Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Face To Face - Panim El Panim - An Introduction To Negative Knowledge.

In the previous post, I explained that Peh el Peh is a metaphor for a type of prophecy that does not involve the imaginative faculty and therefore can be transmitted verbatim without the prophet’s personal interpretation. I will continue translating Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah chapter 7 where he describes the differences between the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu and that of other prophets.

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

And it says, and God spoke to Moshe face to face.

As an additional prooftext that Moshe’s prophecy did not involve the imaginative, Rambam brings this verse located towards the end of the story of the golden calf (Shemot 33) which describes the dialogue between God and Moshe as being “face to face”. In discussing the term Panim “face”, Rambam in MN1:37 writes –

“It is also a term denoting the presence and station of an individual…. In this sense it is said: And the lord spoke unto Moshe face to face – which means, as a presence to another presence without an intermediary, as is said: Come let us look one another in the face.

Lest we think that “presence” in this case would denote that there was some kind of tangible entity that Moshe experienced as facing him, Rambam continues:

“Thus Scripture says: The lord spoke to you face to face. In another passage, it explains, saying: You heard the voice of words but you saw no figure, only a voice. Hence, this kind of speaking and hearing are described as being face to face.

Clearly the “presence” that was apprehended in this face off between God and the people was just a sense of an entity, the source of the “voice”. In other words, there is a kind of apprehension during a prophetic experience that changes the perception of the prophet. Rambam explains the uniqueness of this apprehension as being –

“Similarly the words, And the Lord spoke to Moshe face to face, describe His speaking as being in the form of an address [to Moshe]. Accordingly, it is said: Then he heard the voice speaking to him. It has accordingly been made clear to you that the hearing of a speech without the intermediary of an angel is described as being face to face.”

When the prophet experiences the prophecy as coming directly from the source without the intermediary of an angel, when it requires no interpretation of the hearer, it is called “face to face”. And again lest we think that the prophet perceives the source as coming from an entity that speaks with a sound, like all human speech, Rambam again forewarns us –

“In this sense it is also said: But my face shall not be seen, meaning that the true reality of My existence as it veritably is cannot be grasped.”

I read here Rambam as telling us that for a prophecy to not require the intermediary of the imaginative faculty, the prophet must understand that the reality of God’s existence cannot be grasped. When one can accept the truth that God exists but that all we say about Him including existence is only a linguistic necessity, that the reality is that we humans cannot grasp His essence, only then can the intellect alone operate when speculating about God. The apprehension that includes attributes and cannot completely divest God from the physical, requires the imaginative to distill the information and transmit it to the intellect for rational analysis and interpretation.

To elaborate a little further and attempt to put this into practical terms, I am suggesting that there are two levels of speculation about God. As human beings, we have to start looking for God through nature. If we accept that God has willed this existence, we see Him in that same existence. We analyze His actions and their result and extrapolate from that what God had in mind in creation. It requires a small step to conclude erroneously that God is in nature as His will is in it from our perspective. Our imaginative faculty which is experience based takes us to that thinking as that is our experience with our physical existence. We see the life force in all living things and we assume that God the ultimate life force of everything as another though necessary component of existence. But our intellectual understanding of God is that He is the only unique non-contingent entity and thus totally removed from the physical. He therefore cannot be that ultimate life force in the sense that we experience these things and the picture we have in our mind as a result of this speculation is only that – a picture.

Knowing God through nature was the level of understanding of the divine until Moshe came. He introduced the idea that we can only know what God is “not”. He is not anything that can be defined by humans. In human terms when we say that something “exists”, we are really saying that it “came” into existence from not existing. In other words, “existence” is a relative term. We therefore cannot use the term “existent” when talking about God who existed always and was never non-existent. We just use it for lack of another word to indicate that singularity - eternal existence. So when we say that God exists from eternity to eternity, we are really saying that he is NOT existent in the sense that we know existence to be. The same would apply to every attribute that we use about Him. Explaining the meaning of God telling Moshe in response to his question of how to explain to the people about God that sent him to take them out of Egypt, Rambam in MN 1:63 writes –

“Accordingly God made known to Moshe the knowledge that he was to convey to them and through which they would acquire a true notion of the existence of God, this knowledge being: I am that I am (Shemot 3:14)…. Accordingly, Scripture makes, as it were, a clear statement that the subject [I am] is identical with the predicate [I am]. This makes it clear that He is existent not through existence. This notion may be summarized and interpreted in the following way: the existent that is the existent, or the necessarily existent. That is what demonstration necessarily leads to: namely, to the view that there is a necessarily existent thing that has never been, or ever will be, nonexistent.”

Coming back to where this post started, Panim el Panim – face to face – connotes a kind of sophisticated apprehension of the divine which perceives a “presence” that in reality is a non-presence in our definition of “presence”. It is that apprehension that results in a prophecy that is described as Peh el Peh where the prophet repeats the prophecy word for word – verbatim – without his own interpretation. In his presentation of Moshe’s prophecy Rambam first brings the text peh el peh which is the end result followed by Panim el Panim which describes the process of apprehension that resulted in this prophecy.

Next post will address the third prooftext in this Halacha - ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט .


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. We analyze His actions and their result and extrapolate from that what God had in mind in creation.

    I find this formulation-- very difficult as an application of Sheliliyut. I do not understand its benefit. Could you explain this?

  3. Why not use the mashal of TSBK, such as "try to understand the design underlying Gods craft?

  4. Who says it is Shelilyut? It is a necessary stepping stone. Wasn't that the second request of Moshe at Nikrat Hatzur? He got positive answers for it as opposed to a negative one for the first. See also MN 1:59 which I discuss in the next post which is just about ready to go public. just want to sleep on it.

  5. Ah, so you are the proper kind of Gersonidean after all.

  6. Thank God you added "proper kind" !

  7. what is the understanding of the rbs"o that previous neviim had according to this - e.g. the avos? and the neviim who followed? the others could not separate god from what they see in nature?? they could only understand this distinction rationally and not experientially(but it can't be experienced if it is what isn't, can it?)?? i dont understand the distinction you make

  8. Until Moshe the belief in HKBH was that He creates and maintains the universe and that we know Him through His actions. See hilchot AZ first chapter how Rambam describes Avraham Avinu's concept - generally as Manhig etc...

    Moshe brought us the idea of thinking about what we cannot grasp. We started to grasp what we cannot grasp. See my next post and come back if still not clear.

  9. Consider My Hand, Behold, The connection that secures, Behold - you have forgotten his name that he revealed to Moses and made for yourself a new language.