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POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE CONCEPTS

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE CONCEPTS

OR, THE DISSOLUTION OF THEOLOGICAL PUZZLES.*

 

By Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, B.Sc., Lecturer, The Jerusalem Academy.

 

1) In religious language we can distinguish ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ concepts.

2) Positive concepts are those in which we define the characteristics of G-d by analogy with our own. When we apply to G-d such epithets as glorious, loving, merciful, mighty, wrathful, or war-like, we are thinking of him positively. In this category we must include the positive concepts of G-d’s satisfaction with our service, His sorrow at our suffering, His desire for our prayers, etc.

3) These concepts have meaning in terms of our own human characteristics. The divine qualities and attributes which are revealed to us in G-d’s conduct of the world become accesible to our understanding only by virtue of the corresponding qualities implanted in our own nature. This may be one meaning of the much-discussed phrase, “And G-d created man in His own image.”1 Man was deliberately created with powers and attributes revealed in G-d’s providence, for without these the divine attributes would remain completely inaccessible to man. Only because man himself can love, can he have some inkling of the power of. divine love; and so with ail the other revealed attributes of the Almighty.

4) What we call ‘negative concepts’ may be summed up by the realisation that after all is said that can be said, thought cannot really grasp the creator at all. This is finely stated in the passage in Tikkunei Zohar known as Patah Eliyahu (printed in the introductory portions of some Prayer-books) in which it is said that all sefirot- the modes of revelation of the divine attributes - can in truth serve only to conceal his real being: di behon itkasiat mibnei enasha.

This insight is akin to Rambam’s insistence that strictly speaking we can apply only negative concepts to G-d1a. All positive appelations, if taken literally, would offend against the principle of unity. Thus when we say ‘G-d exists’ what we really mean according to Rambam is that he is not non-existent; when we say He lives, we mean He is not unalive; when we say He is one we mean He is not more than one. To remain ‘with the positive would imply that His existence, or livingness, or oneness, is like anything that we can imagine by these concepts and this would offend against the absoluteness of His being. Our thought cannot in any way grasp the essence of the Greator.

1. Gen. 1:27

1a. Moreh Nevuchim, I, 58. .

* Based on: Rabbi E.L. Dessler, Michtav Me-Eliyahu., Vol. 3, pp. 255—261.

5) We can say therefore that any attempt to speak about G-d in bd1ute terms must restrict itself to negative language, while positive language must be understood as having sense only in relative terms - i.e. relative to ourselves.

6) We must realise however that there is not essential contradiction between these two types of concept-formation. They are both necessary and both appropriate in their assigned contexts. They are indeed both essential to complete the conceptual framework of a life devoted to the service of G-d.

Basic to Jewish ethics is the insight that the nefesh habahamit or subconscious mind, which is the well-spring of action, can be influenced only by positive images, e.g. the mental image of the greatness of the Almighty as against our own human frailty; His infinite power and wisdom compared with our puny strength and feeble intellect. The Prayer Book, and especially the Machzor for the High Holydays, abounds with such images. Our lower self will never be shaken out of its complacency and spurred to action except by the use of powerful images of this sort. If we want to lift our moral lives to any extent above the plane of the humdrum and the habitual we must try constantly to fill our minds with this kind of comparison: G-d’s bountifulness as against our selfishness; G-d’s forgiveness as against our sinfulness; as well as the positive images of G-d’s delight in our repentance, His concern with our spiritual progress, His sorrow at our self-inflicted suffering, and so on.

On the other hand, we need the negative, abstract concepts to preserve the purity of our G-d - idea and to help us to realise the absolute gulf that separates the creature from the creator. It is good for us, and healthily chastening to our self-esteem, to reflect that since G-d is infinite (a negative concept) He must have an infinite number of “concerns” besides our universe2 and for the same reason our limited minds are forever excluded from grasping any facet of His true essence, i.e. as He is in Himself.

7) We must not be misled into thinking however that our positive ways of thinking about G-d are basically false and merely of expedient or instrumental value, as if they were in some sense merely “propaganda for the masses”. Indeed they are true only relative to ourselves, but we must realise that truth relative to ourselves is the only truth we have or can possibly have. We cannot get “outside ourselves” to grasp reality “in the absolute”. Oar concept of ‘what is’ must perforce be limited to ‘reality as it presents itself to our minds’, but this indeed is the only reality there is- for us. Reality for us is that which our minds have been allowed to conceive for the purposes of our task-fulfilment in this world. True, we have been given an inkling and an intimation that this is not all; that there is a realm of absolute being; but about this realm we can say nothing positive. Here only negative language is in place.

8) This point is brought out with great clarity and boldness by Maharal of Prague on many occasions in his various works and above all in the importance and in some respects revolutionary thirty—third chapter of his Tiferet Yisrael. This chapter deals with the problematic statement (Exodus 19:20), “And G-d came down to Mount   ….”.

2. See Rabbi N.H. Luzatto: K’lah Pithey Hochmah, Introduction

While the whole chapter will repay very careful study, essentially his position is that our speaking about G-d can only reflect that part of reality which is true relative to man, the percipient. In this connection he quotes the Midrash (Ber. Rab. 17) which extends the name-giving function of man as narrated in Genesis 2 to include the naming of G-d himself. According to the Midrash, after Adam had given names to all the animals, and to himself, G-d asked him:

“And what is my name?

Adam answered: It is fitting to call you

Ad-nai, for you are the lord of all.

G-d said: I am that which Adam has called me.”

The significance of this passage, according to Maharal, is that all reality must define itself in relation to man. Even the presence of G-d himself in the created world can be defined only in relation to man. Thus when the Torah states that G-d descended on to Mt. Sinai this is a statement of true fact, since this is how reality presented itself to the minds of the human beings concerned. Our intellectual awareness that G-d is pure spirit and therefore cannot be said to ascend or descend cannot affect the existential fact that this is how matters presented themselves to the percipient. Maharal is at pains to point out that we are not to understand that the descent was a “mere appearance” and the true facts were otherwise. No; this was a true fact about Gd; for there is no other truth than that which is relative to the mind of man.

There could hardly be a clearer statement of our thesis of the role-differentiation of positive and negative concepts.

9) Having established role-differentiation for the two types of concept, we must beware of allowing the one to invade the realm of the other. For example, we learn in the Mishna that “on Rosh Hashana all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like sheep”3, i.e. individually. But the Gemara adds: “Nevertheless all are surveyed in one glance”.4 It is clear that the first-mentioned image is designed to provide us with the positive, awe-inspiring concept of G-d’s individual concern with and judgment of each person; while the Gemara’s addendum provides the intellectual corrective: G-d is nevertheless not himself within the time process and his mode of surveillance is not bound to the sequential, as the human mode is. But let no-one think that the language of time-sequence as applied to G-d’s actions in our world offends against the purity of our G-d-concept. This mode of thought represents the truth relative to ourselves, just as G-d’s descent onto Mount Sinai represents this trust. As Maharal says, man is not intellect alone; the fullness of his existential being comprises other aspects; and our religious language must do justice to all of them.

A still graver error would be to allow the negativeness of the intellectual concept to affect adversely the vitality of our existential imagery. If we were to feel that since the survey is undertaken “at a glance” it can’t be truly individual, we should be guilty of a very basic error and one that can have grave moral consequences. We should be taking a negative concept which relates to the realm of the absolute, “outside our world”, and

3. Rosh Hashana 1:2

4, Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashana l8a

applying it to positive concepts whose place is very much inside our world. This error is called “positivising the negative”, and it is a confusion of worlds with a vengeance. The Mishna refers to this type of confusion when it says: “He who examines that which is above (our world) and that which is below, that which is before and that which is after; it would have been better for him never to have come into this world”5.

10) This confusion of realms is the source of those seemingly insoluble theological puzzles which worry so many thinking people. For instance, how to reconcile G-d’s infinity with his presence in the world; His aloofness on the one hand and involvement on the other; His omniscience and man’s freewill; or His omnipotence on the one hand and His tolerance of evil on the other. The first term in each case belongs to the realm of negative concepts, and the second term to that of positive concepts.5a The puzzle arises from mixing the two realms. As soon as we realise the confusion and allot each language type to its proper sphere the puzzle will seem to disappear. we can see that the positive concept is the truth as it relates to our existential wholeness in this world, and the negative concept is, as it were, a ray of light coming from above our world whose function is to show us how limited are our horizons and how small our concerns compared with the infinitude of being in which we are embedded.

11) The reversal of these roles can have consequences that are much worse than the creation of insoluble puzzles. We are under constant temptation to use the negative concepts to reduce the potency of the positive images and to weaken the effect they can have on our lives; and on the other hand to “positivise” the negative and draw conclusions which may tend to be antagonistic to the fundamentals of faith.

When we draw on the storehouse of positive imagery to envisage, (to give another example) the far-ranging effects of our actions and how they can lead either to “G-d rejoicing in His creatures”6 or to “the pain of the Shechina”7, we are increasing our appreciation of the truth and gaining valid insights into the facts of life in our world. These should spur us to ever-greater efforts to achieve the goals we have been set.

When we nevertheless discern that there is a universe of discourse in which G-d cannot possibly be affected by any action of ours - however great your sins, what effect can you have on Him?8 - the last thing we should do is to relax our efforts. On the contrary, we should reason: If the transcendental G-d is in himself so serenly unaffected by events, and yet this same G-d has made known to us his will and given us the privilege of serving him as resons1e beings, this can surely only serve to increase our sense of obligation. Once we have an inkling of the ineffable grandeur of the G-d we serve the only logical consequence must be a redoubling of our efforts.

12) We see how the two types of concept are complementary, and how their carefully controlled use not only results in the solution of theological puzzles, but - what is more important - can give us a sharpened awareness of our spiritual purposes.

5. Hagiga 2:1

5a. G-d’s apparent toleration of evil is a positive concept because it is a function of human freewill. Both G-d’s omniscience and his omnipotence belong to a different realm of discourse from that world in which human freewill is existentia1 reality.

6. Psalms l04:31

7. Talm. B, Sanhedrin 46a.

8. Job 35:6.

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