The Blossoming of Knowledge

Publisher's Foreword

At present, we are living in an era commonly referred to as the information society.

Knowledge and the use of it have become intertwined with far more elements of our existence than ever before.

Knowledge is also the most fundamental element of the Era of the Redemption.

Maimonides identifies the ultimate purpose of that era as the pursuit of knowledge: "The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic Era in order to rule... over the nations, nor in or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Instead their aspiration was to be free [to involve themselves] in [the study of] the Torah and its wisdom." [1] And at that time, wisdom will spread until "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d." [2]

Is there a connection between Maimonides' vision and the proliferation of knowledge in our society?

What relation should our technological advances share with "the knowledge of G-d"?

These and other related questions motivated the essay that follows.

Through windows scanning the past, present, and future, focus is directed to the integration of mind and soul, and how the two together can lead us in the direction of growth, both for ourselves as individuals and for the world at large.

19 Kislev, 5753
Rosh HaShanah of Chassidus

The Blossoming of Knowledge

Sometimes, it is necessary to go backward to go forward. To understand how to approach knowledge today - and how to proceed with it to the future - it is worthwhile to take a brief lesson in ancient history:

About two hundred years before the Common Era, there were two civilizations in Western society that were renown for their wisdom: Athens and Jerusalem.

In Athens, they produced poetry, philosophy, art, and drama.

And in Jerusalem, they studied the law.

Rabbis sat bent over scrolls, trying to find the source from where a law was derived, or leaned back and thought how to apply the law within the changing context of contemporary experience.

Superficially, the Greek culture looked more alive, more open-minded, more attune to humanity. But an interesting thing happened when the two cultures interacted, the Greeks began to show a narrowness and rigidity. When the Jews refused to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle, the Greeks sought to destroy all opposition, killing even mothers and babies because they wouldn't accept their ideas and ideals. And the Jews demonstrated heroic inspiration, initiating a sequence of change that culminated in the Chanukah miracle.

Let's come closer to the present.

At the turn of the 20th century, there was no question which was the most developed culture in the world. The leaders in philosophy, the arts, and the sciences were German.

Jewish wisdom had not disappeared.

But again it seemed much more restricted.

The scrolls had been printed as books, and the number of books had proliferated. But the Rabbis were still concerned with the same questions: What is the source from which a law was derived? And how could the law be applied within the changing context of contemporary experience?

But again the culture which appeared more humane and developed reared an intolerant head.

The Germans were the driving force propelling mankind into two world wars that resulted in baths of bloodshed. And they used their scientific know-how to develop gas chambers which killed millions, attempting to offer a final solution to the questions confronting Jewish wisdom.

A clear message emerges from both these windows on the past.

Wisdom is not enough, not even wisdom with humanistic values. To serve as the basis for the development of a synergistic society, wisdom must judge itself against the backdrop of an objective standard of good.

And it must protect itself from being used as a tool by people with selfish motivations by having an orientation to reach beyond itself toward spiritual goals.

At no time in history are these lessons more relevant than at the present, for we are in the midst of an explosion of knowledge that has revolutionized the face of our society. To illustrate the concept in economic terms:

Most of us are employed in creating, processing, and communicating information.

Knowledge has become the dynamic force fueling our economy, inspiring creativity, and generating competitive strength.

These developments have come at a price:

The overwhelming sea of information in which our technology submerges us dwarfs our sense of self.

How often have we met people who are struggling to feel their vitality, and who are challenged in their search for meaning and purpose.

As more and more of us are being freed from manual activity, we are being given time to think.

The time and the freedom granted us should be devoted to more than simply trying to do the job better. We all feel the need to live better lives. We want the wonders of technology to be balanced by a response to the spiritual demands of our human potential.

These values are beginning to resonate throughout our society.

We find calls to change from education for a particular task to a life time of learning and training.

And the intent is not merely occupational training, but training for life, learning to be more human, to develop personal discipline, internal values, and integrity.

And here it is important to apply the lesson we learned from the failure of the Greeks and the Germans.

As we search to grow as men, we must also seek to transcend our humanity in search for the spiritual, and must endeavor apply these spiritual values in selfless behavior in our everyday life.

The Zohar [3], the fundamental text of the Kabbalah, contains a stirring prophecy that tellingly touches on these contemporary issues:

"In the sixth hundred year of the sixth millennium, the gates of sublime wisdom will open and the wellsprings of lower wisdom [burst forth], to prepare the world to enter the seventh millennium."

To define the terms used by the Zohar:

The sixth hundred year of the sixth millennium was 1839. The term "sublime wisdom" refers to the teachings of the Torah, and more particularly, to the mystic knowledge of the Kabbalah.

"Lower wisdom" refers to secular knowledge, and "the seventh millennium" to the Era of the Redemption, which like the Sabbath of the week, will be characterized by rest, comfort, and spiritual activity.

There is no need to elaborate on how the Zohar's prophecy was fulfilled.

We are all aware of the sweeping changes that have taken place since 1839. Advances in technology - the "bursting forth of lower wisdom" - produced the industrial revolution and developed our manufacturing potential to the extent that the participants in Western Society enjoy comforts and luxuries that were previously granted only to the pampered few.

And as the intelligence and communications revolution has blossomed, our society has undergone a more sweeping metamorphous.

The Zohar, however, is emphasizing that these advances in worldly wisdom must proceed hand in hand with spiritual growth ("the sublime wisdom").

In this period, the understanding of the Torah and, in particular, its mystic dimension, has blossomed.

Where we have fallen short is integrating the two spheres of knowledge. As we understand more about mastering our environment, we must also understand ourselves better, and understand the greater spiritual reality in which we live.

The Zohar also underscores that the goal of both these paths of wisdom - the lower and the sublime - must not be abstract knowledge, or even individual experience, but to bring mankind as a whole to a deeper realm of experience, the Redemption.

We find a fundamental orientation toward the future controlling the flow of our society.

In an agricultural society, the past was the teacher. A sense of history was important, for farmers depended on experience for their knowledge of how to plant and harvest crops.

In an industrial society, the emphasis is on the present. Our factories stressed "the bottom line," how much could be produced. And this led to a mentality of people "living for the moment."

In an information society, the direction is toward the future, for knowledge seeks new frontiers. And in all matters, economic, social, and political, foreknowledge provides us with a cutting edge. For this reason, our society has shown a professional as well as a popular interest in the future, with numerous courses and publications focusing on this subject. And this is crucially important, for our ability to collect and integrate knowledge has increased the rate of change dramatically, and will continue to do so at even faster pace.

The Zohar reminds us that this transitional flow must be coupled with a spiritual and an ethical dimension, leading us beyond our preoccupations with our selves and our comforts. Were we to focus solely on the lower wisdom, the progress achieved might enrich our pockets, but not necessarily our lives. Tools can never be solutions. An inner wisdom is necessary, knowledge which brings us in touch with our souls.

There is also another side to the symbiotic relationship that exists between these two fields of wisdom. Just as our spiritual awareness complements our knowledge of the world around us, so too, scientific knowledge can contribute to our conception of spiritual truth, enabling us to reach a more tangible understanding of these concepts.

Take for example, Einstein's theory of relativity:

The conception that all existence is an interrelated flux of energy and matter can give us a more concrete understanding of how G-d's oneness permeates our existence. Similarly, in the realm of biology, contemporary research has given us clearer understanding of the existence of a soul, i.e., a spiritual entity that exists beyond the mere bio-chemistry of our bodies.

As our involvement in these two paths of wisdom grows, our vision of society will change.

It is impossible that it could be otherwise.

For a future based on knowledge functions through the interaction of people's minds. And as people share thoughts with others, going beyond their subjective mind-sets and truly communicating, there is a thrust to universalism.

And wisdom affects change, for a change in our understanding will ultimately motivate us to change our conduct as well.

As we grow in understanding, we look at the world around us differently, and react differently to the people and situations which we encounter.

In the conclusion of his description of the Era of the Redemption, Maimonides writes [4] "Good things will flow in abundance.... The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d." Our balanced progress in both the lower wisdom of the natural sciences and the sublime wisdom of the Torah's spiritual truths will initiate a process of transition that will transform this vision from a dream of an ideal future to a functional format for society that is within our actual grasp.


  1. Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:4.
  2. Isaiah 11:9.
  3. Zohar, Vol. I, p. 117a.
  4. Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:5.