Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Chasam Sofer on the Ra'avad and corporeality of G-d

The Chasam Sofer in his commentary on last week’s parsha sneaks in an interesting pshat in the famous comment of the Ra’avad regarding hagshama, the corporeality of G-d.  Here’s a link because I don’t think my summary does justice to it.  The Rambam (Teshuvah 3:7) paskens that thinking that G-d has a body or a form is apikorsus, but the Ra’avad argues that “gedolim v’tovim chashvu kein.”  The Ra’avad understood the Rambam to be making a distinction between thinking of G-d as having a body, which is heresy, and thinking of G-d the way the philosophers do, as an abstract being. The Ra’avad’s argument, as the Chasam Sofer presents it, is that the Rambam’s distinction is semantic and not real.  Even if you think of G-d in the way the philosophers do, or even the way kabbalists do – applying any intellectual construct to the concept of G-d – is just as bad as thinking that G-d has a body.  Just because you box G-d into an abstract construct instead of a physical one doesn’t make things better.  When the Ra’avad writes “gedolim v’tovim chashvu kein,” he doesn’t mean that other Rishonim or philosophers thought G-d has a body.  What he means is that the abstract conception of G-d which they subscribe to, which the Rambam himself subscribes to as a defender of philosophy, is no less problematic than thinking G-d has a physical body. 

So how then can we ever think of G-d?  As Moshe Rabeinu asks, when Klal Yisrael asks what G-d’s name is, what can he tell them?  How do we worship a being without thinking of him?  For the Ra’avad, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” the philosophical or kabbalistic idea of G-d, is just a beginning.  The next pasuk continues, “Anochi Elokei avicha Elokei Avraham Elokei Yitzchak Elokei Ya’akov…” (3:6)  Even though the Avos themselves could not fathom G-d’s true essence (“u’shmi Hashem lo noda’ati lahem,” as we read in our parsha), the fact that G-d appeared to them and allowed their brain to have some conception of Him is a matir for us to think of G-d in the same way.  Of course we are not the Avos and we cannot even imagine what conception of G-d they might have had, but we don’t need to do that – all we need to do is say whatever the Avos thought of, we are worshipping the same being.  We don’t know what G-d is, but we know he is “Elokei Avraham…” and we can hang on his coattails.
I’m not sure what to make of the balancing act the Chasam Sofer is trying to oull off.  On the one hand, he finds justice in the Ra’avad’s critique – the very act of trying to apprehend G-d imposes limits on Him that are false.  G-d by definition is beyond anything we can conceive of.  Yet on the other hand the Chasam Sofer does not seem to accept that the need to worship, to relate to G-d, therefore must allow for us to draw a mental “picture” of Him (as the Piecezna seems to suggest in Bnei Machshava Tovah).  He draws back and says that a person should just resign himself to saying whatever the Avos thought of, ditto for him, and that’s it.   

1 comment:

  1. It is useful to see Kesav Tamim (by the Baal Tosafos R' Moshe Taqu) inside. I am not saying that the Raavad was necessarily referring to KT as being the greater rabbi than the Rambam. But he is the only candidate we still know of.

    My take:

    The Rambam (Moreh I) argues that HQBH is so Other, so Unique, that we can't say anything about what He Is. Only about what He Isn't, and what He does.

    RMT's position appears to be that HQBH is so Other, so Unique, that we cannot make any deductions about Him altogether. Take logtic and reason off the table. And so, if the Torah says "Yad Hashem", what tools do we have to argue? It may not make sense to say Hashem has a Guf, but not fitting human sense is a given. In a way, his point isn't to assert that Hashem has a body as to attack the notion that we can deny it. We have to leave the question of G-d's Body unanswered and unanswerable.

    Notice there is no more room in [my understanding of] RMT's hashkafah for a personal relationship with G-d or Divine Immanence, than there is in the Rambam's. Both deal in purely transcendent terms.

    Here's a relevent quote (pp 79-80):

    We cannot compare Him to any image, and we, who are fetid drops, cannot think about His nature. When it is His will to show Himself to the angels, He shows Himself standing straight, as much as they are able to accept. Sometimes He shows them a strange light without any form, and they know that the Divine Presence is there. He has movement, which can be derived from the fact that His fetid creations have movement. He created the air which provides life to the creations and created the place of the world.... He furthermore made known to them the acts of the chariot and the acts of creation. But without the wisdom of the Torah, it is impossible for any person to recognize the greatness of the Holy One, blessed is He, through intellect.

    And (pg 85):
    A wise person will understand that according to the reasoning and intellect of those 'outside' viewpoints that we mentioned above, one must deny the statement of the Rabbis (Bereishit Rabba 88) that: "'I will be faithful for them' -- for three thousand years before the creation of the world God created the Torah and was looking in it and learning it." According to their words that there is no movement or motion and no speech all the words of the Torah and of our Rabbis must be analogies and metaphors. Heaven forbid that anyone with a soul within his body should believe in what they say, to lessen the honor of our Creator, and to deny the greatness of what our Rabbis have told us! They have also written, "Does He sit on an exalted and high throne? Originally was it possible for Him without a throne and now He need a throne? Furthermore anyone who sits on a throne has the throne surrounding him, and we can't say such a thing about the Creator, about Whom it says that He fills the heavens and the earth." These are [their] words of blasphemy, that He doesn't need the throne! They have forgotten... what the Men of the Great Assembly established in our prayers, "To God who sits... on the seventh day He ascended and sat on His throne of glory..." We see that He created the world and sat on the throne of glory, and not that He created other forms and sat them on the throne. Such a form was never created and these are words of blasphemy.