To Discuss Hashem’s Knowledge, Remember Not to Think of Hashem in Human Terms

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

My summaries of R. Arama’s ‘Akeydat Yitzchak minimize a remarkable aspect of the work, his ability to yoke his expression of his philosophical worldview to his consecutive reading of the Torah. In a way which reminds me of Sefer Ha-Chinuch’s structuring his presentation of mitzvot by the order in which they appear in the Torah, R. Arama gives us a book of Jewish philosophy also fully a close reading of Chumash. For Parshat VaYera, starting with Avraham’s recovery from circumcision and ending with his success at the original ‘Akeydat Yitzchak, the literal binding of Isaac, R. Arama starts with the question of Gd’s knowledge.

The question matters to the whole idea of Gd testing a human being (as will happen with Avraham), because attributing change to Gd was a clear philosophical no-no (it implied Gd before had been less perfect than now). In what sense would Gd care to test anyone, then? R. Arama gives us a hint of his direction when he cites Bereshit Rabbah 85, where the Midrash explains the tests of the Patriarchs as ways to make them examples for others, giving the Attribute of Justice a defense against those who accuse Gd of favoritism. To justify Avraham’s riches and fabulous guarantees, Hashem can point to his readiness to circumcise at an advanced age and to sacrifice his long-awaited son.

Knowledge is Essential, to the Wise and to Gd

Everyone agrees a wise person must have knowledge, similar to how all people have sensations–at a minimum, the sensation of being alive. Kohelet 7;2 speaks of wise people as chai, alive, to make the connection, to make clear knowledge for the wise is the same as the sense of being alive for ordinary living beings.

The undebated logic about people extends to Gd, R. Arama says, Who is living and wise in some sense, although he knew of much debate about what Gd knws and the form such knowledge takes. They all agreed the answer would have to leave room for human freewill.

Iyov denied Hashem’s knowledge (and providence), for five reasons, justifying his complaints about what happened to him [I think most people today think of Iyov as one who objected to Gd’s justice, where R. Arama reads the book to mean Iyov knew it was impossible for Hashem to be unjust and therefore was sure Hashem must not be involved with or aware of what happens in this world].

Leaving his readings of verses, I find four of the ideas he saw in Iyov points to ponder. To learn more means to become better, impossible for Gd; to learn means to have senses of some sort, some way for the knower to connect with the known; the changes which lead to new knowledge come with time, a before and after, tenses which do not apply to Gd; and, what thought a clinching argument, the injustices of the world, some righteous people living lives only the most evil deserve, and vice verse, must mean Hashem is not involved.

The Category Error in Thinking About Gd’s Knowledge

R. Arama mentions but is unimpressed with Rambam’s rebuttal of these claims in the Guide. He instead focuses on an idea I know from Rambam’s own Laws of Repentance, although R. Arama does not reference it here. Iyov’s arguments, as R. Arama cast them, all assume Hashem’s knowledge functions the same way as ours, where it clearly does not. For example, they are sure Gd either knows events on earth as a future, present, then past (as humans do), or never knew them at all—neither of which R. Arama can accept.

As Torah faithful Jews, he says, we know not to dabble in such issues, know we will be shaping Hashem in our own image, insisting Gd’s knowledge function in a way we can conceive, categorize, classify. We who do not and cannot know ourselves or even a small insect fully must refrain from the brazenness of thinking we on our own know how to compare Gd’s knowledge to ours, Hashem’s character to ours.

We must condition any discussion about such topics to fit the postulates the Torah laid down: Hashem exists, created the world, knows the world and is providentially involved with it, has the power/ability/will to affect the world in ways beyond the limits of our imagination. With than in mind, we can think further, as long as we remember to reject any idea out of line with any of those postulates.

Breaking Away From Generalities

R. Arama understands the Torah to assert Gd’s knowledge of individuals and their actions, where a common claim of his time said Gd had general knowledge, knew the laws of nature and what they determined about the course of world events. R. Arama is saying Hashem knows people, their actions, and all the changes their actions bring.

Hashem made the difference clear to Avraham with the commandment of milah, more so with the ‘Akeydah, two mitzvot which have no place in the ordinary laws of nature (if Hashem only knew the generalities of the world, there would be no place to step in and ask/command for other actions). They were pure expressions of Divine Will, thus also informing Avraham and all his descendants of Hashem’s having made a choice to connect with this nation, to challenge their first Patriarch to grow to where Hashem could conclude, after the ‘Akeydah, he was truly Gd-fearing. Nor could Nature have led to all the signs and wonders in Egypt, which also showed Gd’s specific knowledge, in time.

(R. Arama is about to applaud Rambam’s insistence on humans’ inability to derive ideas about Gd logically. The presentation we just saw seems to me to also take a swipe at another idea of Rambam’s, his view the miracles we see were embedded in Nature at Creation. For all he does deny positive knowledge about Gd, Rambam did think we could know what could not be true of Gd, one element of which was change with time. R. Arama disagrees, as we will see.)

We Can Know Something

R. Arama says Rambam sanctified Hashem’s Name in public (high praise) with his acknowledgement of humans’ inability to infer truths about Gd. Rambam said we cannot know what it means for Gd to know, given the difference in how the term would apply to Gd. Catnip to R. Arama’s ears, who says Rambam truly walked humbly with Gd (from Michah 6;8, one of the three basic requests the prophet says Hashem wants from human beings) in saying so.

Nevertheless, R. Arama thinks he has what to say, ideas about Gd’s knowledge to rebut the dominant philosophical narrative and support the version of the Torah.

He starts with flaws in philosophers’ assumptions, such as their insistence on senses as the source of knowledge. They make the obvious error of someone who needs glasses or a prosthesis and then decides the only way to see or move would be through use of such aids. As Chazal said frequently, the Torah spoke in the language of man, and as Rambam stressed in the Guide, the senses are how we know, and the Torah phrases itself to accommodate our limited worldview. It does not mean knowledge can come only with the senses.

More Knowledge Isn’t Always Change

We apply our particulars to Gd when we assume knowledge changes moment to moment, a philosophical problem for those who insist perfection never changes. I share R. Arama’s idea mostly because he ends his presentation saying the ideas were good for those who want to indulge their philosopohical side a bit. He doesn’t find the problem pressing, he has thought of this idea to help those who do.

He distinguishes between necessary and eternal knowledge and knowledge of the changing particulars of life. No one questions the idea of Gd “knowing” the former; for the latter, R. Arama argues knowledge is less the goal than not being called ignorant. Ignorance is a lack, impossible to ascribe to Gd, and all the verses which speak of Gd knowing specifics about people (their internal thoughts, for example), really mean Gd does not not know them, is not ignorant of them.

When Gd administers a nisayon, a test, the result brings into the world a different version of the person, of which Gd is not ignorant, and in that sense now knows it.

(I don’t quite see how he thinks he solved the problem, although I easily may have missed some aspect of his idea. I’m not going to spend more time on it, both because I think it’s the kind of issue people of R. Arama’s time cared more about than people in ours–we don’t seem to spend too much time trying to figure out Gd does or does not know, and what that says about Gd– and because R. Arama himself told us he shared the idea more for the benefit of the philosophically inclined than because it mattered deeply to him.

I did like his distinction between knowledge necessary or important in its own right and knowledge which serves mostly or only to avoid being considered ignorant; it’s an idea I think has parallels in human society. For another time.)

For now, we have had a firm reminder of the importance of holding fast to our recognition of the chasm between us and Hashem, the care we must use whenever we speak of Hashem. Because lack of care can lead us down bad roads, can deny us the lessons in events such as the ‘Akeydah, as we will discuss more next time.

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