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From Moses to Moses: Anthropomorphism and Divine Incorporeality in Maimonides’s Guide and Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur

  • Adrian Sackson (a1)

Moses Mendelssohn, arguably the founding figure of modern Jewish philosophy, famously quipped that it was the hours of his youth spent studying the philosophical work of another Moses—Moses Maimonides—that left him with his famously crooked posture. This study investigates one important aspect of the relationship between Mendelssohn and Maimonides: their respective attitudes toward anthropomorphic language in the Bible. Much of the first part of Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed is devoted to reinterpretation of scriptural language in light of Maimonides’s non-anthropomorphic, incorporeal conception of God. These chapters constitute a central plank of Maimonides’s religious agenda. Like Maimonides, Mendelssohn was both a philosopher and a religious Jew. His most extensive project intended for a Jewish audience was his German translation of the Pentateuch, accompanied by a Hebrew commentary, known as the Bi’ur. This study examines the manner in which Mendelssohn saw fit to interpret precisely the same set of biblical terms selected by Maimonides for philosophical reinterpretation. Through an investigation of Mendelssohn’s approach to anthropomorphism, divine incorporeality, and philosophical reinterpretation in the biblical commentary, I hope to shed light on an important dimension of the nature of his engagement with Maimonides.

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1 Altmann, Alexander, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (London: Routledge & Paul, 1973) 12.

2 Kaplan, Lawrence, “Maimonides and Mendelssohn on the Origins of Idolatry, the Election of Israel, and the Oral Law,” in Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism (ed. Ivry, Alfred, Wolfson, Elliot, and Arkush, Allan; Amsterdam: Harwood, 1998) 423–55, at 423.

3 See Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (trans. Shlomo Pines; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963) I:35, 79–81; idem., Mishneh Torah, Hilḵot Yesodey Hattorah 1.

4 Mendelssohn, Moses, et al., Sefer Netiḇot Haššalom: Ḥamiššah ḥumšey Torah ‘im Habbi’ur Vehattirgum (Berlin: G. F. Starcke, 1783), Hereafter, Mendelssohn, Bi’ur. Translations from the Bi’ur are my own except when otherwise noted.

5 The other scholars involved were Solomon Dubno, Hartwig Wessely, Aaron Jaroslav, and Herz Homberg. See: Jospe, Raphael, “Moses Mendelssohn: A Medieval Modernist,” in Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge and Eighteenth-Century Enlightened Jewish Discourse (ed. Fontaine, Resianne, Schatz, Andrea, and Zwiep, Irene; Amsterdam: Edita, 2007) 107–40, at 118. A brief methodological note: Mendelssohn himself penned the commentary to the first parashah of the book of Genesis, the entire book of Exodus, and much of Deuteronomy. While I will examine relevant material from the whole Bi’ur, under the assumption that Mendelssohn’s hand is present in the entire commentary, I nevertheless think that the composite nature of the work is not entirely without relevance. Therefore, in addition to noting where all citations are located within the commentary, I will draw attention to any terms, ideas, or examples that appear exclusively in sections penned by authors other than Mendelssohn and that have no instances in those parts of the Bi’ur written by Mendelssohn himself. In such cases, it is at least conceivable that the material does not fully reflect Mendelssohn’s own view.

6 Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible (ed. Michah Gottlieb; Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2011) 185–86.

7 Feiner, Shmuel, The Jewish Enlightenment (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) 47.

8 See, for example: Harvey, Zev, “The Return of Maimonideanism,” Jewish Social Studies 42 (1980) 249–68, at 249; Nadler, Allan, “The ‘Rambam Revival’ in Early Modern Jewish Thought: Maskilim, Mitnagdim, and Hasidim on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed,” in Moses Maimonides: Communal Impact, Historic Legacy (ed. Kraut, Benny; New York: Queens College Press, 2005) 3661, esp. 41–45.

9 See also: Gen 1:27; 5:1; 9:6.

10 Maimonides, Guide, I:1, 21.

11 Ibid., I:1, 22.

12 Ibid., I:2, 22.

13 Ibid., I:2, 23.

14 Ibid., I:10, 35–36.

15 Ibid., I:10, 36.

16 Ibid., I:10, 36.

17 Maimonides also applies this interpretation to Num 11:17, Exod 19:11, Gen 35:13, and Gen 17:22.

18 Maimonides, Guide, I:10, 36.

19 Ibid., I:10, 36. See Gen 11:7, 5; 18:21.

20 Maimonides, Guide, I:10, 37.

21 “uḵeḇod ‘adonay male’ ‘et hammiškan”

22 Maimonides, Guide, I:19, 45–46.

23 Ibid., I:19, 46.

24 Ibid., [italics in original].

25 This is made explicit elsewhere. Ibid., I:5, 31.

26 Maimonides, Guide, I:10, 33–34.

27 Ibid., I:20, 47.

28 See Ibid., I:56, 131: “The term ‘existent’ is predicated of Him, may He be exalted, and of everything that is other than He, in a purely equivocal sense. Similarly the terms ‘knowledge,”power,’ ‘will,’ and ‘life,’ as applied to Him, may He be exalted, and to all those possessing knowledge, power, will, and life, are purely equivocal, so that their meaning when they are predicated of Him is in no way like their meaning in other applications.”

29 Ibid., I:54, 124–25.

30 Ibid., I:54, 125.

31 Ibid., I:26, 56. See b. Ned. 3a.

32 Maimonides, Guide, I:26, 56.

33 Ibid., I:5, 31.

34 See ibid., I:21, 51.

35 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 11:5, 18:21; Exod 3:8, 19:20.

36 Ibid., Exod 20:2.

37 Ibid., Exod 22:15,17; 23:28; 28:17; 32:13.

38 Gen 3:8: “They heard the sound of the Lord God going about (mithalleḵ) in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”

39 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 3:8.

40 Ibid., Gen 11:5 [emphasis added].

41 Ibid., Gen 11:5. The final sentence replaces the following in Maimonides: “And the notion [in all these verses] is that of punishment befalling people of low condition.”

42 Maimonides, Guide I:10, 36.

43 Ibid., I:56, 131.

44 Ibid. Maimonides’s discussions of the role of divine “will” in creation and prophecy should be interpreted in light of his stated approach to the meaning (or, perhaps, meaninglessness) of the term when predicated of God. See ibid., II:13, 281–85; II:32, 360–63.

45 Hebrew (Ibn Tibbon): “haraṣon.”

46 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 11:5. Immediately following their citation from the Guide, Mendelssohn and Dubno write: “This is what Onkelos intended in his translation, and the German translator [hammetargem ha’aškenazi] rendered it in the language of ‘deigning’ [‘sich herablassen’].”

47 Ibid., Exod 19:20.

48 Ibid., Exod 3:8.

49 Maimonides, Guide, I:5, 31: “should he consider that all the words [figuring in the Bible] concerning this subject are indicative of sensual perception of created lights—be they angels or something else—why, there is no harm in thinking this.”

50 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 18:21.

51 Maimonides, Guide, I:29, 62–63.

52 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 6:6.

55 For a discussion of the scholarship relating to anthropomorphism in rabbinic literature, see Lorberbaum, Yair, In God’s Image: Myth, Theology, and Law in Classical Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 1345.

56 For example, Mendelssohn invokes this principle to explain Exod 31:18, which describes the tablets as having been “inscribed with the finger of God.” See Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Exod 31:18.

57 An example of this principle can be found in Mendelssohn’s interpretation of divine “jealousy.” For Maimonides, calling God “jealous” really entails describing those aspects of the world which, if they had been caused by humans, would be attributed to jealousy (See Guide I:54, 126). For Mendelssohn, divine jealousy exists, as a real psychological state, relative to the inappropriate allocation of respect entailed in the human worship of idols. Mendelssohn is very careful to make clear that he has a very particular definition of jealousy in mind: Jealousy, he explains in his commentary on Exod 20:5, is a “disposition to be moved” when one sees the “apportioning [of] honor and love to that which does not deserve them,” and the “withholding [of] honor and love from that which does deserve them.” Mendelssohn has no problem ascribing this emotion to God— but only with reference to Jewish worship of idols, which entails such inappropriate allocation of honor. As he puts it in his commentary to Deut 4:24: “When He sees that Israel is worshiping and honouring an alien deity, He becomes jealous of the honor being rendered to that alien deity, since Israel’s acts of honor and worship are properly directed only to Him, not to another.” Perhaps due to the broader meaning that “jealousy” often carries in popular discourse, Mendelssohn takes the unusual step of parenthetically qualifying the meaning of the term in his German translation of both of these verses. Exod 20:5 is rendered: “You shall neither bow down before them nor honor them with divine service, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God (who can suffer no others beside himself).” Deut 4:24 is translated: “For the Eternal your God is a consuming fire (He punishes with severity), a jealous God (who tolerates no alien deities alongside himself).” Note that Mendelssohn’s parenthetical explication of “consuming fire” interprets that phrase non-literally, while his qualification of “jealous” retains the literal meaning of the term as describing a psychological state, even as it limits its scope. See Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Exod 20:5; Deut 4:24. Translation from Moses Mendelssohn (ed. Gottlieb) 226–28.

58 Maimonides, Guide, I:54, 124.

59 Exod 33:23.

60 Maimonides, Guide, I:38, 87.

61 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Exod 33:23.

62 Ibid., Exod 3:15; 13:13, 18; 33:18; 34:6.

63 Ibid., Exod 34:6.

64 Ibid., Exod 34:6.

65 Maimonides, Guide, I:56, 130–31.

66 Ibid., I:24, 53–54.

67 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Exod 13:21.

68 Ibid., Num 14:14.

69 Ibid., Gen 1:26.

70 See Mendelssohn, Moses, “On the Question, What is Enlightenment,” trans. Hans-Herbert Kögler, Public Culture 6 (1993) 213–17.

71 Maimonides, Guide, I:65, 158–59.

72 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 1:4. It is important to bear in mind that Maimonides regards God’s “will” as sharing no commonality with “will” as generally conceived, except in name. For Mendelssohn, “will” ascribed to God is still a form of will.

73 Maimonides, Guide, I:4, 27–28.

74 Ibid., I:4, 28.

75 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Exod 24:10, 33:23.

76 Ibid., Exod 20:15,19.

77 Ibid., Exod 20:15.

78 Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31.

79 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Gen 1:4. See also 1:10, 12.

80 Ibid., Gen 1:31.

81 I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for helping to sharpen this point.

82 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Num 11:1.

83 Ibid., Gen 16:11.

84 Maimonides, Guide, I:44, 94; Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Num 14:14.

85 ‘eš ‘oḵlah. See Deut 9:3, 4:24.

86 Maimonides, Guide, I:30, 63.

87 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Deut 4:24. Translation from Moses Mendelssohn (ed. Gottlieb) 227, with light adaptation. See also: Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Deut 9:3.

88 Exod 33:11.

89 Maimonides, Guide, I:37, 86.

90 Mendelssohn, Bi’ur, Exod 33:11; Deut 5:4.

91 Ibid., Deut 16:16.

92 David Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (London: Peter Halban, 1996) xxiii.

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