Sunday, April 23, 2006

Moshe Rabbeinu's Insight - How to teach God's transcendence.

In my earlier post I discussed the problem with Avrohom's understanding of God for future generations. ( Another excerpt from my Hakirah article modified for this post)

I am that I am - a new concept in understanding G-d.

The Torah when telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, introduces a new approach to how one must understand the attributes developed in the mind for describing G-d which we will call Negative Attributes. Rambam devotes most of the first part of the Moreh to develop this idea[1]. In Moreh I, 5 he deals with Moshe’s first encounter with G-d at the burning bush. He discusses it in the context of an admonition to people who engage in philosophical speculation, to be careful and not accept the first opinions that occurs to them during that process. “When doing this [engaging in the investigation of metaphysics] he should not make categoric affirmations in favor of the first opinion that occurs to him and should not, from the outset, strain and impel his thoughts towards the apprehension of the deity; he rather should feel awe and refrain and hold back until he gradually elevates himself. It is in this sense it is said, And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon G-d”[2]. Rambam, in I,37 gives the word פניו - face- five possible meanings. In our verse Moshe hiding his face means that while seeing himself in front of G-d, he did not accept his current perception of Him. The burning bush was the first experience Moshe had of a prophetic vision. The experience can be described as follows: Moshe is deeply involved in metaphysical speculation and he apprehends an angel inside a fire burning on a bush that is not consumed. He then has a vision where he starts to receive a message from G-d through this angel. As he investigates the angel’s source of this message he starts to form in his mind a picture (sees) of that source. He realizes that he is jumping to conclusions based on an incomplete fund of information. He then stops himself from reaching any conclusion and is commended for it[3]. Moshe has proven that he has the ability and the temperament to deal with metaphysical issues. He will not jump to hasty conclusions and thus will eventually have a true understanding of G-d. “...and G-d let overflow upon him so much of His bounty and goodness that it became necessary to say of him: and the figure of the Lord shall he look upon - וּתמוּנת ה' יביט. The sages, may their memory be blessed, have stated that this is a reward for his having at first hidden his face so as not to look upon G-d.”[4] The term - תמוּנת ה' יביט - is explained in Moreh I,3 “ The term [תמוּנה] is also used to designate the true notion grasped by the intellect... The meaning and interpretation of this verse are: he grasps the truth of G-d.” Moshe will be able to grasp a true understanding of G-d. According to Rambam, Moshe introduces us to the idea that being cautious when one engages in metaphysical speculation is a necessary prerequisite so as not to believe what we “see” at first glance. Searching for G-d through nature leads one to describe G-d with attributes such as great, powerful, just and so on, which when interpreted positively, lead to anthropomorphism[5] and eventually cause one to forget the existence of the one G-d. The Torah introduces Moshe, the central figure responsible for the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian exile, as having the insight to realize that continuing with the current understanding of G-d and taking it to its logical conclusion will lead to assigning positive attributes to G-d. This approach was the cause for “וכמעט קט היה והעיקר ששתל אברהם נעקר וחזרוּ בני יעקב לטעוּת העמים וּתעייתם - and it almost came to pass that the tree planted by Avrohom was uprooted and the children of Jacob returned to the errors and misguided ways of the nations”[6].

Having understood the limitations of his current understanding of G-d and therefore refrained from speculating further about the source of the message and also having understood the rest of the prophecy, which was for him to tell the Jewish people that he is G-d’s messenger and has been ordered to take them out of Egypt, Moshe now addresses G-d. “Moshe said to G-d, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them the G-d of your fathers has sent me to you and they ask me what is his name? what shall I say to them?”[7] Rambam in Moreh 1:63 explains that Moshe’s question was what is the concept of G-d, that is consistent with my claim that you sent me to redeem them? “For at that time all the people except a few were not aware of the existence of the deity, and the utmost limits of their speculation did not transcend the sphere, ...for they did not separate themselves from things perceived by the senses and had not attained intellectual perfection [in other words, they only could conceive of positive attributes consistent with the experience of their senses]. Accordingly G-d made known to [Moshe] the knowledge that he was to convey to them and through which they would acquire a true notion of the existence of G-d, this knowledge being ; I am that I am”.

What does אהיה אשר אהיה - I am that I am mean? “This makes it clear that He is existent not through existence. This notion may be summarized and interpreted in the following way: the existent that is the existent, or the necessarily existent. This is what demonstration necessarily leads to: namely, to the view that there is a necessarily existent thing that has never been, or ever will be, nonexistent”. Every thing that we humans perceive is defined as “possible with regard to existence”, meaning that at some point in time, past or future, it may not have existed or will not exist. Therefore every thing that we perceive must have something outside itself that caused it to exist. An entity that was not caused to exist by something outside itself cannot be grasped by us as it is beyond our experience. That Existent, which we call G-d, is “existent not through existence”. We can only describe what that Existent is not, namely not caused by another and therefore exists not through existence, but we cannot say what that Existent’s essence is. “Even the word existent is not accurate with regard to G-d; one can only say that He is not nonexistent. Neither mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry nor any scientific discipline can help us in describing the essence of G-d. affirmative attributes we may be tempted to ascribe to Him”.[8]

This concept, Negative Attributes, is represented by G-d’s name Yod Heh Vov Heh, which is explained as אהיה אשר אהיה, I am that I am. “All the names of G-d, that are to be found in any of the books derive from actions...The only exception is one name: namely, Yod, Heh, Vov, Heh.”(Moreh 1:61) .

This is the most important innovation that Moshe Rabbeinu introduced into Judaism according to Rambam and is what enabled us to come to Har Sinai and receive the Torah. It would take many generations to sink in and take firm hold. It is still evolving and like any such idea takes twists and turns. Although much lipservice is given to this idea in our times, the introduction of "spirituality", contemporary "Kabbalah" and other such fads risk taking us away from our goal of really understanding and knowing God to the limit of our abilities as humans. It is incumbent on us as Jews to fight these deviant ideas.

[1] Rabbeinu Bahya in his חוֹבת הלבבוֹת שער היחוּד פרק י' presents the same idea.

[2] שמוֹת ג' ו'

[3] The beginning of the verse is: “ I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Avrohom, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yakov”. As we saw earlier their concept of G-d is through nature and it is in that context that Moshe did not allow himself to arrive at conclusions.

[4] Moreh I,5 page 29

[5] An interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics. Webster dictionary

[6] הל' ע"ז פ"א ה"ג

[7] שמוֹת ג' י"ג

[8] Isaac Franck, Maimonides and Aquinas on Man’s Knowledge of G-d. in Maimonides; A Collection of Critical Essays Joseph A. Bujis, Ed. Univ. of Notre Dame Press 1998.

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