Eight chapters of Maimonides on Ethics/Chapter VII

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Chapter VII

Concerning the Barrier (Between God and Man) and its Signification[1]

Many passages are found in the Midrash, the Haggadah, and also the Talmud, which state that some of the prophets beheld God from behind many barriers, and some from behind only a few, according to the proximity of the prophet to Him, and the degree of his prophetic power.[2] Consequently, the Rabbis said that Moses, our teacher, saw God from behind a single, clear, that is transparent, partition. As they express it, “He (Moses) looked through a translucent specularia”.[3] Specularia is the name of a mirror made of some transparent body like crystal or glass, as is explained at the end of Tractate Kelim.[4]

Let me now explain the above statement. In accordance with what we have made clear in Chapter II, virtues are either intellectual or moral. Similarly, vices are intellectual, as ignorance, stupidity, and want of understanding; or they are moral as inordinate lust, pride, irascibility, anger, impudence, avarice, and many other similar defects, a list of which we have given and explained in Chapter IV. Each of these defects is as a partition separating man from God, the Most High. This is what the prophet meant when he said, “But your iniquities have ever made a separation between you and your God”;[5] which means that our sins—which, as we have said, are the evil qualities—are the partitions which separate us from God.[6]

Know, then, that no prophet received the gift of prophecy, unless he possessed all the mental virtues and a great majority of the most important moral ones. So, the Rabbis said, “Prophecy rests only upon the wise, the brave, and the rich”.[7] By the word “wise”, they undoubtedly refer to all the mental perfections. By “rich”, they designate the moral perfection of contentment, for they call the contented man rich, their definition of the word “rich” being, “Who is rich? He who is contented with his lot”,[8] that is, one who is satisfied with what fortune brings him, and who does not grieve on account of things which he does not possess. Likewise, “brave” stands for a moral perfection; that is, one who is brave guides his faculties in accordance with intelligence and reason, as we have shown in Chapter V. The Rabbis say, “Who is brave? He who subdues his passions”.[9] It is not, however, an indispensable requirement that a prophet should possess all the moral virtues, and be entirely free from every defect, for we find that Scripture testifies in reference to Solomon, who was a prophet, that "the Lord appeared to Solomon in Gibeon",[10] although we know that he had the moral defect of lust, which is plainly evident from the fact that he took so many wives, a vice springing from the disposition of passion which resided in his soul. It plainly says, "Did not Solomon sin by these things?"[11] Even David—a prophet, according to the words, "To me spoke the Rock of Israel"[12]—we find guilty of cruelty, and, although he exercised it only against the heathens, and in the destruction of non-believers, being merciful towards Israel, it is explicitly stated in Chronicles that God, considering him unworthy, did not permit him to build the Temple, as it was not fitting in His eyes, because of the many people David caused to be killed. So, God said to him, "Thou shalt not build a house to my name, because much blood hast thou shed".[13] We find, also, that Elijah gave vent to his anger, and although he did so only against unbelievers, against whom his wrath blazed up, the sages declared that God took him from the world, saying to him, "He who has so much zeal as thou hast is not fit to guide men, for thou wilt destroy them".[14] Likewise, we find that Samuel feared Saul, and that Jacob was afraid to meet Esau. These and similar characteristics were so many partitions between the prophets (peace be unto them!) and God. He of them who had two or three qualities which did not maintain the proper medium, as is explained in Chapter IV, is said to have seen God from behind two or three partitions.

Thou must not be surprised to learn, however, that a few moral imperfections lessen the degree of prophetic inspiration; in fact, we find that some moral vices cause prophecy to be entirely withdrawn. Thus, for instance, wrath may do this, as our Rabbis say, "If a prophet becomes enraged, the spirit of prophecy departs from him".[15] They adduce proof for this from the case of Elisha, from whom, when he became enraged, prophecy departed, until his wrath had subsided, at which he exclaimed, "And now bring me a musician!"[16]

Grief and anxiety may also cause a cessation of prophecy, as in the case of the patriarch Jacob who, during the days when he mourned for Joseph, was deprived of the Holy Spirit, until he received the news that his son lived, whereupon Scripture says, "The spirit of Jacob, their father, revived",[17] which the Targum[18] renders, "And the spirit of prophecy descended upon their father, Jacob". The sages, moreover, say, "The spirit of prophecy rests not upon the idle, nor upon the sad, but upon the joyous".[19]

When Moses, our teacher, discovered that there remained no partition between himself and God which he had not removed, and when he had attained perfection by acquiring every possible moral and mental virtue, he sought to comprehend God in His true reality, since there seemed no longer to be any hindrance thereto. He, therefore, implored of God, "Show me, I beseech Thee, Thy glory".[20] But God informed him that this was impossible, as his intellect, since he was a human being, was still influenced by matter. So, God's answer was, "For no man can see me and live".[21] Thus, there remained between Moses and his comprehension of the true essence of God only one transparent obstruction, which was his human intellect still resident in matter. God, however, was gracious in imparting to him, after his request, more knowledge of the divine than he had previously possessed, informing him that the goal (he sought) was impossible of attainment, because he was yet a human being.[22] The true comprehension of God, Moses designates by the term "beholding the Divine face", for, when one sees another person face to face his features become imprinted upon the mind, so that one will not confuse him whom he has seen with others; whereas, if he sees only his back, he may possibly recognize him again, but will more probably be in doubt, and confuse him with others. Likewise, the true comprehension of God is a conception of the reality of His existence fixed in the mind (of the knower) which, as concerns this existence, is a conception not shared by any other being; so that there is firmly implanted in the mind of the knower a knowledge of God's existence absolutely distinct from the knowledge the mind has of any other being (that exists). It is impossible, however, for mortal man to attain this high degree of comprehension, though Moses (peace be unto him) almost, but not quite, reached it, which thought is expressed by the words, "Thou shalt see my back parts".[23] I intend more fully to discuss this subject in my Book on Prophecy.[24]

So, since the sages (peace be unto them) knew that these two classes of vices, that is, the mental and the moral, separated man from God, and that according to them the rank of the prophets varied, they (the Rabbis) said of some of their own number, with whose wisdom and morality they were acquainted, "It is fitting that the spirit of God should rest upon them as it did upon Moses, our teacher".[25]Do not, however, mistake the intention of the comparison. They did, indeed, compare them with Moses, for they were far (God forbid!) from giving them equal rank. In the same way they speak of others, characterizing them as being "like Joshua".

This is what we intended to explain in this chapter.

  1. For a discussion of the contents of this chapter, see Jaraczewski, ZPhKr, XLVI, pp. 14—15; Rosin, Ethik, p. 113ff., and Graetz (Eng. ed.), vol. III, pp. 483–484 on M.’s views on prophecy.
  2. For a detailed discussion of prophecy, see Moreh, II, 32-48. See supra, c. I, p. 45, n. 3. See also Bloch, Charakteristik und Inhaltsangabe des Moreh Nebuchim, in Moses ben Maimon, I, pp. 35–39.
  3. Yebamot, 49b: כל הנביאים נסתכלו באספקלריא שאינה מאירה, משה רבינו נסתכל באספקלריא המאירה‎. Cf. also Leviticus Rabbah, I. In Pereḳ Ḥeleḳ, M. describes the four points in which the prophecy of Moses was distinguished from that of the other prophets. See Holzer, Dogmenlehre, pp. 24–25. Cf. also Mishneh Torah, Sefer Maddaʾ, I, 7, 6; Moreh, I, Introduction (beg.), and II, 35.
  4. The passage in his commentary on Kelim, XXX, 2 to which M. refers is as follows: אספקלריא היא המכסה אשר יעשה לראות מאחוריו והוא אצלי מלה מורכבת ספק ראיה וזה שיראה אחורי המכסה שהוא מזכוכית או מן בלאר או מן דבר ספירי לא יראה במקומו האמתי וכן לא יראה על שיעורו האמתי ויקראו החכמים המכסה הבהיר מאד אשר לא יסתיר דבר מאחוריו אספקלריא המאירה ואמר על צד המשל בהשגת מרע״ה לאלהות שהוא השיג הבורא יתברך על תכלית מה שאפשר האדם מאשר הוא בחמר ההשגה שישיגהו כמו שאמר יתברך מזה כי לא יראני האדם וחי‎. Specularia (Lat.) = windowpanes, a window. Job 28,17, זְכוּכִית‎, glass = אִסְפַּקְלָרָא‎ (Targum). Cf. Sukkah, 45b; Gen. Rabbah, sect. 91; etc.
  5. Isa. LIX, 2.
  6. On man’s nearness to God being determined by the conduct of man, and God’s removal from the earth by sin, see Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, pp. 33, 83, 232–3, 241.
  7. Nedarim, 38a; Shabbat, 92a: אין השכינה שורה אלא על חכם גבור ועשיר ובעל קומה‎. Cf. Moreh, II. 32.
  8. Abot, IV, 1.
  9. Ibid., IV, 1. See, also, Yesode ha-Torah, VII, 1, for an account of the characteristics necessary for a prophet. Cf. Moreh, II, 36, and III, 51, where M. briefly describes those who form the class of prophets as directing all their minds to the attainment of perfection in metaphysics, devoting themselves entirely to God, and employing all their intellectual faculties in the study of the universe, in order to derive a proof for the existence of God, and to learn in every way possible how God rules things.
  10. I K. III, 5.
  11. Neh. XIII, 26.
  12. II Sam. XXIII, 3.
  13. I Ch. XXII, 8.
  14. Sanhedrin, 113a.
  15. Pesaḥim 66 b. Cf. Moreh, II, 36 (end)
  16. II K. III, 15. See Pesaḥim 117 a.
  17. Gen. XLV, 27.
  18. M. attached a great deal of importance to the Targum of Onkelos in the elucidation of many biblical passages, and refers to it many times in the Moreh. In Moreh, I, 27, he speaks of Onkelos, the proselyte, as being thoroughly acquainted with the Hebrew and Chaldaic languages. See Frankel, Hodegetik, p. 322, and Bacher, Die Bibelexegese Moses Maimunis, pp. 38-42.
  19. Shabbat, 30 b; Pesaḥim, loc. cit.: שאין השכינה שורה לא מתוך עצלות ולא מתוך עצבות ולא מתוך שחוק ולא מתוך קלות ראש לא מתוך דברים בטלים אלא מתוך דבר שמחה של מצוה‎. Cf. Moreh, II, 36 (end).
  20. Ex. XXXIII, 18.
  21. Ibid., XXXIII, 20.
  22. The corporeal element in man is a screen and partition that prevents him from perceiving abstract ideals, as they are. It is absolutely impossible for the human mind to comprehend the Divine Being, even though the corporeal element were as pure as that of the spheres. The Scriptural passages Ps. XCVII, 2 and XVIII, 12 express in figurative language this idea, that, on account of our bodies, we are unable to comprehend God's essence (Moreh, III, 9).
  23. Ex. XXXIII, 23. Cf. Yesode ha-Torah, I, 10. "But my face shall not be seen" (Ex. XXXIII, 23) means that God's true existence, as it is, cannot be comprehended (Moreh, I, 37), and "thou shalt see my back" (Ex. loc. cit.) signifies that!; God allowed Moses to see that which follows Him, is similar to Him, and is the result of the Divine Will, i. e., all things created by God (Moreh, I, 39). Cf. also Moreh, I, 21 and 54. See, on the interpretation of "my back" (אתרי‎) and "my face" (פני‎), Kaufmann, Attributenlehre, p. 405, and n. 72.
  24. See supra c. I, p. 45 n. 3.
  25. Sukkah, 28a; Baba Batra, 134a. See Rosin, Ethik, p. 114, n. 5.