Knowledge, Human, Angelic, and Divine

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama’s opening source for the tenth sha’arBamidbar Rabbah 19, shows Adam to have had a type of knowledge angels do not. The Midrash says the angels resisted the suggestion of creating human beings, seeing nothing they would add to the universe.

Hashem rebuffs their concerns by showing Adam has a greater wisdom, since he was able to name all the animals, himself, and Hashem, with explanations for each name. For example, he calls himself Adam because he was made from adamah, earth, and Hashem the name which means Our Master because Hashem is master of all creation. Hashem celebrates Adam’s perspicacity by accepting the name; Yeshayahu 42; 8, says “I am Ado—, that is my Name,” into which the Midrash inserts the implied “which Adam gave me.”

[Philosophers discuss whether names are conventions, with no connection to the nature of the item, or reflect some more essential aspect of it. R. Arama will as well.]

Intellectual or Sensory Knowledge

The key to Adam’s skill lies in his joining the physical and metaphysical, which he knows either by his senses or his intellect—a distinction R. Arama now elaborates. Sensory knowledge recognizes characteristics of a specific person or place, or its impact on the world, and thus “knows” it. The intellect sees through to an item’s nature, and therefore applies to groups of items—dogs tend to be x, people y, and so on.

Aristotle in the Physics spoke about the intellect engaging in deductive reasoning and the senses contributing the pieces of information which fuel inductive reasoning. R. Arama agrees; he thinks the senses gather examples which allow for forming general principles. Besides making those principles, the intellect reasons from the principles to specific future cases.

Hashem, all intellect, knows this world starting with the general. Specific people, places, or objects, are known by Hashem, as details within the larger groups to which they belong. People know the world in reverse, develop an idea of the larger picture based on their encounters with specific examples.

Aside from those two, angels know only the generalities of the world, R. Arama thinks.

How Adam Knows Better

I am skipping his discussion of a Midrash Tanchuma he reads to confirm his model, picking him up again when he comes back to his original Midrash, which spoke of people’s greater knowledge than the angels. They have greater knowledge of details of beings on this world, which the angels do not notice.

[R. Arama does not explain why angels do not pay attention to these kinds of details. I have a guess, but it’s mine: the world needs people, and animals, and plants to work, but many versions of those aspects of the world could promote Hashem’s goals. Angels’ sole interest in and interaction with the world comes at the level of the world where Hashem’s plan is to be furthered or hindered in the most essential ways.

For those purposes, whether dogs are wild or domesticated, to use an example R. Arama notes as what angels will not bother to differentiate, does not matter. But that’s my guess, a reminder the world we have is not the only one which could have fulfilled Hashem’s larger plan or goals. It’s the one we happened to have gotten, based on myriads of events in our past.]

Names Pick Up on Specifics

Adam’s choices of names do not capture any sort of essence of the item, in R. Arama’s view. For example, the Midrash we saw earlier said Adam chose his own name because “I was taken from the adamah.” One fact among many, R. Arama thinks it shows he did not look for the most characteristic possible name, he found a detail, perhaps random or relatively unimportant, and pinned the name on that. Adam’s choice of name for Hashem similarly highlighted Hashem’s being Master of all creatures, an external fact, not anything essential to Him.

His naming ability thus shows more knowledge than the angels [but not better or deeper]—which is how the Midrash has Hashem characterize his advantage — since he picked up on details of the world they did not [bother to notice, he is implying]. A similar dynamic shows itself in people who have specific knowledge without much ultimate value, such as how a farmer knows how to set a goad in the proper way, plow a straight furrow, or distinguish legumes by taste.

More knowledge does not always indicate a lack in those who know less, although if Adam’s greater knowledge has no particular value, R. Arama has yet to explain how Hashem has shown the angels why man was created.

Knowledge of Good and Evil

Good and evil, as opposites, mean anyone who knows one must know the other [a point I think people miss; in our rush to focus on good, we forget the opposite of good is evil. To stand for good must include standing against evil]. The Torah refers to it as da’at, intellectual knowledge, as in the Tree of Da’at Good and Evil, which is also how Hashem is quoted after Adam and Chavah eat from the Tree, “Adam has become ke-achad mimenu [loosely, like one of Us; R. Arama is about to discuss his version of the proper reading], la-da’at, to know intellectually, good and evil.”

Once knowledge of good and evil is intellectual (rather than sensory) however, there seems no reason to exclude the angels (he uses the medieval term “separated intellects,” which isn’t quite the same, but does not seem to me worth the space to explain in full).

The phrase ke-achad mimenu bothers R. Arama, since all his predecessor commentators (Rambam, whom he calls “rosh ha-filosofiyim ha-Toraniyyim, chief among the Torah-true philosophers,” Ibn Tibbon, Ibn Ezra, and Radak) interpreted the phrase unsatisfactorily, to him (I am skipping their views and his objections for space reasons).

The best among them, although still not quite right as a plain sense reading R. Arama accepted, was Rashi, “as I (Hashem) am echad, singular among the higher beings, in knowing good and evil, so Adam has become singular in the lower realm.”

Why Not the Angels?

He struggles especially with those commentators’ resistance to ascribing knowledge of good and evil to the angels. They thought good and evil depend on ephemeral issues in the physical world, where angels partake purely of the divine (less transitory) realm.

But Hashem knows good and evil, in this-world terms, as we know because the Torah–which Hashem commanded and dictated to Moshe—is full of references to it. To restrict knowledge of good and evil to people would call into question various fundamental faith commitments (which R. Arama does not specify, but I think would have to include having dictated the Torah to Moshe). Devarim 6; 18 tells us to do what is right and good, Vayikra 19;18 requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves [I think the verse shows a concern with how we treat others, a matter of good and evil], which Hillel called a great principle of the Torah on Shabbat 31a.

Et Tu, Onkelos?

I am not presenting all the verses he did, because he has made his point. If knowledge of good and evil contradicts the nature of the angels because it is too this-worldly, how can Hashem know it? He says he has asked the wise men of his generation [without naming them; who were the people R. Arama, a man of vast learning, considered the wise men of his generation?] and never received a (satisfactory) answer.

Worst of all, he says, Onkelos seems to lean in the direction of the other commentators, since he translated “vi-heyitem ke-elohim” which we often translate “you shall be as Gd,” as ke-ravrevaya (in our versions of Onkelos, it’s ravrevin), great men, a way to avoid the serpent having said you will literally be like Hashem (or angels).

[Interestingly, Targum Yonatan, a commentary woven together from Onkelos and other sources also has ravrevin. My Bar-Ilan includes a Hebrew translation of Targum Yonatan, from Chumash Keter Yonatan, by a R. Ya’akov Menachem Wertheimer, which I think was published in the 1980s. He translated ravrevin as malachim gedolim, great angels, which is clearly not how R. Arama took it.]

R. Arama is going to have to forge a different path, since he cannot accept the ideas he’s seen before. Man knows in one way and angels another, but it cannot mean angels do not know good and evil. We will see how he solves the problem, and what his answer teaches about human nature, next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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