rambam 13.4 + illustrator

I begin with an excerpt from a piece by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond.

“…While the rabbinic consensus is that there are ten mitzvot to be found in the Ten Commandments, there is not universal agreement as to what those are. The first verse, ‘I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage’ (Exod. 20:2), is particularly contested. Maimonides counts this as one of the commandments while others do not. This verse, is in fact, not formulated in the imperative, and a number of rabbinic midrashim support the view that this verse is a preface to the Commandments rather than the first of them. What, then, motivates Maimonides to take his position?
Let me quote to you part of Maimonides’ description of this in the opening sentence of his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah: ‘The basic principle of all basic principles and the foundation of all wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all that exists.’

For Maimonides, the opening verse of the Ten Commandments is an axiom. We are obligated to ‘know’ that God exists through philosophical demonstration, and at the very least must accept this as truth.

What sort of God is described here? A rather distant one. The phrase ‘primary being’ is taken from the world of Greek philosophy, and it describes an impersonal animating force, not the biblical God who is engaged with humanity. This is not the God Who appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush, Who freed the Israelites from slavery, and Who entered into a Covenant with them at Sinai. All of this is implicit in the second half of the verse, which Maimonides, at least here, chooses to ignore.

Nahmanides, on the other hand, commenting on Maimonides’ remarks, describes this commandment as meaning the acceptance of God as sovereign. For him, the second half of the verse is crucial; this God is the one who redeemed us, the People of Israel, from slavery. In fact, continues Nahmanides, the first verse may not be a mitzvah at all. Rather, it is a summation of what the People had experienced in Egypt and at the Red Sea. No commandment to believe in God’s existence was necessary; they had already seen God’s presence. By implication, it is through experiencing the presence of God, albeit in ways radically different from the miracles in Egypt, that one knows — experientially, not intellectually — that He indeed exists.

We see, then, that Nahmanides and Maimonides are not merely responding to the question of how to enumerate the commandments. For them, the underlying question is this: when we speak of God, of which God do we speak — a distant unknowable power or one whose presence in our lives and in our being is palpable? Is God simply the Primary Being or [is God] a sovereign?

I suspect that most of those who believe in God these days are inclined to think of God as a power rather than as a presence. There are a host of difficulties with the claim or belief that we can have a meaningful connection with God as a living reality. But this is the God of the Bible, and this is God for me. Whatever we believe, we need to understand that this question is important as an existential matter, and not only an intellectual one. To paraphrase Heschel, don’t simply believe that God exists, believe in God; find the ways in which your belief can shape the person you are and the life you lead.” [1]

I think that this is a good discussion, although I disagree with parts of it.

FIrst, Rabbi Diamond, referring to Maimonides, says that we must “know” that God exists. The Rambam does, in fact, refer to this knowing as the foundation of wisdom. However, he is referring to “knowing” that all exists only because God exists: the existence of God is the basis of all else.

Elsewhere, too, in “The Guide for the Perplexed,” III:51, the Rambam makes clear that “know” also implies a level of personal experience deep enough to be compared with that of the prophets’ experience of God.

Interesting in the same regard is Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s comment on the meaning of the Rambam’s “leida/know,” which the Rov understands as our seeing God as present in creation at every moment. As a kind of “proof-text,” the Rov cited Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev’s “A Dudele,” [2] which proclaims that God is East, West, North, South; everywhere and in every thing and event:

“If one wishes to know what the significance of lei’da [is] …, then study the words of the folk song – “A Dudele” – which is attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. “R’boyne shel Oyl’m/L-rd of the Universe” sang Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, “Let me sing a song of ‘du’.” “Du – are east.” “Du – are west.” “Du – are north.” “Du – are south.” The sun rises – and one sees the Almighty in the illumination of sunrise. The sun sets in an afterglow of haze – and there too one discerns His Presence…It is a feeling – and it must be [personally, directly] experienced.” [3]

And elsewhere:

“Maimonides’ term ‘leida’ [‘to know’] (Yesodei ha-Torah 1:1) transcends the bounds of the abstract logos and passes over into the realm of the boundless intimate and impassioned experience where postulate and deduction, discursive knowledge and intuitive thinking, conception and perception, subject and object, are one… (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 32, note)

In these words (it is not my intention to analyze Rav Soloveitchik’s thought in general, but only this passage), Rav Soloveitchik challenges the various logical proofs that have been proposed for the existence of God…Rav Soloveitchik does not do this because of their logical-scientific weakness. He does not at all address the logical credibility of these rational proofs. The weakness of logical proofs, as understood by Rav Soloveitchik, lies in the fact that they are cut off from the [spiritual] experience of life.” [4]

Second, Rabbi Diamond characterizes the Rambam’s concept of God as that of an “impersonal force” and the Ramban’s as that of a personal “sovereign.” He takes these as exclusive and in opposition to each other. Rather, I think that they are different aspects of the experience of God which, in the course of spiritual growth, must both be absorbed. The best example of this is “Adon Olam” — which begins with contemplation of God’s “impersonal” aspects (God is eternal and beyond creation), but culminates in a personal relationship (“In His Hands I put my soul”). The distinction between “personal” and “impersonal” is true only for human experience of God. No such distinction or duality could actually exist in God. God is “Power” and “Presence.”

Third, for Rabbi Diamond, the seemingly “impersonal God’ of Maimonides is a “distant God.” For those who use texts like the Rambam’s as sources of contemplation, they are led not to a sense of God’s distance, but to that of the inseparability of God from creation: We are not and can never be separate from God because all existence is based on God’s.

Perhaps that’s what inspired me around 2003 to do the illustration that introduces this post. It’s a setting of the Rambam’s words about “Primary Being” that affirm without question: Nothing exists separate from God.

I’d also mention in passing that Kabbalah, more than any branch of Jewish thought, resolves this apparent dichotomy between “impersonal” (the upper 5 sephirot) and “personal” (the sephirot beginning with “Tiferet,” which harmonizes all that precedes it.) From one viewpoint, “Tiferet” is heirarchically lower, because is it must be preceded by Keter/Chochmah, Binah, Hesed and Gevurah. From another viewpoint, however, it is grander, because it includes all that precedes it!

I agree, though, that our experience of God must be a personal one and one in which we recognize that God is in charge of all things for our good. As I quoted Rabbi S.R. Hirsch in a recent post — God is my God. [5]


[1] from Diamond, Rabbi Eliezer; How We Believe in God

Rabbi Diamond is Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at Jewish Theological Seminary

[2] https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/a-dudele-by-rabbi-levi-yitzhak-of-berditchev/

[3] Peli, Pinchas, ed.; Soloveitchik On Repentance; Paulist Press, © 1984 by Pinchas Peli; p. 134


[5] https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/1-31-15-knowing-god/