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When Speaking of the Ineffable

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When Speaking of the Ineffable

Like Philo of Alexandria over a millennium before him, Maimonides boldly asserts that the negative attributes of God represent the true attributes.[1] Thus, when we say that “God exists,” that means to say that He is not nonexistent; when we say that “God is wise,” that is another way of saying that God is not foolish. When we describe “God is knowing’” that is another way of saying that God is not ignorant, hearing and seeing excludes ignorance, and so on; in no way is God ever circumscribed by the qualities that mortals project unto Him. This approach is sometimes called the via negativa (“the way of negation”). Maimonides regards all Biblical predicates about the personality of God as homonyms, i.e., when speaking about God, all anthropomorphic descriptions connote an entirely different reality than is commonly assumed.

Maimonides writes that we cannot know anything about God per se; God’s essential character is completely incomprehensible to mortal minds. Human beings at best can only describe what God does in the world but will never be able to discern what God is.[2] In all likelihood, Maimonides would have agreed with Otto’s language that God is “wholly other,” in that the Holy utterly transcends the bounds of human reason. Maimonides concurs, for him, God cannot be categorized by human thought per se. The way we represent God to ourselves cannot adequately describe the nature of the Divine reality. Maimonides’s”negative theology” emphasizes the discontinuity between God and the world, Though God’s Presence (Shekhina) is intimately and organically related to the cosmos, God is also sovereign over the world. “If the Heavens cannot contain You” (1 Kings 8:27), how much less can philosophical categories hope to represent the nature of the Divine continuum! According to negative theology, every idea—however lofty and spiritual—nevertheless remains a mental picture and thus limiting. Without it, God becomes a creature of the human imagination. Maimonides warns his readers about the dangers of defining God in any image or metaphor.[3] All positive affirmations of God when pushed to the limit must always bow in silence before God’s mysterious nature and being. Maimonides recalls a Talmudic story about how once the rabbis heard a man praying:

“God that is great, powerful, awesome, strong, forceful, feared, courageous, reliable, and revered.” After he had finished, the rabbi told him a parable. Suppose a king owned a thousand myriads of gold coins, and someone were to praise him for owning some silver coins, would it not be perceived as an insult?[4]

Maimonides argues that it is inappropriate to employ even all the attributes ascribed to God in the Bible, we may use them in the context we come to them, but it is unbecoming and even sinful to speak of God possessing human‑like characteristics. Human language always falls short whenever speaking of God. Words become devalued and cannot hope to contain the profundity of God’s mysterious Being and Presence. Human language falters and proves impotent. If words have difficulty describing the beauty of a classic work of art like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, how much more so will words be clumsy and ineffectual in describing the reality of God. In one of Maimonides’s most mystical remarks, the great philosopher encourages his students to meditate with silence.

The most apt phrase concerning the subject is the dictum occurring in the Psalms, “Silence is praise to Thee” (Ps. 65:2), which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. This is a most perfectly put phrase regarding this matter. For of whatever we say intending to magnify and exalt, on the one hand we find that it can have some application to Him, may He be exalted, and on the other we perceive in it some deficiency. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate.[5]

Thus, Maimonides’s negative theology concludes with the mystical[6] ends with his via negativa is mysticism. Maimonides might well agree with the words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: “One who speaks, knows not, one who knows speaks not”[7] and Maimonides’s thinking certainly has parallels in other Eastern theological works.[8] The word “mystical” comes from the Greek word muein (to close the lips). Related to the word “mystery,” the mystical represents the secret teachings that are only for the initiated—clearly not for everybody. Thus, God’s own transcendence must always be something that is shrouded in Mysterium. Some scholars speculate and suggest the Greek word mysterion actually comes from the Hebrew word masteer ‑ hidden. The term “mystery” when used in this context, does not necessarily refer to an enigma, or a gap in our knowledge. Rather it refers to something that is inherently unknowable and inexplicable. No amount of knowledge can ever diminish or eliminate this sense of mystery. On the contrary, the more one is confronted by this experience of Mysterium, the more dazzled on is by its beauty and wonderment. Mystery, in the mystical sense of the term, is the source of all awe and lies at the root of true worship and devotion. It evokes questions that point us towards ultimate issues and demands from that we us search for ultimate answers. Maimonides himself speaks of this in the beginning of his Halachic magnum opus, where he wrote:

What is the path to attaining love and awe of Him? Whenever you contemplate His great, wondrous deeds and creations, and see through them His boundless, infinite wisdom, you cannot help but love, exult, and be filled with ecstasy—your passion leads you to want to know God’s great Name. That is what King David meant when he said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalms 42:2).

Whenever you think about these things, you will immediately become awed-inspired and abashed. You will realize that you are but an infinitesimal creature, lowly and unenlightened, standing with a puny intellect before the Most Perfect Mind. David thus said, When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers … I ask: What is man that You consider him?” (Psalms 8:4‑5).[9]

Maimonides teaches us that the true praise of God must come through the silence of a contemplative experience. Theological attempts to define God, risks creating a Procrustean type of theology where the pathways linking mind and heart are severed.[10] Cognitive faith (faith that is defined by solely intellectual criteria) inevitably leads to skepticism and spiritual coldness or worst—estrangement. Mystical experience cannot be properly defined because it is an experience of the Ineffable. Attempts to define the Sacred in purely cognitive terms diminish God of His own Mystery. There are no words can ever portray the wonder of the Divine reality. No theological discourse, however elevated and inspired by love’s passion[11] , can ever do justice in depicting God’s indescribable Being and Presence.[12]

Maimonides’s negative theology can be expanded in a variety of different ways. When we say that “God is personal,” we must be careful not to mean in the way human beings are personal for God is more personal than we are to ourselves. God’s own personhood is transpersonal—infinitely beyond what we understand as personal. God is just and moral, but He is not just in the arbitrary way we define justice and morality. In biblical terms, according to Maimonides, is the entire point of God’s response to Job. When we say that “God loves,” we must say that it is in a manner that is different and transcends all of our categories of what we perceive love to be. In short, the Holy Blessed One’s immanence remains just as incomprehensible as is His transcendence. The ancient rabbis intuited one of the most important truths concerning God’s character: “In the place that you find God’s greatness, there you will find His humility.”[13] God’s greatness is revealed in His relatedness to creation. This would explain why the shepherd metaphor conveys such an important theological message about caring and about love.

Why does it state “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”? R. Yossi ben Hanina said, “You will find no craft more despised than that of the shepherd, yet David calls God “My shepherd.” The meaning of this is “I have gained understanding from my elders” [Psa 119:100], for Jacob also identified God as “shepherd.” [Gen. 48:15].[14]

Though God transcends the world, He infuses it with soul and existence. He is paradoxically close yet infinitely distant. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is not perceivable even when His Presence is encountered yet He is present even when His absence is most felt. He is inherent in the world and yet not contained in it; He embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. His knowledge of us surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.


[1] The tradition of negative theology (or as it is oftentimes called apophatic theology) dates back to Xenophanes, Plato, Philo of Alexandria, Plotinus, Proclus, Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, as well as the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Among some of the medieval Judaic scholars, Saadia Gaon, Bahya Ibn Pakudda, the Zohar, and numerous mystics of the Kabbalah also championed this theological approach.

[2] Maimonides’s concept was not new. One of the great Palestinian teachers of the mid-third century C.E., R. Abba Bar Memel taught:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: “Do you wish to know My Name? I am known by my deeds . . . When I judge humankind I am called Elohim, and when I make war against the wicked I am called Tse’va’ot; when I suspend a person’s sins, I am called El Shaddai. When I show compassion onto the world, I am called “YHWH,” for the Tetragrammaton signifies the quality of mercy, as it is said: ‘O YHWH, YHWH, the LORD is merciful and gracious . . .’ This would explain is why God tells Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ I am named according to My deeds” (Exodus Rabbah 3:6).

[3] Maimonides’s negative theology finds a kindred spirit in the 20th century Protestant thinker Paul Tillich, who argues for the radical depersonalization of God. Tillich took issue with the common notion that God is “personal” opposes to the belief that God is personal. In his words: The concept of a “personal God” interfering with natural events, or being “an independent cause of natural events,” makes God a natural object beside others, an object among others, a being among beings, maybe the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God” Paul Tillich, Theology and Culture (N.Y. and Oxford, 1964), p. 129.

[4] Maimonides, Guide I Chapter 59, cited from S. Pine’s translation. The Shabbat Liturgy would certainly seem to substantiate Maimonides’s criticism of human language when describing God:

Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds – we still could not thank You sufficiently Hashem, our God, and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors that You performed for our ancestors and for us (Artscroll Siddur).

[5] The Guide (S. Pines’ translation, op. cit.) Chapter 59.

[6] For a fascinating article on Maimonides relationship to the Kabbalah, see Moshe Idel’s “Maimonides and Kabblah” found in Studies in Maimonides edited by Isadore Twersky (Cambridge MA., Harvard University, 1990), pp. 31‑81.

[7] The Tao Te Ching, translated by Ellen M. Chen (Paragon House, N.Y., 1989) p. 188 Hexagram # 56.

[8] It is intriguing to compare Maimonides to the Advaita Vedanta mystic and philosopher Shankara (7‑8th century C.E.). Shankara taught that Brahman (The Hindu name for God) cannot be described by word or idea, “It [Brahman] is the One as the Scripture says: ‘Before Whom words recoil.’” A comparison of Maimonides with Shankara goes far beyond the scope of this study. However, it is significant to note that both philosophers utilize common language. For example: Shankara characterizes Brahman as without form, unknowable by philosophical reflection, as free from all relationships with the illusionary world we live in. Like Maimonides, Shankara also advocates the via negativa when describing Brahman. Like Maimonides, Shankara describes Brahman as the Knower, the Known, and the act of Knowing. For an excellent summary of Shankara’s monistic teachings see Rudolf Otto’ classic study Mysticism East and West ‑‑ A Comparative Analysis of The Nature of Mysticism. (Originally printed by Macmillan Company , N.Y. 1932 reprinted by Quest 1987.)

[9] Maimonides, MT, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.

[10] In Greek mythology, Procrustes was the evil innkeeper of Greek mythology who forced his guests, big and small to fit the bed they slept in—either through torture or by mutilation. Tall folks were cut short to size, while short people were stretched to fit. As a theological metaphor, procrustean theology attempts to mutilate and stretch truth by forcing data to fit preconceived notions.

[11] As one early 19th century Kabbalist explains, “Rational worship can only sensitize us to God’s radiance in the higher spiritual realms. True closeness to God occurs once we transcend the limitations of our reason through the commitment of the physical mitzvoth. For it is for that reason the soul descends into this earthly realm. Sheneir Zalman of Liadi, (1745‑1813) Torah Or, Parshat Noach (Kehot Publishers, Brooklyn, N.Y, 1985)

[12] Another one of Maimonides’s great mystical insights, the master speaks about the mystery of God’s consciousness of the world:

The Holy One blessed be He, recognizes His truth and knows it as it is. He does not know with a knowledge that is external to Him in the way that we know, for we are not one. The Creator . . . is Unity Incarnate — one from every side and every angle, in every way of unity … You could even say that He is the Knower, the Known, and the process of Knowing. All exists within the Divine Oneness. We are utterly incapable of verbally describing what the nature of this reality is. Our ears cannot begin to understand, nor is it within the heart of humanity grasp this matter properly” (Maimonides, MT Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:10).

[13] T.B. Megillah 31a.

[14] Midrash Tehillim ed. Buber , p. 198.