Tuesday, June 21, 2005

God may not play dice, but is he a slippery customer all the same?

When God leads the Jewish people out of Egypt, in the beginning of Beshalach, He takes them the ‘long way,’ purposely bypassing the shorter route since it would lead through the land of the Philistines. God sees that these people, slaves yesterday, cannot magically become warriors today and be willing to encounter a hostile nation -- they might just turn back in fear and return to Egypt. Human nature cannot change overnight, and rather than magically altering human personality, He concedes to the reality.

Using this section as his proof text, the Rambam argues [Guide for the Perplexed 3:32] that God used our order of sacrifices as a "ruse", (ie: “the long way”) to wean people from the idolatrous and pagan sacrifices they were accustomed to. The Rambam appears to be suggesting that our order of sacrifice, in and of itself has no religious meaning, and that the Temple, the status of priests, the laws of ritual purity and impurity, were all a concession to the need to wean people from idolatry

(The RambaN (surprise!) (VaYikra 1:9) reports the Rambam’s position, vehemently rejects it, and articulates his own view.)

Another, similar concession, according to the Rambam, is the anthropomorphic language that appears in the Torah. God has no body, no hand, no voice, and no ability to change or get angry, so why is he often portrayed this way in the Torah? Like sacrifices, this is a ruse. It's purpose it to lead men away from the idea of multiple Gods, by giving their imagination a single entity upon which to focus.

The striking thing about this theory is that, per the Rambam, someone who imagines that God has a body is a heretic with no share in the world to come. Yet, again per the Rambam, the Torah is willing to deliberatly mislead people for the sake of the larger good.