Tuesday, August 24, 2010
And The Likeness of God He Beholds - The Limitations of Human Knowledge.
In the previous two posts, I explained, based on my reading of Rambam, the two terms, Peh el Peh – Mouth to Mouth – and Panim el Panim – Face to Face – he uses to explain Moshe Rabbeinu’s unique type of prophecy. Mouth to mouth describes the end result of an advanced level of a certain kind of metaphysical speculation which is referred to metaphorically as face to face. When Moshe attained an advanced level of understanding which I refer to as Negative knowledge, a full appreciation of God’s unknowability, he was able to bypass his imaginative faculty and deliver prophecies verbatim as he received them, without his own personal interpretation. That level of prophecy was unique to him based on his unique apprehension of the divine. Rambam offers a third prooftext for Moshe’s prophecy –
כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה. ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך, שנאמר "פה אל פה אדבר בו" (
ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים
ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט"
כלומר שאין שם משל, אלא רואה הדבר על בורייו בלא חידה בלא משל; הוא שהתורה
מעידה עליו, "ומראה ולא בחידות" (שם), שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה, שרואה
הדבר על בורייו
And it says “and the likeness of God he beholds”, namely that there are no metaphors. He sees the matter as it is without a riddle, without a metaphor. That is what the torah testifies about him, “and vision and not in riddles”. [Meaning] that he did not prophesize in a riddle but in a vision, seeing the matter as it is.
What does the likeness [Temunah] of God he beholds mean?
“As for the term figure [Temunah] it is used equivocally in three different senses. It is used to designate the form of a thing outside the mind that is apprehended by the senses; I mean the shape and configuration of the thing. … It is also used to designate the imaginary form of an individual object existing in the imagination after the object of which it is the form is no longer manifest to the senses. … The term is also used to designate the true notion grasped by the intellect. It is with a view to this third meaning that the word figure is used with reference to God. Thus, it says and the figure [likeness] of God he beholds. The meaning and interpretation of this verse are: he grasps the truth of God.” (MN 1:3)
Clearly, Rambam is forewarning us that in this context Temunah – figure - does not mean a physical entity as in the first meaning, or even a physical representation as in the second but an intellectual abstract concept. When I say abstract concept I am talking about a notion that is totally removed from our experience. Being that Panim el Panim – face to face – describes a kind of apprehension based on negating any connection or comparison with the physical, how is to “grasp the truth of God” different? Rambam in MN 1:5 explains that before allowing himself to engage in metaphysical speculation, a person must prepare himself by learning the “sciences and the different kinds of knowledge”, truly improve his character “having extinguished the desires and cravings engendered in him by his imagination.”
“When doing this [metaphysical speculation] he should not make categorical affirmations in favor of the first opinion that occurs to him and should not from the outset strain and impel his thoughts toward the apprehension of the deity. He should rather feel awe and refrain and hold back until he gradually elevates himself. It is in that sense that it is said, “And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” … And God let overflow upon him so much of His bounty and goodness that it became necessary to say of him: “And the figure of God shall he look upon”. The Sages have stated that this is a reward for his having at first hidden his face so as not to look upon God.”
When one engages in metaphysical speculation trying to “grasp the truth of God”, one must come to it with a cautious attitude and an awareness of one’s limits. As Moshe had his first experience with prophecy at the episode of the Sneh – the Burning Bush – his caution and reticence to jump to conclusions was evident. The Rabbis tell us that it is this trait that predicted that he would eventually reach the advanced level of “beholding the likeness of God”.
What we have here is a contradictory [dialectic] approach. On the one hand, the prophet wants to grasp God’s likeness but at the same time, he knows that he cannot. Should he think he did grasp it, he knows that he is on the wrong path. But it is not enough to accept that it cannot be grasped, the great prophet knows *why* he cannot grasp God’s likeness. The more he understands why he cannot grasp God’s likeness, the closer he is to God and the greater is his appreciation and feeling of awe towards the Great unknown.
“For this reason a man sometimes labors for many years in order to understand a certain science and to gain true knowledge of its premises so that he should have certainty with regard to this science. The only conclusion from this science in its entirety consists in our negating with reference to God some notion of which it has been learnt by means of a demonstration that it cannot possibly be ascribed to God. To someone else who falls short in his knowledge of speculation, this speculation will not be clear; and he will consider it doubtful whether or not this notion exists with reference to God.” (MN1:59)
Rambam explains that the difference between different levels of advancement in metaphysical speculation is dependent on how well one understands *why* God cannot be described in a way that confuses Him and physicality. Sciences no matter how abstract depict our physical world while God is completely removed from it. The awareness of the human limits in speculation, understanding those limits denotes the greatness of the thinker. Moshe Rabbeinu was able to attain the highest level of this apprehension, a level no one else has ever nor will ever achieve, thus his prophetic uniqueness. At the episode of Nikrat Hatzur during the Golden Calf episode, Moshe asked for clarification -
“One request consisted in his asking Him to let him know His essence and true reality…. The answer the two requests that He gave him consisted in His promising him to let him know all His attributes, making it known to him that they are His actions, and teaching him that His essence cannot be grasped as it really is. Yet He drew his attention to a subject of speculation through which he can apprehend to the furthest that is possible for man. For what has been apprehended by Moshe has not been apprehended by anyone before him nor will it be apprehended by anyone after him.” (MN 1:54)
The limit of human knowledge is at the center of Jewish theology as explained by Rambam. That knowledge brings about humility and awe. Moshe who had reached the highest possible level of apprehension knowing that after all he could still not grasp God’s essence but only His “likeness” – Temunah – what He is not – was the humblest of man.
ב וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד
ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו
שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו
As he speculates about these matters [metaphysics] he immediately staggers backwards, [is overcome by] fear and terror, knowing that he is a lowly, small and dark entity, that stands in front of the Perfect Intellect with minimal knowledge as David says ‘when I see your heavens … what is man that You should notice him?” (Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)
The fear and terror is inspired not by contemplating the greatness of creation [Ma’aseh Breishit] but by contemplating the vast chasm between what we know and what we cannot know [Ma’aseh Merkavah] – the lowly creature in front of the Perfect Intellect which he cannot even grasp. (The prooftext here is fascinating and I will address it separately at another opportunity).
Moshe came to metaphysical speculation with an attitude of caution and humility accepting his own human limitations. He was therefore able to understand that the “likeness of God” true reality is incomprehensible. That understanding led him to an apprehension of Panim el Panim, where he understood clearly not only that we humans cannot apprehend God but also why that is impossible. That understanding led him to the ability to transmit prophecies as received – verbatim – without the interpretation necessary when the prophecy passes through the imaginative faculty.
From a practical sense, this whole discussion about Moshe seems to be academic. We are so far removed from Moshe’s state that we cannot fathom his greatness never mind understand it. Not only are we removed but so too are all prophets besides Moshe; none ever got close to his level of prophecy. So why does Rambam expend so much on this topic. This brings us back to the issue of Ta’amei Hamitzvot which we were talking about a few posts back. The Torah is the fruit of that superior prophecy of Moshe, it came verbatim from God as we know it, and will forever remain, as it is, unchanged. That is so because there can never be another Moshe who could reach the levels of prophecy that allow for verbatim transmission. How can the word of God as transmitted be changed by divine messages that require human interpretation?