open” indicates imperfection (the circle being the highest form and circular motion being higher than linear motion, for instance). Closure, self-closure upon one’s self would be the realization of all one’s possibilities, perfection, completion, accomplishment. This end is not possible for human beings in time. The meaning-giving-world is open rather than closed. It can never be fully known. Human being is always incomplete and finite.

Our “making sense” is always a partial synthesis for there is always an element of tension or “strife” in the area of “difference” and in the in-betweenness and mediation. Meaningfulness requires mediation (the logos) in order to make possible the relations that connect – these tools to that task, for instance. The pre-requisite for mediation is a medium, a field of possible relations within which the connections can be made. When static, the world understood as the logos, is the medium of intelligibility. In its dynamic state, the world as medium mediates tools and tasks (as well as subjects and predicates in language and reason) to each other with the result that sense or meaning occurs. The meaningfulness is never a perfect unity but always exists within a “strife” or tension.

According to Aristotle, what we understand as “freedom” is the power that “empowers” things in the static world to open themselves up to their various possibilities and potentialities. In the dynamic world, the “free” frees the things of the world and the power “empowers” their significance. In this world of Yetzirah, insofar as the world is one of relations between tools and their possible utility, language and number become the tools that are used to liberate those tools from their “just thereness” by revealing their suitability for fulfilling this or that purpose. For Plato, it is the Good that makes intelligibility possible, for it is the medium between the person’s ability to understand and the ability of the form’s eidos to be understood.

In the static presence of being, the opening is that region which clarifies things, the area of unfolding that lets them appear. Their emergence in this opening is a coming-forth or a stepping-forth. It is the light (love) which brings things to presence; but in order to do so, there must be an opening that allows the light in. In the allegory of the Cave in Plato, the opening is that of the Cave to the light of the Sun; the Cave itself is physis or Nature. In the dynamic state, the light brings clarity to things by letting light shine on them and show themselves as this or that. Aletheia or truth is the self-unfolding of the static world itself. The dynamic unfolding is the bringing of them into meaning. Physis is the world’s arising or self-emergence. In its dynamis, it is the emergence that brings things forth into the open where they can appear as this or that.

What is the source of meaningfulness? The open that opens things up through love (care, concern), the clearing that clarifies them, the ever-present presence that allows things their meaning is determined by what we think our “treasure” is. It can be the freedom that empowers (power itself for its own sake) or it can be the love of the beauty of “otherness” that enables the “letting be” of things to be as they are. In the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word…” shows that Christ is both “world” and “word”, and as Love it is through Him that all things come into being. Things that do not come into being through Him are but “shadows”. One question that arises is whether or not the opening of world, the ontological movement of human beings that opens up the clearing for the parousia of being (Christ’s “presence” within the world), is a human doing or whether it is a receiving of a gift from outside of the human being, a gift from the God.

In Aristotle, kinesis or movement is “perfect” when it is a “self-possessed” movement: a thing is perfect or complete when it possesses its telos “wholeness”, “ownness” and it does so by being a finished work. Every entity is perfect to the degree that it has come into its own. The imperfect is what is still striving to fulfill its essence. We participate in a goal without fully possessing it. You speak some French even if not perfect French; you strive in your studies for “A’s” though you have not arrived there yet. Participation without full possession is deficient or a-teles, still coming into its own. Aristotle says “becoming is for the sake of Being”. The telos of the thing actively moves the thing. This is contrary to Plato who states that the Good is beyond Being and the Good is the telos of all Being and beings and moves all beings and Being.

Everything in Aristotle’s universe is either telic (reached its limits) or erotic (deprived, in need). When the thing is telic, it is wholly present informing and fulfilling the thing. When not, it is still drawing the thing from within, not to anything outside of itself, but towards its own fulfillment. Self-fulfillment is what Aristotle means by “the good”. The telos moves by being desired (the good). We are erotic creatures because self-fulfillment is what we long for. A moved thing is drawn on by its telos and human being is self-moved by its own desire for self-fulfillment. Human being is defined by its absence from perfection and is equally its erotic presence to perfection. Absence (relative but not absolute – deprivation – the desired telos) draws us to ourselves. Absence gives (lets be; allows for; is the source of) Presence. Our imperfect presence is the gift of the presence-bestowing-absence.

This ontological condition is shown in how we comport ourselves in our everyday dealings. Ari is studying for the IB Diploma: that is his raison d’etre at the moment. The Diploma is relatively absent yet but, as desired, gives Ari his presence, the world of meaning in which he currently lives, that of being an “IB Diploma student”. The absent Diploma which is desired but still unattained bestows presence. It gives world to Ari.

What kind of presence does human beings’ self-absence give? In the world of Sefer Yetzirah, becoming and perfection are paradoxically tied together. We may understand it in Plato’s words that “Time is the moving image of eternity”. The becoming that is Time is the absence of the perfection of God. God is perfectly perfect having always attained perfection being eternal. There is no becoming in God. God’s absence in His creation is to be understood as such: by withdrawing, God allows the beings to be in their presence. If there is no withdrawal, there are no beings since all would be perfectly perfect, a One. The telos for human beings then becomes unity with the Divine. In the world of Yetzirah, the wood for a table participates in its future perfection, but deficiently. It is still being moved towards its fulfillment, and once it reaches it, the movement of becoming a table will stop.

For human beings, the paradox expresses itself in that we are the perfectly imperfect creature in our incompleteness. Human beings can never attain completeness or perfection in the future because human beings are finite creatures i.e., in Time. Human being is always becoming a this or a that, yet it is always human being. It is itself “a moving image of eternity”. The difference between a table and a human being is that a table’s becoming will cease once the construction reaches its goal, whereas human beings’ becoming is directed toward the Good itself. The question is always whether or not there is such an end or whether human beings’ becoming is an end in itself. Whereas God is always whole and perfect and in a state of rest, his Creation is whole and perfect in its state of infinite motion. Human being is going nowhere because it is always where it is supposed to be, in its state of coming-into-its-own. For the Sefer Yetzirah, Adam is the first human being because he was the first being capable of discourse. Human being is neither progress over time (as in change of place, quality or quantity i.e., “evolution”), nor ontological transformation into something it essentially was not before (as in the case of substantial change). Human beings’ perfection is to be imperfect.

For the Greeks, reality is not only a matter of perfection (coming-into-one’s-own) but also a matter of “showing forth” and “appearing” – being present and accessible. Being and truth are interchangeable. The greater the thing’s degree of being, the greater its degree of meaningfulness in the double sense of its ability to know itself and others and to be known by itself and others. This “knowability” is the danger tied to “social prestige” as the illusion when the Good is mistaken and understood as Necessity.

Meaningfulness comes in different degrees at different levels of perfection. Human being is only partially knowing and knowable. For Aristotle, knowing is being one with that which is known. The erotic desire for the good is bestowed by its absence. For imperfect human beings, the degree of their presence to the relatively absent telos gives them their measure of knowing and knowability. The relatively absent goal, to the degree that it is desired, gives the moving entity its degree of ability to make sense of things. Human beings know mediately by bonding with the knowable in a matrix of mediating relationships. Human being makes sense of itself and others only by way of world (logos).

Insofar as human beings are imperfect, needing beings, that need is a longing and a desire for belonging even if there is nothing to belong to and no some thing else to long for. Human being (best depicted in the Tarot card The Chariot) is held in the strife between difference and synthesis, and human being is this strife. Human being is world logos the zoon logon echon the living being capable of speech, thought. Eros pulls human being into its openness. As drawn out and opened up by its own need, its imperfection, human being frees things from the area of unintelligibility into the clearing and clarifies them, and the unifying of difference draws them into meaningful entities. When human being appears as what it is, it is not just the place where meaning appears but the very appearing of appearance, and is human being is capable of apprehending the source of meaning: the aitia, arche, and logos – the cause of, source of, and reason for appearance in the first place. This is its salvation. We are moved by eros (not ourselves: it is done to us) and in this moving world occurs. We are the always near but never arriving being.

Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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