Psychologists have long pointed out that religious and political beliefs, cultural conditioning, unconscious expectations, higher awareness, needs, biases and intents all form our view of reality, what we see and don’t see. Even in the hard sciences, quantum physicists have determined that mind in all its facets, determines the outcomes of nature’s behavior. Detachment and objectivity work only up to a point. The great wisdom traditions of the world’s religions all are profoundly aware of it and insist on careful study of all our motivations.
In Judaism the intellectual study of law (halakhah), was always combined with the study of ethics (musar), mysticism (Kabbalah-Hasidut) and philosophy. The man who in his detached, objective, self-sacrificing devotion to learning, embodied the Enlightenment ideal without sharing its values, was Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797). It is related that during the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Gaon summoned the Maggid (Preacher) of Dubno, Rabbi Jacob Kranz (1741-1804) to give the Gaon ethical instruction. Rabbi Kranz sat silently in the presence of the Gaon for a long time. What ethical instruction can one give to a scholar and saint like the Gaon? Finally, he summoned the courage to say: “It is all well and fine to be a scholar and saint like your honor, secluded as you are, removed from the strains and struggles of life. But go down to the market place of Vilna, among the crafty shopkeepers, the horse thieves and criminals. Live there for a while and then see whether you can remain a scholar and a saint.” On hearing this reproof, the Gaon wept profusely for a long time. For the Gaon, the possible lack of complete empathy on his part for those less privileged than he, who were struggling and suffering in a dangerous world, profoundly affected his need for teshuvah (repentance).