Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just say no

As I settle into this Job project, I go from panic (Maimonides in two thousand words? An impossibility, a travesty!) to relief (Maimonides in two thousand words? A possibility!) - and back and forth a few more times. My word limit permits me to resist the temptation to be superscholarly, every paragraph suspended above stalactite caverns of references. Meanwhile the need to be telling a story from one miniature to another is crystallizing something of its own - a recurrent set of questions which, I realize more with each section, are my own. The central interpretive angle in my book proposal was that Job offers a fascinating context for thinking about books and arguments: it wants to be a book (Oh that my words were now written, oh that they were printed in a book! - 19:23 [KJV]) but resists readers' efforts to make it one. But a second theme is emerging: the significance of Job's friends. I suppose I knew that was part of it too - the picture I'm hoping will appear on the cover is of the friends, after all. But I didn't think it would lead me to new interpretive discoveries...

Like this one, which looks like it will have to be part of the two thousand words on Maimonides! Maimonides' interpretation of the Book of Job in The Guide of the Perplexed is part of an extended discussion of divine providence, and the views on providence expressed by Job and his friends are explicitly linked to ancient discussions:

The opinion attributed to Job is in keeping with the opinion of Aristotle; the opinion of Eliphaz is in keeping with the opinion of our Law; the opinion of Bildad is in keeping with the doctrine of the Mu‘tazila; the opinion of Zophar is in keeping with the doctrine of the Ash‘ariyya. These were the ancient opinions concerning providence. (III.23; 494)

The Mu‘tazilites and Ash‘arites are Islamic sects, discussed, along with Aristotle, "our Law" and Epicurus, a few sections before, where we're told that there are only five possible opinions on providence, all of them ancient (III.17; 464). So the "parable" which is the Book of Job (III.22; 486) tells us that all human efforts to conceptualize providence are inadequate, silenced by the theophany - which makes its point by not being about what we take providence to be! [I]n the prophetic revelation which came to Job and through which his error in everything that he had imagined became clear to him, there is no going beyond the description of natural matters. (III.23; 496) The conclusion is clear:

[O]ur intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them. They are not things that resemble what we make. How then can we wish that His governance of, and providence for, them, may He be exalted, should resemble our governance of, and providence for, the things we do govern and provide for? ... [T]he notion of His providence is not the same as the notion of our providence; nor is the notion of His governance of the things created by Him the same as the notion of our governance of that which we govern. The two notions are not comprised in one definition, contrary to what is thought by all those who are confused, and there is nothing in common between the two except the name alone. (III.23; 496)

So far so good; this I knew was part of the story before. It's entirely in keeping with Maimonides' negative theology: the description of God, may He be cherished and exalted, by means of negations is the correct description (I.58; 134).

But what I've recently noticed comes from my interest in the friends. Maimonides says that in some parables every word matters, while in others the meaning is only in the whole, and once you've found it the rest should be left aside (Introduction; 12). Job is of the second kind, and Maimonides claims to have told us all it is there to say, nothing being left aside except such matters as figure there because of the arrangement of the discourse and the continuation of the parables (III.23; 497). That line appears where an account of Job's restoration would appear - evidently not important to the message of the parable!

But Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu get lots of attention - more than in modern readings, which tend to assume they're hypocritical windbags and all saying the same thing. Indeed, Maimonides acknowledges that to the untrained eye they do all seem to be saying the same thing: If you consider the discourse of the five [E, B, Z, E and Job] in the course of their conversation, you may almost think that whatever one of them says is said also by all the others, so that the same notions are repeated and overlap. (III.23; 491) But the discerning eye sees farther. The differences matter.

Letting the friends represent the gamut of philosophical views of providence, all transcended by the prophetic vision of the theophany, fits Maimonides' larger project. But the apparent overlap of their views matters, too. To see this, you need to go back to the descriptions of the ancient opinions, which are presented not as distinct views but each (except the Epicurean denial of all providence, which forces the conversation) as an attempt to avoid the problems of another. While each was then pushed into "incongruities and contradictions" of its own, it is primarily concerned to avoid an error.

To my mind no one among the partisans of these three opinions concerning providence should be blamed, for every one of them was impelled by strong necessity to say what he did. Aristotle followed what is manifest in the nature of that which exists. The Ash‘ariyya tried to avoid having to ascribe to Him, may He be exalted, ignorance with regard to anything … The Mu‘tazila also tried to avoid having to ascribe to Him, may He be exalted, injustice and wrongdoing.” (III.17, 468)

Why does this matter? Well, it explains why the disputation between Job and his friends is important to the Book of Job - why we need the friends. And more fundamentally (since we're no longer interested in Aristotelian vs. Ash'ariyya, etc.) why a debate, often spilling over into anger and recrimination, could matters. It's not in its affirmations but in its negations that debate takes us closer to an understanding of God (well, farther from misapprehensions). To say that God's providence is unlike ours in every way but the word takes you nowhere, and may unattended lead you to fall back into thinking in human terms. To avoid these dangers, study natural philosophy and read Job's exchanges with his friends - making sure to understand what drives them - and you'll understand anew what Maimonides described in the closest thing to a discussion of providence in the negative theology section of the Guide:

we say of Him … that He is powerful and knowing and willing. The intention in ascribing these attributes to Him is to signify that He is neither powerless nor ignorant nor inattentive nor negligent. (I.58, 146)

I haven't seen other interpreters link Maimonides' reading of Job with his negative theology. It's only because of my dogged commitment to his friends that I've seen that one might. It makes good sense that an apophatic theology might be as interested in the sparring of human debate as in the silencing of the human by the prophetic - and find the Book of Job a compelling way of showing this.

Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963)
Images from a 1347 Hebrew translation of the Guide from Catalunya, now in Copenhagen

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