Knowledge Problems

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Talmudical Unknowability

It would be a major oversight not to include the opinions of Chazal on the unknowability of God, but it appears to me that the Talmud contains very little of any substance on this topic, perhaps because of the "theological functionalism" to which Chazal largely adhered (lachs_93). I will cite two passages which I found mentioned in (montefiore_loewe_74): In the Midrash on Psalms (braude_59), we have

...when Moses said to the Holy One, blessed be He, Show me now Thy ways (Ex. 33:13), He showed them to Moses, as is said He made known His ways unto Moses (Ps. 103:7). But when Moses said: Show me, I pray Thee, Thy Glory (Ex. 33:18), that is to say, "Show me the rule whereby Thou guidest the world," God replied: "My rules thou canst not fathom!"

A perhaps even less informative passage is found in the Sifre on Deuteronomy (hammer_86):

Who rideth upon the heavens as thy help — when Israel is upright and performs the will of God, He rideth upon the heavens as thy help, but when they do not perform His will — and in His excellency on the skies (33:26) — if one dare say such a thing. And in His excellency on the skies: All of the people of Israel gathered around Moses and said to him, "Our master Moses, tell us, what is the glory (of God) really like on high?" He replied, "You can surmise what the glory (of God) is like on high from the appearance of the lower heavens." A parable: To what may this be likened? To a man who said, "I wish to behold the glory of the king." He was told, "Go to the capital city and you will see him." He went there and saw a curtain set with precious stones and pearls and spread out at the entrance of the city. He could not take his eyes off of it, until he collapsed in a swoon. They then said to him, "If you could not take your eyes off of a curtain set with precious stones and pearls and spread out at the entrance of the city, until you collapsed in a swoon, how much more so had you entered the city (and beheld the glory of the king)." Hence it is said, And in His excellency on the skies.

In both passages, the assertion is that God is somehow unapproachable. The distinction, I think, is that previously mentioned (last post) regarding the interpretation Exodus 33. In the Sifre above, the remoteness of God is characterized in terms of his radiance overloading the senses — the notion that God is somehow too intense for human perception, whereas in the Midrash on Psalms the unapproachability of God appears to be due to a genuine failure of comprehension. It is not that the attempt to understand God would cause us to be struck blind or "collapse in a swoon," but rather that the human mind cannot fathom the kind of Entity that is God — that the human mind is in some way incompatible with the kind of knowledge that characterizes this particular Entity. However, the exact nature of this incompatibility is not further discussed, as far as I can tell, and is probably not of any great interest to the author of the Midrash.

While there well may be other Talmudical passages which remark on God's remoteness and inaccessibility (and which I hope someone will bring to my attention!), it seems fair to say that the real history of the unknowable God begins when Judaism encounters Greek philosophy. This will be our next topic.


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