Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Megillat Esther: Attaining Non-Acquaintance

Attaining the Level of Non-Acquaintance—Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite

The most discussed topic in philosophy of the Middle Ages is, without doubt, God’s existence.

Many great philosophers such as Rambam (Maimonides, 1138-1204) and the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) invest a lot of time in clarifying the concepts of “omnipotence,” “divine excellence” and other such terminologies.[1]

Some maintain that God “keeps all the stars in only one hand,” meaning that, symbolically speaking, the universe is smaller than God’s hand.

However, others take a different stand. They maintain that one should not say anything about God. Afterall, God is elevated above man’s intellect and rises above the concept of “being.” God is far more than “being”: in this regard one cannot even speak of God’s “knowledge,” since all these descriptions are too limited. From this perspective, God does not “exist,” does not “know,” and surely does not “exist.” After all, He is much more than “existing.”

These are difficult claims because they surpass the human mind.

They were first introduced by a monk by the name of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who seems to have lived in Syria in the fifth century.[2]

Just like many great philosophers such as Plato and his followers, Pseudo-Dionysius believed that the human search for the origin and meaning of all existence is the ultimate goal of life. It leads to the highest form of happiness. Yet, it is not this achievement itself that makes us happy, but the road we need to travel to attain it. Happiness is the result of searching—which is the feeling of spiritual growth.

In Dionysius’ famous small tractate called “On Mystical Theology,” he introduces the philosophy of the “Apophasis of Negation.” Dionysius explains that since God is the source of everything, He is also the source of the concept of “Source”! Since, according to Dionysius, you cannot compare the source with all that flows from it, Dionysius takes the only road left open to him: negation. This is the possibility to describe God by stating what He is not (Maimonides uses a similar argument).

“Apophasis” means “repudiation,” but philosophers use it to mean “the way of language” i.e. the limits of language. In a remarkable way, Dionysius denies all concepts concerning God that were traditionally used by earlier philosophers. Thus, he states that the Source of All, God, does not include any power, any light, any life, any eternity—neither time. God is “naked,” since nothing can be said about Him.

Dionysius argues that it is not even possible to behold truth. “Truth” cannot be described because it is beyond the ultimate. It is beyond language.

At the first instance it appears that Dionysius’s approach leads to total denial—any intellectual attempt to fathom God is meaningless, in fact, foolish. It is building castles in the air.

“No,” says Dionysius, “that is not true.” “What I mean by the statement that ‘the source of all things has no truth,’ is that the highest form of truth is indeed true, but since it is so absolutely perfect, we cannot imagine it. There are no human measurements by which it can be described. There is no language available. Man’s limited brainpower must leave everything behind when one discusses God.”

Dionysius terms this the “the paradox of “non–Acquaintance.” The highest meaning a human being can comprehend is solely the awareness that he does not know anything about God. And, man is to perfect this awareness as much as possible. God can only be known through negation; God is not anything in the conventional sense of words or thoughts.

However, this creates a paradox! That which is unknowable is the Highest of Being but at the same time, it is “Not-Being.” It means that the belief in God is also the foundation of atheism.

This is what it means when God says to Moshe: “I will be what I will be” (Shemot 3:14). The verse does not say that God is what He is. “Will be” means He can only be grasped by something that does not yet exist; something that will never exist.

Any full acknowledgement of God’s intervention through miracles is therefore impossible. When miracles occur, they only offer paths to the recognition that God exists. But, they can never bring us to perceive God Himself, in His essence. They bring us only closer to the awareness that God exists; they are like the shadow of an item which itself cannot be seen.

The earlier biblical books are therefore full of “illusive” miracles that did occur, but can never be used as the foundation of belief in God. The texts are only expressions stated in human language.

However, when we come to the Scroll of Esther we ascend a little higher. God is never mentioned in the story and no miracles occur—making this text one step closer to the non-Acquaintance of God.

All we can observe is that by looking backwards in the Purim story we see in the order of different common events something of God’s being. But even this does not bring us fully to God. It brings us only a little closer to His “non-existence,” because it is only in non-existence where God dwells.

The Kabbalah, Jewish mystical teaching, terms this “Torah Kedumah,” “Primordial Torah,” a Torah that only exists as “spiritual fire,” i.e. a symbol of that which cannot be touched.[3] Our Torah is a human translation of the Torah Keduma. It is this human translation “bilshon bnei adam,” “in human language,” that God provided mankind with at Sinai so that man will know that there is a God. But, God does not “exist” in conventional terms.

When the Jewish people became more mature in the era of Purim (see Shabbat 88a, Tosafot s.v. “Moda’a Rabba”) God provided them with a higher awareness of His being, allowing the people to come a little closer to Him, but no more.

Megillat Esther, The Book of Esther, literarily “the Scroll of the Hidden One,”[4] is therefore a description of God on the level of denial and absence. Still, God’s real book cannot be expressed at all. It is wordless.

It is for this reason that we hide behind masks on Purim. We are created in God’s image and our very existence can therefore never fully be seen (See Thought to Ponder 761, Panic: The Visible and Invisible, here).

We only meet God in His absence. We can only speak to God. We can never speak about God.

Purim Same’ah

[1] Aquinas seems to have read Maimonides and often uses his arguments, yet Maimonides is never mentioned by name!

[2] For the following I am partially indebted to: Dionysius, de Areopagiet, Gezamelde Werken, Dutch, Christofoor Publicaties, 2016.

[3] See Nathan Lopes Cardozo, “The Torah as God’s Mind, a Kabbalistic Look into the Pentateuch,” New York, Bep-Ron Publications, 1988.

[4] The Gemara (Hullin 139a) associates Esther’s name to the verse “ve-anochi haster astir panai bayom ha-hu,” “and I shall surely conceal My face on that day” (Devarim 31:18), since the word “conceal” shares the same root as and is almost identical to “Esther.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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