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Guide for the Perplexed
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CHAPTER XLVI

WE have already stated, in one of the chapters of this treatise, that there is a great difference between bringing to view the existence of a thing and demonstrating its true essence. We can lead others to notice the existence of an object by pointing to its accidents, actions, or even most remote relations to other objects: e.g., if you wish to describe the king of a country to one of his subjects who does not know him, you can give a description and an account of his existence in many ways. You will either say to him, the tall man with a fair complexion and grey hair is the king, thus describing him by his accidents; or you will say, the king is the person round whom are seen a great multitude of men on horse and on foot, and soldiers with drawn swords, over whose head banners are waving, and before whom trumpets are sounded; or it is the person living in the palace in a particular region of a certain country: or it is the person who ordered the building of that wall, or the construction of that bridge: or by some other similar acts and things relating to him. His existence can be demonstrated in a still more indirect way, e.g., if you are asked whether this land has a king, you will undoubtedly answer in the affirmative. “What proof have you?” “The fact that this banker here, a weak and little person, stands before this large mass of gold pieces, and that poor man, tall and strong, who stands before him asking in vain for alms of the weight of a carob-grain, is rebuked and is compelled to go away by the mere force of words: for had he not feared the king, he would, without hesitation, have killed the banker, or pushed him away and taken as much of the money as he could.” Consequently, this is a proof that this country has a ruler and his existence is proved by the well-regulated affairs of the country, on account of which the king is respected and the punishments decreed by him are feared. In this whole example nothing is mentioned that indicated his characteristics, and his essential properties, by virtue of which he is king. The same is the case with the information concerning the Creator given to the ordinary classes of men in all prophetical books and in the Law. For it was found necessary to teach all of them that God exists, and that He is in every respect the most perfect Being, that is to say, He exists not only in the sense in which the earth and the heavens exist, but He exists and possesses life, wisdom, power, activity, and all other properties which our belief in His existence must include, as will be shown below. That God exists was therefore shown to ordinary men by means of similes taken from physical bodies; that He is living, by a simile taken from motion, because ordinary men consider only the body as fully, truly, and undoubtedly existing; that which is connected with a body but is itself not a body, although believed to exist, has a lower degree of existence on account of its dependence on the body for existence. That, however, which is neither itself a body, nor a force within a body, is not existent according to man’s first notions, and is above all excluded from the range of imagination. In the same manner motion is considered by the ordinary man as identical with life; what cannot move voluntarily from place to place has no life, although motion is not part of the definition of life, but an accident connected with it. The perception by the senses, especially by hearing and seeing, is best known to us; we have no idea or notion of any other mode of communication between the soul of one person and that of another than by means of speaking, i.e., by the sound produced by lips, tongue, and the other organs of speech. When, therefore, we are to be informed that God has a knowledge of things, and that communication is made by Him to the Prophets who convey it to us, they represent Him to us as seeing and hearing, i.e., as perceiving and knowing those things which can be seen and heard. They represent Him to us as speaking, i.e., that communications from Him reach the Prophets; that is to be understood by the term “prophecy,” as will be fully explained. God is described as working, because we do not know any other mode of producing a thing except by direct touch. He is said to have a soul in the sense that He is living, because all living beings are generally supposed to have a soul; although the term soul is, as has been shown, a homonym.

Again, since we perform all these actions only by means of corporeal organs, we figuratively ascribe to God the organs of locomotion, as feet, and their soles; organs of hearing, seeing, and smelling, as ear, eye, and nose; organs and substance of speech, as mouth, tongue, and sound; organs for the performance of work, as hand, its fingers, its palm, and the arm. In short, these organs of the body are figuratively ascribed to God, who is above all imperfection, to express that He performs certain acts: and these acts are figuratively ascribed to Him to express that He possesses certain perfections different from those acts themselves. E.g., we say that He has eyes, ears, hands, a mouth, a tongue, to express that He sees, hears, acts, and speaks; but seeing and hearing are attributed to Him to indicate simply that He perceives. You thus find in Hebrew instances in which the perception of the one sense is named instead of the other; thus, “See the word of the Lord” (Jer. ii, 31), in the same meaning as “Hear the word of the Lord,” for the sense of the phrase is, “Perceive what He says”; similarly the phrase, “See the smell of my son” (Gen. xxvii. 27) has the same meaning as “Smell the smell of my son,” for it relates to the perception of the smell. In the same way are used the words, “And all the people saw the thunders and the lightnings” (Exod. xx. 15), although the passage also contains the description of a prophetical vision, as is well known and understood among our people. Action and speech are likewise figuratively applied to God, to express that a certain influence has emanated from Him, as will be explained (chap. lxv and chap. lxvi.). The physical organs which are attributed to God in the writings of the Prophets are either organs of locomotion, indicating life; organs of sensation, indicating perception; organs of touch, indicating action; or organs of speech, indicating the divine inspiration of the Prophets, as will be explained.

The object of all these indications is to establish in our minds the notion of the existence of a living being, the Maker of everything, who also possesses a knowledge of the things which He has made. We shall explain, when we come to speak of the inadmissibility of Divine attributes, that all these various attributes convey but one notion, viz., that of the essence of God. The sole object of this chapter is to explain in what sense physical organs are ascribed to the Most Perfect Being, namely, that they are mere indications of the actions generally performed by means of these organs. Such actions being perfections respecting ourselves, are predicated of God, because we wish to express that He is most perfect in every respect, as we remarked above in explaining the Rabbinical phrase, “The language of the Torah is like the language of man.” Instances of organs of locomotion being applied to the Creator occur as follows: — “My footstool” (Isa. 1xvi. 1); “the place of the soles of my feet (Ezek. xliii. 7). For examples of organs of touch applied to God, comp. the hand of the Lord” (Exod. ix. 3); “with the finger of God” (ib. xxxi. 18); “the work of thy fingers” (Ps. viii. 4),” And thou hast laid thine hand upon me” (ib. cxxxix. 5); “The arm of the Lord” (Isa. liii. 1); “Thy right hand, O Lord” (Exod. xv. 6). In instances like the following, organs of speech are attributed to God: “The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa. i. 20); “And He would open His lips against thee” (Job xi. 5); “The voice of the Lord is powerful” (Ps. xxix. 4); “And his tongue as a devouring fire” (Isa. xxx. 27). Organs of sensation are attributed to God in instances like the following: “His eyes behold, His eyelids try” (Ps. xi. 4); “The eyes of the Lord which run to and fro” (Zech. iv. 10); “Bow down thine car unto me, and hear” (2 Kings xix. 16); “You have kindled a fire in my nostril” (Jer. xvii. 5). Of the inner parts of the human body only the heart is figuratively applied to God, because “heart” is a homonym, and denotes also “intellect”; it is besides the source of animal life. In phrases like “my bowels are troubled for him” (Jer. xxxi. 20); “The sounding of thy bowels” (Isa. lxiii. 15), the term “bowels” is used in the sense of “heart”; for the term “bowels” is used both in a general and in a specific meaning; it denotes specifically “bowels,” but more generally it can be used as the name of any inner organ, including “heart.” The correctness of this argument can be proved by the phrase “And thy law is within my bowels” (Ps. xl. 8), which is identical with “And thy law is within my heart.” For that reason the prophet employed in this verse the phrase “my bowels are troubled” (and “the sounding of thy bowels”); the verb hamah is in fact used more frequently in connection with “heart,” than with any other organ; comp. “My heart maketh a noise (homeh) in me” (Jer. iv. 19). Similarly, the shoulder is never used as a figure in reference to God, because it is known as a mere instrument of transport, and also comes into close contact with the thing which it carries. With far greater reason the organs of nutrition are never attributed to God: they are at once recognized as signs of imperfection. In fact all organs, both the external and the internal, are employed in the various actions of the soul; some, as e.g., all inner organs, are the means of preserving the individual for a certain time; others, as the organs of generation, are the means of preserving the species; others are the means of improving the condition of man and bringing his actions to perfection, as the hands, the feet, and the eyes, all of which tend to render motion, action, and perception more perfect. Animate beings require motion in order to be able to approach that which is conducive to their welfare, and to move away from the opposite: they require the senses in order to be able to discern what is injurious to them and what is beneficial. In addition, man requires various kinds of handiwork, to prepare his food, clothing, and dwelling; and he is compelled by his physical constitution to perform such work, namely, to prepare what is good for him. Some kinds of work also occur among certain animals, as far as such work is required by those animals. I do not believe that any man can doubt the correctness of the assertion that the Creator is not in need of anything for the continuance of His existence, or for the improvement of His condition. Therefore, God has no organs, or, what is the same, He is not corporeal; His actions are accomplished by His Essence, not by any organ, and as undoubtedly physical forces are connected with the organs, He does not possess any such forces, that is to say, He has, besides His Essence, nothing that could be the cause of His action, His knowledge, or His will, for attributes are nothing but forces under a different name. It is not my intention to discuss the question in this chapter. Our Sages laid down a general principle, by which the literal sense of the physical attributes of God mentioned by the prophets is rejected; a principle which evidently shows that our Sages were far from the belief in the corporeality of God, and that they did not think any person capable of misunderstanding it, or entertaining any doubt about it. For that reason they employ in the Talmud and the Midrashim phrases similar to those contained in the prophecies, without any circumlocution; they knew that there could not be any doubt about their metaphorical character, or any danger whatever of their being misunderstood; and that all such expressions would be understood as figurative [language], employed to communicate to the intellect the notion of His existence. Now, it was well known that in figurative language God is compared to a king who commands, cautions, punishes, and rewards, his subjects, and whose servants and attendants publish his orders, so that they might be acted upon, and they also execute whatever he wishes. Thus the Sages adopted that figure, used it frequently, and introduced such speech, consent, and refusal of a king, and other usual acts of kings, as became necessary by that figure. In all these instances they were sure that no doubt or confusion would arise from it. The general principle alluded to above is contained in the following saying of our Sages, mentioned in Bereshith Rabba (c. xxvii.), “Great was the power of the Prophets; they compared the creature to its Creator; comp. ‘And over the resemblance of the throne was a resemblance like the appearance of man’” (Ezek. i. 26). They have thus plainly stated that all those images which the Prophets perceived, i.e. in prophetic visions, are images created by God. This is perfectly correct; for every image in our imagination has been created. How pregnant is the expression, “Great is their boldness!” They indicated by it, that they themselves found it very remarkable; for whenever they perceived a word or act difficult to explain, or apparently objectionable, they used that phrase: e.g., a certain Rabbi has performed the act (of “ḥali ah”) with a slipper, alone and by night. Another Rabbi, thereupon exclaimed “How great is his boldness to have followed the opinion of the minority.” The Chaldee phrase rab gubreh in the original of the latter quotation, and the Hebrew gadol koḥo in that of the former quotation, have the same meaning, viz., Great is the power of (or the boldness of). Hence, in the preceding quotation, the sense is, How remarkable is the language which the Prophets were obliged to use when they speak of God the Creator in terms signifying properties of beings created by Him. This deserves attention. Our Sages have thus stated in distinct and plain terms that they are far from believing in the corporeality of God; and in the figures and forms seen in a prophetical vision, though belonging to created beings, the Prophets, to use the words of our Sages, “compared the creature to its Creator.” If, however, after these explanations, any one wishes out of malice to cavil at them, and to find fault with them, though their method is neither comprehended nor understood by him, the Sages o.b.m. will sustain no injury by it.

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