Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Yitro (Rambam)

God’s Unity: The Antithesis of Idolatry

And so, we come to Yitro: the climax of the account of the Exodus with the epiphany at Mount Sinai and the revelation of the Ten Commandments. An oft-repeated Rabbinic dictum highlights the special importance attached to the first two commandments: “’I am the Lord’ and ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ were heard [by the Israelites] directly from the Almighty. The other 611 they were taught by Moses” (Makkot 23a). This idea serves as a kind of leitmotif, a central thread running through all of Rambam’s thought, from which he infers both the central role played by Moses in receiving and conveying the substance of the Torah, as well as certain key theological concepts. The former commandment stands at the head of the list of positive commandments in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the other at the list of negative commandments. Moreover, the first half or so of his Guide for the Perplexed (Book I, and Book II.1-31) may be considered an elaboration and elucidation of these two commandments: the belief in God, and the definition of that which He is not. The one thus serves as the antithesis of the other: Anokhi is the fundamental basis for all Jewish belief, as well as the source of authority for the Torah as a legal system; lo yihyeh lekha, the imperative to reject paganism, also serves as the basis for his insistence on establishing clear definitions of what God is not (His incorporeality, the doctrine of “negative attributes,” the rejection of anthropomorphism and anthropopathism, etc.—but I’m getting ahead of myself) and the need for clear definition of the meaning of God’s existence and unity.

It is important to understand this well, because Maimonides’ whole mood and approach is so different from much of what moves the contemporary revival of interest in religions and “spirituality.” Rambam’s starting point is the establishing of a correct concept of God, the attempt to make clear, lucid, and philosophically sound statements about God. He is attempting to speak about something objective, not merely a subjective truth or experience, and he believes that it is not only possible, but absolutely essential, to make clear, definite statements about theology and about God. Indeed, in a certain sense it may be misleading to describe his project as “Maimonides’ philosophical enterprise.” Note the following words of Leo Strauss:

One begins to understand the Guide once one sees that it is not a philosophic book—a book written by a philosopher for philosophers—but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews. Its first premise is the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things. Philosophers are men who try to give an account of the whole by starting from what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah….

There is a famous debate among Maimonidean scholars as to the relation between Rambam’s philosophy and his halakhic oeuvre. There are those who see his true center as the quest for philosophic truth, wherever it might lead him, with his more popular and dogmatic writings aimed at providing partial, unsophisticated answers for the masses of ordinary Jews; others see him, on the contrary, as essentially a man of faith, for whom philosophy was in a sense a kind of apologetics for those with one foot outside of the Jewish camp, intellectually if not in practice. Still others see both faces as part of an integral whole (see, e.g., David Hartman’s Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest). It would seem, that one may reconcile the Guide and the Yad by reading both as works of faith, based on a priori acceptance of faith truths, the main difference between the two being based on their being addressed to different audiences, and to different kinds and levels of education and knowledge.

But these theological ideas are developed, not only in the Guide for the Perplexed, but also in the opening section of the Mishneh Torah, whose very title, Sefer ha-Mada, The Book of Knowledge, suggests that it is devoted to truths that may be recognized by the reflecting intellect as well as by the intuitive or spiritual faculties of the heart and soul. In the opening section of the Yad, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah (“Laws of the Fundaments of the Torah), Rambam addresses the fundamental questions about God, giving a capsule summary of his theology, which he both develops and defends at greater length, and through argumentation, in the Guide. This first chapter focuses on three central ideas: God’s existence, His unity, and His incorporeality:

1. The basic fundament and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a first existent, and that it causes all things to exist. And all things that exist, in heaven and earth and in between, exist only by virtue of the truth of Its being.

He addresses here the mystery of being, the very fact that anything at all exists. In a sense, this is the starting point of all religious thought and experience. Although expressed in dry, formal, precise philosophical language, the contents are the same as those of the “radical amazement” of which Heschel speaks. Simon Rawidowicz, an important Jewish scholar and thinker of the last generation, whose work is not as widely known as it should be, once wrote about the use of the verb “to know” (leyda‘) in this passage. The parallel passage in Sefer ha-Mitzvot (aseh §1) uses the word “to believe” (ha’amin). He suggests that knowledge (which is the key word, not only in this chapter, but throughout this book and in much of Maimonides’ thought) refers not only to rational, cognitive knowledge, i.e., that which can be demonstrated and proven, but also includes insights and truths accepted on the basis of faith, as “fundaments.” His argument is based, among other things, on the fact that, with the exception of the Yad, Rambam wrote (and thought!) primarily in Arabic, and that da’at is in fact a translation of the Arabic i‘tiqad, whose sense is closer to ”belief.”

2. And if it would be conceivable that He does not exist, than no other thing would be able to exist.

3. And if would be conceivable that none of the existent this but Him exist, then He alone would exist. And He would not be negated as a consequence their negation. For all things that the exist need Him, but He, blessed be He, does not need them, nor any one of them. Hence, His truth is not like the truth of any one of them.

Two corollaries of the basic statement that God (or, thus far, an abstract “First Cause”) exists: that, on the one hand, His existence is necessary for the universe and for all things within it to exist. And, on the other hand, that He is not contingent. Thus, for example, if we accept the Big Bang theory (which some religious scientists, such as Gerald Schroeder, have suggested as being very close to certain streams in Judaism—albeit more so in Ramban and Zohar than in Rambam), then He alone existed before the Big Bang (As in the familiar opening words of the hymn Adon Olam: “who reigned before all creating things were created”). Incidentally, the issue of the Eternity or Creation of the universe is a big issue in the Guide, which Rambam, quite wisely, sees as not essential for religious belief. We shall return to this another time.

4. And this is what the prophet said, “the Lord our God is true” (Jer 10:10). He alone is the truth, and none other is truth like His. And it is concerning this that the Torah said, “there is none other beside Him” (Deut 4:35). That is, there is no other true existing being apart from Him, that is like Him.

The terms emet and amitat (“truth”) are used here in a special philosophic sense, implying an absolute quality to God’s Being that is not found among other beings. I shall elaborate this later. In the next halakhah, §5, there is a transition from philosophical postulates about God to traditional faith affirmations (at this point, Blaise Pascal, who declared “God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, not God of the philosophers,” would no doubt be happy).

5. This existent being is the God of the world, the master of the earth. And He guides the sphere with a power that is without end or limit, and with a power that is ceaseless. For the sphere revolves constantly, and it is impossible that it turn around with one turning it. And He, blessed be He, turns it around without a hand and without a body.

6. And the knowledge of this thing is a positive commandment, as is said, “I am the Lord your God” (Ex 20:1). And whoever entertains the thought that there is another god apart from this violates a prohibition, as is said, “You shall not have any other god before me.” And he denies the basic principle, which is the great principle upon which all depends.

The chapter continues with the subject of God’s unity and His incorporeality, and their implications for how we speak about God, the use of imagery and anthropomorphic language in the Bible, and more. But we shall leave the continuation of these subjects, and discussion of their some broader implications, for another time—perhaps Ki Tisa.

Postscript re: “Shabbat the King”

Last week I discussed Rambam’s description of the procedure for welcoming the Shabbat, in which, he says, the ancient Sages sat and said “Let us welcome the Shabbat King: Shabbat ha-Melekh” (Hilkhot Shabbat 30.2). The more I reflect on this brief passage, the more fascinating it becomes, and the stranger it appears.

First of all, upon reading more closely the Talmudic passage on which this is based (Shabbat 119a), I see that both R. Hanina and R. Yannai greet the Shabbat using feminine language: “Let us go out to greet the Shabbat queen” (bo’u ve-netzei likrat shabbat ha-malkah: evidently, the source for the verse in Bialik’s poem of that name), and “Come, O bride; Come, O bride!” (bo’i kalah, bo’i kalah), respectively. The former is quoted by Hilkhot ha-Rosh, Tur, and Shulhan Arukh, either as malketa (the Aramaic for queen) or as malkah (the reading in our text). Albeit, the Tur paraphrases our passage to say that one greets the Shabbat “like one who goes out to greet the king, or to greet a bride and groom.” The only other source with a masculine reading is Hilkhot ha-Rif, who for the Hebrew word malkah substitutes the Aramaic malka, i.e., king. Whether Rif altered this reading on the basis of his own conjecture, or whether he had an alternative reading in some ancient text, is unclear.

Reuven Kimelman, whose Hebrew book Kabbalat Shabbat ve-Lekha Dodi is, as far as I know, the first full length study of this important and interesting prayer service, which was only introduced in the sixteenth century, mentions Rambam’s reading in brief (pp. 2-5), including its appearance in other rishonim, such as Ravyah and Kol Bo, concluding that the masculine image of the king suggests more the authority, the “yoke” of the Shabbat—and the yoke of the kingdom of heaven—than the other aspects suggested by its female persona.

I would like to suggest two possible explanations of Rambam’s reading, and its striking departure from midrashic imagery. One relates to the influence of Islamic culture on his approach to life. The role of the woman in the Muslim world was extremely private and sequestered; she was essentially shut up in her home. This modesty may have been carried over to an absence from the realm of religious symbolism and imagery. And indeed, the woman did not play the same role in public life, including religious life, as did her sisters in Europe, both Christian and Jewish. Unlike the case in Christian Europe, there were no queens or female rulers in Muslim lands; if a caliph died without a male heir, his title was passed on to a nephew, a brother, or a cousin, never to a daughter. Hence, the image of Shabbat as queen would have been meaningless. This might also explain the reading of Alfasi, who lived in North Africa in the 10th century, but not its adoption by Ashkenazi figures, as mentioned by Kimelman.

A second explanation relates to Rambam’s zealotry for monotheism. Somehow, it may have been his insistence on God’s incorporeality that excluded the use of female imagery. Illogical as it may seem, I speculate as to whether, in the context of a patriarchal, male-centered culture, a female figure may have been viewed as somehow more explicitly sexual, and therefore more corporeal and carnal, than a male one. Hence God could be described metaphorically as king, but not Shabbat as queen. (Of course, these processes all occurred on a subconscious level, and were not articulated as such.)

Yosef Ben-Shlomo once spoke of the Kabbalah as the return of the mythic into Judaism. In his view, the Bible engages in uncompromising struggle against the pagan pantheons, that represented a real threat to Israelite faith. But by the twelfth or thirteenth century CE, pagan myth had been thoroughly defeated and long forgotten, at least in cultural milieu within which Judaism existed. Hence, Kabbalah represented a kind of return of the mythic, but was able to create a kind of “safe” world of monotheistic imagery, that was not seen as threatening. It could even use sexual imagery to represent various processes within the Godhead, or between God and the world. But all this remained anathema for Rambam, as we saw above; hence, he had no part of this, and certain things he writes may even be understood as attacks on the world of Kabbalah. (Note: Shekhinah in classic Rabbinic parlance is not an explicitly feminine figure, but simply a gramatically feminine word used for the Divine Presence.)


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