Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Do The Heavens Sing?

Parshat Shlah
13 Sivan, 5771
June 15th, 2011

     A friend and I have been cracking our teeth over some Medieval Jewish philosophy. It’s a good metaphor, cracking teeth; we leave every session with our heads ringing.
     The book is An Essay on Teshuvah, and the author Rabbi Menahem Meiri - a brilliant student of Maimonides whose work on the Talmud was recovered after being lost for centuries.
     And here is the question he poses.
     Are the heavens (in the physical sense: stars, constellations, comets and such) beautiful simply because they exist, or are they beautiful because human beings recognize them as beautiful?*
     This question is part of a central philosophical disagreement between essentialism and nominalism: do things like beauty and love actually exist, independent of us? Would they be there even if we were gone? Or does beauty only exist because a human mind names something beautiful?
     To be honest, I have always preferred the purity of the first way of thinking. I would like to think that the Grand Canyon is just as grand without us having to call it so, and that the majesty of so much of God’s creation remains majestic whether or not we’re around to say such. I believe that the stars sing praise to God of their own accord.
     But I also have thought how lonely and quiet the universe would be without us to stick our minds in every nook and cranny of it, asking, judging, chattering, arguing. Whether or not beauty exists independent of humanity, beautiful things are best enjoyed in company. The world is a warmer place because we are here to love it.

* The literal phrasing of the question is more religiously elegant, but more philosophically abstruse : do the heavens sing praise to God simply by through their existing, or is it through our recognition of their movements that the song of praise is created. The first understanding he attributes to the Rambam, the second to Ibn Ezra. Proposition 2, Ch. 2

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