Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
WE have already stated several times that the prophetic books never attribute to God anything which ordinary men consider a defect, or which they cannot in their imagination combine with the idea of the Almighty, although such terms may not otherwise be different from those which were employed as metaphors in relation to Goa. Indeed all things which are attributed to God are considered in some way to be perfection, or can at least be imagined [as appertaining to Him].
We must now show why, according to this principle, the senses of hearing, sight and smell, are attributed to God, but not those of taste and touch. He is equally elevated above the use of all the five senses: they are all defective as regards perception, even for those who have no other source of knowledge: because they are passive, receive impressions from without, and are subject to interruptions and sufferings, as much as the other organs of the body. By saving that God sees, we mean to state that He perceives visible things; "He hears" is identical with saying "He perceives audible things"; in the same way we might say, "He tastes and He touches," in the sense of "He perceives objects which man perceives by means of taste and touch." For, as regards perception, the senses are identical: if we deny the existence of one sensation in God, we must deny that of all other sensations, i.e., the perceptions of the five senses: and if we attribute the existence of one sensation to Him, i.e., the perception appertaining to one of the senses, we must attribute all the five sensations. Nevertheless, we find in Holy Writ, "And God saw" (Gen. vi. 5); "And God heard" (Num. xi. 1); "And God smelt" (Gen. viii. 21); but we do not meet with the expressions, "And God tasted," "And God touched." According to our opinion the reason of this is to be found in the idea, which has a firm hold in the minds of all men, that God does not come into contact with a body in the same manner as one body comes into contact with another, since He is not even seen by the eye. While these two senses, namely, taste and touch, only act when in close contact with the object, by sight, hearing, and smell, even distant
objects are perceived. These, therefore, were considered by the multitude appropriate expressions [to be figuratively applied to God]. Besides, the object in figuratively applying the sensations to Him, could only have been to express that He perceives our actions: but hearing and sight are sufficient for that, namely, for the perception of what a man does or says. Thus our Sages, among other admonitions, gave the following advice and warning: "Know what is above thee, a seeing eye, and a hearing ear." (Mishnah Abot, ii. 1.)
You, however, know that, strictly speaking, the condition of all the sensations is the same, that the same argument which is employed against the existence of touch and taste in God, may be used against sight, hearing, and smell; for they all are material perceptions and impressions which are subject to change. There is only this difference, that the former, touch and taste, are at once recognized as deficiencies, while the others are considered as perfections. In a similar manner the defect of the imagination is easily seen, less easily that of thinking and reasoning. Imagination (ra‘ayon) therefore, was never employed as a figure in speaking of God, while thought and reason are figuratively ascribed to Him. Comp. "The thoughts which the Lord thought" (Jer. xlix. 20); "And with his understanding he stretched out the heavens" (ib. x. 12). The inner senses were thus treated in the same way as the external; some are figuratively applied to God, some not. All this is according to the language of man; he ascribes to God what he considers a perfection, and does not ascribe to Him what he considers a defect. In truth, however, no real attribute, implying an addition to His essence, can be applied to Him, as will be proved.