“Faith begins where the intellect ends,” is a common expression used to describe our relationship to G-d. Some view this as a proclamation of faith’s superiority over the mind – that the only way to connect to G-d is by turning off our brains. Chassidic philosophy understands it differently. In the Chassidic perspective, the intellect is actually the vehicle that leads to faith rather than an obstacle to it. Meaning that if we want to reap the many emotional and psychological benefits of connecting to our Creator then we must first push our minds to the furthest borders of intellectual inquiry. Only then can we hope to experience any meaningful connection to G-d. There is definitely a “point of departure” where the intellect can go no further, but we would never get to that point without it.
Imagine somebody who has a lifelong desire to climb inside the Statue of Liberty and look out over the Atlantic Ocean. One day this person finally makes the move, gets into his car, and drives off to seek the object of his desire. Because he lives far away from New York, it takes a few days to get there. At last, he arrives and sees Lady Liberty off in the distance. Of course, he would never have gotten there without the car, but what would happen if now he could not get out of it? For some reason he is stuck and is left to gaze forlornly at the distant statue. Because he is trapped and can’t get away from it, the vehicle that he used to get there now has become a barrier to the fulfillment of his desire. This is the fate of someone who cannot walk away from the intellect when he needs to, and therefore, does not make the ultimate connection to G-d.
There is a form of deep contemplation and meditation used in the Chassidic world that takes this notion that faith begins where the intellect ends to its logical conclusion. It is called hitbonenut.
In this form of meditation, we start by analyzing any intellectual idea or process – food production for example – in such depth that we begin to grasp the root and foundation of the theories underlying it, all their implications, and how they relate to other aspects of reality. We ponder all the people, energy, and resources involved in bringing food to our table – the farmers, seed and livestock dealers, the scientists and researchers involved in developing new fertilizers and disease resistant crops, farm equipment manufacturers and dealers, the oil production teams that drill miles under the ground to get and refine the fuel needed to power that equipment, the miners who dig under the earth to get the metals used for the equipment, the scientists and researchers needed to improve the metal so it is lighter and stronger, etc.
Then we can start thinking about the food itself – exploring how plants grow and reproduce. Ask, how is the meat we eat converted to energy that allows us to survive, how do plants make food out of sunlight, etc. Meditate on the orbits of the earth and the moon around the sun and how this affects our food. Start thinking about how our planet fits into the context of the broader solar system and universe – be amazed that we are exactly the right distance from the sun for liquid water and sustainable life. Ask, might there be other “Earths” out there with their own populations producing and eating food? Start to free associate and wonder about some of the mysteries of the universe like, what is on the “other side” of black holes? If they capture everything in their vicinity, where does all that “stuff” go? How does fusion work? How did this whole thing get started anyway?
By challenging ourselves to push deeper and higher – to a place where the borders and dimensions of the studied concepts begin to blur – we get to a point of actual weeping because we realize that our minds can go no further. It is like standing on a shore looking out into the unfathomable expanse of a cosmic ocean that overwhelms our minds. We need to let go and just experience this place where reason ends and nothing makes sense because we cannot relate to it intellectually.
This is a “taste” of the En Sof (G-d without end) and it can fuel our faith for a lifetime. The practice of hitbonenut allows us to “feel the breezes” of a reality that lies outside our normal lives, where what makes sense has no foothold. It shows us how our lives can become so much bigger if we can let go of the notion that we have to understand something for it to be valid. From this perspective, faith is based on experience – not understanding. However, the experience is the result of deep and exhaustive thinking, followed by the act of leaving the intellect behind.
In general, we must always be able to adapt and let go of cherished tools and approaches to life when the time is right. Difficulties arise when we feel compelled to always approach life in the same way. If faith is not a big part of our lives then maybe we should start to develop it; because there are times when the appropriate reaction to frustration over something that is not working for us should be a simple, plaintive cry to G-d, “Help me!” G-d expects us to try to resolve the problem ourselves, but is also waiting for us to realize that there are occasions when we need to tap into a power that transcends our finite abilities. Faith balances the intellect and we are able to move forward with our lives.