Maimonides: The Knower, the Known, and the Knowledge
What is God?
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Maimonides was a mystic. Anyone who knows anything about Maimonides knows that he was anything but a mystic. He spent his remarkably deep and complex intellectual career attempting to demonstrate that the true explanation of the world, both the natural and the spiritual, was rational. If a survey was taken on who is the best representative of the rational side of Judaism there is no doubt that Maimonides would be on the top of almost everybody’s list. His approach to Jewish law, his approach to the human mind, and his approach to God and angels, was as rational as could be.
So how was he a mystic? The amazing thing about mysticism is how rational it can be. The amazing thing about rational philosophy is how mystical it can be. Systems of mystical thought are built up with the same intellectual care as any philosophical structure. Systems of religious philosophy all reach a point that defies logic and which must be accepted as a fundamental truth even though it cannot be proven. It is only at the very deepest point, when all logic fails and something must be accepted as a given even though it may make no rational sense, that mysticism enters the picture.
Maimonides’ religious philosophy has such a point. It happens towards the beginning of his major work of Halacha called Mishna Torah. In the middle of all the philosophy is a line that makes one suspect it was slipped in by some editor with mystical leanings. ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, recognizes His own truth (his true existence) and knows it as it is. He does not know it with a knowledge that is outside of Him like we know (things). We and our knowledge are not one, but the Creator, blessed be He, and His knowledge and His life are one from every side and every angle and in every manner of oneness. If He lives with life and knows with knowledge that is outside of Himself, there would be multiple Gods – Him, His life, and His knowledge. And this is not so; rather it is one from every side and every angle and every manner of oneness. It comes out that He is the Knower, He is the known, and He is the knowledge itself, all is one. And concerning this matter, there is no way of describing it in words nor is it within the capacity of the mind to understand it fully…’ (Laws of Foundations of the Torah 2:10).
What is so mystical about all that? It certainly starts off sounding about as dry and as rational as an encyclopedia or a math book. In fact, it is typical of the rational theology of the medieval period in which God was viewed as the absolutely perfect ‘unmoved Mover’ who exists in a dimension that is totally separate from the physical world. It happens that this paragraph focuses on God’s knowledge – a favorite topic of the medieval philosophers. God’s knowledge, we are told is not distinct from God, whatever that might mean. We are given one clue about it though. Divine knowledge works different than human knowledge, which is not ‘one’ with our selves, whatever that might mean.
So where is the mysticism? It’s in that line towards the end: ‘He is the Knower, and He is the known, and He is the knowledge itself, all is one’. What does it all mean? How could the knower, the known, and the knowledge be the same thing? Doesn’t knowledge, by definition, imply a distinction between the one who knows and the thing being known? The ultimate murkiness of this idea, whatever it might really mean, is only underscored by the statement that ‘there is no way of describing it in words nor is it within the capacity of the mind to understand it fully’. Didn’t he just describe it in words? Didn’t he just introduce the remarkable statement of divine unity with the phrase, ‘It comes out that…’?
It turns out that we are blessed with a small clue as to how to go about making sense of all this from another section of the same book of the Mishna Torah. In the section dealing with repentance, Maimonides asks the famous philosophical question concerning the apparent contradiction between the complete free will of human beings and the absolutely complete foreknowledge of God. Maimonides himself says that the solution is too deep for human beings to understand, but that there is a solution nevertheless. After leaving us puzzled and a little frustrated by this non-answer to the question, he writes that he has already explained in the second chapter of this book that ‘the Holy One does not know with a knowledge that is outside of Himself like people, whose being and knowledge are two. But God and His knowledge are one and the human mind cannot fathom this matter clearly, just as man cannot fathom the true nature of the Creator, as it says, “For man cannot see Me and live”, so man cannot fathom the mind of the Creator…’ (5:5).
We are not the same as our knowledge. If we think of something, we sense that the thing we are thinking of is different from us. It is something that is brought into the mind. It is not the mind itself. We sense that in using the mind we are using a tool of sorts, which is also somewhat distinct from the true ‘I’. I think, but I am not the thought, nor am I the thinking. This is not the case with God. God, somehow, overcomes this barrier and is one with His knowledge. If there were some way to grasp this idea we would gain a tremendous insight into the nature of God.
It turns out that there is such a method. It is the old dream analogy. Imagine that you are dreaming. Imagine that in your dream there are people doing what people do in dreams. Next, try to imagine you, the dreamer, entering into the dream and chatting with the people in the dream. You tell them, among other things, that you are dreaming them up. They are a figment of your imagination. They would not exist if not for your mind conjuring them into existence.
The people in the dream, needless to say, are puzzled by what you are telling them. They refuse to believe that they exist only in your mind. After all, they claim, you are standing right there speaking with them. Are you also a figment of your own mind? Sweeping aside this fairly strong question (it is only an analogy), you insist that what is true is true, regardless of their inability to grasp it. They are indeed a thought in your mind and they must come to terms with that difficult concept.
You explain that their existence is also a part of you. You, the thinker or dreamer, are not different from your dream. Your dream is not just a part of you, it is you. Their thoughts are your thoughts, having gone through the filters of the different minds of the different people in the dream. Their free will decisions are your decisions, being chosen by the various people you have dreamt up. You are those choices. As they spring up, they are simply another revelation of you. It comes out, that you are the knower (the dreamer), the known (the dream), and the knowledge itself (the process of dreaming), it is all one (all you and not just something that you do).
The tough part about all this, the part that Maimonides would say is beyond the ability of the human mind to fathom, is that we sense that what goes on in our minds is not identical with us. We sense that ‘we’ are doing a process called ‘thinking’ or ‘dreaming’ which is something that we do occasionally, as opposed to it being the very self. God has no such problems. God is existence, so God’s knowledge, which exists, is identical with God.
How can God be one with the ‘known’ – a philosophical term for the created world? How can a free will choice be known in advance by God? That is the big mystery. Maimonides, in making this radical statement, reveals his true colors as a mystic of the deepest kind. Those choices are just God in a revealed form. Their apparent distinction from God is only the veneer of the created world overwhelming the subtle reality of God that permeates all existence. That created world is just God in disguise. God’s thinking it up is no different from the thought itself. They are both God, for God is thought and thought is God.
To exist is to be a thought in God’s mind. But God’s mind, which is God, is existence. This idea, which reaches to the very pinnacle of human perception, lies at the core of Jewish rational theology. However, it actually lies above that pinnacle. At some point we realize that we have to declare our own existence to be a fact of reality. We are unable to ever fully relinquish that toehold of our own existence. It would be those guys in the dream admitting that they don’t really exist except in the mind of this other guy who is calmly shooting the breeze with them. This is just too much to handle and we have to acknowledge that there are limits to our conceptual abilities. We may be able to formulate some words and dream up some analogies, but we cannot come to terms with our own non-existence.
In the end, God is the Knower, the known, and the knowledge, while we are part of the known. Perhaps other creations do not have this barrier. But we do, and this may be the reason why we can never really fully grasp this most amazing image of God. God is the Knower and the known. We are not. True oneness only comes when this final barrier is overcome.
Perceiving the Image
So is this another of those ‘impossible to ever get there’ images that Judaism seems to have more than its share of? Perhaps, as with other images that were difficult to perceive, there is a way around this problem. The only hope would appear to be through the use of the dream analogy. Analogies, however, all break down at some point. They have to be translated into the real world. How is one to do that in this situation? There must be some way to imagine one’s self as looking at things from God’s perspective. God is the Dreamer. I am the dreamer. What if I were God dreaming the dream? What would I see? I would see creation unfolding right before me. I would see myself conceiving of it to begin with, then I would feel myself in the act of thinking, and finally I would look upon my thought-creation and know that it was a part of me. I would be attempting, to whatever degree possible, to see things from a God’s-eye-view and not from the vantage point of a creation. This is not an easy task, and it can only be described in a limited manner. The one who wishes to experience the image must make the journey on their own.
This perception lies at the highest levels of human and religious experience. It is so high that it can no longer bit fit into any category of the mind. It goes well beyond anything rational. It really does not fit snugly into any version of religion. In a sense it even goes beyond mysticism in that it is attempting to experience the reality behind the mystery. But it is there waiting for anyone who is willing to embark on this journey out into the unknown. It is truly venturing into the mind of God.
It is for individual seekers to venture on these paths, where the only obstacles are the limitations of the human will and the fetters of the human imagination. Who is willing to make this journey?
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