Making Sense of the Revelation at Sinai - Revisiting Maimonides' Eighth Principle of Faith
Maimonides’ Views on Sinai and Prophecy
Maimonides’ Eighth Principle – The eighth principle is that the Torah is from Heaven. This means that we believe that the entire Torah that is in our hands today is the Torah that was given to Moses, and that it is from the Powerful One entirely. Meaning, that it came to [Moses] entirely from God, in the kind of transmission that may be referred to metaphorically as “speech.” No one knows the nature of that transmission except the person, may peace be upon him, who received it. He was akin to a scribe before whom something is dictated and he writes it all down, dates, numbers and commands…. To [the Sages], [King] Manasseh was the greatest denier and forsaker—more than any other denier—since he believed that the Torah had an inner core and an outer shell (b. San. 99b), and that the dates and stories offer no benefit and that Moses wrote them himself. This is the meaning of [the heretical declaration] ‘the Torah is not from heaven’ (m. San. 10:1). [The Sages] said that this refers to a person who says that the entire Torah is from the Holy One, except for one verse, which the Holy One did not say but Moses said it on his own. … Rather, every letter of the Torah contains within it wisdom and wonders to whomever the Lord has granted the wisdom to discern it.… The biblical passage that supports this eighth principle is …. “By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising” (Num. 16:28).”
Moses the Stenographer?
The whole of the Torah was spoken by God to Moses, says Maimonides in his Eighth Principle of Faith; Moses was “like a scribe before whom something is dictated and he writes it all down.” Seems a bit unsophisticated, no? Maimonides, for all his depth and subtlety, and for all his critique of anthropomorphism, would seem to be a source of the “stenographic” theory of revelation that is so widely scorned by modern, progressive Jewish theologians and Bible critics. And, indeed, opponents of the stenographic view of revelation often hold up Maimonides as an exemplar of what they reject.
I think this is a great mistake, and that a close look at Maimonides’ account of revelation, in the Eighth Principle and elsewhere, shows that it was nothing like the stenographic view. On the contrary: Maimonides’ understanding of revelation is a forerunner of modern views on that subject; he is an ally that progressive Jews can draw on, rather than an opponent to be refuted. At the same time, he has something to teach those of us on the progressive end of the spectrum: he makes crystal clear the difference between authorship and authority, between the historical sources of the Torah and the source of its claim to speak for God — to give us divine guidance.
Challenging the Stenographic Interpretation
To begin with, even on the most literal level Maimonides never quite says that the Torah was “spoken” by God to Moses. He writes, instead, that the Torah came to Moses from God in a manner “that may be referred to metaphorically as ‘speech’” and that no one but Moses knows the real nature of that communication.
That Maimonides registers these caveats about God’s speech is well-known, but their import has been underestimated. Many make it look as if Maimonides thought there was some kind of mechanical process by which God communicated verbally to Moses, and the question is just how much that process resembles literal speech. Maybe God appeared as a voice in Moses’ head? Maybe a supernatural agent, created by God for the occasion, did the talking?
In fact, the problem with God speaking to Moses, for Maimonides, goes much deeper. For Maimonides denies not only that God could possibly have organs of speech, or utter words (Guide I.46 and II.12), but that God can act within the world at all. God “is mutable in no way whatever,” says Maimonides (Guide I.xi). A perfect being is a complete being; it has no potentials to fulfill, nothing as yet unrealized within it (II.18). But for an Aristotelian like Maimonides, change is always the realization of a potential. So a fully perfect being cannot change; God would be less than perfect if God changed.
Which is to say that God would not be perfect if God did something different on Friday than on Thursday. That means that God could not tell Moses, or the people, something on Friday the 6th of Sivan that they didn’t know the day before: that would be a change, in God and God’s relation to other beings. So God couldn’t possibly communicate in any way whatever to Moses on that day, or any other day, even in the form of a voice in Moses’ head.
But if that’s what Maimonides believes, then the impression that he upholds a stenographic theory of revelation must collapse. For in the stenographic relationship, one party dictates words and another takes dictation; there is no such relationship if the first half of this dual act disappears.
This leaves us with the question of what Moses was actually doing on Mount Sinai.
We were all present at Sinai – How?
Let’s suspend that question for a moment, and raise another problem: about what we saw and heard on Sinai. In the Mishneh Torah (Sefer Mada, Yesodei HaTorah 8:1), Maimonides says that all of Israel saw and heard enough of this revelation ourselves that we can vouch for Moses’ prophecy, as we can vouch for no other prophet:
The Israelites did not have faith in our teacher, Moses, because of the signs he wrought. For anyone who believes because of signs has foolishness in his heart, for it is possible to perform [wondrous deeds] through trickery or sorcery. … So what is the source of our belief in [Moses]? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire and thunder and lightning, and he approached the fog and a voice spoke with him and we heard it say, “Moses, Moses, go tell them thus.”
Maimonides emphasizes the “we” in this passage — “our eyes saw,” “our ears heard,” “we heard it say” … What can he mean by this “we”? What can he mean by including himself and his readers in the events at Sinai? Of course, there is a famous rabbinic legend that all Jews, across all history, were present at Sinai but it is doubtful that an ultra-rationalist like Maimonides, who never talks about the reincarnation of souls, would have invoked this legend as a literal, historical fact.
The passage about our perceiving the revelation comes in the “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah) and is used to show that as regards Moses, unlike every other prophet, we need no proof that he spoke for God. We ourselves, at Sinai, witnessed his prophecy. This is “the source of our belief in [Moses],” and, like all direct perception, it is firm and proper and needs no other argument. To those who might doubt the truth of the Torah — those who above all need to read the “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” — Maimonides says that the answer to such doubts lies in something we all, directly, experienced.
But this appeal to perception can hardly be convincing to someone who doubts the truth of the Torah. Who among us literally remembers being at Sinai? And why, in particular, would someone who has doubts about the rest of Judaism take seriously the legend about having been at Sinai? Calling on a legendary “memory” like this seems hardly the firmest foundation for Jewish faith.
Moreover, given Maimonides’ views about God’s nature, there are no fewer problems in the idea that we might “see and hear” God than in the idea that Moses might do that. If God can’t speak to or appear to Moses, then God can’t speak to or appear to us ether.
There is a single solution to all these problems, I believe. Once we figure out what Moses was doing when he “heard” God at Sinai, on Maimonides’ account, we will also understand what he thinks the Israelites were doing there — and why we today can regard ourselves as having been among those Israelites.
What was Moses doing on Mount Sinai? – Maimonides’ Conception of Prophecy
So what was Moses doing on Sinai, if he was not taking dictation? To answer that, we need to turn to Maimonides’ conception of prophecy. The true prophet, says Maimonides, is a philosopher who has perfected his or her intellectual nature to such a degree that he understands God as well as any human being can (Guide II.32, 36-8; Sixth Principle). But this is not enough for prophecy. Prophets must also have risen above all their personal desires: their “lower” desires for food, drink, and sex, as well as their desires for power or status (II.36). Even then, only some people at this high intellectual and moral level will be able to use their knowledge of God to tell us how we should serve God — and only these people will be prophets.
Moses, according to Maimonides, achieved the intellectual and moral virtues of a prophet to the highest degree. He overcame all the ordinary bodily powers of human beings: his “imaginative and sensual powers were stripped from him.” He transcended mere humanity so far, indeed, that “he attained to the angelic level and became included in the level of the angels” (Seventh Principle).
Which, finally, gives us the answer to the question of what, according to Maimonides, Moses was doing on Sinai. In his super-human, intellectually and morally perfected state Moses came to understand God, better than anyone before or after him. He was therefore able to understand, better than anyone before or after him, what God might want of us. And he translated this knowledge into law. In short: Moses discerned God’s will and translated it into terms that could guide the people. That is what it is to “speak for” God, for Maimonides; that is what it is to “hear God’s voice.” No voice, and no words, came literally from God. All the words were Moses’ words.
But Moses’ words reflected his supreme understanding of what a divinely good way of life might look like, rather than his fantasies about how to live, let alone a project for satisfying his selfish interests. Therein lies the importance of his having transcended bodily desires and desires for power. Moses spoke for the good of all Israel, not for his own good, and that fact, coupled with his deep philosophical wisdom, enabled him to discern how the Israelites could best serve God. That is the overarching point of the Eighth Principle: Moses wrote nothing of “[his] own devising” but instead composed the entire Torah — every verse and letter of it — to express “wisdom and wonders” that God wants us to know.
Mental Perception and Sense Perception
One more point, and then we can draw some conclusions. In the philosophical tradition that Maimonides inherited, the highest faculties of the mind were often compared to sense-perception, even though they involve no sensation. For both Plato and Aristotle, we “perceive” the basic premises of mathematics and logic and metaphysics, even though they have nothing to do with our sensory powers. We “perceive” the law of non-contradiction, for instance, in knowing it to be true without being able to argue for it. Principles like this one are too basic to all other proof to be themselves capable of proof: they are, rather, fixed points that we need simply to “see.” They seem irrefutably true, just as objects of sensory perception seem irrefutably out there. Their truth is given to our minds, as sensory objects are given to our senses. Calling the faculty of the mind that picks up on these premises a kind of perception is, therefore, a way of affirming their objectivity.
Now Maimonides explicitly tells us that nobody can have sensory perception of God, and that biblical words that look like they are talking about sense perception, in connection with God, must instead refer to intellectual perception. So when he describes Moses as “hearing” God, or the Jewish people as “seeing and hearing” God, we must understand the seeing and hearing here to be metaphors for intellectual perception. Moses intellectually perceived the correctness or goodness of the metaphysical and moral premises on which the Torah rests, whatever those might be, and we intellectually perceived that he was right to endorse these premises.
Only this reading of Maimonides squares with his insistence that nothing about God can ever be bodily perceived, and only this reading makes sense of the idea that all of us, even today, can perceive that Moses got it right. All Jews were “at Sinai” in the sense that all of us, if we do the right sort of philosophy and interpret the Torah accordingly, can understand that the Torah expresses God’s will. No other kind of “being at Sinai” could possibly matter to Maimonides, and this sort of being at Sinai is still available to us today, long after the events described in Exodus.
The Nature of the Torah
Moses the Historical Person vs. the Mosaic Perspective
Let’s now draw some threads together.
First, what should we make of Maimonides’ comment, in the Seventh Principle of Faith, about Moses “attain[ing] to the angelic level attained to the angelic level and [becoming] included in the level of the angels”? Maimonides primarily means by this that Moses, in understanding God and God’s will, stood beyond imagination and sensation. But that is to say that Moses stood beyond all the capacities by which we pick up empirical facts: beyond the capacities that would have led him to be aware of his historical situation, the mountain on which he stood, the desert around him, or the coming out of Egypt. He transcended all these things and instead discerned what God eternally wants from us; he stood, like an angel, in eternity.
But that in turn is to say that he transcended all the things that distinguish him as Moses, a historical personage, and became instead a personification of what is best in all human beings. So it doesn’t really matter if he was Moses, the historical personage, at all.
For Maimonides, what matters is that the Torah was written from the perspective of pure intellect, the aspect of ourselves that we share with the angels. That we call the person who occupied this perspective “Moses,” and that he lived in a certain place and time, is immaterial. We might just as well call him “J,” for instance. Or “E” or “P.”
Or perhaps “R.” Franz Rosenzweig suggested that the “R” by which historical critics designate the redactor of the Torah might be equally well read as “Rabbeinu,” our teacher. And if we are willing to say that this “Rabbeinu” occupied the Mosaic or angelic perspective, whoever he or she may have been and whenever he or she may have lived, then we have done all we need to do to establish the Torah’s divine origin for Maimonides.
The Torah as an Ideal Vision
Second, our reason to believe that the Torah is of divine origin, on Maimonides’ account, has nothing to do with our having literally seen or heard something at Sinai, let alone our remembering such an experience now, thousands of years later. We can attribute the Torah to God as long as we see in its laws and teachings a supremely good understanding of God’s will for us. We need to employ our intellectual perception, not our sensory perception, to validate the Torah as revelation. That’s what it takes for us to witness to Moses’s prophecy, to regard the Torah as true.
Can we regard the Torah as containing such an ideal vision of God’s will for us? Maimonides’ own way of defending this claim is contained in Part III of his Guide, where he gives detailed reasons for the commandments. Overall, he argues, they constitute a social order that uniquely promotes justice, good conduct and some understanding of God for the bulk of its members, while allowing an intellectual elite to know God as fully as any human being can (Guide III.27-8, 51).
I do not wish to defend Maimonides’ conception of what it is to know God, let alone his elitism. Nevertheless, he gives us an excellent model for the kind of thing we need to do in our own day, if we want to see the Torah as divine. We must see how its laws make moral and spiritual sense, and how they provide us with a framework in which to achieve our highest religious goals.
This is a philosophical and a hermeneutic project, for which there are resources in aggada and Kabbalah, medieval and modern parshanut, and modern (Jewish and non-Jewish) philosophy and literature. It is not a historical project. A fuller knowledge of what the ancient Israelite priests and courtiers and scribes who probably composed the Torah meant by what they wrote might turn out to be religiously useful in places, but there is no reason to assume that it will. Authorial intent, if that means the intent of the human authors through whom the Torah was produced, is irrelevant to its religious meaning. What matters is whether the Torah truly presents a supremely good (“divine”) way for us to live, and that is not to be discovered by historical or any other empirical means. It must be found by intellectual perception — ethical and metaphysical and theological perception — not by sensory perception.
Accepting the Torah in its Entirety
Third and finally, I want to endorse Maimonides’ insistence on the holiness of the entire Torah. The Eighth Principle is not so much about the authorship as about the authority of the Torah, and its over-arching point is that we should regard the whole Torah, not just some of it, as standing over and above us — as containing a divine, not merely human, wisdom. Once one gets beyond the (apparent) stenographic scenario with which it begins, practically all of the Eighth Principle is devoted to saying that we should regard every single verse of the Torah as divine, rather than dividing it into a divinely-produced “core” and a humanly-added “shell.” This turns out, indeed, to be the point of the stenographic scenario as well: we are supposed to understand that Moses wrote the whole book without putting in anything that reflected his own personal desires or perceptions. He wrote all of it, therefore, as if it were “dictated” to him by the objective truth about how to live; he did not “make up” any of it out of his own mind. Which is to say: all of the Torah, not just some of it, comes from the angelic perspective.
This is really a hermeneutic admonition on Maimonides’ part, a guide to reading the Torah. He is urging us to seek “wisdom and wonders” in every verse, rather than dismissing any of it. The idea is that we can find the divine in the Torah only if we regard all of it as having authority over us, as guiding us rather than needing to be corrected by us. Regarding the whole Torah as coming from the angelic perspective is essential to understanding how any of it comes from that perspective: we can pull God’s will for us out of it only if we refuse to write off even its problematic verses and struggle instead to get a religiously useful meaning out of them.
And this I think is right. Pace many liberal theologians, we should still take the Torah as wholly authoritative over us. How exactly we should understand this authority today may be radically different from how we understood it in prior generations — our “intellectual perception,” our modes of philosophical understanding, have changed over time, and the religious truth we perceive in the Torah will change accordingly. That may mean that the laws we draw from it should change. Halachic change, and progressive moral and theological views, are compatible with a view by which one tries always to humble oneself to the Torah rather than to dismiss or correct it. But I doubt that we can learn religiously from the Torah at all, see it as the source of our understanding of God’s will for us, unless we humble ourselves to it.
Among other things, this means largely taking up, for religious purposes, the standpoint of traditional rather than historico-critical interpreters of the Torah. The biblical scholar James Kugel, who is also an Orthodox Jew, brings out nicely why the authority of the Torah disappears from view if we insist on approaching it as an historical artifact:
The person who seeks to learn from the Bible is smaller than the text; he crouches at its feet, waiting for its instructions or insights. Learning about the text generates the opposite posture. The text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon. The insights are now all the reader’s, not the text’s.
If I seek God’s wisdom in the Torah — however exactly I understand that wisdom — I must humble myself to it, assume that it contains mysteries from which I can learn even when it seems mistaken or confused: assume that I, rather than it, am mistaken or confused. This is a basic religious posture towards a sacred text, essential to the belief that it is sacred. We need to adopt it, for the Torah to be sacred for us, regardless of the specific sacred teaching we hope or expect to find in it.
To conclude, I think Maimonides’ Eighth Principle fits well with modern approaches to Judaism and Torah. The authority of the Torah remains something that even progressive religious Jews can continue to uphold, although they may accommodate that authority to modern moral and metaphysical principles. Maimonides gives us every resource we need to develop such a modern, progressive Judaism — as long as we understand that the Mosaic perspective from which the Torah was written, which we should strive to share, is a perspective that arises from the intellectual (ethical, spiritual, metaphysical) perception of God, not from sensory perception.
And if we do employ our intellectual perception aright, if we attain or approximate the angelic perspective and see the Torah in its light, we can stand once again — today and every day — together with Moses on Sinai.
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March 20, 2014
September 23, 2019
Professor Sam Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and, in 2013-14, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His most recent books include What is Enlightenment? (Routledge, 2013) and Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011).
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