Sunday, March 15, 2009

Moshe Not Losing Sight Of God's Back -

In the previous post, I discussed Rambam’s understanding that metaphysical speculation leads to insights that are fleeting and can be compared to flashes of light. Considering that the essence of God, in fact the whole concept of transcendental existence cannot be fathomed by the human mind, what do these flashes of insight consist of?

I will give you in this chapter some illustrations, in order that you may better understand the propriety of forming as many negative attributes as possible, and the impropriety of ascribing to God any positive attributes. A person may know for certain that a "ship" is in existence, but he may not know to what object that name is applied, whether to a substance or to an accident. A second person then learns that the ship is not an accident. A third, that it is not a mineral. A fourth, that it is not a plant growing in the earth. A fifth, that it is not a body whose parts are joined together by nature. A sixth, that it is not a flat object like boards or doors. A seventh, that it is not a sphere. An eighth, that it is not pointed. A ninth, that it is neither round-shaped nor equilateral. A tenth, that it is not solid. It is clear that this tenth person has almost arrived at the correct notion of a "ship" by the foregoing negative attributes. It is as if he had exactly the same notion as those have who imagine it to be a wooden substance which is hollow, long, and composed of many pieces of wood, that is to say, who know it by positive attributes. Of the other persons in our illustration, each one is more remote from the correct notion of a ship than the next mentioned, so that the first knows nothing about it but the name. In the same manner, you will come nearer to the knowledge and comprehension of God by the negative attributes. But you must be careful, in what you negate, to negate by proof, not by mere words, for each time you ascertain by proof that a certain thing, believed to exist in the Creator, must be negated, you have undoubtedly come one step nearer to the knowledge of God.” (MN 1:60)

When we look at the universe we live in - the only reality we know - we see that it operates on a system of cause and effect. We conclude that there must be, “exist”, one entity that is non-contingent, the cause of everything without being effected by anything else – a self-standing independent entity. (For a concise and clear exposition of this idea, see my earlier post here). Just like a person who has never seen a ship but knows that one must exist because he knows that people and products can be shipped across oceans, so too do we know from our own existence that there must be a non-contingent First Cause. Unlike a ship, which we can construct and eventually observe and touch, this non- contingent entity, by definition, cannot even be conceived by our minds. We therefore cannot describe it in positive terms. All we can do is explain what it is not, what makes it different from everything else. It is a much more cumbersome process, because we have to know and understand everything else that exists and conceptualize why this entity cannot be any of those things. If we were to take the same approach with the ship, we eventually would get to know and understand what a ship is, and even build one. However, we will never be able to even conceive anything about the makeup of this non-contingent entity which we call God. On the other hand, the more we know and understand why God is different from anything else that we know and understand, the better can we construct a vague sense in our minds about this entity whose traces we see in everything. That vague sense is metaphorically described as ““and you shall see my back”. As we develop more knowledge about our universe, we keep on expanding our knowledge of what God is not and the vague sense we develop, though closer to the truth, is different from the one we experienced before. That is how I understand Rambam in Shemona Perakim that I quoted here 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”. As these insights are vague and come in flashes, there is a lack of continuity as new information is processed and new insights develop. Is it the same entity I sensed during the last experience or was I wrong then? Am I wrong now? The only resolution of this dilemma is to maintain constancy in the process so that there is a continuous flow of insights that are built on each other and thus connected. It is like when someone catches fleeting sight of the back of a person he is following and does not let his eyes stray from that person, although he does not know how that person looks, he knows that he is following the same person he first saw from the back. Should he however lose sight for a second, he will never be sure that it is the same person he is following now. Moshe Rabbeinu was the paradigm of the person who never loses sight of Gods’ back once he caught a glimpse of it. Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 7:14 -

ובזה הבטיחו האל, שנאמר "לך, אמור להם: שובו לכם, לאוהליכם. ואתה, פה עמוד עימדי"
הא למדת שכל הנביאים, כשהנבואה מסתלקת, חוזרין לאוהלם, שהוא צורכי הגוף
כולן כשאר העם; לפיכך אינן פורשין מנשותיהן. ומשה רבנו, לא חזר לאוהלו
הראשון; לפיכך פירש מן האישה לעולם ומכל הדומה לה, ונקשרה דעתו בצור
העולמים, ולא נסתלק ההוד מעליו לעולם וקרן עור פניו, ונתקדש כמלאכים.

It is this that God promised him saying, “Go tell them [the people] return to your tents whilst you stand here with me”, teaching that all prophets return to their tents, namely their material lives, after prophecy ends, just as the rest of the people do, remaining with their wives. On the other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu never returned to his original tent, [his material life], separating from his wife and all similar matters forever. His mind became entwined with the rock of the worlds, the grace never lifted from him, the skin of his face shone and he became sanctified like the angels.

One of the outstanding features of Moshe was that once he caught sight of God’s back he never let go. It is true that he never was able to “see God’s face” and therefore, should he have taken his eyes off even for a short moment, he could doubt if he reconnected with the same entity. He however never took his eyes off the ball. I believe this explains the apparent contradiction between Rambam in Shemona Perakim and Mishne Torah that I discussed here.

How this affects our own religious life and the implications this has to prayer and Mitzvot will be discussed in upcoming posts.


  1. Thank you. I think your explanation is wonderful.

  2. Could you just spell out how this reconciles the contradiction between MT and SP. Thanks

  3. In SP Rambam is saying that one can never know HKBH in a way that when one encounters Him again one can be sure it is the same entity. That is so because as a person learns more about existence, the ideas about what God is change. The evolution of thought is not uninterrupted and may go on a different track, not necessarily related to the first true one.

    In MT he is saying that when one gets an understanding of God, His "back", and keeps his eyes on Him uninterruptedly,one does not get sidetracked. All other entities that may appear, IOW new insights that are not a development of the original true insight, will not be confused with HKBH.

    I hope this clarifies it for you.

  4. oldest jewish folklore here; begins;

    elohim and diatri