Kenneth Green

Kenneth Hart Green, Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Religious Thought in the Department for the Study of Religion, has been teaching at the University of Toronto since 1987.  He has published several books and numerous articles, on figures from Yehuda Halevi to Gershom Scholem.  Forthcoming in 2013 are two companion volumes, to be published by the University of Chicago Press: Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides; and Leo Strauss, On Maimonides: The Complete Writings.  His current work is focused on two projects: a book on the post-Holocaust thought of Emil Fackenheim; and a “Maimonidean Meditation” on the biblical figure of Moses.

What Moses Saw: Maimonidean Meditations, or, on the Torah as a Speculative Teaching

Is there a metaphysical teaching contained in the Torah? If so, how is such a teaching to be located and defined? Moreover, what would this imply about the possibility of attaining knowledge of the divine realm? And also, what would it indicate about knowledge itself? It is my contention that a close reading of the revelations communicated directly to Moses in the Torah express a sort of coded philosophical journey into metaphysics, even if it travels an oblique path toward its teaching. This can be discerned in the seven “private” revelations which were made to Moses alone, and which are also distinguishable by their peculiar content: they are what might be called purely “speculative” revelations. Of course, these seven private revelations to Moses do not contain the only speculative teachings of the Torah (e.g., there is the teaching of creation, which was not literarily communicated to Moses so far as we are told), but how they are expressed does seem to indicate something remarkable. These speculative teachings are revealed in brief momentary “lightning flashes” of highest truth conveyed to Moses alone, unaccompanied by the people, the elders, or even Joshua as “public” witnesses.

What does the irregularity of such private revelations privately communicated signify, especially as a recurring pattern? Does the Torah suggest, by portraying how certain truths were privately attained in the life of Moses, that it also speaks through this irregularity to specific private individuals--perhaps to those whom Maimonides called “the single virtuous ones”? For while the Torah contains laws, it is never just a law; it is also a teaching, a teaching for the people, if not also a teaching for specific people, whom it designates as unique. And thus although the Torah is a teaching for the assembled whole of the people, it is also a teaching for selected parts of the people, i.e., for those very parts which as Maimonides suggests are “the single virtuous ones” who complete and complement the entire people.

Those rare or special types (perhaps like the best “students” of Moses in history, i.e., the prophets) might be said to have the potential to resemble Moses himself as a knower of metaphysical truths, inasmuch as he was a knower. Viewed in this light, Moses was also an autonomous knower (and not just a heteronomous “receiver” of God’s word), precisely as he had to be in his capacity as teacher of the people at their different levels of comprehension. We must recall that Maimonides pointedly called Moses alone “the master of those who know,” even if we cannot be certain just what this knowing consisted in for Maimonides. By such a designation, did Maimonides recognize something about Moses that was not limited to his own peculiar, to some even idiosyncratic, philosophic reading of the Torah? Might this pointed remark not also have uncovered a truth about the text that appears on its surface if the text is read properly, showing us something correctly claimed about who Moses was, or at least how he is presented to us as the readers of the Torah? For Maimonides, those rare types seem to have been the devoted searchers for true knowledge of the whole, and perhaps even those for whom the Torah emphatically aims: those who desire to fully apprehend or cognize God, man, and the world with true knowledge inasmuch as it is humanly possible. This type is especially rare because it is a most difficult type to raise or produce in any society, but it is one that Moses himself desires to cultivate: “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets, that YHVH would put His spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

If this is the case, then the Torah implies that man’s highest purpose is to participate in a sort of speculative “mountain climbing,” a type of life in which properly constituted human beings are warranted to engage. This would further entail that the Torah itself legitimates the effort of selected human being to imitate Moses as presented in the Torah, as one who by his search for knowledge “ascended and descended”—which the express language of Moses seems to invite (i.e., Numbers 11:29). Of course, this view also suggests how modern readers might allow themselves to be guided by Maimonides and The Guide of the Perplexed in their study of the text, inasmuch as his work appears to be aimed at uncovering the concealed teaching of the Torah. Indeed, this raises numerous questions, such as the possibility that certain things have been deliberately covered by the Torah, and are perhaps only available to us by allusion, hint, and clue alone. (We can proceed so far free of controversy if we do not automatically accept Maimonides’ problematic contention about his own use of deliberate contradiction.) In other words, Maimonides suggests to us that the text by its enormous subtlety leaves room for human historical advancement or progress toward an ever-greater profundity of wisdom.

However, a close reading of the seven private revelations to Moses shows that these do not convey a simple philosophical or theological content. This is partly because they are generally combined with political, legal, historical, ritual, or moral matters, which make it difficult to distill the essence from the totality. Yet they are all distinguishable by their peculiarly speculative content; although their literary character is uniformly brief, concise, metaphorical, and enigmatic, even so they clearly appear to allude to metaphysical matters. The single and most significant exception to the rule of enigmatic metaphorical brevity is Moses’ two very specific requests to “know” and “see” God (Exodus 33:11-23), which are conveyed in an elaborate dialogue between God and Moses, and in which occur fairly detailed references (albeit still metaphorical) to the Being of God, at least inasmuch as ancient biblical Hebrew allows for precisely such a discussion based on distinctive images and figures of speech.

If this is to correctly observe a deliberate peculiarity in the literary character of the Torah that points to the speculative teaching contained in it, then it would seem imperative—for those who are willing to consider that the Torah may still potentially have something to teach us of the utmost significance to man as man—to engage in a thorough search through the textual accounts of those seven private revelations. We cannot but accompany such a thorough search with an effort to meditate on the possible higher philosophical or theological significance of such a speculative teaching about God, man, and the world, and even about being qua being. In other words, the Torah seems to speak to the deepest speculative needs of man as man, and to offer views on these fundamental issues which we are called on to consider as carefully as we are capable of doing.