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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Ekev: Saying the Unsayable

The discourse of Moses continues this week with promises of great blessings if we live in accordance with the teachings of the Torah, and of terrible consequences if we don't. He also outlines many of the trials and tribulations of the 40 years in the desert, from the episode of the golden calf, to the rebellion of Korah, Datan, and Aviram (although Korah isn't mentioned by name). In addition to these trials and tribulations, Moses documents the wondrous miracles that sustained the Jewish people along the way. Turning from the past to the future, he goes on to describe some of the special qualities of the land of Israel, that lies just beyond the river.

Among the very well known passages in this week's reading (including the second paragraph of the Shema, and the oft-quoted words that "man does not live off bread alone"), are the following words:

For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe.

This description of God as "the great, the mighty, and the awesome God" finds its way into the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, the standing prayer (known as the shomeh-esrei or the amida), said three times a day.

Two Midrashim quote this verse, for very different purposes. The first of these Midrashim takes the form of a story, quoted in the Talmud:

An individual descended before the ark [as prayer leader] in the presence of Rabbi Chanina. [As the prayer leader recited the Amida,] he said: "the God who is "great, mighty, and awesome"" [and then he added more descriptions, saying,] "and powerful, mighty, awe-inspiring, strong, fearless, steadfast and honored." [Rabbi Chanina] waited for him until he completed [his prayer]. When he finished, [Rabbi Chanina] asked him: "Have you concluded all of the praises of your Master? Why do I need all of this? Even these three [descriptions] that we do recite: [namely, "The great, mighty and awesome,"] had Moses our teacher not said them in the Torah and had the members of the Great Assembly not come and incorporated them into the [Amida prayer], we would not be permitted to recite them. And yet you went on and recited all of these [extra descriptions]. It is comparable to a king who possessed many thousands of golden dinars, yet they were praising him for silver ones. Isn’t that insulting to him?"

Many medieval theologians thought that God was beyond the limits of what language could describe. Some took this very seriously indeed. For example, Rabbi Saadya Gaon argued that, since God created every property, he must beyond description. You can't say that God is wise, because God created wisdom. God is prior to wisdom. You can't say that he's strong, or even that he's good. He made strength and goodness, and every other property too. He is, in some sense, beyond them. It's important to note here that, according to Rav Saadya, God didn't create wickedness or injustice - those are not real properties, they are merely the absence of goodness and justice. Everything that God created was good. But God is beyond all of his creations, and so he cannot be described.

For similar reasons, Maimonides is well known for his view that you can only truly describe God in terms of what he isn't, since there are no words that can really describe what he is (this doctrine is known as the via negativa, or apophaticism).

Sometimes it is alleged that this apophatic strain of theology found its way into Judaism only in the Middle Ages. The God of the Bible and the God of the (pre-medieval) Rabbis was a God who could be and frequently was described in bluntly human terms. It was the medievals who tried to do away with anthropomorphism. And for that reason, Howard Wettstein, for example, argues that "the distance between biblical/rabbinic and medieval philosophic thinking is enormous."

In broad brush-strokes, I can hear where Wettstein's coming from. But our Midrash speaks against any rigid generalisation. Rabbi Chanina is not a medieval philosopher. He's one of the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash. And yet, pay attention to what he says. He first seems to mock the prayer leader for thinking that he could ever say enough, "Have you concluded all of the praises of your Master?" This brings to mind the beautiful words of liturgy, recited every Sabbath morning:

Were our mouths as full of song as the sea, and our tongues as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the firmament, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as nimble as deer -- we still could not thank You sufficiently, Hashem our God and God of our forefathers nor bless your name.

How many words are enough? We can never finish the praises of God, so why be audacious enough to start?!

But Rabbi Chanina goes further. He says that even the words that we are commanded to say, the words of the authorized liturgy, which describe God as "the great, the mighty and the awesome", Rabbi Chanina would not say were it not for the fact that Moses said them, and that the men of the Great Assembly put them into our fixed prayers. And then comes the punchline. To praise God with words, presumably with any words, even with the words that Moses spoke in this week's Torah reading, to praise God even with the words of the authorised liturgy is, in actual fact, insulting to God. To use words in praise of God would be like introducing Paul McCartney as the lead singer of the Wings, without mentioning that he was in the Beatles! It would be like praising a king for all of his silver when he actually posses gold. Words are the wrong currency for the praise of God, because no words can do him justice.

We shouldn't be surprised to find Maimonides celebrating this Midrash. He even writes, "would that all passages in the Talmud were like this one!" "The excellence of the simile," he tells us:

consists in the words: "who possesses golden dinars, and is praised as having silver dinars"; this implies that these attributes, though perfections as regards ourselves, are not such as regards God; in reference to Him they would all be defects, as is distinctly suggested in the remark, "Is this not insulting to Him?"

So, we do find traces of apophaticism even in the rabbis of the Talmud. Despite all of its anthropomorphisms, we do find apophatic moments in the Bible too. In the book of Isaiah, for example, we read:

"Now, to whom will you compare Me that I should be equal?" says the Holy One.

Words that can be used to describe other things cannot be used to describe the Lord. But since words, by their very nature, are able to apply to all sorts of things, we seem unable to say anything about God. Rabbi Chanina's opinion would seem to be this: no words can do justice to God, but words are all we have. Since Moses was the greatest prophet ever to live, and since we seem to have to say something, we'll use the words that Moses said, but we won't add any words of our own.

Frank Ramsey

But there's a massive philosophical problem here. As soon as you say that God is beyond description, then you're describing him as being beyond description. And if that description is true, then you can describe God after all. In other words: apophaticism can't even be said without violating the very constraints it's supposed to impose upon us. Or, to put it yet another way, apophaticism tries to tell us what can't be said. But you can't say what can't be said. In the words of the philosopher, Frank Ramsey, you cannot say what can't be said, and you can't whistle it either!

For this reason, a number of medieval Jewish philosophers were unwilling to follow Rabbi Saadya and Maimonides in their negative theology. Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (otherwise known either as the Ralbag or Gersonides), and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas suggest an entirely different attitude to religious language. On their view, words that describe a perfection (such as "wisdom", or "justice", or "strength", or "love") apply fully and without equivocation to God in His perfection. God really is wise, just, strong, loving, and more. To use the words of Moses, God really is "great, and mighty, and awesome." But in order to maintain the gulf that clearly lies between the Creator and His creations, the Ralbag and Crescas insist that nothing else in the world, other than God, is truly wise, or just, or strong, or loving. The perfections only really apply to God. They apply to God's creations only insofar as they are a pale reflection of their creator.

This attitude can already be found in a much earlier text: our second Midrash. It states:

Befitting is (the ascription of) "greatness" to the Lord. And thus did David say (I Chronicles 29:11), "To you, O Lord, is [befitting the ascription of] greatness, might, splendor, triumph, and majesty." A king of flesh and blood enters a province, and all praise him as "strong" — when he is weak; as "rich" — when he is poor; as "wise" — when he is foolish; as "merciful" — when he is cruel; as "trusty" — when he is not. He is lacking in all of these (fine) attributes — All men are flattering him. But it is not so with Him who spoke and brought the world into being. He is more than He is praised for being. I shall sing to the Lord, who is mighty, as it is written — (Devarim 10:17) "the God who is great and mighty and awesome," (Psalms 24:8) "the Lord, mighty and strong, the Lord, strong in war," (Isaiah 42;13) "The Lord as a mighty one shall go forth. As a man of war, He will stir up wrath. He will shout; He will scream. He will overpower His foes," (Jeremiah 10:14) "There is none like You, O Lord. Great are You and great is Your name in strength."

The author of our Midrash goes on to say, "I shall sing to the Lord, who is rich" before supplying a list of proof-texts for God's wealth; "I shall sing to the Lord, who is wise" before supplying a list of proof-texts for God's wisdom. The pattern continues, with the Midrash saying, "I shall sing to the Lord, for He is merciful"; "I shall sing to the Lord, who is a Judge"; "I shall sing to the Lord, who is trusty"; and "I shall sing to the Lord, who is comely, who is glorious, who is exalted, and whose like does not exist."

This Midrash has a very different attitude to the one espoused by Rabbi Chanina in our first Midrash. Admittedly, they agree that nothing we say can do God justice. But according to Rabbi Chanina, our words are insulting to God. They are insulting because they are false. They are false because they are the wrong currency. Words simply cannot grasp the creator. But according to our second Midrash, words are not the wrong currency at all, even if we can never say enough of them.

According to our first Midrash, Moses was doing the best that he could do when he said that God was great and mighty and awesome, but all of these words fail to get to grips with the Divine reality. According to our second Midrash, by contrast, God really is great and mighty and awesome, but nothing else is. Any greatness, wealth, wisdom, mercy, justice, trustworthiness, beauty, glory, or exultedness that we see in things other than God are nothing but a pale reflection of their paradigm in God. God is the real thing. Everything else is counterfeit.

To my mind, we're wrong to think that there's a gulf between the highly abstract God of the medieval rabbis and the deeply personal God of the Bible and the earlier rabbis. Instead, the religious life has always contained two aspects, sometimes in the very same moment.

Indeed, across different religious traditions, people immersed in a religious way of life often claim to experience God in one of two ways. Some claim to experience God as falling under quite straightforward concepts; they experience God as a source of love or as a source of counsel or calling. These sorts of experience are said to entail the following sorts of claims, “God loves me” or “God has called upon me to do x.” Call these the claims of positive theology. Scripture, tradition, and contemporary adherents of the world’s great religions make a great many positive claims, like these.

But by contrast, there are also those who claim to experience God in what seem like paradoxical ways; as beyond description. Sometimes these experiences occur in the midst of mystical rapture. Sometimes they're less dramatic—somebody claims to experience an “indescribable presence” accompanying their everyday lives. These experiences lead people to claim: “God defies all description.” This is the claim of negative theology.

The claim of negative-theology seems to contradict the claims of positive theology, and yet religious people often feel compelled to make both sorts of claim (how can God be beyond description if we also say that he's "great, and mighty, and awesome"?). Moreover, the claim of negative theology seems to be internally incoherent (how can God be beyond description if he satisfies the description “beyond description”?). But both forms of theology make their mark on the Jewish tradition, as we see in the debate between our two Midrashim. And both forms of theology make themselves felt in the religious lives of theists throughout history and all over the world.

In a piece of shameless self-promotion, I can say that the first chapter of my new book seeks to do justice to both sides of this debate; it seeks to make some sort of room for the claim that God is beyond all description without undermining the words of Moses, which adorn our liturgy, that God really is great, and mighty, and awesome.


That should have been the end of this week's post, but there was one more Midrash I couldn't resist sharing. Towards the end of this week's reading, Moses promises that the conquest of Israel will proceed smoothly, but only on condition that we "keep all this instruction that I command you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all His ways, and holding fast to Him."

The Midrash focuses on the notion that we have to keep "all" of the Torah, as if it's a package deal. We cannot pick and choose. This is also the case with the Torah that we learn. We cannot pick and choose. The Midrash says:

"All this instruction" Lest you say: I shall learn (only) this difficult section and leave this simple one, it is, therefore, written (Deuteronomy. 32:47) "For it is not an empty thing from you." Something that you call "empty" is empty only from (i.e., because of) you. What you are calling "empty" is (Ibid.) "your lives" and length of days.

As we say in the liturgy, and as Moses assures us in Deuternomy 32, the Torah is "our lives" and it is "the length of our days"; so if any part of it seems simple, or easy, or empty, to us, it is because we are empty. The Midrash continues:

Do not say "I have learned the halachoth; that is enough for me." It is, therefore, written "if you keep, keep, all of this instruction." Learn all of the instruction — midrash, halachoth, and aggadoth. And thus is it written (Ibid. 8:3) "to make it known to you that not through bread alone shall a man live": "bread" is midrash. (Ibid.) "but by all that issues from the mouth of the Lord shall a man live": These are halachoth and aggadoth.

And so our Midrash expounds upon two of the most well known verses in our reading. "If you keep all this instruction that I command you..." is re-read to be saying, "if you keep some of it; keep all of it, and so too, if you learn some of it, strive to learn all of it." And "not through bread alone shall a man live" comes to teach us that we should learn multiple types of Torah, not just Bible, not just Talmud, not just Midrash, and not just law. We need to find a balance. And if any of this appears empty to us, the emptiness that needs to be remedied is an emptiness in us.

Finally: why is the Midrash compared to bread? A Hassidic response would probably turn the question on its head. Why should we compare our bread to Midrash.

To this, the great Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, has an answer. He points out that the Hebrew word for bread is an anagram of the Hebrew word for dream: לחם and חלֹם. He wants us to learn from this that just as we experience our dreams as thick with symbolic resonance, such that we want to interpret them, and discover their deeper meaning, so too should we relate even to our most materialistic experiences, as we nourish our bodies on the bread of the earth. Everything that happens to us is ripe for interpretation. Every experience can be rendered significant. Every verse of the Torah, and every line of our own biographies are worthy of multiple Midrashim. If any experience seems empty, perhaps the emptiness lies in us.

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