Shiur #09: Negative Attributes

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        The Theory of Negative Attributes


In chapter fifty-eight of Book I of the Guide, the Rambam presents another element in his theory of divine attributes. His heading for this chapter is: "Deeper than What Came Previously.” Thus far we have seen that the Rambam proposed that God be described through His actions. Here he adds a second type of legitimate description: negative attributes. These do not pretend to assert anything about what God is, but rather rule out what He is not. In a certain sense, this idea represents the pinnacle of the Rambam's theory of divine attributes, which arises from two fundamental intuitions: the need to purify religious language, and an emphasis on the limitations of what the human mind is able to know.


In this chapter, the Rambam repeats an argument that we have addressed in the past: it is impossible to assert any positive attributes of God, for if one were to do so, it would imply that His essence is compound. Here, the Rambam connects this principle to the concept of God's "necessary existence.” The significance of this fascinating idea, borrowed from medieval Arab philosophy, becomes clearer over the course of the Rambam's discussion in chapter fifty-seven:


But as regards a being whose existence is not due to any cause – God alone is that being, for His existence, as we have said, is absolute – existence and essence are perfectly identical; He is not a substance to which existence is joined as an accident, as an additional element. His existence is always absolute, and has never been a new element or an accident in Him. (Guide I:57)


Every entity in the world "possesses existence"; in the same measure that things and beings do exist, it is also possible that they would not exist. In other words, the existence of all things depends and is conditional upon external reasons and causes. If, for example, the oxygen in the world were to be used up, man could not continue to exist. God, in contrast, "is existence." In other words, existence is integral to His definition. He is not dependent on anything outside of Himself, and there is therefore no cause or reason that could prevent His eternal existence.


In fact, this same idea appears in a more popular formulation in the well-known introduction to the Rambam's Mishneh Torah:


The foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdoms is to know that there is a First Cause and He is the Creator of all that exists. And everything that exists, from heaven to earth and everything in between, could not exist were it not for the truth of His existence.


And if you would imagine that He does not exist, then nothing else could exist.


And if you would imagine that nothing existed besides Him, He would still exist, and He would not be negated by their non-existence. For everything that exists has need of Him; but He, Blessed be He, has no need of them, not even one of them. Therefore, His existence is not like the existence of any one of them. (Foundations of the Torah 1:1-3)


In chapter fifty-seven, the Rambam writes that in relation to everything that exists, a distinction may be drawn between essence and existence. For example, when a scientist seeks a new species belonging to a certain family of mammals, for which there seems to be some slight evidence, he may define the attributes of the species that he is looking for (essence), and then investigate whether such an animal does in fact exist in reality (existence). One more example: scholars argue over whether it is possible to create a computer with artificial intelligence. First there has to be a definition of what exactly constitutes a "computer with artificial intelligence" (essence), and then we can proceed to inquire whether such a machine actually exists (existence). No such duality pertains to God. His non-existence cannot be imagined; His existence is an aspect of His essence. Therefore, even this most fundamental distinction between essence and existence cannot be posited in His case; He is wholly simple unity.


In chapter fifty-eight, the Rambam adds another point. Since God's existence is necessary, a corollary is that He is not compound or composite. Not only are His essence and His existence one and the same, but any attribute that may be imagined is likewise included in His essence. His wisdom and His existence are one, and this unity is true regarding any other imagined attribute. When speaking of a person, or any other being, one might assert that he possesses height, wisdom, wit, and other qualities, as distinct from his actual existence. But in the case of God, there are no separate attributes that may be isolated and separated from His essence.


The Rambam does not explain here why God, Whose existence is necessary, must also be simple unity, but he goes on to prove it at the beginning of Book II of the Guide. In any event, God's definition as necessarily existing reinforces and widens the chasm separating Him from His creations, which are unable to comprehend this sort of essence at all. Here we arrive at the climax of the Rambam's theological approach, which emphasizes our helplessness in our attempts to comprehend God or to say anything at all about Him. This approach is called "negative theology," since it claims that man cannot make any positive statement about God's essence; one can only say what He is not.


The Rambam's preoccupation with the question of religious language sometimes appears coldly intellectual. However, in his theory of negative attributes, we can detect a religious intuition par excellence: the recognition of God's loftiness and power. The Rambam summarizes this chapter as follows:


Praised be He! In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proves to be ignorance, and in the endeavor to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure! (Guide I:58)


B.        How Can We Know God?


The Rambam's theory of negative attributes poses several difficulties. He himself is aware of most of them and raises the most problematic issue at the beginning of chapter fifty-nine in Book I:


The following question might perhaps be asked: Since there is no possibility of obtaining a knowledge of the true essence of God, and since it has also been proven that the only thing that man can apprehend of Him is the fact that He exists, and that all positive attributes are inadmissible, as has been shown, what is the difference among those who have obtained a knowledge of God? Must not the knowledge obtained by our teacher Moses and by Solomon be the same as that obtained by any one of the lowest class of philosophers, since there can be no addition to this knowledge? (Guide I:59)


This is indeed a perplexing problem: if nothing positive can be known about God, then what difference is there between Moshe Rabbeinu and a young child? The Rambam's theory suggests that both know nothing about God!


The Rambam's answer is that negative knowledge is still knowledge. To the extent that a person studies, he gradually attains increasing (negative) knowledge, such that he rejects more and more attributes as pertaining to God. Negation is not just a matter of lip-service; it requires profound contemplation, with a list of attributes that one actively removes from his perception of God:


By “faith” we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul. (Guide I:50)


Declaration of faith without any basis of understanding is of limited value. One has to continually increase and deepen his understanding of the attributes which do not pertain to God.


However, Rav Chasdai Crescas poses further questions:


If this were truly the case – that positive attributes are ruled out in relation to God, because they imply a compound essence, which is not the reality of Him – then one who has achieved great knowledge has no advantage over someone who has just begun his studies. And the proposal that this problem be resolved through proposing a multiplicity of negative attributes, cannot suffice. This is because once a person has grasped, following a little study, that there is no way of comprehending God's essence, and therefore some particular positive attribute cannot be attached to Him… then he will realize that the same applies to any positive attribute whatsoever… and he has thus achieved what the master of prophets managed to know of god. Thus, study of the detailed list of attributes which are ruled out in relation to God does not add in any way to the general knowledge which was already possessed by one who had just commenced his study." (Or Ha-Shem 1:3:3)


The Rambam relies on a gradual process of perception. The novice rules out one attribute; as he progresses, he learns to rule out more. Rav Chasdai Crescas argues that a person who succeeds in understanding why any particular attribute cannot apply to God already grasps the principle in its entirety; the implementation with regard to other attributes is a purely technical affair. This being so, there is no difference between the beginner and a great sage.


This question prompted Rav Yosef Albo to propose a solution that is different from the one that the Rambam himself offers. Rav Albo argues that the theory of negative attributes draws a distinction between attributes that are of a positive nature and those that are of a negative nature. We do know something about God: He is neither wise nor stupid, but He is closer to (the human idea of) wisdom than He is to (the human idea of) stupidity. Here, there is a very great difference between Moshe Rabbeinu and a young child who has just begun to study. A sage is able to analyze every attribute and discern its positive and negative poles. The negative pole is negated out of hand with regard to God, while the positive pole may be attributed to Him – with the caveat that this goodness exists in Him to a far greater extent than the degree to which we possess it.


However, even Rav Albo's explanation leaves us somewhat disappointed with the sage's advantage over the ignoramus. The former appears to possess only elementary human perception – which attributes are positive and which are negative – with the additional ability to analyze complex situations. Moreover, it is not certain that the Rambam would agree with the approach set forth in the Sefer Ha-Ikkarim. Rav Yosef Albo argues that the theory of negative divine attributes allows one to accumulate some sort of positive knowledge about God. This represents one way of understanding the Rambam, but it is not necessarily what he means. Would the Rambam agree that one can say of God that He is wise "but… in a more glorious and more elevated way?”


If we reject Rav Albo's explanation, we are left with our question: according to the Rambam's negative theology, what is the difference between a sage and an ignoramus in terms of their knowledge of God? We might also pose another question on the Rambam’s theory, in the same vein: if there is only negative knowledge, what is the meaning of the commandment to know God – which the Rambam himself emphasizes, both in his Mishneh Torah and in the Guide of the Perplexed? He himself claims that one can know nothing of God: "Our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him" (Guide I:59). Or, in the language of the ancient translator, Ibn Tibon: "Knowledge of Him is weariness of properly coming to know Him.” In other words, the pinnacle of knowledge of God is the recognition of the impossibility of knowing anything about Him at all. This being so, how are we to fulfill the commandment of knowing God?


Many different answers have been proposed for this question. Let us first examine that of Rav Soloveitchik:


The entire phenomenon of negative cognition is only possible against a backdrop of affirmative cognition. For we negate with respect to the Creator all of the attributes that we have affirmed with respect to created beings. Therefore, in order to arrive at the negation, we must engage in an act of affirmation. The act of negation is reconstructed out of the very substance of affirmation. And what constitutes affirmative cognition if not the cognition of the cosmos – the attributes of action? Moses prayed that these attributes be communicated to him, and his petition was granted. Indeed, we are all commanded to occupy ourselves with the understanding in depth of these attributes, for they bring us to the love and fear of God, as Maimonides explains in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah (II,2). First we cognize in positive categories God’s great and exalted world, and afterward we negate the attributes of created beings from the Creator. (Halakhic Man, pp. 11-12)[1]


Rav Soloveitchik explains that there is a close inner connection between the two types of attributes which the Rambam does allow for: descriptions of actions and negative attributes. The descriptions of actions are God's activity in the world – i.e., the structure and laws of nature. In order to know how to describe God's actions, a person must study the laws of nature. Studying the descriptions of actions is certainly an act of acquiring knowledge. However, it would seem that this knowledge is only indirectly related to God. Here Rav Soloveitchik introduces his own innovation: as a second stage of study, the scholar rejects these descriptions as being part of God's essence. He recognizes that they apply only to nature, and not to God Himself. This understanding grants a positive dimension to the process of knowing God; the major part of the endeavor consists of positive familiarity with nature. This represents the sage's advantage over the ignoramus: the sage is familiar with nature and its laws (even though he understands that he does not thereby know God Himself), while the ignoramus lacks this knowledge.[2]


We might cite two statements by the Rambam in the Guide that would seem to support Rav Soloveitchik's interpretation:


There is nothing else in existence but God and His works, the latter including all existing things besides Him. We can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works; His works give evidence of His existence and show what must be assumed concerning Him, that is to say, what must be attributed to Him either affirmatively or negatively. (Guide I:34)


This would seem to suggest that by coming to a knowledge of nature we also learn about the attributes that are to be negated with regard to God Himself. The same message also arises later on:


There may thus be a man who, after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science and to the true understanding of its principles until he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negative in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him. (Guide I:59)


This statement, too, might be interpreted as supporting Rav Soloveitchik's view.


A different solution is proposed by the prominent scholar Prof. Julius Guttmann (Dat u-Mada, pp. 109-111), although he does not explicitly raise the questions we have discussed here. Prof. Guttmann argues – in a manner that is reminiscent of the Sefer Ha-Ikkarim – that negative attributes also include some positive content. When we negate ignorance in relation to God, we are not asserting that He has the same sort of knowledge that we have; rather we mean that He possesses something that corresponds to our knowledge but transcends it. This represents positive content.


A third solution is proposed by Prof. Eliezer Sweid (Ha-Rambam ve-Chug Hashpa'ato, p. 105). Prof. Sweid writes that negating in a technical manner is something that anyone can do; it proves nothing. But according to the Rambam (as we see from the metaphor of the lightning with which the book begins, though we have not devoted any discussion to this), intellectual knowledge is accompanied by intuition. Following the act of negating attributes in relation to God, there must be a flash of positive intuition concerning God's essence. Prof. Sweid's approach is similar to that of Prof. Guttmann insofar as both attach a positive character to the theory of negating God's attributes. According to Prof. Sweid, the positive aspect is not intellectual in nature, but rather intuitive. According to this approach, the difference between the levels of knowledge of God among people pertains to the level and nature of the positive intuition which they retain towards God after they have negated His attributes.


C.        The Rambam's Distaste for Piyyutim


In proposing his theory of divine attributes, the Rambam seeks to advance two practical objectives: to teach a person how he may speak of God, and to guide him in understanding the descriptions of God and the attributes ascribed to Him in Tanakh.[3]  


These two objectives are interrelated: the Rambam acknowledges that we may speak of the attributes of God that appear in Tanakh, even though it is prohibited to ascribe other attributes on our own initiative. Since some attributes are set down in the text, we are permitted to cite them and to interpret them as descriptions of actions or as negative attributes.[4] The Rambam is vehemently opposed to the paytanim (liturgical poets) who mention further attributes, thereby violating the purity of religious language. This issue presents a very practical application for his theory of attributes.


In last week's shiur we saw that even a rationalist like Rav Soloveitchik was opposed to the Rambam's rigidity in this regard. Let us now examine his response to the Rambam at greater length:


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! Nevertheless, on the High Holidays the community of Israel, singing the hymns of unity and glory, reaches out to its Creator. And when the Divine Presence winks at us from behind the fading rays of the setting sun and its smile bears within it forgiveness and pardon, we weave a “royal crown” of praise for the Atik Yomin. The Ancient One. And in moments of divine mercy and grace, in times of spiritual ecstasy and exaltation, when our entire existence thirsts for the living God, .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 on the one hand and vague feelings, obscure experiences, inchoate affections, and elusive subjectivity on the other. It determines law and judgment in Israel. (Halakhic Man, pg. 58-59)[5]


Rav Soloveitchik does not reject the Rambam's fundamental insights; he merely states that they are too abstract, too theoretical, and therefore not relevant to the life of the believer. Does God indeed demand of us such an extreme level of precision? Does He not prefer supplication that is less precise in its formulation, but at the same time also less sterile? Rav Soloveitchik represents the transition from religious thought that is based on rationalist philosophy to religious thought that is based on religious existentialism. As we noted in last week's shiur, the Rambam's theory of divine attributes offers some significant lessons for our existential religious world, too – but these lessons might be less extreme, leaving open, for example, the possibility of declaring God's praises in sweet song and poetry.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia:1983), pp. 11-12.

[2] Prof. Zev Harvey likewise adopted this resolution of the problem (Faith in Changing Times, pp. 95-96).

[3]  This latter objective is set down explicitly, for example, in chapters fifty-three and fifty-nine of Book I.

[4]  In last week's shiur we mentioned Shir ha-Kavod ("An'im Zemirot"). The poet indeed apologizes for invoking attributes and explains that he is quoting Tanakh: "By the hand of Your prophets, by the counsel of Your servants, the splendor of Your glorious majesty is allegorized."

[5] Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan, (Philadelphia: 1983) pp. 58-9. See also the critiques of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook, which were cited in the previous shiur.