The decision by Maimonides to allow his philosophical and intellectual understanding of the non-corporeal, indescribable and incomprehensible unity that is God to co-exist with his deep commitment to Torah and the halakhic life is absolutely fascinating and productive. In many respects, I consider his response to this dilemma to be the only one possible for someone who wishes to remain rational and steeped in Jewish tradition and I find in it to be a great part of my personal solution to this quandry.
Maimonides reconciles, at least for himself, the mythological and historical nature of Torah with his own understanding who is, well, too transcendent to even be called transcendent. His God is not separate enough from God’s own unity to transcend anything. It is only our limited perception and experience of this unity that can transcend, and even then, we can only transcend our understanding, God is not part of that process. God is. The rest is our commentary. And yet Rambam lived, and liberal Jews, to a lesser extent. now live in a world that ascribes thought, action, purpose, morality, reward, punishment,indeed all our human emotions and actions, to our God. We can not explain or understand God, so we explain and understand ourselves via our best account of acts that we ascribe to God. In describing God we are describing ourselves. God appears to have no comment.
In Book One, Chaptes 50 – 60 of The Guide For The Perplexed, Maimonides systematically sets out his thesis for his understanding of God. While Maimonides chooses a rational understanding of this incorporeal unity, he starts with the basic assumption of the existence of God, and since this is unprovable by mere empirical evidence, he begins his discussion with his understanding of faith. Maimonides believes in God, and he knows his faith to be true because he understands true faith. Belief is consistency between one’s inner thoughts about faith and what one professes about one’s faith. It is not just that one’s words and thoughts must be one, but they must also be accurate as through through via reason. Though his logic here is undoubtedly impeccable ( though i can’t always follow it as tightly as I would wish) i nonetheless feel that it is here, more than in any other part of these ten chapters, that Maimonides takes his leap of faith: his faith in an accurate and rational faith and his ability to perceive it..
And thus we can proceed: God is incorporeal and God is one, God is absolute freedom from matter.
God cannot be acted upon. God does not have attributes, which by their very nature imply that God has parts and aspects, which God cannot have, therefore God does not have attributes. Any attributes that we ascribe to God are humans describing the actions of God. It is the actions that have attributes – powerful, mighty, awesome, compassionate, loving – but to truly consider God itself to be any of these things is hubristic stupidity or perhaps even blasphemy.
For Rambam, God, in God’s inability to be composed of parts and thus to be a pluraity, is simple. This is a most amazing use of the word, “simple”. How can God, for God’s sake, be simple? And yet, intuitively (and I assume that the philospher would cringe at my use of that word) I understand that this is correct. That which underlies, or creates, all that Is, has no need to be complex as we understand it, with cells and mitosis or an ecology. The mind boggles, and Maimonides copes with this by spurning a description of this simplicity with the use of positive attributes.
If God is truly Unity, then God can not be described by the sum of God’s parts since God has no parts and is not a compound. God has no physicality, God has no feelings in the sense that we do, God has no size, God’s actions are not God. God does not exist in relation to us or other obects, God does not exist in relation to time and space, as we do. Therefore we cannot desribe God in terms of God’s physicality, actions, feelings, or place in time and space. We can only know what God is not.
God cannot be changed. God can not potentially be somthing else: God has no potentiality because that means God can change or be acted upon and God being unity itself, that is impossible. If something is perfect, does that mean it’s finished? If it is truly perfect, there is nothing that needs to change, and if it can be changed then that implies it is not perfect. God is perfect, therefore cannot be changed. God cannot be acted upon and changed, therefore God is perfect.
God is singular. Does this mean that God is not about anything then other than God’s Godness? God has no emotion,does not change, cannot not exist and therefore can not be born or die, and thus has always existed and always will. God was not created.
Since we have no hope to describe God in even the tiniest way, we can only attempt to describe what God is not. In chapter 59, Rambam says that to affirm God is to remove yourself from God, it is to reduce God to your human level of relationship and comprehension, which you can never do. Any description, even the highest prais, belittles God. Even the Prophets, in their exalted channeling of the Godness, are only describing God’s actions as perceived by us. Therefore to affirm God’s actions as God’s attributes is in fact to doubt God which leads to a loss of faith. You have faith in God because to believe in God means you don’t believe in God? Oy, my head hurts.
And yet the Torah, the basis of the Jewish religion and way of life, describes and speaks of God constantly. God acts, God has a gender, God speaks, God is mighty and awesome, God gets pissed off, God loves Moses, God cares about the children of Israel. God of the Five Books changes from a petulant Daddy who is an active participant in individual lives to a distant judge who allows free will. The God of the Talmud cares about the rituals of blood sacrifices. The Talmud God likes rules and laws and cares if we obey and disobey. These versions of God are everything that Maimonides’ God is not. We should reject it, but the mythology speaks to us in such an important and primal way that we can’t. It gives us morality, structure, tradition and family.
These stories and psalms and prophecies and histories are about the human mess and the human desire to describe God. The process of these stories is holy. Just as Torah or Talmud study is holy. It is only in the process that we can even touch on the One. This God is our God, the human God and the God of the Jews. Even if we don’t believe in the literal truth of this mythology, maybe especially if we don’t, our need for the organizing of attributes can’t be denied. I think Maimonides knows this. Not just as a condescending aid to the masses. He needs and loves Torah. It gives meaning and order to the daily lives of all the non-philosphers who need to be able to describe and identify with their God. Life would be chaos without religion to order it. For Mainmonides, only the most advanced philosopher dare take on the philosopher’s complex idea of the simple God. And even that philosopher can’t live in it on daily basis.
I believe that Maimonides’ simple God is God, not human or Jewish or Christian or anything that can be described or quantified in any theology. But I am human, and I need to describe and quantify, I need theology and tradition. My portal for this need is Judaism.
Does this trivialize Jewish practice? I imagine for some that it would. I don’t for one nanosecond believe that halacha is necessary for me to connect to God, or that the One cares whether or not I eat bacon. I am not halakhic, but I can imagine that as I acquire more and more knowledge, the wisdom of the practice and discipline will become more accessible to me and I may take some of it on, but not because of any obligation I feel to God who doesn’t need or notice my obligations, but because of a connection to traditon and my people helps me feel part of the great task of trying to describe that which can never be described, living a good and honorable life in connection with tradition, good sense, doubt and yes, faith.
I need language for the great task of inaccurately describing God, we have so few tools for it. There is a fascinating and fruitful tension between the desire to capture God perfectly in my words and my knowledge that this is inherently and permanently impossible. I find that my connection between these two poles is my intuitive spirituality, accessed via meditation, flavored by my Judaism. If any of these God visions contradict the other, so be it. I needed consistency when I was young, but no more. I can hold more than one idea of God in my head at a time, without said head exploding. Perhaps Maimonides used his service to the people as a healer and as tzadek to keep his head intact.