What are we
Expected to Know about God?
I am more inclined
to accept the Maimonidean position.
The term “tradition” is used frequently in discussions about Jewish values and
practices. Maimonides warns us to be skeptical of traditions, no matter what
their source and no matter how many people insist that the tradition is
correct. He writes in his Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates that
a person should test the tradition, whether it is a medical treatment taught by
the famed physician Hippocrates or a Jewish value by a learned rabbi, and
examine whether it is logical and conforms to science.
The highly respected Bible commentator Rashi commented on Genesis 6:19,
relying on the tradition in Midrash Genesis Rabbah, that Noah saved
demons from drowning in the flood by taking them aboard his ark. Would any rational
person today accept this tradition?
Midrashim, the plural of Midrash, are sermons and parables designed to teach people proper
behavior. The do not teach about God because, as Maimonides wrote, we are
unable to know anything positive about God. Thus, Midrashim that instruct
people to imitate God, that He sits on a throne, arranges marriages, cares for
the sick, records the good and bad deeds of people in a book, or sits in a
tallit and studies Torah, should not be taken literally, for we are incapable
of knowing what God is or what He does. Some Midrashim are very sensible when
their message is drawn from the figurative tale. Others are pedestrian and
still others wrong, such as the last one. Midrashim were not composed or
inspired by God. They are teaching attempts by well-meaning teachers. Thus, if
people want to find out what they should know, they need to turn to thinkers
such as Maimonides.
What does the Torah require people to know? Maimonides says that while we cannot
know God, we can know about the world that He created and the laws of nature.
The primary human responsibility – that which differentiates people from
vegetating animals and inanimate objects – is to develop their intelligence,
study science, and learn the laws of nature to help improve themselves and
This is also the purpose of Midrashim. Neither the Torah, Talmuds, nor Midrashim
were designed for cloistered studies in closed rooms or solitary meditations.
Their study is not the end goal of humanity. Their study is a means to an end:
personal and societal improvement. Maimonides says this clearly in several
places in his Guide of the Perplexed. In 3:25-28, 31, he writes that
there are three purposes to the Torah commands: to inculcate some truths, to
improve individuals, and to establish a proper society. In 3:51, he writes that
people who “believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the
practical worship of God, but are not trained in the philosophical treatment of
the principles of the law” – meaning, they do not understand the three-fold
purposes of the law and implement them – never enter God’s palace.