Seeing God and Dying

Maimonides often uses words in a double sense, – positive and negative, real and metaphorical, tool and weapon. In a passage dedicated to the different ways of ‘seeing’ God, he thus questioned the meaning of the verse: ‘And they saw God, and ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11):

« It has been said: ‘And Moses hid his face, because he feared to look to God’ (Ex. 3:6), – where we must also consider what the literal meaning indicates; namely, that he was afraid to look at the shining light (of the burning bush), – not that the eyes could perceive the divinity [that it be exalted and exalted above all imperfection!]. Moses deserved praise for this, and the Most High poured out his goodness and favor upon him so much that in the following it could be said of him: ‘And he beholds the figure of God’ (Num. 12:8); for the doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look toward God’ (Berakhot 7a). But as for « the chosen ones among the children of Israel » (Ex. 24:11), they acted hastily, giving free rein to their thoughts; they perceived (the divinity) but in an imperfect way. Therefore it is said of them: ‘And they saw the God of Israel, and under his feet, etc.’ (ibid. v. 10), and it was not enough to simply say, ‘And they saw the God of Israel’, for the whole sentence is intended only to criticize their vision, not to describe how they saw. Thus, all that was done was to criticize the form in which they had perceived (God) and which was tainted with corporeality, which was the necessary result of the haste they had put into it before they had perfected themselves. (…) When the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ made false steps in their perception, their actions were also disturbed thereby, and they inclined towards bodily things by the vice of their perception; therefore the Scripture says: ‘And they saw God, and ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11) ».i

Maimonides does not deny that the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ saw God. But he asserts that this vision was tainted by ‘corporeality’, by the discreet metonymy that occurs in counterpoint. Would men who had just ‘seen God’ begin, without transition, to ‘eat and drink’?

Maimonides is not interested in what the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ could ‘see’ or ‘not see’. He does not seek to criticize their claim to have ‘seen’. He is only interested in the fact that they ‘saw, ate and drank’ in the same movement, which implies a form of homogeneity, integration, analogy, between three very different actions. ‘Eating’ and ‘drinking’ cast a retrospective shadow over ‘seeing’ in this context. Maimonides does not deny the ‘seeing’, he merely devalues it, materializing it, trivializing it, laminating it.

There are other possible criticisms, much more radical.

In his commentary on the same verses, Rashi says: « They have looked and they have contemplated, and for this they have deserved mortal punishment. » He adds that the Holy One, Blessed be He, waited for the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, and then a fire from the Lord burned them and devoured them at the end of the camp.

In an additional commentary to this commentary by Rashi (in the 1987 edition edited by E. Munk), we read: « They sought to be able to glimpse at least a quick glance at the Godhead, in a sort of hidden glimpse of the Godhead. »

Was it a deep contemplation or a quick glimpse? It doesn’t matter. The same punishment awaits those who have even cast a glance at this transcendental phenomenon: death by lightning strikes, – not on the spot [so as not to spoil the reception of the Torah, says Maimonides], but a little later, after the feast of the Tabernacle, and out of sight of the people, at the end of the camp. A true execution, coldly prepared, in the Mossad style, if I dare say so.

But, if it was a question for God to give a good lesson to his people, why not strike those guilty of ‘vision’ in front of everyone, to better strike the minds?

We need to go deeper into this question.

What was the greatest fault of the « chosen among the children of Israel »? To have « seen » the Divinity? Or to have « seen » it by stealth? Or to have « seen » it, – and then to have « eaten and drunk » it?

The answer varies according to the comments, as can be judged from Maimonides and Rashi.

We know that Moses himself, and several ‘chosen ones among the sons of Israel’ were able to ‘see’ God and not die on the spot. This is an important point. It is said in the Torah that one cannot see God without dying. So it is still possible, it seems, to see the Divinity and to survive, at least for a while.

If we put aside the case of Moses, we learn that the other « seers » were punished a little later. One can always imagine that those who had glimpsed the Divinity (supposing that they had indeed been able to look at it in secret, – which Maimonides denies, but which Rashi acknowledges), the ‘seers’ could have been saved, if they had prayed, or if they had meditated on their vision, wondering why they had only seen the « feet » of the Divinity.

Or should they have just avoided ‘eating and drinking’ right after they ‘saw’?

Or should they have repented instead, having given in to the understandable desire to take a look at such an extraordinary phenomenon as a « shining light »?

What can we learn from this? We learn that ‘seeing God’ does not necessarily imply ‘dying’, despite the warnings of the Torah.

It is ‘seeing God’, then ‘eating and drinking’, that implies dying.

iMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §5, pp.37-38. Ed. Verdier. 1979

The Elsewhere God


There are some things it is better to keep quiet about. Whatever we may say, we risk approximation, error, provocation, offense, – or even, more bitingly, the silent smile of the wise men, if there are any.

The psalmist says, addressing Elohim:

לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה lekha doumiâ tehilâ. » For you, silence is praise »i.

In order to think, it is better to remain silent: « Think in your heart, on your bed make silence.»ii

Silence must be kept, but one can still write. About the highest mysteries, writing is in the same time compass and bearing, mast and mainsail. A wind of inspiration will then come, maybe.

Maimonides himself did not hesitate to face, in writing, the ocean of mysteries. In writing, he even tried to define the essence of true wisdom, and thus that of God.

« The word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has four meanings »iii, he wrote. ‘Hokhma refers to the understanding of philosophical truths that have as their goal the perception of God. It can also be said of the possession of any art or industry. It applies to the acquisition of moral virtues. Finally, it is applied in the sense of finesse and cunning.

Vast spectrum of possible meanings, then. Or structural ambiguity?

« It may be that the word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has (originally) the meaning of ‘finesse’ and ‘application of thought’, so that this finesse or sagacity will have as its object sometimes the acquisition of intellectual qualities, sometimes that of moral qualities, sometimes that of a practical art, sometimes malice and wickedness.”iv

Who can be said to be « wise » then?

« He who is instructed in the whole Law, and who knows its true meaning, is called ‘hakham in two respects, because it embraces both intellectual and moral qualities.”

Maimonides then quotes on Aristotlev and the ancient philosophers to define « four species of perfections ».

The first kind of ‘perfection’ is particularly prized by most men but is really of little value. It is material possession. Mountains of gold and silver are to be possessed, they offer only a passing enjoyment, and at the bottom of the imagination.

The second is the perfection of the body, the physical constitution, beauty, health. This is certainly not nothing, but has little impact on the health of the soul itself.

The third kind of perfection consists in moral qualities. This is a definite advantage from the point of view of the essence of the soul. But moral qualities are not an end in themselves. They serve only as a preparation for some other, higher purpose.

The fourth sort of perfection is true human perfection. It consists in being able to conceive ideas about the great metaphysical questions. This is the true end of man. « It is through it that he obtains immortality, »vi Maimonides said.

Jeremiah had also expressed himself on this subject, in his own style: « Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the strong man glory in his strength, nor the rich man glory in his riches; but whoever wishes to glory, let him find glory in this: to have understanding and to know me, for I am YHVH.”vii

Wisdom is knowledge, – the knowledge of the Lord.

But how to get to know that specific knowledge?

Jeremiah has an answer:

« I am YHVH, who exercises goodness, justice and righteousness in the earth. Yes, this is what I delight in, says YHVH!” viii 

This means that the essence of God is known by His actions, which should be taken as a model. There are three fundamental ones: חֶסֶד , hesed (goodness), מִשְׁפָּט , michpat (law), and ָּצְדָקָה , tsedaka (justice).

Maimonides comments: « He [Jeremiah] then adds another essential idea, saying – ‘on earth’ –, and this idea is the pillar of religion”ix.

Since this idea comes at the very end of the Guide for the Perplexed, it can probably be thought to be its final conclusion.

That simple, conclusive, remark leaves open an immense field of new research. What would be the essence of God, not just on earth, but elsewhere?

And would the answer to that question, if we knew it, be possibly the pillar of another kind of religion?

i Ps. 65,2

ii Ps. 4,5

iiiMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §54, pp.629. Ed. Verdier. 1979.

ivIbid. p.630

vL’Éthique à Nicomaque. 1,8 et sq.

viMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §54, pp.633. Ed. Verdier. 1979.

vii Jer. 9, 22-23

viiiJér. 9,23

ixMaïmonide.Le Guide des égarés. 3ème partie. §54, pp.635. Ed. Verdier. 1979