Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Love and Knowledge of God - The Elusive Search and its Significance.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. Some of these opinions are therefore imparted in a plain form, others allegorically, because certain opinions are in their plain form too strong for the capacity of the common people…. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time. (MN 3:27)

Thus according to Rambam the goal of all Mitzvot is to develop correct opinions about God, opinions that are presented in the Torah in a general macro form and allegorically. A deeper understanding of their meaning is seen as a goal for individuals to develop according to their capability. As long as the understanding developed meets the general criteria laid out by the Torah and Halacha, it is acceptable. There are therefore as many different understandings as there are people.

When I say that it must meet a general criterion, I had in mind the following Rambam statement –

For in the same way as all people must be informed and even children must be trained in the belief that God is One, and that none besides Him is to be worshiped. So must all be taught by simple authority that God is incorporeal; that there is no similarity in any way whatsoever between Him and His creatures: that His existence is not like the existence of His creatures, His life not like that of any living being, His wisdom not like the wisdom of the wisest of men. And that the difference between Him and His creatures is not merely quantitative, but absolute [as between two individuals of two different classes]. I mean to say that all must understand that our wisdom and His or our power and His do not differ quantitatively or qualitatively, or in a similar manner. For two things, of which the one is strong and the other weak, are necessarily similar, belong to the same class, and can be included in one definition. The same is the case with other comparisons: they can only be made between two things belonging to the same class, as has been shown in works on Natural Science. Anything predicated of God is totally different from our attributes; no definition can comprehend both; therefore His existence and that of any other being totally differ from each other, and the term existence is applied to both as homonyms, as I shall explain. This suffices for the guidance of children and of ordinary persons who must believe that there is a Being existing, perfect, incorporeal, not inherent in a body as a force in it-God, who is above all kinds of deficiency, above affections. (MN1:35)

Reading this carefully there is only one positive belief required – the existence of a perfect unique Being – all the other required beliefs are what God is not. This is quite significant as I have discussed many times – God’s essence - a positive description - is by definition false. Thus, ultimately God cannot be understood other than inductively. His true essence can never be grasped.

Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times, the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some, the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, "But as for thee, stand thou here by Me" (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written, "The skin of his face shone," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, "They prophesied, and did not prophesy again" (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals. Others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night. To them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were "the flame of the rotating sword." (MN Introduction)

Even the little we do grasp during our search may be fleeting. We understand things for an instant but the insight disappears in a flash. How much less can we understand what someone else conceived in his mind and how impossible is it to transmit these ideas from person to person? How careful must we be before we judge another’s opinion, assuming we did really grasp its full intent?

This search for God is not an a priori process where we start from a tabula rasa position, develop concepts and prove them to be true like in any scientific enterprise. As we are dealing with non empirical data, just inductive possibilities, we start with a set of beliefs that have been developed traditionally and transmitted from generation to generation all the way back to Sinai and Avraham before that. It is a multi generational and cumulative effort that humankind, has undertaken when Avraham Avinu decided to question the idolatrous ideas of his time. Our ancestors however understood that this kind of apprehension is very personal and individualized. However, they imparted to us broad outlines based on their personal investigation which was aided by prophecy – revelation - with the admonition to continue the search and develop these ideas further, adapting to the changing scientific knowledge as it developed. Of course, the most important teaching is truth. Truth is at the core of this whole system. Therefore, it is not enough to just say and accept these dogmas but they have to be researched and understood as far as each one of us can so long as we keep truth at the forefront.

The goal and end result of this whole search is to acquire or experience Ahavat Hashem – the Love of God.

“God declares in plain words that it is the object of all religious acts to produce in man fear of God and obedience to His word-the state of mind which we have demonstrated in this chapter for those who desire to know the truth, as being our duty to seek. … But the opinions which the Law teaches us--the knowledge of God's Existence and Unity—these opinions teach us love of God, as we have shown repeatedly. You know how frequently the Law exhorts us to love God. "And thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (Deut. vi. 5). The two objects, love and fear of God, are acquired by two different means. The love is the result of the opinions taught in the Law, including the true knowledge of the Existence of God; whilst fear of God is produced by the practices prescribed in the Law. Note this explanation.” (MN3:52). (I will discuss the fear component of the above statement separately).

Rambam in Mishne Torah argues for incorporeality. However being incorporeal and existing are two contradictory statements in our minds. Incorporeal “existence” must therefore be a homonym with physical “existence”. How we represent this to our minds depends on the sophistication of our understanding of physicality. It will therefore depend on each individual.

There may thus be a man who earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths. He has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negated in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him.” (MN1:59)

Dealing with the transcendental, we can only apprehend what God is not. His existence can only be perceived like in a fog due to the limitations of our mind.

However great the exertion of our mind may be to comprehend the Divine Being or any of the intellects, we find a screen and partition between Him and ourselves. Thus, the prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between God and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapors, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: or use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words, "Clouds and darkness surrounds Him" (Tehilim 97:2)”. (MN3:9)

Anything non-corporeal is beyond our capacity to grasp properly. We just get a hint and a glimpse, a fleeting insight that eludes us immediately. It is therefore not transmittable and must remain personal. That is why the Torah can only set a criterion that we then have to develop. Understanding God cannot be transmitted; one can be directed to a way of thinking but the insight is personal and must remain so.

Summarizing, the goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to prepare us and put us on the path to understand our existence in God’s world and gain an understanding of God and His relationship to it, however tenuous that knowledge may be. As I have said many times, that knowledge is necessary for us to understand our role in God’s universe. To help us achieve this, the Torah sets out a list of ontological (not empirical) beliefs that we are required to prove to ourselves. The way to prove them is to make sure they do not contradict reality. Should they contradict reality, they must of course be reevaluated and reinterpreted. The correct understanding of those beliefs is therefore part of the process of searching and is particular to each individual. Not only does empirical knowledge – reality – play a role in the outcome but also so do personality, personal bias and general ways of thinking. Non-empirical concepts are by definition subjective. This is where those Mitzvot that work on our natural inclinations, come into play. Other Mitzvot keep us focused by reminding us that we are supposed to be constantly engaged in this lifelong search.

Reading the Ve’ahavta section of Shema with this in mind, it takes on a very different meaning. Love and knowledge in Rambam’s lexicon are synonyms. We thus declare daily and acknowledge that every act that we do day and night is focused toward that great search to love (know) God.


  1. R, David,

    Terrific post.

    What/Where is the starting point of thought? Is what I think about an accident of where and when I was born? Am I trying to do no more then validate that which I already believe? If so, how do we understand reward (olam haba) and (kareth) punishment?
    Did the Rambam (and all great thinkers) just find logical/rational/philosophical legitimacy for their already determined conclusions?


    David W.

  2. David W.

    Avraham started from scratch and shared his discoveries with his followers/children. Unlike hie followers who eventually either gave up or got folded with his children, his children undertook to follow and further develop his thinking. the idea is that eventually the whole world will follow and join in the search. Umale'a ha'aretz de'ah et Hashem kamayim Layam Mechassim.

    Each searcher develops his own understanding and that is HIS olam Haba while one who has developed none is by definition Nichrat.

    Rambam gives us a workplan of how to go about it and how to understand the Mitzvot in the context of the search for HKBH. He does not give answers just hints and directions.

    Have a look at hil Teshuvah 8:2 and it will be clear if you read it with the above in mind. (BTW Those last perakim are fabulous!).

  3. R' David,

    ok, thanks. I will reveiew over Shabbos.

    I have found the Rambam's Hilchos Teshuvah to be mind blowing.

    Have a good Shabbos!

    David W.