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January 5, 2018 11:08 am

Human Wisdom vs. Divine Wisdom

avatar by Pini Dunner

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org

This coming Monday, I will be delivering a lecture on Moses Maimonides —  surely one of the most fascinating Jewish personalities of the past 1,000 years. The remarkable output of this polymath almost defies explanation. There seems to be no subject that he did not master, albeit limited by the scientific and historic knowledge of his day.

But even more impressive than his breadth and depth, was his ability to assimilate it all — so that every aspect of what he knew existed in the kind of harmony that can only be the result of an elevated ability to cross-reference information across disciplines and subject matter. So much so, that any inconsistencies in Maimonides’ literary output are often at the center of discussions and deliberations in traditional Jewish studies, with the automatic assumption that any seeming contradiction is only there to reveal a deeper meaning or some important principle. No one ever suggests that Maimonides made a mistake.

One of Maimonides’ most important works was his Dalālat al-Ḥā’irīn — better known to us as Moreh Nevukhim, or Guide for the Perplexed. Written in Judeo-Arabic in the year 1190 — as a three-part letter to one of his students — it was translated into Hebrew in 1204, and has since become recognized as one of the most important works of Jewish philosophy ever written.

The main purpose of Moreh Nevukhim was for Maimonides to offer rational explanations for aspects of the Hebrew scriptures and subsequent literature, that grated against the thinking of his day. In Maimonides’ view, any kind of anthropomorphism — associating God with a physical form, or a human emotion or characteristic — was tantamount to heresy.

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Although Maimonides borrowed heavily from Aristotelian philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim really fits into the genre of “apologetics” — defending traditional Judaism against rationalist objections. In the end, said Maimonides, God can never be defined by what He is, only by what He is not. Among other things, God is not corporeal, He does not occupy any physical space, and He is not subject to generation or decay.

Mai­monides’ understanding of God is consequently usually referred to as “negative theology,” also known as “classical theism.” But this idea that any positive definition of God’s attributes marks the beginning of a slippery slope into heresy was firmly rejected by his literary nemesis, R. Abraham ben David of Posquières (Rabad), who thundered against Maimonides in a published riposte: “Why should anyone who understands God anthropomorphically be called a heretic? How many people better and greater than [Maimonides] have held such opinions?”

Rabad’s dismissal of Maimonides extreme form of theism is usually understood to be a defense of Talmudic and Geonic sages, who appeared to accept some form of divine corporeality. Even among Rabad’s contemporaries, there were those who were quite comfortable with anthropomorphism. One example was the controversial Bohemian Tosafist, R. Moses ben Chasdai Taku, who suggested in his writings that God intermittently adopted a defined form and moved around, if a given situation demanded it. Meanwhile, Rabbi Isaiah of Trani, a highly regarded Italian Talmudist, personally rejected any view that embraced anthropomorphism, but like Rabad, did not consider those who held these views to be heretics.

R. Moshe Sofer, the revered leader of Austro-Hungarian Jewry in the early 19th century, offers a different and somewhat counterintuitive view of Rabad’s rebuttal of Maimonides, based on an exchange between Moses and God at the Burning Bush.

In his view, any conception of God, even if it is entirely abstract and philosophical, is nonetheless limiting, and therefore no improvement on anthropomorphism. Rabad’s comment that “better and greater people than Maimonides have held such opinions” was not a reference to those who were comfortable with anthropomorphism, says R. Sofer, but rather to philosophers and thinkers who had come up with ideas about God that were limited to the parameters of human intellect. Any limited concept of God is no less of a theological problem than thinking that God has a physical body.

At the Burning Bush, Moses asked God to tell him what to say when the Israelites in Egypt asked him what God’s name was. Surrounded by pagan deities, and drowning in a polytheistic culture that worshipped physical forms, the Israelites would inevitably want to know who and what God was. God answers in two distinct sentences. At first He says (Ex. 3:14): “I shall be what I shall be.” Confusingly, God then instructs Moses to inform the Israelites that he had been sent by the God of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So which was it — “I shall be,” or the God of the patriarchs?

R. Sofer’s suggestion is that the first instruction implies that the concept of who or what God is will be different for every person — “I shall be what I shall be.” But even with the greatest level of understanding of God, and at whatever level, no person will ever surpass the understanding of God experienced by the patriarchs, whose profound relationship with God was at the highest possible level. And yet God said (Ex. 6:3): “and my name, God, was not known to them.” Those who trail in their shadow need only to be satisfied to know that God exists, and that they are worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Any other theological concept of God, whether it involves primitive anthropomorphism or complex philosophy, is always a self-imposed limitation that results from the weakness of the human mind.

At his trial for heresy in 399 B.C., Socrates was asked how it was possible that he, who claimed to be the wisest person in Athens, was ignorant of the knowledge he sought. Socrates answered that he was the wisest because he alone recognized that human wisdom is of little or no value when compared to divine wisdom. Although I doubt R. Sofer based his novel approach on this quote, he seems to be saying exactly the same thing.

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