Meir Simchah Panzer

Meir Simchah Panzer studies what makes us human and to what prospects we humans may aspire. He holds a BA in philosophy and in music from Brandeis University. There he was mentored by David Rakowski in music composition and by Allan R. Keiler in musicology. Now he is finishing an MA in Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. His MA thesis, Existential Darkness in Zoharic Perspective: An Essay on the Conceptual Metaphor of the Cave, transformed his initial questions about symbols into questions about the relationship between culture and cognition, about the embodiment, extension, and spreading of mind, about the sociality of knowledge, and about freedom and emergence of self. He plans to pursue those questions in PhD research.

Panzer has conducted research at NIH in the Cognitive Neuroscience Division, performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, programmed missile systems for the MITRE Corporation, taught children in the Cambridge projects and in Appalachia, learned in yeshiva in the Judean hills, and helped raise over $400 million for Bar-Ilan. Panzer, his wife Devora, and their children live in Jerusalem.


Influenced by cognitive science, epistemology has noted that the human mind depends upon its hardware. It is not merely that the human mind needs matter; rather, human is self-organizing matter. This re-conceives human selfhood. Humans are not supernal beings subjected to flesh; we are dirt blooming into consciousness and knowledge, and that is how Genesis describes the creation of Adam.

Adam is considered as a conceptual metaphor. One defining feature is his freedom. Another is his immediate engagement in epistemic activities like listening, naming, searching, knowing, making excuses. These two features, it might be supposed, are related incidentally. Genesis, however, envisions Adam’s involvement in knowledge and his freedom as profoundly related. The relationship between knowledge and freedom is central throughout Jewish tradition.

To show how knowledge and freedom are related, sources are presented—the Zohar’s description of Avraham discovering me‘arat ha-makhpela and the Garden of Eden (I 127a) and excerpts from Maimonides’ Sefer Mada‘. Freedom is the basis for knowledge. It entails creativity and responsibility. These entailments change how knowledge is conceived. Knowledge is not justified true belief but rather free interaction.

Speaking of knowledge as interaction recalls that the epistemic activities of Adam are markedly interactive (contrasting, for example, with Cartesian or Buddhist meditation). That knowledge has social dimensions has been noted by epistemology. Again, Torah sources suggest a radical interpretation: it not merely that knowledge can be done in a social way; rather, knowledge must be social, otherwise it ceases to be knowledge.

Sidra Yithro gives conceptual metaphors for how knowledge must be social. Yithro criticizes Moshe for judging the entire people alone and advises him to establish a justice-education system with several layers of judge-teachers working under Moshe. Similarly, according to the Midrash, when the Decalogue is presented by God, its utterances split into different languages and detailed ramifications suited to each individual listener. These fragmentations of knowledge are not logistical concessions. Without the justice-education system, the people would devolve into Moshe-ism—just another avoda zara. Similarly, without the splitting and personal hearing of the Decalogue, Torah would not be Torah. Torah requires comprehensive integration. Without it, what would pass for Torah would be avoda zara. Distribution of knowing and knowledge, then, makes for allows for emergence of knowing and knowledge of a different order.

The term avoda zara has punctuated the presentation. Its defining feature is that it binds those whom it touches to a local perspective. The association of failed knowing with avoda zara allows us to examine how knowledge processes fail in light of avoda zara. Avoda zara violates freedom. Knowledge requires freedom. Other excerpts from Maimonides’ corpus and the Zohar’s contrast of Chawa and Sara (I 127a) are presented.

This broadens epistemology such that a theory of knowledge requires engagement with existential issues including freedom, selfhood, despair, (re)integration, etc. Paraphrasing Quine, we ask how to get from bur to chakham.