Way back at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), “Moses hid his face, being afraid to look at God.” And for good reason: as God explains later (Exodus 33:20), “No one can see me and live.” Yet here (Exodus 24:10), not just Moses, but Aaron, Nadav, Abihu, and even the Israelite elders, “saw the God of Israel, yet He did not raise His hand against them.”
Why not? What exactly did they see?
Rashi says they just glanced at God; enough to deserve punishment, maybe, but not so much that God could not postpone it, to avoid marring the joy of revelation.
That’s not a great answer to our philosophically inclined commentators, who offer an alternative solution, dependent on Maimonides’ understanding of prophecy. God cannot be seen, they point out, because God is invisible. Moses and his party must, therefore, simply have intuited a prophetic vision of God, Such a vision, says Maimonides, arises out of the combination of three perfected character traits: reason, imagination and morality — precisely the three hallmarks, incidentally, that Immanuel Kant would later celebrate as the essence of humanity: pure reason, aesthetic judgment, and the moral law.
But how could all those priests and elders have attained the prophetic capacity that we reserve for Moses alone?
We should supplement Maimonides, then, with the view of Judah Hechasid, the leader of German mysticism following the Crusades. Judah composed Shir Hakavod, (“Song of Glory,” called also Anim Z’mirot) a daring anthropomorphic description of God that is still recited in traditional synagogues at the end of Musaf — as if he had actually perceived God in human form. But Judah was more sophisticated than that. He believed God has two aspects: the ultimate and hidden side that no one sees; and a “visual translation,” so to speak — an emanation from the concealed part, in knowable human form, the way a shadow of something hidden from sight might be projected upon a screen. How else can we know an unknowable God? Surely God must project at least a hint of what divinity is like.
Return now to Maimonides, for whom ultimate seeing is more than visual. All animals see; but human beings “see” prophetically. We may not all be prophets, any more than we are all brilliant philosophers, accomplished artists, and perfected moral agents, but we all experience reason, imagination, and morality to some degree. And the way we best express this higher-order “seeing” is through speech.
There are exceptions: artistic geniuses like Picasso and Beethoven who transcend pure speech in providing the imagination of greatness; but most of us speak our worlds into being. The side of the divine that God shares with us, in the philosophy of Judah Hechasid, may not be, as Judah thought, an actual sighting of God. More likely, it is the manifestation of whatever it is that prompts us to grasp for language of the divine – what we call the “sacred.”
Over 100 years ago, Emil Durkheim, the Jewish founder of modern sociology wondered where words and concepts come from. How do we get the idea of “allness,” for instance – and then words like “all,” “eternity” and “forever”? He denied the standard philosophical reasoning that attributed such ideas to the internal working of our minds, acting independently. Ideas, Durkheim insisted, are prompted by external experiences, which then evoke words – especially, Durkheim thought, the word, “sacred.”
A lesser word does not do justice to experiences like moments of love, the kindness of strangers, scientific breakthroughs , and beauty that takes the breath away. The word “sacred” arose when, from the human side, the Israelites on the mountain put together reason, imagination and morality to exercise prophetic vision; while God offered a glimpse of what those three elements might reasonably strive to comprehend.
What Moses and the Israelite leaders saw that day was not the face of God, but possibilities that demanded a new word: “sacred.” And we have been striving for it ever since.