Esoteric vs. Exoteric Writing

The truth of the matter is that the Tradition oftentimes and purposefully makes God unintelligible to us by throwing us off-track and sending us off on misleading side-trails. It does that in fact by speaking on two different levels: the open and aboveboard “exoteric” level versus the shady and allusive “esoteric” level.

We see reference to these two levels of communication most famously in Rambam’s Introduction to “A Guide to The Perplexed” where he differentiates between what the “ignorant” and “superficial” are to be told about such things given that they take things in on a “literal, not a figurative sense”  from whom the “truth .. is (to be) completely withheld”, and what the enlightened or potentially-so are to be told about such things.

But, why must things be treated that way by the Torah? As Ibn Pakudah explains in Ch. 10 of the Gate 1:

As it is acknowledged by all, we are forced to personify God and to describe Him in human terms in order for (everyday, unlearned) people to conceptualize His existence. That is why the Books of the Prophets present Him in such concrete and accessible terms. In fact, if they were to speak of Him in language suitable to Him, that is, in spiritual terms and in a spiritual context, we would understand neither the terms nor the context. And because we could not grasp Him, we could not serve Him, as it is impossible to serve what you cannot grasp.

So, the words and concepts had to be made clear to their (unlearned) listener from the outset, and they could only be so when they were presented anthropomorphically and put into human terms. We could then enlighten him at another point, and be more precise in our explanations, letting him know that those images were only approximate and metaphorical, and that the matter is actually far finer, far more exalted, transcendent and beyond anything we could ever understand, it is so subtle.

The bright and understanding (on the other hand) would then try to strip away the shell of corporeality and elevate his understanding by degrees until he would have arrived at as much of the truth as possible, while the boor would (continue to) take the metaphors used for God in those books literally….

If the Torah were to present the subject the way it truly deserves to be — the way only the intelligent and understanding could bear — the great majority of people, who are limited in their intelligence and unable to comprehend spiritual matters, would be left without religion or Torah. For one who truly understands will not be harmed by a material treatment of these concepts, recognizing them as he does for what they are; and such a treatment helps the illiterate because they confirm to him that he has a Creator whom he is obliged to serve.

Ibn Pakudah then goes on to approach the problem from another angle further on here.

Since the Creator is completely hidden and utterly at a distance from us in His Essence, we can only comprehend the fact of His existence. For we would lose whatever understanding of His existence we had by trying to imagine Him, because we would have exceeded our reach, and it would be like trying to experience something physical with the inappropriate sense. So, we should pursue God’s existence through the signs of His deeds in creation, and they will prove Him to us.

We should stop imagining Him, or coming up with likenesses and symbols for Him in our minds, or trying to perceive His Essence after establishing His existence that way. Because if we do, in the belief that we will understand Him that way, we will lose faith in His existence, and whatever image we would form of Him in our mind would necessarily apply to something else.”

At bottom we’re being told that God unto Himself is unfathomable, and yet it’s vitally important to refer to Him if one is to grow in his being and draw close to Him. So we conceive of Him on different levels depending on our own capacities to keep the conversation going. We’ll nonetheless never be able to grasp Him unto Himself removed from the world and in His own element, if you will. We’re all forced to relate to Him as the Creator of reality as we know it and as its governing Force so as to maintain some level of comprehension.

Yet others would say that there are other ways to understand Him in more depth, as we’ll see.

(c) 2015 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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