Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rambam on Moshe - Apprehension and Doubt - An Apparent Contradiction.

I learned this Shabbat with two young men Rambam’s introduction to Avot – the Shemona Perakim. As usual when you learn Rambam, no matter how many times you have read him, every time you reread him you get a new insight or a new thread of thinking is triggered.

In the seventh chapter, Rambam discusses the perfection of knowledge and character necessary for a person to acquire prophecy. The level of prophecy is commensurate with how perfected the person’s character is. (Interestingly, the level of perfection in character is what creates the variation between different prophets and not knowledge, but that belongs in a separate post.) Moshe Rabbeinu is seen as the paradigm of the limits of how high a human being can aspire to, when it comes to this dual perfection and consequently prophecy, yet he too had limits in apprehending God. To illustrate Rambam uses three verses in Shemot 33 (the weekly reading in two weeks) where Moshe asks to know God.

יח וַיֹּאמַר: הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ.

18 And he said: 'Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory.'

כ וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי.

20 And He said: 'You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.'

כג וַהֲסִרֹתִי, אֶת-כַּפִּי, וְרָאִיתָ, אֶת-אֲחֹרָי; וּפָנַי, לֹא יֵרָאוּ. {פ}

23 And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.'

Rambam explains this as follows: (I will translate only the pertinent segment to this post, using selectively both the Rav Kafieh and Tibon versions and paraphrase the rest. The Hebrew below is the Tibon version at www.daat.co.il ) -

וכאשר ידע משה רבנו,
שלא נשאר לו מסך שלא קרעו, וכי נמשלו מעלות המידות כולן והמעלות הדיבריות
כולן. ביקש להשיג את האלוהים באמיתת מציאותו, אחר שלא נשאר מונע. אותה שעה

הראני נא את כבודך (שמות ל"ג, י"ח).

והודיעו, יתברך, שאי אפשר לו דבר זה, להיותו שכל נמצא בחומר. רצוני לומר: באשר הוא אדם. והוא אמרו:

כי לא יראני האדם וחי (שמות ל"ג, כ')

הנה לא נשארה בינו ובין השגת האלוהים באמיתת מציאותו זולת מחיצת וילון אחת בהירה, והיא השכל האנושי שאינו נפרד. וגמל עליו האלוהים יתברך חסד, בתיתו לו מן ההשגה, אחר שאלתו, יותר ממה שהיה לו קודם שאלתו. והודיעו, שהתכלית אי אפשרית לו כל עוד שהוא בעל גשם. וכינה אמיתת ההשגה
בראיית פנים. כי האדם כשיראה פני חברו, הגיעה לנפשו צורתו ולא יערבבנו
בזולתו. אבל כשיראה אחוריו, ואם גם הבחינו באותה ראייה, אף על פי כן סופו
שיסופק בו ויערבבנו בזולתו כמו כן השגתו יתברך באמיתות היא, שיגיע לנפש מאמיתת מציאותו, שלא יהא שותף
לאותה מציאות שום נמצא אחר. עד שימצא בנפשו מציאותו קבועה ונבדלת ממה
שימצא בנפשו ממציאות שאר הנמצאים. ואי אפשר לאדם להשיג שעור השגה זה, אלא שהוא, עליו השלום, השיג מעט למטה מזה. והוא שנאמר בו:

וראית את אחורי (שמות ל"ג, כ"ג).

Moshe having understood that he had reached the ultimate human perfection (note that there is no self-modesty here, yet Moshe is the “Anav Mikol Adam” – knowing one’s self worth does not contradict humility), wanted to apprehend the essence of God. The answer he received was that it is impossible for a human being to achieve this, as man’s existence is materialistic. We are physical entities and therefore cannot grasp transcendence in its essence.

“He [God] informed him that this ultimate goal [apprehending the divine essence] is impossible whilst he is in a physical body. He metaphorically referred to the true apprehension of God’s essence as “seeing a face”, because when a person sees another person’s face, it leaves an imprint so that he does not confuse him with another. On the other hand, when he sees him only from the back, although he does recognize him during that sighting, he will eventually have doubts and confuse him with another. So too does true apprehension [of God] occur, when a person apprehends in his mind His true essence in such a way that no other existent shares that existence, to the point that he permanently establishes His existence in his mind so that His existence is different from the existence of all other existents. That level of apprehension is impossible. He, Moshe Rabbeinu, apprehended a level below this one and that is the meaning of “and you shall see my back”.”

Rambam is saying that a human being can never know with absolute certainty that what he is apprehending, what he is picturing in his mind as God, is really God and not another entity or a figment of his imagination. God is not physical therefore He does not have a face nor any other feature that when “seen” could identify Him just as we would identify an individual. God can only be identified as “being” different from the “being” of anything else. In other words to have absolute certainty that one apprehends God and not another, requires that one apprehend God’s “existence” as unique. The most a man can apprehend is that God exists but not even what “existence” in this context means. As we cannot “see”, or better, apprehend God’s essence because our minds are bound in materialism we cannot fathom existence in this context. There always remains a certain level of unknown and insecurity even to a man of Moshe Rabbeinu’s stature. Rambam however adds that although Moshe could not see God’s face, he reached a level of apprehension just below that. The implication is that he could still “confuse Him with another” because he could not fully apprehend the uniqueness of God’s “existence”.

In MT Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:12 Rambam gives a slight variation -

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

The Blessed One informed him [Moshe] of something no other man before him knew nor [any man] after him will know. He apprehended about His essence a matter that differentiated God in his mind from other existents, just as he would differentiate a person from another person when he sees his back and apprehends his body and clothing in his mind [note: not his face]. That is what the verse signaled by saying “and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”

Here Rambam is giving Moshe a level of security that comes when one is at the limit of human apprehension of the transcendent. When one meets another person and sees him only from behind, notices his body language and shape, notices his clothing but does not see his face and then meets him again in the same manner, he cannot be absolutely certain that it is the same person that he is seeing. Let us however imagine that this observer lives in a contained environment where he knows everyone that is there and discovers one detail that differentiates this person from all the others, knowing that no one else shares that feature, he still would not know how this person’s face looks but he will know it is that person and no other. In this presentation, although others, who do not know that particular detail that differentiates God from all other existents, are never sure that it is the same God they are meeting again, Moshe had no such doubt. Apparently, Moshe was able to identify something different in God’s “existence”, enough to, in his mind, separate God from any other existent, although he could not fully apprehend “existence” in this context.

Did Rambam change his mind? I do not know at this time how to explain this apparent contradiction. In upcoming posts, I will look at how Rambam addresses this issue in various other places and in the Moreh. Hopefully things will clarify as I move along.


  1. I think it works like this, to imagine God and apprehend him in comparison to other beings is impossible. To contiplate his creations and deduce with certainty that they are different then him can be done. Basicaly, the function works from the outside inwards. Since Gods essence cannot be truly appprehended to work from the inside out the Rambam points out cannot be done.

  2. I am not sure what the contradiction is that you are talking about. I thought the Rambam was just telling us that it is impossible for Moshe or any other human being to comprehend G-D's true existence. The only way to even try is to understand Him from the back which is similar to the idea of understanding what He is not. For example, I can know who Barack Obama is either by looking at his face are eliminating every other human being on the planet from being him. I think Moshe was able to understand G-D better than anyone else because G-D helped him understand all things that existed that were created, however, G-D Himself was not revealed to Moshe. But this level of understanding is still greater than anyone else has ever achieved. Also, if you are interested I talked about this idea in my last post on my website.

  3. Anonymous, My problem is that according to SP Moshe could still confuse God while according to MT he would not.

    E-Man - You are correct - Moshe could not apprehend God's essence just what He is not, My problem is how do you understand the two conclusions of Rambam? Could Moshe doubt that he "met" God as in SP or not as in MT?

  4. I think I understand the problem. I believe the Rambam is saying the same thing in both SP and MT, that G-D's true essence is unattainable. This is how I understand the parable, let me know if you agree or disagree.

    The Rambam is saying that seeing the face of anyone then allows you to have ingrained in your mind that person's tzurah, which I will translate as true features and this is what allows a man to differentiate between one man and another even when that person is not in front of him. Meaning that this person now has an understanding of that person's face. True this also allows him to see that person as unique, but I think the main point is that he knows that other person's face. However, when you only see a person's back, you don't see the features of the person, you can still recognize him from behind, but since you don't know the true features of his face there are times you will mix him up with others, but you will usually be able to tell the difference between your friend and other people.

    The Rambam says this parable is similar to G-D since, to sum up, it is impossible to see G-D's face and therefore have a completely unique understanding of Him.

    The MT is saying that G-D revealed revealed His back to Moshe so that Moshe's understanding of G-D could be similar to seeing the back of a man. You can differentiate between two men's backs very easily without seeing their faces, their clothes look different and their bodies have different shapes. However, you still will not understand what their face looks like and therefore you could see a hundred people and never know how to differentiate them based on their facial features. Meaning Moshe could not differentiate between G-D and other beings based on their true essence, but rather through the features of their back.

    I think the SP is referring to differentiating between the true essence of G-D and the true essence of other beings, aka their faces, whereas MT is referring to differentiating between G-D and other beings through their attributes and other non-essence things, basically their backs.

    Let me know what you think. Thanks

  5. E-Man, i think you understand correctly but ultimately if one knows someone only from the "back", unless there is a feature that is exclusive to that person, you will eventually confuse him with someone else who may appropriate the exact same features. In SP Rambam says that Moshe could confuse because he was not apprised of such an exclusive feature while in MT he was. I have not yet attempted to get a hint of what that exclusive feature in MT is.

  6. That is what I am saying. That I think MT is not saying that Moshe knew n exclusive feature of G-D. Rather, I think MT is saying that Moshe saw G-D in the following manner in MT: If I saw you from the back and one of my good friends, I could tell you are are two different people and that one is my good friend and one is someone else. However, if I saw you both from the front, I still would not know the other person I am looking at is David Guttman. So there is no real exclusive feature of yours, rather all I could do is recognize your clothes and body form that I saw from the back and was told that is David Guttman. If you changed your clothes, then I would not be able to recognize that it was you that I saw and am currently looking at. So too Moshe with G-D. I think the MT is telling us that Moshe could differentiate between G-D's back and another person's back in this fashion, but still did not know any exclusive features of G-D, just, if possible, the clothes and outline of G-D from the back.

    Sorry if I am annoying you writing so many posts.

  7. as an aside
    "knowing one’s self worth does not contradict humility"

    humility is knowing one’s self worth and knowing one’s self worth as it pales in the shadow of Him.