Monday, August 05, 2013

Shall We Cultivate a Sense of the Ineffable? [1]

Thus while the days flew by, and years passed on,
From Nature and her overflowing soul,
I had received so much, that all my thoughts
Were steeped in feeling; I was only then
Contented, when with bliss ineffable
 I felt the sentiment of Being spread
O’er all that moves and all that seemeth still;
O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought
And human knowledge, to the human eye
 Invisible, yet liveth to the heart.
                                                       --William Wordsworth

At times, one who thinks deeply reaches a state of wonder, that state which is more precious than any intellectual endeavor, for it is then that he is able to “peek through the cracks of the lattice” (Song of Songs 2:9) that separates the human mind from what lies completely beyond it. During those moments he lives an endless life that reaches beyond all boundaries of time, for he feels that he has ascended above the limits of time and space within which intellect dwells. His soul yearns to leave the confines of his body, for this sense of the ineffable is essentially the Divine Luminary revealing Himself to the person, drawing all the desires and passions of the soul to Him with this revelation of pleasure through wonder.
                          --Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, Previous Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch

We take it for granted that man's mind should be sensitive to nature's loveliness. We take it equally for granted that a person who is not affected by the vision of earth and sky, who has no eyes to see the grandeur of nature and to sense the sublime, however vaguely, is not human.

But why, what does it do for us? The awareness of grandeur does not serve any social or biological purpose; man is very rarely able to portray his appreciation of the sublime to others or to add it to his scientific knowledge…Why then expose ourselves to the disquieting provocation of something that defies our drive to know, to something which may even fill us with fright, melancholy, or resignation? Still we insist that it is unworthy of man not to take notice of the sublime.

Perhaps more significant than the fact of our awareness of the cosmic is our consciousness of having to be aware of it, as if there were an imperative, a compulsion to pay attention to that which lies beyond our grasp.

The power of expression is not the monopoly of man. Expression and communication are, to some degree, something of which animals are capable. What characterizes man is not only his ability to develop words and symbols, but also his being compelled to draw a distinction between the utterable and the unutterable. To be stunned by that which is, but cannot be put into words.

It is the sense of the sublime that we have to regard as the root of man's creative activities in art, thought and noble living. Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no work of art ever brought to expression the depth of the unutterable, in the sight of which the souls of saints, poets and philosophers live. The attempt to convey what we see and cannot say is the everlasting theme of mankind's unfinished symphony, a venture in which adequacy is never achieved. Only those who live on borrowed words believe in their gift of expression. A sensitive person knows that the intrinsic, the most essential, is never expressed. Most-and often the best-of what goes on in us is our own secret; we have to wrestle with it ourselves. The stirring in our hearts from watching a star-studded sky is something no language can declare. What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey, but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp; not the quantitative aspect of nature, but something qualitative; not what is beyond our range in time and space, but the true meaning, source and end of being, in other words, the ineffable.
                                                 --Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
                                       Opening chapter of Man is Not Alone-The Sense of the Ineffable

While living in a world so busy, occupied with a life so full, should one extricate himself from it all to be aware of and cultivate…the sense of the ineffable?

“Why should we philosophers concern ourselves with beauty? That”, said Aristotle, “is a blind man's question”.

But beauty is part of our experience. It enhances whatever we're involved with at any time. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 57b) asserts that "three things broaden an individual's mind: a beautiful house, a beautiful wife, and beautiful objects."

But…the ineffable? Why concern ourselves with that which is too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words? Why dedicate time to search out that which is too sacred and pristine to be uttered?

That question is asked only by someone that has not yet tasted the light of mysticism. And in truth, by someone that is still unaware of what it means to be truly human.


  1. Wow, an incredible blog idea, and a great post. I'd always heard what distinguishes us from animals is our power of speech and communication, but that answer always bothered me because animals communicate as well, even if in less complex ways than we do. You bridge the gap with this essential insight about what cannot be expressed, and the attempts we make to express them nonetheless. Our striving to connect with the Divine is precisely what is most difficult to put into words, and also what makes us elevated from any animal. It makes all the difference. I hope this becomes my new favorite blog!

  2. Thank you Channah.

    The point about communication is not my insight; it's from Rabbi Heschel whose opening chapter is the source for the blog's name, and whose writings are always a tremendous inspiration for me to think in a higher, deeper, and wider mode.

    The striving to connect to the Divine as a distinguishing factor is mentioned in the quotes in the margin from the Tzemach Tzedek.

    There is also a beautiful idea about that in the writings of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch. We say in the morning prayer, ומותר אדם מן הבהמה אין, which literally means "the advantage of man over the animal is nothing," a pessimistic meditation about the insignificance of humanity. The Maggid taught that the deeper meaning is-"the advantage of man over the animal--is his ability to reach the State of Divine Nothingness..."

    I will elaborate on this idea in a later post, with G-d's help.