Friday, February 24, 2006

More on Revelation - The Jewish Nobles.

In my earlier post I touched on my understanding of Rambam’s explanation of the process that the Jews used to experience revelation at Sinai. Rambam, as far as I know, was the first Jewish proponent of the concept of Negative Knowledge. It is the basis of his Ikar that HKBH “eino guf” – is not a physical entity. The word transcendent is easy to say, but to grasp absolute non – physicality is very hard for us humans. When I hear people talking about spirituality as it relates to God, I cringe. And when it is said with such certainty by rabbonim and darshonim it is even more surprising. Don’t they realize that just by saying that they are already anthropomorphizing God? If He is portrayed as anything that we can grasp, identify or even imagine, we have given Him more physicality than is permitted. A person can be spiritual, although I am not sure how exactly spirituality is defined, but God never! So how do we relate to Him? Rambam explains that first one has to understand well a physical concept such as e.g. energy, and then be convinced that God is NOT anything like that. Basically one is convinced that He exists, because there has to be a First Cause, but the word exist itself is only an expression that we use for lack of another one. I plan to revisit this concept and expand on it. For now I think we have enough to understand the next verse (Shemos 24:11) –

V’el atzilei bnei yisroel lo sholach yodo vayechzu es hoelokim vayochlu vayshtu. – And against the nobles of the children of Yisroel He did not send forth His hand, and they beheld God and they ate and drank.

We just had a description of how the leaders of Klal Yisroel, by example, taught the people how to meditate and thereby experience revelation; suddenly we are told that these same leaders, or a portion of them, were barely saved from annihilation! Most commentaries consequently, with some difficulty, read this Possuk as a positive statement – see Ramban, Rashbam, Sforno and others. Rashi does not nor does Rambam who relying on Midrash Tanhuma (Beha’aloscho 27) read it as a negative comment. Eating and drinking is a metaphor for physicality, it is one of the most common physical things we humans do. The Nobles beheld God and related to Him just like one relates to food and drink in other words they imagined Him in a somewhat physical sense. When they speculated about the relationship between what was created – the whiteness of the sapphire – they visualized or apprehended a positive attribute of God as Creator and that deserved a reprimand. It is this misunderstanding of metaphysical truths that lead to the tragedies of Nodov and Avihu and Tave’eroh (Bamidbar 11:1-3). Immediately at the beginning of the Moreh, in the fifth chapter, Rambam contrasts Moshe’s reaction to his first encounter with divinity at the Burning Bush, where he refrained from jumping to conclusions,(Vayaster Moshe ponov), and therefore was able to eventually apprehend God at the highest level a human can – Utemunas Hashem Yabit – he sees God’s image,with the Nobles of the Bnei Yisroel who jumped to unfounded conclusions. They were therefore never able to understand God’s true transcendence.
When we want to perform the Mitzvah of Yedias Hashem, the first Mitzvah in Sefer Hamitzvos, our starting point is the physical world that was created by HKBH which we use as a contrast to understand what God is not. But we can never confuse God with the laws of physics, biology et al. which are the fabric of the universe. Quoting the words of Rambam describing an erroneous understanding of God - "For that thing which he is in his imagination and which he mentions in his speech(learning and prayer) does not correspond to any being at all and has merely been invented by his imagination".


  1. >...our starting point is the physical world that was created by HKBH.

    Another huge problem for you. How is it possible for a perfect G-D to have a time when the universe did not exist, then a time when it did exist. If G-d was perfect, he would have no want to create a world. And if the world is part of G-d's perfection, it would have always existed.

  2. JF, It is a major problem which Rambam addresses. The issue is Will or Rotzon vechefetz. I am on my way there and will address it in coming posts.