Shiur #08: Names and the Problem of Religious Language: "Guide of the Perplexed" vs. "An'im Zemirot"

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        God's Names – The Problem


In our introduction to the Guide, we noted that the Rambam defines the aims of his work as being focused on the linguistic realm. The Rambam was deeply preoccupied with the question of religious language and the degree to which it could be squared with philosophical wisdom. The issue of religious language is a central focus of Book I of the Guide. So far we have looked at one particular issue that the Rambam addresses: the negation of God's corporeality. In this shiur we will look at a related issue to which the Rambam likewise devotes lengthy chapters in Book I: the matter of God's names and attributes. It was this area of study that brought the Rambam fame among medieval thinkers. He was not the originator of "torat ha-te'arim" – the principle which rejects the possibility of asserting any positive attributes as belonging to or describing God - but he developed and built on views which had been proposed by prior authorities, and consolidated a systematic and impressive system of interpretation.


The negation of God's corporeality focuses on a specific philosophical problem. The Rambam's philosophy of divine attributes covers a far broader problem: the limitations of legitimate religious language in describing God. When the Rambam discusses the negation of corporeality, he uses the terminology of Aristotelian philosophy. The discussion of God's names uses concepts from a different philosophical realm – that of Neoplatonism. Modern scholars of the Rambam, approaching the Guide from the world of academia, have devoted much attention to the combination (or conflict) of these sources of inspiration. We shall attempt to focus on the Rambam's own thoughts, without digressing to the question of his philosophical sources.


What may in fact be said about God? In chapter fifty-two of Book I of the Guide, the Rambam describes the problems entailed in attributing qualities to God. He presents four categories of qualities which are illegitimate:


1.           Definition – According to certain schools of philosophy, definition is itself categorization. For instance, when defining man, we say that he is a "thinking creature." This definition asserts that a person belongs to the category of "creatures," and within this category he belongs to the sub-category of intelligent creatures (or "speakers," in the Rambam's terminology). Clearly, then, it is impossible to define God in this way, since He is One and unique, and belongs to no category.


2.           Part of a Definition – as, for instance, describing man as a "speaker." God cannot be described in this manner, since this type of description would denote a compound nature of His essence. When we say of man that he is a "speaker" (or a "speaking creature"), we mean that he speaks, along with other qualities that he possesses. We cannot speak of God in this way, since His essence is simple unity.


3.            Qualitative Descriptions – i.e., some attribute of an object which is not part of its essence (modest, wise, ill, angry, long, etc.). These descriptions are not applicable to God because, once again, they indicate a compound reality – i.e., the possibility of discerning different qualities within the object in question. In the Rambam's view, God is not only One and not only unique, but also uniform, meaning that there can be no internal distinctions made in relation to Him. Hence, there can be no qualitative descriptions of God.


The Rambam writes: "If God had some title within this category, He would be subject, as it were, to variance." The very fact that some object has descriptive qualities means that things happen to, or affect, or influence it. But things do not "happen to" God; He is wholly His pure essence. And this essence is simple unity which cannot be analyzed or described. Later on in the Guide, the Rambam discusses in greater detail his proof that God must be a simple essence.


4.           Relative Titles – a relative title describes the relationship between a certain object and other objects. For example, “Napoleon was born in the 18th century,” “he was the uncle of Louis Napoleon,” etc. These descriptions do not pretend to define Napoleon, nor to characterize him. They simply state the relationship between him and the world around him. The Rambam shows a certain degree of tolerance for attributing these sorts of qualities to God. Ultimately, though, he rejects even relative descriptions because God so completely transcends anything that exists in the world, that no real relationship between them can be established.


B.        Divine Names or Attributes – What Can be Said?


Two main motivations can be identified in the Rambam's formulation of his theory of God's attributes: first, a rejection of the notion of God being multi-faceted, and second, an emphasis on the difference and otherness of God in relation to the world. The titles commonly attributed to God present Him as a complex entity within which internal distinctions or discernments may be made; they distinguish, as it were, different "layers" or entities within God – wisdom, mercy, kindness, etc. Furthermore, when we describe God in terms taken from our human experience, terms which connect God with our conceptual world, then we limit His infinite essence.


Nevertheless, we know that religious language adopts descriptions for God. Tanakh is full of such descriptions, and this is one of the perplexities that trouble an educated religious person. The religious language of the Tanakh appears far removed from the purity and precision demanded by the philosophers. This leads the Rambam to ask: which descriptions of God are possible?


His answer is: descriptions of actions. One may say that God directs the world, and it is also possible to say in what way the world is directed by Him. Descriptions of actions do not describe God Himself, but rather what He does. In the previous shiur we learned that such descriptions also have moral value, since they instruct us about God's ways in directing the world, serving as our model for behavior. One cannot say that God is essentially merciful, but one can say that He performs merciful acts (and this is what the text means when it calls God "merciful"). From a study of the ways of nature we can arrive at the moral nature of God's acts.


When Tanakh describes God, we must understand its intention as conveying descriptions of actions, or as descriptions that are meant to elevate God in the eyes of the masses, even though they are not accurate (as we saw in previous shiurim, concerning some of the descriptions that imply corporeality). We shall go on to examine another way of understanding such descriptions.


C.        Why is the Theory of God's Attributes Important?


The Rambam provides seemingly philosophical and legal justifications for his theory of God's attributes, far removed from our basic religious intuitions. Some scholars have detected in the Rambam's theory of attributes a purely religious intuition – a transcendental consciousness of distance between heaven and earth. The purification of religious speech is a task of spiritual significance, since describing God in mundane language belittles Him. What language is considered mundane in relation to God?


Our Shabbat prayers feature "Shir ha-Kavod" (An'im Zemirot), which is devoted entirely to this question of depicting God. The conclusion drawn by the author of the liturgical poem is very different from the conclusion drawn by the Rambam, but he raises similar deliberations and considerations: “I shall tell of Your glory– but I have not seen you; I allegorize You, I describe You – but I do not know You." How is it possible to speak of God's glory without having seen Him? How can He be described or named if we know nothing of His essence, which is unknowable?


One of the author's answers is: "They portray You in accordance with Your deeds;" we do not describe God Himself, but rather His actions. This is the same answer that the Rambam ultimately presents. In Shir ha-Kavod we see that the question of how to speak of God is the personal and cosmic challenge of the believer.


However, the Rambam's inquiry may be too theoretical, too far removed from the believer's real world of feelings. The author of Shir ha-Kavod starts off with a declaration of emotion: "I shall compose pleasant praises and weave songs, for my soul pines for You." A person uses names and descriptions for God (and not always in accordance with the Rambam's philosophical prescription), prompted simply by the fact that He longs for God. Turning to God expresses the longing of one's soul: "As I speak of Your glory, my heart yearns for Your love… Therefore I shall speak of Your glories, and glorify Your name with loving song…." In a similar vein, the song concludes, "May my prayer be sweet to You, for my heart pines for You."


It seems that the Rambam was sensitive to this sentiment and therefore introduces his discussion of the subject with the reason why his rigid theory is vital to the world of faith:


When reading my present treatise, bear in mind that by “faith” we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul, the conviction that the object [of belief] is exactly as it is apprehended…


For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. (Guide, I:50)


Here the Rambam defines "faith," and his definition has two components: the soul possesses a certain apprehension, and the person believes that this apprehension represents something that exists in reality. For a believer to make the statement that he believes in God is not sufficient. For instance, if a person in modern times were to declare that he believes in the existence of atoms, but actually has no idea what these particles are, then – in the Rambam's view – he does not truly believe; he is simply saying words. In order to believe, there must be some clear picture in the soul of what one is talking about, along with the psychological conviction that this picture reflects the external reality.


The Rambam continues:


If, as regards real or supposed truths, you content yourself with giving utterance to them in words, without apprehending them or believing in them, especially if you do not seek real truth, you have a very easy task as, in fact, you will find many ignorant people professing articles of faith without connecting any idea with them.


If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts.


Here the Rambam addresses the problem of people's general laziness, or apathy, with regard to the understanding of God's essence, and emphasizes the gravity of invoking attributes by comparing this to the belief in God's corporeality. In order to create this comparison, he emphasizes his basic view of faith – i.e., that faith is not the verbal declaration of principles, but rather a well-founded worldview. In his view, describing God with essential attributes turns God into a compound being, which denies His oneness. A person who speaks of God in this way may cry out with great fervor, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" – but in truth he does not believe in God's unity. He declares his belief in God's oneness, but in practice he believes in views which lead to the idea of plurality. One cannot say of such a person that he is a believer in One God.


Further on in the Guide, the Rambam expresses this even more sharply:


I do not merely declare that he who affirms attributes of God has not sufficient knowledge concerning the Creator, admits some association with God, or conceives Him to be different from what He is: but I say that he unknowingly loses his belief in God. (Guide, I:60)


This is an even more extreme formulation: someone who invokes attributes in talking about God does not actually believe in Him. It is as if he says that he believes in God, but thinks that God lives inside a holy rabbit in the zoo. God, curled up inside a rabbit, is not God. Hence, this person is not a believer but rather a heretic. According to the Rambam, this is how anyone who speaks of attributes of God should be judged.


D.        Criticism of the Theory of Divine Attributes


The Rambam's theory concerning divine attributes is generally perceived today as one of the less relevant parts of the Guide of the Perplexed, and Jewish thinkers of later periods have shied away from the Rambam's rigidity in this regard. As an example, we may cite Rabbi Nachman:


Attributes and praises, which are the power of allegory (comparison) – for all the attributes and praises which we attribute to God are through the imagination, for in the inner dimension of intellect, God is completely abstract of all praises and attributes, such that all praises and attributes represent allegory … and this is the concept of "festival" (chag)… and through this we come to build up faith… (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 8).[1]


Rabbi Nachman turns the situation upside down: intellectual contemplation does indeed lead to the conclusion that we cannot speak of God's attributes; therefore, it is necessary to transcend the intellect in order to be able to describe Him. The power of allegory, allowing us to speak of God's attributes, actually transcends the power of the intellect, which rejects them.


Rav Kook presents a more complex view:


In order to spread the joy of the knowledge of God in the world, to make this lofty acquisition the property of the masses, we have to turn this around: to come to know God specifically through positive depictions… And all attributes which are limited, or attributes of deficiency in and of themselves – their deficiency arises from their individual manifestation, their isolation; but in the divine perfection in which everything is contained together, everything is elevated. This being so, what we need to reject is only the limitation and individuality of the attribute… but the attribute in terms of its actual positive essence, rises up, to enrich our knowledge of God. (Shemona Kevatzim, 1, 363)


According to Rav Kook, there is room to speak of divine attributes – but only if we do so with an awareness of their partial, limited, and therefore problematic nature. According to the Rambam, one arrives as the oneness of God by eliminating all attributes. According to Rav Kook, one arrives at the oneness of God through a combination of all attributes. Until we are capable of achieving that level, we must recognize that any attribute, in and of itself, is deficient, and diminishes our idea of God. It is only their combination into a whole – which is something we are not capable of comprehending at the present time – that can bring us to true knowledge of God.


Rav Soloveitchik takes issue with the Rambam's absolute rejection of attributes:


Halakhic man never accepted the ruling of Maimonides opposing the recital of piyyutim, the liturgical poems and songs of praise. Go forth and learn what the Guide sought to do to the piyyutim of Israel!...We recite many piyyutim and hymns, and we disregard the strictures of the philosophical midrash concerning the problem of negative attributes. The Halakha does not deem it necessary to reckon with speculative concepts and very fine, subtle abstractions…(Halakhic Man, p. 58)[2]


Rav Soloveitchik's practical, existential approach made it difficult for him to accept such abstract ideas, which conflict so sharply with religious intuition and religious custom. The Rambam's complete rejection of any sort of attributes threatens to uproot religious life and experience altogether, and this is an outcome that Rav Soloveitchik is not prepared to accept.


Even if we do not adopt the Rambam's view in toto, there is still much that may be gained from it in terms of maintaining the proper distance between heaven and earth. In our generation, some people speak about God in the same language as one uses to describe a likeable roommate, or even in language that is patronizing. Even if we cannot agree with every word of the Rambam on this subject, at least we can learn to treat the question of religious language with the proper seriousness.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Cf. the Rebbe of Piaseczna: "To speak only of God's greatness is forbidden for us to elaborate… but the praises and songs that are sung out of our great enthusiasm and longing of our soul for Him – that we declare at length" (Chovat ha-Talmidim, p. 194).

[2] Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia:1983), p. 58.