“Touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] is a word-of-the-week, as my study partner and I plow slowly through Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. This common verb, as it happens, is central to a Yehuda Amichai piece Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group discussed this past Shabbat. The two explorations of touch shed a little extra light on one another — and on the Leah Goldberg poem, “Journeying Birds,” which our group also considered. (more on Amichai and the Hebrew Poetry group) Note: this post updated slightly 5/18/17.
Highway to Heaven
Maimonides’ non-stop stress on God’s non-corporeal nature might seem, for contemporary readers, like way too much attention on the obvious. Until very recently, I confess, I thought The Guide for the Perplexed was engaged in page after page of beating a horse long-dead, if ever it lived: After all, who among us, in this day (or in 1200 CE, for that matter), is convinced that the God of the Jews has literal feet? But I’ve come to appreciate a subtle truth in The Guide that shares a lot with Amichai’s use of playful irony and with Leah Goldberg’s God-approaching themes.
In Chapter XVIII of The Guide, the Rambam discusses the verb “touch” [נָגַע] and two others:
The three words karab, “to come near,” naga’, “to touch,” and nagash, “to approach,” sometimes signify “contact” or “nearness in space,” sometimes the approach of man’s knowledge to an object, as if it resembled the physical approach of one body to another.
…Wherever a word denoting approach or contact is employed in the prophetic writings to describe a relation between the Almighty and any created being, it has to be understood in the latter sense.
— Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed
(M. Friedlander, trans., pp.50-51)
The path “nearer” to God is a “spiritual approach, i.e., the attainment of some knowledge, not, however, approach in space,” Maimonides explains, citing these texts:
The LORD is near [קָרוֹב] to all who call Him,
to all who call Him with sincerity
קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו– לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
— Psalms 145:18
Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
For what great nation is there, that hath God so nigh [קְרֹבִים] unto them, as the LORD our God is whensoever we call upon Him?
And what great nation is there, that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
— Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (The Guide cites 4:7)
But as for me, the nearness of God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים] is my good;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.
— Psalms 73:28
Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways; as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight to draw near unto God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים יֶחְפָּצוּ].
— Isaiah 58:2 (Yom Kippur’s “Is this the fast I require?” passage)
—-“spiritual approach” citations from The Guide, chapter XVIII
While the philosopher often speaks of “knowledge” as essential in “spiritual approach,” his illustrative texts here suggest that the real requirement is intention or focus.
Bow Thy Heavens
In the passage “Touch (ga’) the mountains, and they shall smoke” [Ps. 144:5], the verb “touch” is used in a figurative sense, viz., “Let my word touch them”….as if he who now comprehends anything which he had not comprehended previously had thereby approached a subject which had been distant from him. This point is of considerable importance.
— The Guide, p.51
The verse Rambam cites —
יְהוָה, הַט-שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד; גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ
O LORD, bow Thy heavens, and come down;
touch [גַּע — ga’] the mountains, that they may smoke.
— is often linked with Exodus 19:18 with its smokey revelation: “Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire.”
Maimonides has already gone to great pains to explain that God is no nearer “whether a person stand at the center of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible.” But he doesn’t argue that asking God to “touch the mountains” or “bow the heaves” is meaningless. To the contrary, he takes the verse’s extreme imagery as a comment on the power of God’s “touch,” understood as comprehending a “subject which had been distant.”
For Maimonides, any biblical images of God “approaching,” “nearing,” or “touching” serve to emphasize change of human cognition. In a similar literary move, Amichai gives agency to a paved road in order to emphasize a human couple’s state of mind.
While most of his later works use free verse, some of Amichai’s earlier pieces, including “Pinecones on the Tree Above,” rhyme. This long piece begins with a few verses about a highway and two lovers:
[It] reached (הגיע) almost here — but thinking of
The bit of eternity that a lover and his love
Found here, close to their everyday drone
Made a detour and left them alone.
— Amichai, “Pinecones on the Tree Above”
IN Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry, 1948-1994
Benjamin & Barbara Harshav, translators (NY: Harper Collins, 1994).
The highway’s apparent consciousness — making the decision not to touch the couple — is happily accepted within the context of the verses: The playful image only enhances the reader’s understanding that it’s the couple who feel that the road, and world beyond, cannot touch them for the moment.
My contemporary Bilingual Learners Dictionary notes that the Hebrew verb naga’ — nun-gimmel-ayin — means “touch,” “concern,” and “connection.” A more prosaic description of Amichai’s scene might have said the road “didn’t concern them” or that the couple’s intimate connection dis-connected them from the nearby road. The couple’s state of mind, their lack of connection/concern with the road, is only emphasized by poetically giving (their) agency to the highway.
Should a reader object to the playful granting of decision-making ability to the highway, the poetry would cease to function. The poetry would equally fail for a reader who somehow believed that roads do, in fact, make choices. In a similar vein: Should a budding philosopher object to a God capable of sky-bending and mountain-smoking, Psalms 144:5 would lose its power. The verse also fails when such extraordinary imagery is taken as even potentially factual.
I’m still at start of The Guide, and remain pretty seriously perplexed, but I am increasingly sympathetic to Maimonides’ approach and find it oddly poetic — or, perhaps, oddly “Amichai-ish.” In approach, that is, not in content. (Although Amichai’s themes sometimes involve God and the distance between man and God, I don’t think “Pinecones on the Tree Above” is intended to explore this territory.) Leah Goldberg’s “Journeying Bird,” on the other hand, shares some of the philosopher’s quest for understanding how humans and God might approach one another. [Next post]