Friday, October 12, 2007

Confronting Anthropomorphic Texts - a Stratagem for True Apprehension..

Rambam in his introduction to the Moreh has a famous list of seven types of contradictions that can be found in different writings. One of them, the fifth one, is used when a difficult subject has to be communicated, a subject that requires preparation before a person can understand it.

The fifth cause is traceable to the use of a certain method adopted in teaching and expounding profound problems. Namely, a difficult and obscure theorem must sometimes be mentioned and assumed as known, for the illustration of some elementary and intelligible subject which must be taught beforehand the commencement being always made with the easier thing. The teacher must therefore facilitate, in any manner which he can devise, the explanation of those theorems, which have to be assumed as known, and he must content himself with giving a general though somewhat inaccurate notion on the subject. It is, for the present, explained according to the capacity of the students, that they may comprehend it as far as they are required to understand the subject. Later on, the same subject is thoroughly treated and fully developed in its right place.”

This explains the fact that we find so many anthropomorphic texts in the Torah. They are there as a stepping-stone to a more sophisticated understanding which eventually will lead to true knowledge. Rambam takes an even more interesting tack and gets more specific on how this works in MN 1:35 –

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence, these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity. They must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. Without incorporeality, there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. When persons have received this doctrine, and have been trained in this belief, they are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets. The meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.”

Here he goes a step further and argues that it is an a priori approach. One teaches that God is non-physical and unknowable by tradition without any in depth explanation of what it means. After all we teach little children the Shema, a declaration of God’s uniqueness which is synonymous with transcendental. (Note also, in passing, the important teaching “that He is not subject to external influence”, a quite sophisticated doctrine on prayer unlike the contemporary approach!). As they grow up and are confronted with the anthropomorphic text, they are forced to reconcile the received tradition with the received text. They are thus introduced to metaphor which is an important component of abstract thought. Only once that is absorbed, true understanding of what God is not, can be appreciated.

Just a short thought in view of the Parshyot we are currently reading.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Normally we say X is a metaphor for Y? If X is some anthropological description of God what is Y? Here are some examples:In Psalms God struggles /fights with /vanquishes various mythological creatures such as Leviathan, Behemoth and Yamm. What is this a metaphor of? In Isaiah or Kings, I forget, Isaiah is transported to heaven and God is addressing his heavenly council...and eventually Isaiah pipes up saying 'pick me, send me.Who is God addressing, and what does talking mean? Similarly if the Rambam means allegory what are these examples allegories of?

    Second BIG question...if being influenced by prayer violates the not subject to external influence condition what about the many cases in the Torah where God sees, notices, recognizes some thing and acts. For example God sees the suffering of Israel in Egypt, the worship of idols in Judea, the murmuring of the people and hundreds more ....isn't His response that is brought about by the actions or situation of the children of Israel also a violation of the condition that he not be subject to external influence?

    If God has mercy or feels anger is He is less than perfect? Is feeling unworthy of God? What about thinking, changing one's mind, being appeased, remembering, judging. Can you really separate feeling from thinking. You must admit God in tanach is very emotional.Think of Ezekiel 16. (:

    By the time this program is carried out to completion few sentences that involve God remain.

  2. >In Psalms God struggles /fights with /vanquishes various mythological creatures such as Leviathan, Behemoth and Yamm.

    See Rabeinu Avraham ben Harambam who addresses this in his Milchamot Hashem Reuvan Margolis edition page 65 - livyatan is an allegory for man's Chomer and he shows that is the understanding of Chazal.

    The other one is much easier as it clearly is poetic language for prophetic visions. After all you cannot expect that prophetic language would be other than allegory, metaphor and poetry. The prophet only sees metaphors. The only one who did not was Moshe when he received Laws.

    Second question is addressed by Rambam almost every single one of them. I will try to write posts on this as I realize I never addressed specific verses. Maybe I will post weekly on the Parsha wherever such things come up.

    God does not "feel" "get angry" "emote" jealous, think or even exist in the sense that you and I understand or even can contemplate the words. He is NOT non existent, that is the most we can say about Him . I know it is a difficult concept and as rambam say one spends a whole life studying a specific scientific concept just so that we can say that God is not that concept.

    Yes all stories and depictions that deal with God in Tanach are by definition allegorical. The only things that are not are the laws. That is the meraning of the last parsha in Beha'alotcha with Aharon, miriam and moshe. Ayin sham and see my article on it in hakirah 2

  3. 1)I am confused. You say "all stories and depictions that deal with God in Tanach are by definition allegorical." In your post you say "As they grow up and are confronted with the anthropomorphic text, they are forced to reconcile the received tradition with the received text. They are thus introduced to metaphor which is an important component of abstract thought." Well, which one is it, allegory or metaphor? And how is 'poetic language' different from metaphor? 2) Leviathan is an allegory for man’s chomer. OK. What about behemoth? More chomer. And yam even more chomer. An allegory should be a 1 to1 mapping with each element of the anthropomorphic or mythic text mapped on to some unique spiritual element. No one has ever shown how this can be done. There are so many physical attributes assigned to God in the Torah…how does anyone know which attribute points to which spiritual element? 3) Philo and Paul, (Slifkin,LOL) and of course the Rambam each try in their own way and for their own reasons to give allegorical readings. When two readings conflict is there any way to choose using only the elements of the text? 4) How can you favor allegory when chazal in the Talmuds and Midrashim never engaged in allegory but only in midrash?

  4. EJ I mispoke and should have used both metaphor and allegory in both senstences and poetic language as a description of the result of that.

    So wleaving the technical and exact language used aside - yes - all stories in tanach in my understanding should be seen as "poetic" and told in a way that will teach us something. Why was a specific detail in a person's life chosen to be told ? Do you think that the stories about Avraham who lived almost 200 years are a reflection of who he was? Did it happen? Probably but we only get the point of view of the narrator and that is the importance of the telling.

    Now we come to prophecy which is where your original question started - is there any doubt in an inteeligent person's mind that it is all poetic language? Do you really think that Livyathan or Shor Habor in the prophet's description of the Mashiach times were real or mythical animals? It is forcing idiocy and possibly idolatry on great thinkers whose words revebrate for ever.

    For a comprehensive discussion see Rambam's introduction to the moreh, MN2:29 and MN2:47. Preferably go to where they have the Kapach and the schwartz edition in hebrew.

    Re your last question - where do you get the idea that chazal did not favor allegory? Do you think the aggadot in shas are literal? Do you think Raba bar bar chana was an idiot? Do you believe that raba shachtei lerav zeira is literal? The rukle is simple - wherever it is a halachik issue dealing with practical to do law it is as said. Everything else is generally multiple meaning that is left for the astute reader to decipher.

    One of my colleagues is preparing an article for next Hakirah on that subject.

  5. One last time…1).On your view should the actions that God performed such as the splitting of the sea, the wrestling with Jacob, the Ten Plagues, be read as an allegory or metaphor? If you believe they were real, then when it says effectively "God saw Y and did X," the "saw Y" is non-literal, but the "did X" is literal. So you end up chopping up sentences half allegory half real. Very odd. 2).You use allegory and metaphor as a marker; you label sentences as it were, literal, allegorical, but you make no effort to provide the allegory i.e. the spiritual non-literal meaning of the sentence. As I said before an allegorical interpretation, each element of the sentence that looks mythical has to have some definite spiritual analog. 3).Your response about chazal doesn’t speak to my point. You say some agudot that contain magical stories cannot be taken literally. My point was that nowhere in Talmudic literature is there an allegory, not one. There are meshalim, there are free floating associations to some element in the text, there are gezriah shavas, and other such hermeneutical devices but no allegories. The reason I think is because Paul’s use of allegory was so powerful the entire method of interpretation became suspect. It seems to me that to read the entire Tanach in this sort of "it a metaphor but I can’t tell you what it is a metaphor for" when chazal never did this and when there is a straight forward clear literal meaning to the text needs some additional justification than a literal meaning fails to satisfy the Rambam’s ideas about simplicity and timelessness of God.

    I would much rather read Torah literally and read the midrashim also literally and patch up the metaphysical problems some other way.

  6. EJ I hear you, I will address your issues in a series of posts. Bekitzur, Ramabm addresses many of these difficult texts, his followers in Provence have covered many more. Once you see what they did (it was so good they were banned!) you will see how true they are.

    Re miracles, read my article on the subject. It is in the link section on my blog.