Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ki Tisa (Rambam)

Moses’ Two Questions

From the hilarity of Purim we turn to Ki Tisa, theologically one of the deepest and most profound sections of the Torah, which includes the incident of the Golden Calf and Moses’ discussion with God about His NATURE and His ways of acting in the world. Or may it be that it is not such a contrast? In non-leap years, Ki Tisa always falls in close proximity to Purim. One could argue that both Purim and Exodus 32-34 are concerned with the issue of what it means to live in a world in which God’s presence is not obvious. The entire Book of Esther revolves around the theme of hiddenness, while the starting point for the Israelite’s turn to idolatry was the extended absence of their teacher Moses, God’s visible representative and spokesman, and Moses’ questions in turn related to his desire to “see” God’s Glory and to know His nature. And yet, it is precisely here that we read “for no man shall see Me and live” (Exod 33:20). (One could also argue that Parshat Parah, Numbers 19, the section about the Red Heifer read as Maftir this Shabbat, also relates to that which is unknowable—i.e., the rationale for the hukkim, those mitzvot that seem incomprehensible and even paradoxical, and which must be accepted on faith.)

What is Maimonides’ “take” on these incidents? As far as I can tell, he does not directly address the causes and nature of the Sin of the Calf; on the other hand, he does write in several places about Moses’ two questions. First of all, at some length, in Guide 1.54:

Know that the master of those who know, Moses our Master, peace be on him, made two requests and received an answer to both of them. One request consisted in his asking Him, may He be exalted, to let him know His essence and true reality. The second request, which he put first, was that He should let him know His attributes. The answer to the two requests that He, may He be exalted, gave him consisted in His promising him to let him know all His attributes, making it known to him that they are His actions, and teaching him that His essence cannot be grasped as it really is. Yet He draws his attention to a subject of speculation through which he can apprehend to the furthest extent that is possible for man. For what has been apprehended by [Moses], peace be on him, has not been apprehended by anyone before him nor will it be apprehended by anyone after him. (Pines, 123)

We find here the classic distinction, repeated in many other places, between knowledge of God’s essence, which is seen as beyond human comprehension, and that of His ways, which is not only possible, but in fact a cornerstone of Jewish ethics: imitatio dei, “the imitation of God [i.e., His behavior],” presupposes requires some knowledge of what that behavior or those “ways” are. This relates in turn to our discussion, begun several weeks ago (HY V: Yitro), concerning the rudimentary presentation of Rambam’s theology found in the opening chapter of the Yad. We shall continue now where we left off.

The simple meaning in context of the proclamation made in the Shema, “HVYH is our God, HVYH is One” is simply that He alone is the true God; the Bible doesn’t seem to address itself to the issue of the nature of God, His incorporeality, etc., one way or another. Maimonides takes this verse, and the concomitant principle of God’s unity, in the philosophical sense—that He is a perfect unity, and without any component parts or characteristics that might in any way be construed as separate from Himself or as implying multiplicity. This idea carries in its wake all kinds of implications, such as that He cannot have an image; that there can be no internal divisions or parts within Him (hence Rambam would reject the Kabbalistic doctrine of the ten sefirot, at least inasmuch as these are understood as “parts” of the Godhead, and not as created instruments emanated from His being); that one cannot speak of Him as having emotions, such as anger, love, jealous ,etc.; and ultimately that one cannot speak of Him as possessing any positive attributes whatever, such as wisdom, strength, or even life itself.

These ideas are developed at length in the Guide of the Perplexed (which was written a decade or more later), particularly in Book I, where they are developed extensively with concrete illustrations, argumentation and demonstration, as well as an attempt to reinterpret in a philosophical vein the numerous biblical passages that seem to confute this approach. But the gist of these ideas are already presented in Chapter 1 of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah—implying that he considered these concepts to be the foundation upon which all of Jewish faith is the built. We continue here with §7 of that chapter, having presented the first six halakhot earlier:

This God is one, and he is not two or more than two, but one. For there is none like his unity in any of the single things that exist in the world. Not one, in a species that includes numerous individuals. Nor one, in any body that is divided into divisions and extremities. Bur rather His unity is unlike any other unity in the world.

For were there many gods, they would have bodies and substance. For these counted things that are equivalent in their reality, may only be differentiated from one another by the accidents that befall bodies and substance. And were the Creator to be a body or substance He would have an end and conclusion, for it is impossible that there be a body without it having an end. And any body that has end and limit, its power must also have end and limit. But we know that God’s power, blessed be He, has no end and never ceases, for the sphere revolves constantly; therefore His power cannot be like the power of a body. And since he is not a body, there cannot befall him the accidents of bodies, so that it might be divided and separated from one. Therefore He cannot be other than one.

And knowledge of this thing is a positive mitzvah, as is said, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” [Deut 6:4].

God's unity is presented as the basis for a series of other concepts. His unity is not merely a numerical property (i.e., one as opposed to two or three), but rather implies His perfection, His uniqueness. Through an intricate argument, Maimonides explains hw God's unity necessarily implies His incorporeality and eternity as well—these last two properties being unique to Him, and to no other being.

8. Now it is explicitly stated in the Torah and the prophets that the Holy One blessed be He has neither body nor substance, as is said, “For the Lord your God is God above in the heavens above and on the earth below” [Joshua 2:11]. And the body cannot be in two places. And it says, “for you did not see any image” [Exod 4:15], and it is said, “To whom shall you compare Me, that I should be like him?” [Isa 40:25]. And if He were a body he would be similar to other bodies.

He goes on from here to the idea of God’s incorporeality. Although not presented as a separate mitzvah, but rather as a logical offshoot of His unity, this is a central principle in Maimonides’ thought. Among other factors, Rambam seems to dwell on this point for polemical reasons. Whereas we moderns are accustomed to taking an incorporeal concept of God for granted (many of us were taught as children something like, “God is invisible; He is everywhere, but you can't see Him”), in late antiquity and through much of the medieval period a corporeal conception of God was within the gamut of acceptable Jewish beliefs. The Bible contains a number of passages describing visions of God seen as a human-like figure seated on a throne: most notably in Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6 and Daniel 7:9-10. (For that matter, the literal sense of the statement in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall see My back, but My face you shall not see” is quite concrete and even visual.) Moreover, the Merkavah mystics of late antiquity had an elaborate doctrine of the Shiur Komah, the “stature” of God, in which the Divine Body is depicted in graphic terms. Maimonides saw these ideas as both philosophically and logically untenable, and as akin to paganism, even stating in one place that those who believe such things literally are worshipping creations of their own imagination rather than the true God. He devoted much energy to the symbolic reinterpretation of such biblical passages; he had hoped to do the same for some of the more outrageously anthropomorphic statements in the Talmudic aggadah, but did not live long ago to undertake that project.

9. This being so, what is meant by that which is written in the Torah, “and beneath his feet…” [Exod 24:10], “written with the finger of God” [Exod 31:18], “God’s hand,” “God’s eyes,” “God’s ears,” and the like? It is all according to the mental grasp of human beings, who do not know of anything other than bodies, and the Torah spoke in the language of human beings. But all these things are euphemisms, as is said, “When I whet my flashing sword” [Deut 32:41}. For does God have a sword, and does He kill with a sword?! Rather, it is all metaphor. And a proof of this is that one prophet says that he saw the Holy One blessed be He wearing garments white as snow, and another saw Him wearing ruddy garments coming from Bozrah, and Moses our teacher himself saw Him by the sea like a mighty man waging war, and at Sinai like a prayer leader enwrapped [in his tallit].

[All of which is] to say, that there is no form or image, but that it is all in the prophetic sight and vision. But the truth of the matter is, that the human mind cannot comprehend, nor grasp nor examine it, and this is what the verse says “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?” [Job 11:7]

This halakhah and the three that follow it essentially summarize the ideas that Rambam later developed at length in Book I of the Guide for the Perplexed—namely, if the above is true, how can this be squared with the concrete use of language in so many passages in the Bible? The key idea here is dibrah Torah bilshon b'nai adam, “The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” While this idea was first promulgated by Hazal, Rambam elaborated it and explicated the idea at length, making it a cornerstone of his exegesis of Torah. In §10, Rambam refers directly to our parsha, and to Moses' two questions:

10. What was it that Moses our teacher wished to apprehend when he said, “Please show me Your glory” [Exod 33:18]? He wished to know the true essence of the Holy One blessed be He, until he might known it in his heart like the knowledge of a person whose face one has seen and whose form is engraved upon one’s mind, in a manner distinct from the apprehension of all other people. In such a way did Moses our Teacher wish that the essence of the Holy One blessed be He to be distinct in his heart from all other existing things, until he would know the reality of His essence as it is.

And He, blessed be He, answered him that a living person, composed of body and soul, does not have the power in his mind to apprehend the truth of this thing thoroughly. And He, may He be blessed, made known to him what no man before him or after him knew, until he apprehended something of the essence of His existence, whereby the Holy One blessed be He was distinct in his mind from all other existent things, in the way that a person whom one has seen from behind [may be distinct], recognizing his entire body and clothing in his mind as being distinct from the bodies of other people. And concerning this Scripture alluded, saying, ”You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” [Exod 33:23].

The metaphor of knowing God in a manner analogous to one’s knowledge of a person whom one can recognize even from behind is odd, and I’m not sure I fully understand what Maimonides is trying to get at here. The point seems to be, first of all, that “seeing the face” as such is a metaphor for knowledge of God’s essence, and not intended literally (compare his comments about ”seeing” God in connection with prophecy in Yesodei Hatorah 7.2-3; see HY V: Shemot). Secondly, the point seems to be that the ability to recognize a person even from behind certainly indicates knowledge of a sort—a far cry from being strangers. (I once had an extraordinary experience in this light relating to myself. Upon returning to the Bostoner shteibel, a synagogue were I used to worship regularly, after an absence of twenty-two years, and having turned from a dark-haired, slim youth to a grey-beard, rather portly middle-age, one of the gabbaim—himself a teen-age boy when I had left—came up to me and said that he recognized me by my body language!) Nevertheless, such knowledge is still far from real knowledge of the other and of what that person is in his own essence: his character, his creativity, his inner life, how he relates to his intimate friends and family. There is acquaintance, there is familiarity, and then there is real knowledge of the other. Even Moses, Rambam seems to be saying, was “familiar” with God, but did not have real knowledge of Him. The last two halakhot in this chapter will be presented on another occasion.

What are we to make of all this as modern people? What is its relevance to our own religious and theological situation? At first blush, Rambam’s neo-Aristotelian language seems hopelessly stilted, the philosophic axioms from which he operates hopelessly out of date.

Perhaps we can approach it as follows: Maimonides, like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, knew one big thing: that God is one, and that His unity is an essential part of His perfection. He constantly returned to his essential faith in a God who is utterly transcendent, unknowable, can only be understood in fragments, by way of metaphor. One may use metaphors—nay, one must, simply because one is a human being and one wishes and needs to communicate with other human beings—but one must understand the nature of what one is doing, and not mistake the metaphors for the reality. There follows from this his total rejection of magic, superstition, and all kinds of cults (of graves, of the dead, of holy men), of seeking out signs and signals. Such magical ways of thinking are still very much with us, at times even among sophisticated, “modern” Jews: whether cults of the dead, and the belief that visiting the graves of holy men somehow gives spiritual energy that cannot be accessed any other way (a friend of mine recently forwarded to me a flyer advertising a cemetery tour of Eastern Europe led by her daughter, with rapt descriptions of the spiritual uplift felt by the participants upon “visiting” the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid, and other Hasidic greats); of holy men who can bless, heal, vet prospective marriages, advise on business ventures; etc. All this Maimonides definitively rejected (as elaborated in various places), seeing these as forms of religion that distort and introduce alien, pagan elements under the guise of Judaism.

Another question elicited by this aspect of Rambam’s thought is whether this type of severe iconoclasm is utterly irreconcilable with the rich, colorful imagery of midrash, and even of Kabbalah, or whether there might be a way of bridging this gap. I found one answer in an unexpected place. During the 1960's, when many of the “best and brightest” were experimenting with the effects of LSD and other psychedelic drugs on their own perceptions and thoughts, a young student of Judaica published a pseudonymous paper in which he drew some interesting parallels between the experience of one on an acid trip and Kabbalah, including the following rather interesting remarks about the fluid nature of Kabbalistic imagery:

The Kabbalists … were far more daring and creative in their use of religious imagery than Judaism had ever been. Yet they knew enough to maintain a free-flowing attitude toward their own metaphoric creations. Images in Kabbalistic literature are beautifully inconsistent. Intentionally mixed metaphors abound in the Zohar: in the midst of a passage describing the Sefirot as patterns of light, the light imagery will suddenly turn sexual; at other times, human imagery will quietly dissolve into images of water. They tacitly knew well that all their images were of value—and that none of them was itself the truth….. As a matter of fact, the taking of any image for God too literally, or the divorcing of a particular image from its intentionally amorphous context, was considered by the Kabbalist to be the very heart of idolatry. The Kabbalist’s consciousness as sufficiently expanded (an expression often found in the later Kabbalistic literature: Gadlut Ha-Mohin) that he could see through his own image games.

Is Rambam’s position so far from this? To use imagery, but to know that it is no more than that. This may go a long away to explaining how a Kabbalist such as Abraham Abulafia was able to use davka the Rambam as the source for his own teaching.


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