Friday, August 24, 2007

The Unknowable God - what we can know about Truth

In my last post, I stated that God, the God of Israel, the Unique God, is unknowable by definition. I also stated that it is the purpose of man to try to understand as much as he can about this unknowable Entity. Paradoxically, once man thinks he knows something about Him, he can be sure that he is on the wrong track. So what is this all about? Rambam starts his Mishne Torah with the first Mitzvah and here is how he puts it.

א יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון. והוא ממציא כל הנמצא; וכל הנמצאים מן שמיים וארץ ומה ביניהם, לא נמצאו אלא מאמיתת הימצאו. [ב] ואם יעלה על הדעת שהוא אינו מצוי, אין דבר אחר יכול להימצאות. [ג] ואם יעלה על הדעת שאין כל הנמצאים מלבדו מצויים, הוא לבדו יהיה מצוי ולא ייבטל הוא לביטולם: שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו; והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם, ולא לאחד מהם.

ב לפיכך אין אמיתתו כאמיתת אחד מהם. [ד] הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" (ירמיהו י,י)--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו. והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו" (דברים ד,לה), כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו.

I will paraphrase/translate with my commentary in brackets:

The foundation underlying all foundations and the column that supports [the core of] all knowledge is to “know” that there is out there a First existent. [In other words, the basis for all knowledge and where it all begins, is to apprehend that there exists a non-contingent entity. Investigating existence one must begin with such an entity. Rambam now explains the meaning of non-contingent.] He brings into existence all that exists. [Rambam is not arguing here that God created the world in time but rather that He is its First Cause.] All that exists whether from heaven or from earth [I understand this in both its connotations, location but also conceptual. Heaven is the abstract, the idea and concept behind the physical and earth is the physical matter] and all that is between them, do not exist but for the “Truth” [more about the meaning of this word later] of His existence. Should one conceive that He does not exist nothing else can or would exist. [He is the cause of all existence.] Should one conceive that nothing else exists, he alone would exist. He would also not cease to exist should all else cease to exist. For all existents need Him while He, the Blessed one, does not need them as a group nor one of them as an individual. [Rambam is defining non-contingency. We can look at it as a hierarchical system. By definition, one cannot be a father without having at least one child, just like there is no child without a father. There is a necessary relativity and interdependence between the two entities, father and child, and a hierarchy. God on the other hand is the only “existent” that is not relativistic. He is independent and exists whether there is something else out there or not. Therefore, hierarchically He is first but also by definition unique; there is nothing else that is conceptually like Him in this sense.]

Therefore, His “Truth” is unlike the “Truth” of all of them. [Rambam is defining here the ultimate uniqueness of God, He being the only non-relativistic Truth. He is also defining “real” Truth. In our relative and interdependent existence, everything depends on something else. When I say that it is true that there is light in this room, I am also saying that there is a light bulb that I have turned on by throwing a switch that connected a wire to a filament, bringing energy from a power plant that… It is also only true now, that I have done all that. If I did not do it, it would be dark. The Truth of the lit up room is therefore not an essential Truth but a truth that is an effect of various causes. It is time and circumstance dependent. It exists because of something else. It is not a standalone Truth. Truth is something that exists independently of anything else. It does not even depend on anyone ‘knowing” it.] That is why the prophet says “And God is Truth” for He is the only Truth and nothing else is as true as His Truth. That is also what the Torah says “there is none beside Him” meaning there is no other Truth like Him other than Him. [God’s uniqueness is His Truth.]

(I capitalize the word Truth. It is defined in the dictionary as “That which is considered to be the supreme reality and to have the ultimate meaning and value of existence” as compared to just truth.)

What defines a man, as I have discussed numerous times, is his ability to think and abstract. It is the essence that makes him what he is. It is this ability that, when actualized, is behind his quest to understand the meaning of his own existence. He finds that meaning when he apprehends Truth. It is by understanding that his existence is the effect of an independent, non-relativistic Existent, a True Existent - the only Truth - it is this understanding that gives meaning to our life. It is like saying that the transient existence that we experience cannot be the only reality. It is after all a contingent reality, existing only because of other things. However, if we somehow apprehend Truth and by doing so connect with it, we have become a part of eternity.

The urge of the intelligent man to understand existence is the sine qua non of man. It is his need to seek out Truth at all costs. No effort is too great in this endeavor. However, if one knows going in that Truth is unknowable, why even try? The answer is that one must be realistic in one’s expectations.

מה הוא זה שביקש משה רבנו להשיג כשאמר "הראני נא, את כבודך" (שמות לג,יח)--ביקש לידע אמיתת הימצאו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, עד שיהיה ידוע בליבו כמו ידיעת אחד מן האנשים שראה פניו ונחקקה צורתו בקרבו, שנמצא אותו האיש נפרד בדעתו משאר האנשים; כך ביקש משה רבנו להיות מציאת הקדוש ברוך הוא נפרדת בליבו משאר מציאת הנמצאים, עד שיידע אמיתת הימצאו כמה שהיא. והשיבו ברוך הוא שאין כוח בדעת האדם החי שהוא מחובר מגוף ונפש, להשיג אמיתת דבר זה על בורייו.

When Moshe Rabbeinu asked God, “show me your glory” he wanted to know the True existence of HKBH to the point that he will know Him as he would know another person whose face he saw and his shape became fixed in his mind. That way that person can be differentiated in his mind from others. That is the apprehension that Moshe was striving to acquire. He wanted to separate God’s existence in his mind from all other existents, thus knowing His True existence as it is. God told him that this is impossible for a man’s mind to apprehend. Living man is a composition of body and soul [physical and mental]. He cannot apprehend such Truth completely.

יב והודיעו ברוך הוא מה שלא ידע אדם לפניו ולא יידע לאחריו, עד שהשיג מאמיתת הימצאו דבר שנפרד הקדוש ברוך הוא בדעתו משאר הנמצאים, כמו שייפרד אחד מן האנשים שראה אחוריו, והשיג כל גופו ומלבושו בדעתו משאר האנשים; ועל דבר זה רמז הכתוב, ואמר "וראית, את אחוריי; ופניי, לא ייראו" (שמות לג,כג).

However, the Blessed One, taught him what no one before him nor anyone after him will ever learn, to the point that Moshe was able to apprehend, a part of God’s True existence. He was able to differentiate, in his mind, God from all other existents, the way a person can differentiate from others a man he sees from behind, apprehending His whole body and clothing as to what differentiates them from that of other people. [In other words, he could only grasp that God is different not what He is.] That is the allegory of the verse “you will see my back but my face may not be seen.”

The idea that there exists such an entity that the word “exist” itself is equivocal when applied to it, that it is just a word we use for lack of another to describe what we perceive in our mind, is very hard for us to accept. It is not only hard for us but the Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu struggled with it very much. Moshe’s revelation was that although by induction we are compelled to accept that such an entity exists, we cannot expect to define that Entity other than what it is not – “apprehending His whole body and clothing as to what differentiates them from that of other people”. Moshe Rabbeinu, the “father of all prophets”, was able to understand this better than any human that came before him or that will be born after him. He had a unique revelatory experience. (For more on this Negative Knowledge concept, see my article Negative Attributes and Direct Prophecy – links on the side panel.) However, we all can arrive at some level of understanding and that is the goal. By apprehending what God is NOT, we can get an idea of this unknowable non-contingent entity that is the only Truth. We will never grasp “what” Truth is, but we can grasp that Truth “is”. It is the ultimate goal for the individual man and for humankind.

But there is more to it. There is a practical side to this endeavor. In addition to this search for Truth, this overwhelming need of the intelligent person to find answers to his existential questions, there is a practical element in this enterprise. It is a natural outgrowth of the methods that we have to use in this search. I will discuss this in my next post.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. David,

    If we know that the Univerise is made up of physical atoms etc., how can XGH and other skeptics claim that we can't prove God through the first cause proof? They claim that we don't know the universe is physical, but we KNOW it is.

  2. Well done!
    By I would say that your translation of "Leydah" is too narrow. To "Know" in the Torah, and certainly in the Rambam, is a much deeper and experiental thing than what in the west we term knowledge (knosis). Yediah is used as a euphemism for carnal attachment and connotes inner awareness that transcends deductive cognition.

    Being that is the case, I would say that the "Matsui Rishon" is the Pure Existence that envelops and produces all contingent existence. We only know this non-relativistic Existence through the transience that it produces. Not through a logical proof that it must exist - that is knowledge about God. But through an awareness of Being that we experience through our own experience of Being (both personally and through the universe). Which means that Yediah is knowledge OF God.

    I like the translation of "Sham" as "out there". Do you have a way of understanding that? Seems like a complete misnomer on the surface!

  3. Yehoshua,

    Thank you. Re Yediah see my next post. I am in the middle of composing it and i was having some misgivings. Your comment convinced me that it should go out.

    Re your explanation of matzui Rishon, it is excellent and may use it in a future description. "Envelops" I need to think about. You are referring to "hu mekomo shel olam ...." which can be less defining while envelops is too defining.

    Re out there. Rav Kafih discusses it in his notes at the beginning of Yesodei hatorah claiming that it is an Arabism. It works well in English too so I use it.

  4. I agree that envelops is far too limiting. You simply can't say in English (or any Latin-derived language) what you could say so simply in Hebrew. Which coincidentally, is a major reason why the Rambam is commonly misunderstood. And is related to the whole gist of the Torah's existentialistic God.

    I am familiar with R. Kafih's comments on "Sham". I find it quite unbelievable that the Rambam would include an arabic colloquialism in the Yad. Particularly in the places where he uses it. Every word is so measured, his structure incredibly complete, that I find in inconceivable that in the fundamental sentence he would decide to not care about how it sounds in Hebrew.

  5. Yehoshua, I agree with both your comments. So far every place he uses sham I found "out there" to work. I only came up with it a few months ago so I have not yet taken it everywhere.

    I think that the issue is that Rambam understood existence as equivocal but he did not want to leave us with the impression that God is only a concept. Using Sham points to something that we should search for although elusive. In MN 1:54 we find in R. Kafih's translation
    . אבל העירו על מקום מבט 2 ישיג ממנו תכלית מה שאפשר לאדם להשיגו

    similarly Schwartz edition
    אך הוא העיר לו על מקום עיון שממנו ישיג את מרב מה שיכול אדם להשׂיגו.

    I think that is the meaning of Sham.

  6. David,
    I appreciate your insights into "Sham". I was going to offer a more philosophical approach to the first one. But I do agree that we need a better theory to account for all of the times that the Rambam uses it.

    I have a good friend who worked on a translation of "Mamtzi kol Nimtzah". He found it exceedingly difficult to translate it accuratly into English. Bring into existence is not really accurate.