What is preferable — simple faith, or intellectual inquiry?
We find the psalmist contrasts the mountains with the depths, and men with beasts:
“צִדְקָתְךָ כְּהַרְרֵי-אֵל, מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ תְּהוֹם רַבָּה; אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה תוֹשִׁיעַ ה'.” (תהילים ל"ו:ז)
“Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, Your judgments are like the great abyss. God, You deliver man and beast.” (Ps. 36:7)
What does it mean that God delivers both “man and beast"?
The Sages in Chulin 5b gave a surprising interpretation of this phrase, ‘man and beast.’ They explained that the verse is speaking of individuals — refined, holy individuals — who unite together the best qualities of both humans and animals:
“This refers to those who are cunning in knowledge, and yet conduct themselves like beasts.”
Is this a positive trait? Why should the intelligent and astute conduct themselves like beasts?
We have two qualities that, unfortunately, tend to contradict one another. On the one hand, we have an intellectual side — our innate curiosity, our drive to investigate and understand. And we have a second side, our inner faith, a receptiveness to live life with a simple trust in God and unquestioning acceptance.
These two qualities ordinarily do not go together. Those who are firm in their faith are usually disinclined to rigorously examine and question. And those who feel driven to inquire and investigate, on the other hand, tend to have a weakened attribute of simple faith.
However, the preferred path is that each faculty should not impinge upon the other. Rather, each one should be fully revealed, as if it alone were the dominant trait. Our faith should be unshakeable, as if it were impossible to consider doubt and uncertainty. And our intellectual powers should be alert and fearless, as if we possessed no qualities of inner faith and trust.
Rav Kook warned against piety when it is disconnected from Torah study and inquiry. The greatest danger of such a piety is that
“Fear of sin is replaced by fear of thinking. When a person begins to be afraid to think, he progressively drowns in the morass of ignorance, which robs the light of one’s soul, enervates one’s strength, and cast a pall over one’s spirit.” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 26).
This then is the lofty level that the Sages described, of holy individuals who are “cunning in their knowledge” — intellectually independent, willing to examine any subject. Yet they do not abandon their simple faith. In their practical lives, they “conduct themselves like beasts.” They serve God with the pure service of a loyal servant who fulfills his master’s wishes without question.
Perhaps this is the connection to the beginning of the verse. God’s tzedakah is like the mighty mountains — the lofty peaks of knowledge that we scale in our relentless efforts to understand. But Divine mishpat reaches all the way down to the great depths, to the depths of our basic inner nature. We should utilize our intellectual gifts to acquire holy character traits, so that our very nature will lead us to paths of goodness and integrity. In this way we become similar to the beasts, who live their lives according to instinctive nature. “You deliver man and beast.”
[Adapted from Orot, p. 167; Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 149]