Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Rambam)

Pillars of Cloud and Fire

The pillars of fire and cloud that accompanied the Israelites in the desert, and particularly the cloud that rested in the Sanctuary as the crowning glory and culmination of its construction, are powerful symbols of the incorporeal, ineffable nature of God. The use of an abstract, totally non-humanoid manifestation for the presence of God and of His Glory is, if you will, very Maimonidean. It seems to encapsulate the numinous, “Totally Other” nature of the Divine.

We first encounter the pillar of cloud, depicted as “lighting up the night,” at the splitting of the Sea, where it separates between the camp of Israel and that of the Egyptians (Exod 14:19-20); thereafter thick cloud, fire and smoke mark the epiphany of God at Sinai, and the subsequent resting of His Glory on the top of the mountain (Exod 19:9, 16-18; 24:15-18); and then His indwelling in the Sanctuary (40:34-38). Numbers 9:15-23 describes how the pillars of cloud and fire guided the people in their way through the desert, showing them when to encamp and when to travel.

Interestingly, Rambam explains the symbol of the cloud as indicating our separation from God, the impossibility of our truly apprehending him, and the “dark” and obscure nature of our apprehension of the Divine:

Matter is a strong veil preventing the apprehension of that which is separate from matter as it truly is…. Hence whenever our intellect aspires to apprehend the deity or one of the intellects, there subsists this great veil interposed between the two. This is alluded to in all the books of the prophets; namely, that we are separated by a veil from God and that He is hidden from us by a heavy cloud, or by darkness or by a mist or by an enveloping cloud, and similar allusions to our incapacity to apprehend Him because of matter…. when it speaks of His manifestation , may He be exalted, “in a thick cloud” and in “darkness, cloud and thick darkness,” it is only in order that the notion in question be inferred from this manner of speech…. And though that great assembly [i.e., at Sinai] was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy, it also indicated …. [through] His manifestation in a thick cloud… that the apprehension of His true reality is impossible for us because of the dark matter that encompasses us and not Him… for He, may He be exalted, is not a body. (Guide III.9; Pines, 436-437; cf. I.64).

The cloud, in brief, is really around us, and not around Him, indicating the limitations of our own apprehension, by dint of our being creatures of flesh and blood!

We shall now complete our earlier discussion of Rambam’s negative theology by bringing the concluding passages of Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapter 1, whose interpretation we began in Yitro and Ki Tisa:

11. Since it has been made clear that He is not a body or matter, it is likewise clear that there cannot befall Him any of the accidents or events that befall bodies: neither attachment nor separation, neither place nor measure, ascent nor descent, right nor left, before nor after, sitting nor standing; nor is He to be found within time, such that He might have a beginning nor an end, nor a number of years. Nor does He change, for there is nothing that could cause Him change. And He has neither death nor life like the life of a living body, nor foolishness nor wisdom, like the wisdom of a wise man, nor sleep nor wakefulness, nor anger nor laughter, nor joy nor sadness, nor silence nor speech in the sense of the speech of human beings. Thus said the Sages: “Up above, there is neither sitting nor standing, nor behind nor fatigue” [Hagiggah 15a].

Hence, even those attributes that might, viewed superficially, seem to imply unqualified praise of God—such as describing Him as wise, or all-Powerful, or as living forever—are in fact incorrect, as they imply change, or at least the possibility of change, thereby contradicting His perfection and unity. This idea is known as the doctrine of “negative attributes”: that is, that the only significant, truthful statements one can make about God are of a negative character: e.g., that He is not foolish, not weak, not forgetful, not limited in time, etc. Likewise, He cannot be described as having any emotions such as humans do: the attribution to God of human-like emotions, which Maimonides unqualifiedly rejects, is known as “anthropopathy.” The term is analogous to “anthropomorphism,” meaning having human-like physical form. Both of these, which appear in numerous passages in Scripture, must thus be understood as metaphors for something else. And indeed, the main task undertaken by Maimonides in Book I of the Guide is the “translation” of such statements into philosophical language, describing the ideas toward which they point.

12. Matters being thus, all such things and the like that are stated in the Torah and in the words of the prophets are parable and metaphor, as where they say, ”He who dwells in the heavens shall laugh” [Ps 2:4] ; “They angered me with their vanities” [Deut 32:21]; “as the Lord rejoices upon you” [Deut 28:63]; and the like. Concerning all these our Sages said, “The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” Similarly it says, “Do they anger Me?” [Jer 7:19}, for it says, “I the Lord have not changed” [Mal 3:6]. For if He would at times be angry and at times joyful He would change. And all these things only exist among shadowy, lowly bodies, dwelling in homes of matter, whose foundations are in the dust. But He, may He be blessed, is praised and exalted above all this.


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