Lenn Goodman

Lenn Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His books include Judaism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation (Routledge, 2017), On Justice: An Essay in Jewish Philosophy (Yale University Press, 1991; Littman Library, 2000), God of Abraham (Oxford University Press, 1996, winner of the Gratz Centennial Prize), Judaism, Human Rights and Human Values (Oxford University Press, 1998), In Defense of Truth: A Pluralistic Approach (Humanity Press, 2001), Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself (Gifford Lectures, Oxford University Press, 2008), Coming to Mind: The Soul and its Body (co-authored with D. G. Caramenico, University of Chicago Press, 2013), and Religious Pluralism and Values in the Public Sphere (Cambridge University Press, 2014). He edited Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought (Suny Press, 1992) and co-edited Jewish Themes in Spinoza’s Philosophy (Suny Press, 2002) and Maimonides and his Heritage (Suny Press, 2009). He also translated with commentary, The Book of Theodicy, Saadiah Gaon’s Arabic translation and commentary on the Book of Job. Goodman won the American Philosophical Association Baumgardt Prize for his 1981 book Monotheism. His work in Jewish philosophy is the focus of Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron Hughes’ volume Lenn E. Goodman: Judaism, Humanity, and Nature in the Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers (Brill, 2015). Goodman is now at work with his colleague Phillip Lieberman on a new translation from the Arabic and philosophical commentary on Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. Goodman describes himself as a synthetic philosopher. As a Herzl Fellow he is preparing a new book titled, The Holy One of Israel, seeking to integrate the ideas of immanence and transcendence, universality and chosenness, divine and human action, in a Judaic idea of God. The book is under contract to Oxford University Press. Goodman is frequently called on to keynote conferences, most recently with papers on Judaism and Democracy at Creighton University, on Jewish and Islamic Virtue Ethics at Oxford University, and on Evolution and Emergence at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion.


Revelation and Election


In his book The Seed of Holiness (Zera‘ Kodesh)1 the Hasidic Master Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Rupshitz (1760-1827) quotes a line of thought from his teacher Menachem Mendel of Rymonov (1745-1815) glossing challenging lines from the Psalms, Once did God speak, twice did I hear it: For power is God’s, but love too is the LORD’s. For Thou dost requite a man for his actions (62:12-13). Often cited to license an exegete’s finding new facets of meaning in the Torah, the passage is paired with a verse from Jeremiah: Is not my word like fire, saith the LORD, and a hammer shattering rock (23:29). In the Psalm the passage speaks to God’s unity, which shows us both mercy and justice. And a similar construction can be brought to Jeremiah’s outcry, God’s word, always one in intent, sends sparks and shards in every direction, finding expression, indeed, as Spinoza will have it, in infinite ways.

The diffraction of light suggests how one word, heard at Sinai, might fan out into multiple meanings, suggesting in the minds of those present and all those who were virtually present and would later seek to understand and live by God’s precepts. But to Menachem Mendel, the verses suggest another thought: that the entire Torah might be implicit in a single momentary epiphany.

Standing at Sinai to meet the God who had freed them from Egypt, Israel, the Torah informs us, begged Moses to serve as their intermediary, conveying God’s words: The people saw the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the shofar, the mountain, enveloped in smoke, and the people were afraid. They moved off and stood at a distance, telling Moses: You speak to us, and we will listen, but God must not address us, lest we die! (Exodus 20:15-16). Moses alone strode into the darkness to hear God’s commandments, and relayed to the people (20:18).

What everyone heard at Mount Sinai, tradition tells us, were only the first two articles of the Decalogue: I am the LORD... and Thou shalt not have... (20:2-3). For these, Maimonides explains needed no prophetic intervention:

"It seems clear to me that at Sinai not everything that reached Moses reached allIsrael. Only Moses was addressed. That is why the whole Decalogue uses the second person singular. Moses descended to the foot of the mountain and told the people what he had heard. The Torah says: I stood then between you and the LORD to tell you the LORD’s word (Deuteronomy 5:5); and again, Moses spoke, and God answered him aloud.... (Exodus 19:19). As the Mekhilta explains (at Exodus 20:1): “He relayed each command to them” – as he heard it. The Torah itself says, so the people may hear what I tell you... (19:9). This shows that it was Moses who was addressed. The people heard a mighty sound, not articulate speech."

"Of the great sound they heard it says When you heard the sound... (Deuteronomy 5:20), and You the heard sound of words but saw no shape, only a sound (4:12). It does not say “You heard words.” Each time it speaks of hearing words it means hearing just the sound. It was Moses who heard it as speech and relayed it to them. That is the plain sense of the Torah and what most of what the Sages say. But in many places in the Midrash and Talmud there are passages saying, I am... and Thou shalt not have... were heard directly from the Almighty (B. Makkot 23b-24a, Horayot 8a, Song of Songs Rabbah 1.2.2), meaning that they reached the people the same way as our teacher Moses, not through him to them. For these two principles, God’s reality and there being no other, are grasped by human reason unaided. With any demonstrable truth a prophet is on a par with whoever knows it, and no better. These two principles were not learned through prophecy alone. As the Torah plainly states: You have been clearly shown, [that the LORD is God, and there is none beside Him ] (Deuteronomy 4:35). But the remaining commandments are matters of tradition or convention, not truths of reason."2

"Given the Sages’ further comments on this topic, the scriptural passages and the discussions of our Sages confirm that what all Israel heard at Sinai was but one word, heard just once, grasped by Moses and heard from him by all Israel: I AM... and Thou shalt not have... Moses let them hear it voiced discretely as articulate speech. The Sages support this, citing, Once did God speak, twice did I hear (Psalms 62:12). As they 3 explained at the start of Midrash Hazit (Song of Songs Rabbah 1.2.2), Israel heard no further word from Him. The Torah’s text: A great sound, nothing more (Deuteronomy 5:19). On hearing that first sound they panicked, falling into the fierce terror scripture mentions, quoting their words: ye said, “Lo the LORD [hath shown us His glory and greatness, we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire...] Now let us not die... Do thou approach and hear [all that the LORD our God saith, and tell us; and all that the LORD our God telleth thee will we hear and obey] (Deuteronomy 5:21-24). The greatest man born then advanced again and received the remaining commandments one by one. He descended to the foot of the mountain and proclaimed them to that vast assembly as they watched the flames and heard the sounds – the sounds and lightning – like thunder – and the mighty sound of the shofar (Exodus 19:16). Every mention of the many sounds you find here, as when it says, the whole people seeing the sounds... (20:15), refers just to the sound of the shofar, the thunder, and such. But the voice of the LORD, the created sound from which God’s word was understood, was heard just once, as the Torah itself affirms and the Sages explain in the passage I cited for you. This was the sound on hearing which their souls departed – as they grasped the first two commandments (Song of Songs Rabbah 5.6.1, glossing Exodus 20:2)."4

Maimonides built here on the teachings of the ancient rabbis: “Rabbi Simlai preached, ‘Six hundred thirteen commandments were conveyed to Moses: 365 negative, for each day of the year, and 248 positive, for each member of the body.’ ‘Where is the prooftext for this?’ R. Hamnuna asked. It is this: Torah did Moses command us, a heritage for the assembly of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4). The letters of ‘Torah’ have a numerical value of 611. I am and Thou shalt not have were heard direct from the Almighty.” Rabbi Ishmael, Heschel suggests, may have originated the view that all Israel heard only I am and Thou shalt not have... straight from God.5

Maimonides develops the view that these two mitzvot were, in fact, the word of the LORD thatIsrael is cautioned not to scorn (Numbers 15:31). He takes them to express a single rational intuition, inspired by God, articulated by Moses, shared by all, and figuratively called God’s word. The linkage uniting the first two articles of the Decalogue is confirmed by the Masoretic cantillation, and Maimonides unites them by calling the second of these commandments a corollary of the first.

What all Israel heard at Sinai, then, might be summed up in a single word, which R. Menachem Mendel takes to have been Anokhi, God’s I am (3:15), readily reduced to a single letter, aleph, signifying God’s unity, uniqueness, and primacy, since aleph is not only the first letter of the aleph-bet, but also the number one.

And yet, as Reb Menachem Mendel and earlier sages note, the epiphany at Sinai is prefaced by the Torah’s report: God spoke all these words there (20:1), all ten items of the Decalogue, in which, tradition has it, all 613 commandments were implicit. A single word, then, a single letter, was pregnant with meaning: Knowledge of God’s reality bore obligations and a sense of the authority of those obligations, down to the last detail. Can an aleph do that?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel finds a hint of an answer in another line from the Psalms, Shiviti Hashem le-negdi tamid (16:8), the Psalmist pledging ever to measure himself against the standard God sets for him. The rabbi finds a great theme of the Torah in that line. Playing with the Hebrew orthography, he sees a hint of God’s name in the letter aleph itself: It’s formed of the two yods that abbreviate the Tetragrammaton, sketching a human face: two yods as eyes, the bar between them, a nose.

That, he says, explains why the Torah speaks of Israel’s seeing the sound at Sinai. For thunder, unlike lightning, is heard but not seen. Sarna calls the zeugma here a “sense paradox” lending force to the Torah’s report by suggesting “the profound awareness among the assembled throng of the overpowering majesty and mystery of God’s self-manifestation.” For theirs was “an experience that cannot be adequately described by the ordinary language of the senses.” Sarna goes on to explain, echoing Otto, “The encounter with the Holy universally inspires fascination; inevitably and characteristically it also arouses feelings of awe, even terror. Fear of death is a frequent reaction.”6 But the translation Sarna glosses here emasculates the figure by resolving the Hebrew ro’im, a present participle with the force of seeing, to tamer language and shifts the word to a perfect tense verb: “witnessed.”

Reb Menachem Mendel takes a bolder tack. He too sees the figurative language, knowing that thunder is not seen but heard. But he’s innocent of Otto, and he knows that Moses does not share the timor of his fellow Israelites since he will stride alone into the darkness to parlay with his God. Adopting a more poetic than bureaucratic or medical stance, Menachem Mendel does not turn to vague abstractions like majesty or mystery, or the symptoms of terror and fascination. He peers into the dark himself, and what he spots is more like synaesthesia: Moses sees God’s words. Seeing here is rather like reading: We see marks on a page, and they hold meaning for us, bringing ideas to life that point beyond themselves to realities. Moses has heard God introduce Himself before, at this very mountain, calling Himself Anokhi, I AM (3:11, 14). God now uses the same word to open the first of the ten utterances by which He makes Himself known to all Israel, through His law.

God, we know, does not speak in words, and an aleph, by itself, has no sound. So what was it that all Israel saw or heard at Mount Sinai? Moses, reminds his people of the shared experience after a generation has passed, and hardly any who were present then remain among the living – Face to face did the Lord speak with you (Deuteronomy 5:4). But he has already insisted, ye saw no form the day God spoke to you at Horeb (4:15). What was it, then, that was revealed? What was the image that is no graven image, there for all to see, if perhaps too obvious to be noticed? The sight we shared, if we looked around us, was of one another’s faces. The Torah tells us from the outset where to find God’s image without trying to forge or cast it. And now that we can read God’s law with its full cosmological and historical prologue, we can see from the start that it is human beings, male and female, who bear God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6).

We begin to see here how the entire Torah, all our obligations to one another and to God, are implicit in a single letter, God’s unity exploding into the diversity of creation and expanding into a law and a way of life. We can see in the same way how critical it is for us to learn to read – to sound out God’s words not just with our lips but in our actions, moral and symbolic, relating to the Creator who made each of us in His image.

God’s aleph, on Menachem Mendel’s reading, reminds us that the first rightful recipients of the obligations God imparts are our fellow human beings. The human face, as Levinas sees clearly, issues a silent summons, opens a dialogue,7 and pronounces an imperative – immediate but not for its expedience, expecting a response but not merely conversational, active and affective but not solely emotive, pressing but free, not determined. These are hallmarks of the moral realm.

The counterpart and antithesis to Levinas here, even before Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher and sick-romantic idol, was Nietzsche, who, in The Birth of Tragedy (1871), called for “a new world of symbols,”. The Apollonian veil of Socratic reflection, Nietzsche demanded, must be rent aside and left “fluttering in tatters.” In its place, “the entire symbolism of the body is called into play, not the mere symbolism of the lips, face, and speech.” Act, now, must no longer be guided by thought and speech. It must rush ahead of them. And what act could demand greater prominence or prior precedence than the act of love, now divorced from thought or speech, eyes averted from eyes and from the face of what was once called the beloved? The act of love must now become the object, preremptory, stolen, even violent acquisition.

“In the visual arts,” where symbols take on lives of their own, Nietzsche’s “primordial anti- rational body language,” as James Hall explains, “first appeared in the sculpture of Rodin.” Rilke, secretary to Rodin in 1902, fascinated by the “ever-changing profiles” Rodin’s sculptures presented, renders articulate the implicitly Nietzschean subtext of Rodin’s motifs. No longer did eyes come to rest in another’s eyes, “Life showing in the face,” as it had in the all too personal and individual faces, let’s say, of Hellenistic funerary portraits, “full of reference to time,” was now “seen in the body.” No longer voicing any private plea or personal message, it was “less concentrated, greater, more mysterious and eternal.”8 The image had become an archetype.

Hall cites Rodin’s headless Walking Man to epitomize Rodin’s decapitation of the person. But there’s a better instance and a better work in The Kiss. Aesthetes inspect and revel in this marble celebration and petrification of an ecstatic moment, circling it from every angle. Faces here are very secondary. The lovers are Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, slain a moment later, as they were about to consummate their adultery. Rodin’s work assigns them a new immortality by making them the emblem of almost any pair. Conceived originally as part of The Gates of Hell, designed by Rodin to illuminate Dante’s Inferno, the work, even in Rodin’s lifetime, became an emblem of love’s moment, universal if ephemeral, timeless in its fleetingness.

The figures are monumental, as idealized as their moment. But personality and individuality are lost. If we look for humanism here, latent in Rodin’s celebration of the human form, what discover in its place is a generic celebration of momentary experience, not of caring for the other as a person but the apotheiosis of action as passion. Where ancient, pagan sculptors sought to invoke the spirits to breathe life and active power into their works, Rodin has banished soul and mind in favor of the stone on which his figures rest and from which they emerge, as if to announce that the only real moment of discovery here and the only real personhood is that of the sculptor, whose face, like God’s, remains unseen, appearing only in his work. The artist speaks here, but human eyes and faces do not. If we doubt that Rodin’s work celebrates the moment of conquest and surrender rather than the human meeting of eyes and souls, we have only to consider the love and fate, sexual and artistic exploitation of Camille Claudel (and others) at Rodin’s hands.

Even in the most elemental imperative, unspoken but clearly visible in the eyes even of an infant or stranger, the primal, command, “Do not kill me!”, we can trace God’s handwriting and let our eyes follow, as Levinas put it, “where God passes.”9 God’s absoluteness shines through in that primal command, just as our unbounded mutual obligations point toward God’s infinitude – which is not just boundless power but boundless love and caring, linked with power indissolubly. So, just as we can see God’s most primitive command in a human face, we can also see God’s image there. For this epiphany we need no mountain.

The Alcibiades, the first dialogue studied in Plato’s Academy, zeroes in on much the same truth: We learn who we are and catch glimpses of divinity in the mirror of another’s eyes. To know oneself, Socrates reasons, one must engage with another soul and discover the seat of understanding, the part that is best and most divine in anyone.10

Three questions arise where these biblical and Platonic traditions meet: We know, with the helpof developmental psychology, how it is that self-knowledge is socially rooted. But how does such knowledge point toward God? How can a finite soul prove a lens on God’s infinitude? Second, what does it mean to be in touch with God? This is the problem of revelation, epitomized by the talmudic rabbis under the rubric of Ezekiel’s Account of the Chariot. For, just as there’s a mystery when we seek to expand our gaze to embrace God’s perfection – the mystery of Ma‘aseh Bereshit, the Account of the Creation – there’s a matching mystery when we turn the lens around and try to see the world from God’s perspective. The familiar question asks how to authenticate an epiphany – How can we know a purported revelation has God and not some illusion at its source? But the answer to that question, biblical and Maimonidean, is straightforward enough: We can judge the authenticity of an experience or a revelation by its content. For we don’t live in a Cartesian epistemic vacuum: An epiphany is authentic and not deluded if it affirms and does not distort our humanity. Thus, in the critical special case of scripture, as Maimonides explains, we can see that a law has God as its Author and Authority if, beyond pursuing peace and our general, material welfare, it seeks our moral and intellectual/spiritual betterment. The tougher question is, How can God’s infinite perfection narrow itself to a specific message appropriable as a way of life and a body of concrete obligations. Our third question looks to the content of those obligations. What is it that God desires of us?

  1. God as the source and epitome of personhood.

The human face is infinitely expressive, and the eyes are our most expressive feature. They are not pools, of course. Still less are they literal portals to the soul. But when we look each other in the eye we see not only our own image but another person looking back at us: We see the other as a subject, and in that way we see not just our own eye reflected but the personhood of the other. For he is looking at us even as we look at him. The mirror now is not just visual. Seeing the other as a subject we encounter the divine spark of personhood. We come to know ourselves not by analogy but through the intersubjectivity that makes subjects of us both. Self-knowledge, won through awareness of another’s personhood opens a window onto God’s presence because it tells us what God expects of us. God’s perfection invites emulation, and personhood is what we know best of perfection. We perfect it within ourselves by developing our strengths, that is our virtues, moral and intellectual. But since we are social beings, those strengths find their theater of expression and the gymnasium in which they’re trained and exercised (and even the nursery in which they’re grown) in good part by recognizing and sustaining others, whether casually and informally, vocationally and professionally, or intimately in the family and the home.

 2. The source of our life is also the source of our inspiration.

To transform God’s aleph into a spoken sound one needs a vowel. Menachem Mendel names patah. as the vowel that first voiced God’s aleph. That simple written stroke, he thought, might represent God’s “nostril,” as it were, boldly suggesting the moment when God breathed life into Adam’s lifeless clay and made him a living soul. So when Moses tells Israel that at Sinai God spoke to us face to face, he suggests a new breath of life, beyond what God gave us at birth, beyond even the consciousness that grew along with us, a new level of awareness, embedded in the Law’s wisdom. Face to face with God at Sinai, we shared God’s breath, as it were, as mother and child share a glance. For patah. is our word for openness. The opening that amounts to revelation lies not just in God’s disclosing His will; it’s matched, critically, by openness on our part, readiness to hear and receive the mission and obligation God gives us. Maimonides explains the lapse of prophecy in Israel as resulting from a loss of nerve, the byproduct of exile and oppression: Prophets, he writes, cannot prophesy or even dream boldly if they lack the courage to speak out and the confidence to frame a Godgiven vision. But there’s another side to that story. For prophets also need hearers. The words that speak to one generation may sound trite or ring hollow to another, and a vision grown old might seem to familiar to be noticed. Every generation needs its seekers and readers.11 So if we’re to catch, let alone embrace and hold fast, the message of the Torah we must find ways of opening ourselves to its language and the thrust and burden of its poetry, and its summons.

Just as aleph has no sound until one opens one’s mouth to speak it, God’s unity has no meaning for us until we open our hearts to listen. Listening is not just listing our wants and our needs, as religion is too often taken to mean. It means openness, acceptance of our obligations, reading God’s infinite goodness as a source not just of blessings but of obligations, a perfection to be pursued, not by vying with God’s infiniteness or deathlessness, or pretending to ourselves and others that we are value creators rather than discoverers of value, but by pursuing God’s holiness in a holiness we acquire by perfecting our humanity in acts of love and generosity, gratitude and understanding. These are the great themes of the Torah, made actionable and concrete by its mitzvot. God reveals Himself when He defines the Tetragrammaton, if you will, in terms of love and justice, mercy and truth. These become the fonts and touchstones of the Mosaic Law.

 3. What, then, is the law?

We see God when we see each other in God’s eyes, and come to understand what it is to be a self. That’s when we see a soul, otherwise invisible but manifest in another’s hopes and fears, projects, plans, wishes, and desires. When our gaze opens a window on another’s subjecthood, we catch a glimpse of God, as Plato says, and sip the mystery of God’s subjecthood. Our moment of human discovery is intensified in meaning when our humanizing gaze becomes mutual, in love, or friendship, or simple, shared honesty. With God, as with our fellow humans, the sight lines go both ways – as words and wishes do when we bless God: In seeing God we’re also seen by God, as Spinoza had it, and in loving God we’re also loved. We know God, much as we know the infinite in mathematics, not as an object but as an intension. Purposes, for that reason – our own and those of others – tell us much about who God is. So we must say, pace Plato, that what we know of persons as subjects is not just their understanding, although that’s not a bad starting place since understanding points beyond itself toward perfect concepts and undisrupted truths. But, beyond understanding, we know human creativity and potential, spontaneity and autonomy. In the lustre of human hopes and aspirations, we can make out the hallmarks of divinity. Our charge as persons and recipients of God’s marching orders, is to sustain and foster these in ourselves and others, ever watchful that our quest to emulate God’s holiness does not overtake the quest to share and partner in the goodness so prominent in all that makes God holy, and ever cautious that our eagerness to partner in God’s goodness does not eclipse the larger, brighter light that is its Source.


  1. Zera‘ Kodesh (Lemberg: Salat, 1808) 2.32ab.
  2. There is no self-contradiction involved in denying or rejecting them. The remaining commandments were revealed, but through Moses, not directly. Israel knows them as articulated by Moses – through the mediation of his intelligence.
  3. The Midrash on Song of Songs is called Midrash H. azit, echoing the term h. azit (as inProverbs, 22:29), where the reference is to a vision.
  4. The Israelites did not die. They were in an ecstatic state.
  5. Heschel, Heavenly Torah, 381-82.
  6. Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, Exodus at Exodus 20:15.
  7. For Levinas language itself is rooted in our intersubjectivity. The contrast with Quine is striking: Quine, his eyes shaded by his imagined pith helmet, is unable to determine from the native’s uttering the sound gavagai what category the native intends. Best, then, Quine reasons, to scotch talk of categories and the metaphysics that pursues them, and to squelch the very notion of intentions and intentionality. It seems not to have occurred to Quine to ask the native, or someone close to him, just what he meant.
  8. James Hall, “Stairways to Heaven,” TLS March 14, 2014, 17
  9. Cf. God’s wake....
  10. “How can we get the clearest knowledge of our soul?” Socrates asks. “If we knew that, I reckon we’d know ourselves.” Recalling the celebrated inscription at Delphi, gnothi s’auton, he presses on: “Can we really be ignorant of the meaning of that wonderful Delphic inscription we were speaking of.... There may not be many better illustrations than sight, I suspect, of the meaning of its advice... If someone told the eye, ‘See thyself!’... shouldn’t the eye look at something where it could see itself?.... And isn’t there something like a mirror in the eye?.... Surely you’ve noticed that the face of someone looking into another’s eye is reflected there, as in a mirror. The pupil, as we call it, is a sort of miniature of the one who looks. So the eye can see itself by looking in another’s eye; and, if it looks at the best part, it sees the part by which it sees.... So if the soul is ever to know itself, Alcibiades, it must look at a soul, and especially that part in which her strength resides... And do we know any part of our souls more divine than that where knowing and understanding take place?.... One who looked at this, and everything divine, would have the best grasp of himself.” Alcibiades 132c-133c.
  11. ARN A 31, s.v. be-‘asarah ma’amarot; Seder Eliyahu Zuta 6, Leviticus Rabbah 26.7 –all playing on Psalms 24:6.