Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Imperfectly Divine

 As I mention here on occasion, I'm a member, and in fact the president of Congregation Adas Emuno, a small Reform temple in Leonia, which is a town in Bergen County, New Jersey. So this year I started to attend our Saturday morning Torah study sessions, which are led by our rabbi, Barry Schwartz.  One reason I decided to do this rather than sleep in on Saturday morning was Barry's decision to have us study the Mishneh Torah of Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher and theologian.

You may not have heard of him, but Maimonides is considered by some to be second only to his namesake, the biblical Moses, in his influence on the development of Judaism. As an authority on the Hebrew bible and Talmud, he also influenced Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. In addition to being a theologian and philosopher, Maimonides was also a practicing physician.

Now, to backtrack for a moment, students of media ecology, and the history of writing, know that there are two major origination points for the alphabet. 

The first is circa 1500 BCE, when the Semitic alphabet first appears in the Sinai desert. This is a major breakthrough because previously, logographic and syllabic writing systems required thousands or hundreds of different characters, whereas the Semitic alphabet reduced it all down to 22 consonants.  Following the introduction of the Semitic alphabet, we get the events represented by the story of Moses, and a new kind of culture appearing in that region, which is to say, ancient Israel. 

The Semitic alphabet diffused across the Mediterranean to the Greeks by the way of the Semitic people known as Phoenecians, and the Greeks adapted it to their own language, changing some of the consonants into vowels in the process. Out of this came everything we know and admire about ancient Greece.

So, we have two major alphabetic cultures in antiquity, Greece and Israel, or as some put it metonymically, Athens and Jerusalem. Athens gives us our secular-humanist culture, associated with the Greco-Roman tradition, and Jerusalem gives us our religious and legal-ethical culture, associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. But advantage goes to Athens, not only because secular humanism has been increasingly more dominant since the Enlightenment, but also because the Christian church embraced Greco-Roman thought, especially once Christianity completely broke with Judaism, and was adopted by the Roman emperor Constantine.

We just recently discussed the book Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia in an MA class I'm teaching at Fordham University, and Paglia argues how pagan culture never truly vanished, but remained very much just under the surface of western Christian culture, in both its Apollonian and Dionysian forms. And it follows that the Apollonian side of pagan culture is the basis of our secular-humanist orientation.

Anyway, among the differences between the two alphabetic cultures is the fact that Jerusalem retained a strong connection to orality to balance out its commitment to literacy, and an aversion to visual imagery on account of the Second Commandment injunction against graven images of any kind, while Athens developed a highly visual and visualist culture, laying the groundwork for the extreme visualism that emerged via print culture in early modern Europe.

Walter Ong's media ecology sensibility was based, in large part, on his gaining an understanding of the strong residual orality of Judaic culture, and the absence of the visualism that shaped ancient Greece. The 20th century Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, had significant influence on Ong's thought on the subject, although the Athens vs. Jerusalem dichotomy is typically associated with Leo Strauss.

Hellenism posed a great challenge to Jewish culture and thought in the ancient world, and the minor holiday of Hanukkah, which we'll begin to celebrate this coming Saturday evening, represents the first major battle between Jerusalem and Athens, not in the sense of direct warfare, but as a war waged within ancient Israel to rid itself of Hellenistic influences. Mostly, however, the battles were intellectual ones, as for example Philo of Alexandria provided an early attempt to synthesize Greek and Jewish thought, one that was largely ignored by Talmudic scholars, but held some influence within the early Christian Church.

Now jump ahead to the 12th century, and we have Maimonides being thoroughly schooled in ancient Greek philosophy, as it was preserved in the Islamic empire, embracing Aristotelian rationalism and attempting to apply it to Talmudic scholarship and Judaic thought. Now this may set off warning signals among followers of general semantics, but after all, Aristotle's logic represented a major advance for its time, and we certainly cannot expect a find a Korzybski-like non-Aristotelian approach in the 12th century.

So, just as Aristotle tried to provide organized summaries of the philosophical thinking of his time, Maimonides tried to do the same for Judaism and Talmudic scholarship. And this effort to summarize and organize can be understood as a shift towards Greek visualism.  In doing so, he left out all of the Talmudic references, the differing points of view that are recorded, removing the sense of an ongoing conversation, dialogue, debate and disputation. The result is something more like a textbook, a step towards the Ramist revolution of the early modern era that Ong researched (interestingly enough, Ramism was the basis of Puritan education, and Maimonides was an important source for Puritan theologians, who argued that they were the new Israelites).

It occurred to me that to take on this kind of summary, and more importantly, to want to make it available to others, suggests an increased accessibility of written works, along the lines that Harold Innis discusses in his seminal media ecology work, The Bias of Communication.  So I checked, and found that the manufacturing of paper, which was invented in China in the 2nd century CE, had spread to the Iberian peninsula during the 10th century.  It follows that by the time of Maimonides, paper had become plentiful, opening the door to and creating a demand for efforts such as he was engaged in.

As an Aristotelian, Maimonides sought to establish first principles, in order to provide a logical basis for Jewish thought, and therefore set forth 13 principles of faith, the first time anything like that had been attempted.  He also argued for highly abstract notions of God and the human soul, in ways that seemed to me to draw on Plato's ideal forms. Again, this is a shift away from the oral, dialogic mode into a more abstract, visual, rational approach.

Now, while recognizing the significance of his accomplishments, my preference is for the Kabbalah and Isaac Luria, as mysticism seems to better work with spirituality than rationality does, although logic can be useful in regard to ethics.  But given our modern understanding about the limits of deductive reasoning (only as good as its premises), the proven effectiveness of empiricism (relying on observable facts), and my own preference for that non-Aristotelian approach of general semantics, and media ecology, I find Maimonides difficult to relate to in many respects, although fascinating to study.

So now, while this doesn't relate directly to Maimonides, I was interested to come across a recent post on the New York Times Opinionator Blog, dated November 25th, and entitled An Imperfect God, by Yoram Hazony, president of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of, most recently, The Philosophy of Hebrew ScriptureHere is how he begins:

Is God perfect? You often hear philosophers describe "theism" as the belief in a perfect being - a being whose attributes are said to include being all-powerful, all-knowing, immutable, perfectly good, perfectly simple, and necessarily existent (among others). And today, something like this view is common among lay people as well. 
This view, I should point out, would directly correspond to that of Maimonides, and of course most other medieval and modern theologians. Anyway, to continue with the post:

There are two famous problems with this view of God. The first is that it appears to be impossible to make it coherent. For example, it seems unlikely that God can be both perfectly powerful and perfectly good if the world is filled (as it obviously is) with instances of terrible injustice. Similarly, it's hard to see how God can wield his infinite power to instigate alteration and change in all things if he is flat-out immutable. And there are more such contradictions where these came from.
The second problem is that while this "theist" view of God is supposed to be a description of the God of the Bible, it's hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or "Old Testament") thought of God in this way at all. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he's repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants. And so on.
Here, Hazony is raising the famous problem of free will, one that Maimonides among many others have taken up. Maimonides insists that we have free will, and his emphasis is on proving that this is the case based on Biblical sources, but he does not really tackle the problem of how this is inconsistent with the view of God as a perfect being.
Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God's supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it's reasonably clear that this can't be done. In fact, part of the reason God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so influential (apart from the fact they write so well) is their insistence that the doctrine of God's perfections makes no sense, and that the idealized "being" it tells us about doesn't resemble the biblical God at all.
So is that it, then? Have the atheists won? I don't think so. But it does look like the time has come for some rethinking in the theist camp.
I'd start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a "perfect being," or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason. Normally, when we say that something is "perfect," we mean it has attained the best possible balance among the principles involved in making it the kind of thing it is. For example, if we say that a bottle is perfect, we mean it can contain a significant quantity of liquid in its body; that its neck is long enough to be grasped comfortably and firmly; that the bore is wide enough to permit a rapid flow of liquid; and so on. Of course, you can always manufacture a bottle that will hold more liquid, but only by making the body too broad (so the bottle doesn't handle well) or the neck too short (so it's hard to hold). There's an inevitable trade-off among the principles, and perfection lies in the balance among them. And this is so whether what's being judged is a bottle or a horse, a wine or a gymnastics routine or natural human beauty.
What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we'd say he's made a fundamental mistake here: You can't perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.
I think Hazony's argument here is quite brilliant, not the least because he is using logic to refute logic.

The attempt to think of God as a perfect being is misguided for another reason as well. We can speak of the perfection of a bottle or a horse because these are things that can be encompassed (at least in some sense) by our senses and understanding. Having the whole bottle before us, we feel we can judge how close it is to being a perfect instance of its type. But if asked to judge the perfection of a bottle poking out of a paper bag, or of a horse that's partly hidden in the stable, we'd surely protest: How am I supposed to know? I can only see part of it.
Yet the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary in just this way. Even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, is told that he can't see God's face, but can only catch a glimpse of God's back as he passes by. At another point, God responds to Moses' request to know his name (that is, his nature) by telling him "ehi'eh asher ehi'eh" -"I will be what I will be." In most English-language Bibles this is translated "I am that I am," following the Septuagint, which sought to bring the biblical text into line with the Greek tradition (descended from Xenophanes, Parmenides and Plato's "Timaeus") of identifying God with perfect being. But in the Hebrew original, the text says almost exactly the opposite of this: The Hebrew "I will be what I will be" is in the imperfect tense, suggesting to us a God who is incomplete and changing. In their run-ins with God, human beings can glimpse a corner or an edge of something too immense to be encompassed, a "coming-into-being" as God approaches, and no more. The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit.
I find this extraordinarily important in that it points to the fact that the translation of the Holy Scriptures from Hebrew to Greek was not just a matter of linguistic substitution, but actually a translation of worldviews and philosophies. That this is inherent in the act of translation relates to the concept of linguistic relativism, and what has often been referred to as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that different languages convey different ways of viewing the world, an idea important in both media ecology and general semantics.

So if it's not a bundle of "perfections" that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible referred to in speaking of God, what was it they were talking about? As Donald Harman Akenson writes, the God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an "embodiment of what is, of reality" as we experience it. God's abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind's deeds and misdeeds - all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings. To be sure, the biblical God can appear with sudden and stunning generosity as well, as he did to Israel at the Red Sea. And he is portrayed, ultimately, as faithful and just. But these are not the "perfections" of a God known to be a perfect being. They don't exist in his character "necessarily," or anything remotely similar to this. On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel's faith: We hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.
The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realistic God than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind's allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations - idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn't hurt.

I can really appreciate the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible represents reality, what is, rather than some ideal form being passed off as realism, and that God represents a reality that is dynamic and evolving, not immutable.  And again, I go back to the Kabbalah, as Jewish mysticism incorporates a concept of God that is quite different from the absolute perfection of Hellenized theology, a concept of God and Creation as incomplete, requiring our help to compete the project, to heal and repair the world, aka tikkun olam. If nothing else, it is a worthy sense of mission for humanity. 

And in any event, Hazony helps us to better understand how the worldviews of Athens and Jerusalem are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile, so that we can appreciate that Maimonides made a valiant attempt, but in the end, the two cannot be merged, although they most certainly can co-exist.

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