Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Rambam: Life and
Yeshivat Har Etzion
CREATION OF THE WORLD
Rav Eli Hadad
We concluded the previous lecture with the distinction drawn by
Maimonides between the philosopher and the prophet. Whereas the philosopher sees
man's ultimate objective in the apprehension of God, and focuses his energies on
the attainment of this objective, the prophet is not satisfied with his personal
achievement, but rather sees himself bound to lead his nation toward this goal.
In order to achieve this aim, the prophet accepts the obligation to carry out
his mission, to go down to the people and lead them to the apprehension of God,
each individual in accordance with his ability.
We saw earlier that it is precisely the prophet's profound comprehension
of God that leads him to this conclusion. This deep and scrutinizing study
brings him not only to apprehend God by way of His negative attributes that
elevate Him above all comprehension and any comparison to what exists in our
world, but also to recognize Him as the prime cause of reality. This, in effect,
is the deeper meaning of God's revelation to Moses in the cleft of the
rock, as Maimonides notes in his Guide (1:16), in his explanation
of the term tzur ("rock"):
is an equivocal term.
That is to say,
the word has several meanings, entirely different one from the other, as
opposed to a borrowed term, namely, a metaphor, where there is a
similarity between the various meanings. We have already clarified that
according to Maimonides the Torah and the Prophets are written in part as
parables, "like apples of gold in settings of silver." One way that the Torah
conceals its esoteric truths is by using words having multiple meanings. It is
for this reason that the story relating to the cleft in the rock is formulated
the way it is, the term "tzur" intentionally chosen because of its
multiple denotations. Maimonides explicates the various meanings of the word
a term denoting a mountain… It is also a term denoting a hard stone like flint…
It is, further, a term denoting the quarry from which quarry-stones are hewn…
derivation from the third meaning of this equivocal term (quarry),
the word was applied to God, who is also designated by the term
derivation from the last meaning, the term was used figuratively to
designate the root and principle of every thing… On account of the last
meaning, God, may He be exalted, is designated as the Rock, as he is
the principle and the efficient cause of all things other than himself.
Accordingly it is said: "The Rock, His work is perfect" (Deuteronomy 32:4); "Of
the Rock that begot you, you were unmindful" (Deuteronomy 32:18); "Their Rock
had given them over" (Deuteronomy 32:30); "And there is no Rock like our God" (I
Samuel 2:2); "The Rock of Eternity" (Isaiah 26:4).
The last verse
cited by Maimonides to illustrate the meaning of the term tzur relates to
God's revelation to Moses in the cleft of the rock:
verse, "And you shall stand upon the rock" (Exodus 33:21) means: Rely
upon, and be firm in considering, God, may He be exalted, as the first
principle. This is the entryway through which you shall come to Him, as we
have made clear when speaking of His saying [to Moses]: "Behold, there is a
place by Me" (ibid.).
Seeing God as the first principle and prime cause of all reality,
including the material world, brought Moses to see God as the source of the
lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness through which the world is governed.
As a result, Moses understood that he must lead his people in the same manner
that God leads His world. This is the difference between the prophet and the
philosopher: while the philosopher sees the apprehension of God as the ultimate
objective of his life, the prophet adds to that the task of leading the
CREATION OF THE
It is with respect to the question of the creation of the world
that Maimonides sets prophecy against philosophy in most explicit fashion.
Maimonides devotes a considerable portion of his Guide for the Perplexed
(II, chapters 13-31) to counter the philosophical claim prevalent in his day
that the world was not created, but rather has existed from eternity.
In his Guide (II, 13), Maimonides presents three opinions
regarding the source of the world.
The opinion of those who believe in the Law of Moses that the world was
created ex nihilo.
The opinion of Plato that the world was generated from some primeval
matter, out of which God fashioned the world and the laws of nature.
The opinion of Aristotle that the world as we know it, with all its
components and laws, has existed from eternity.
Maimonides explicitly objects
to the view of Aristotle, constructing his argument in a series of steps:
He first points out that there is no demonstrable proof,
unequivocally proving the eternity of the world.
He then demonstrates the possibility of the view that posits the
newness of the world, that is, that the world was created ex nihilo.
Finally Maimonides presents arguments that support and incline
towards the position that the world was created.
logic of the Middle Ages recognized three levels of proof:
Demonstrable proof, namely, irrefutable proof that proves a
position beyond all shadow of a doubt.
Dialectical proof, namely, proof that one can conceive of the
logical possibility of a certain conclusion as well as its opposite. Each of the
contradictory conclusions is possible, though at times support may be adduced
that gives greater weight to one of the alternatives.
Rhetorical proof, which does not actually prove anything, but
rather uses society's preconceptions to establish a given position.
was apparently of the opinion that proofs regarding the matter of the creation
of the world versus its eternity belong to the second level of proofs. From a
logical perspective, one can conceive of the possibility of each of the two
Maimonides does not believe that there exists demonstrable proof that the world
was created ex nihilo, just as there exists no proof to the opposite
position. But he maintains that the newness of the world is a logical
possibility. Moreover, it is legitimate to incline toward this position and
prefer it to the alternative. This is the limit of what may be expected
of reason in this matter. Prophecy, however, and especially the
prophecy of Moses have unequivocally established, according to Maimonides, that
the world was created out of nothingness.
THE DISAGREEMENT ABOUT HOW TO
UNDERSTAND THE POSITION OF MAIMONIDES
The sincerity of Maimonides's stated position regarding creation was not
accepted by all his readers and commentators. From his earliest commentators
down to the scholars of our own day, those who have addressed the issue have
disagreed about the matter. Some commentators inclined to accept that Maimonides
concealed his true position on this topic. Some have argued that his true
opinion is like that of Aristotle. Among other things, they base their opinion
on the fact that in his introduction to the Guide Maimonides proclaims
that he intends to conceal certain esoteric truths from the masses. These
commentators regard the issue of the eternity of the world as the secret truth
that Maimonides most wished to conceal. Others have suggested that Maimonides
leans toward the view of Plato, and that this position is hidden between the
lines. In contradistinction, there are commentators who have tried in various
ways to demonstrate that there are weighty arguments supporting the position
that Maimonides truly and sincerely clings to the Torah's position. But this
position must be understood on a deeper level, and not in simplistic fashion.
This lecture is not the proper forum in which to discuss the various
approaches to this issue. I wish only to mention one point that, in my opinion,
supports the opinion that Maimonides was indeed faithful to the Torah's position
on this topic. We shall present this support from a slightly unconventional
perspective that connects us to the previous lectures dealing with Maimonides's
literary-halakhic project. That is to say, from the understanding that
Maimonides's project continues the prophetic mission started by Abraham and
continued by Moses.
THE CONFUSION REGARDING THE
CREATION OF THE WORLD
In his Guide (II,
25), Maimonides explains why he takes such a firm stand against the opinion of
Aristotle and argues in favor of the creation of the world. But first he rules
out one possible explanation:
that our shunning the affirmation of the eternity of the world is not due to a
text figuring in the Torah according to which the world has been produced in
time. For the texts indicating that the world has been produced in time are not
more numerous than those indicating that the deity is a body. Nor are the gates
of figurative interpretation shut in our faces or impossible of access to us
regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time. For we could
interpret them as figurative, as we have done when denying His corporeality.
Perhaps this would even be much easier to do: we should be very well able to
give a figurative interpretation of those texts and to affirm as true the
eternity of the world, just as we have given a figurative interpretation of
those other texts and have denied that He, may He be exalted, is a body.
Maimonides opens with the declaration that he did not arrive at his
position because he felt obligated to interpret Scripture according to its plain
sense. Over the course of the chapter, he clarifies what brought him to his
position by contrasting the way he treats two different issues - the
corporeality of God and the creation of the world. The common denominator of the
two is the fact that Scripture's pronouncements relating to each of these issues
seem to contradict the opinions of the philosophers. There are many passages in
the Torah that describe God as a body in contradiction to the philosophical
conception that denies all corporeality from God. Similarly, there are many
Scriptural verses that point to the creation of the world, thus contradicting
the philosophers' claim regarding the world's eternity.
It should be noted that the entire objective of the Guide of the
Perplexed is to deal with the contradictions between the Torah and
philosophy. The "perplexed" to whom the book is directed is a person who clings
to the Law of Moses, knows its laws and statutes, and acts accordingly, and in
addition has studied the works of the philosophers and found that their
conclusions are in accord with reason. This situation leads him to a perplexing
dilemma: Should he ignore his faculty of reason which matches the position of
the philosophers, and thus remain loyal to his religion, or should he forsake
his religion, and faithfully follow the dictates of his reason? Maimonides tries
to provide the confused reader with a way to hold fast onto both. These two
issues – the corporeality of God and the creation of the world – may, therefore,
be seen as two particular instances that sharply express the objective of the
Maimonides points out that he acted differently in each case. Regarding
the corporeality of God, he adopted the philosophical view that God is not a
body, and thus was forced to reinterpret Scripture not in accordance with its
plain sense. Regarding the eternity of the world, on the other hand, he held
fast to the Torah's view that the world was created, in sharp contrast to the
view of the philosophers. We see, then, that Scripture does not pose a problem
for Maimonides. This position is based on two arguments.
Maimonides, the number of verses that indicate that the world was created is no
greater than the number of verses that imply that God is a body. He seems to be
saying that accepting the doctrine of the eternity of the world would not have
required him to explain large sections of the Torah not in its plain sense.
Moreover, Maimonides implies that the corporeal descriptions of God are far more
prevalent in the Torah than the verses that indicate that the world was created.
In this respect, the exegetical task regarding creation would have been no more
difficult than that regarding God's corporeality.
Maimonides, since the gates of figurative interpretation are never shut, he can
interpret Scripture according to either position, that which advocates the
creation of the world, or that which assumes its eternity. In order to reinforce
his position, he points to a precedent in which he had acted in this manner. In
order to defend his position that God is not a body, he toiled and labored to
interpret certain verses not in their plain sense, and he saw nothing
illegitimate in this approach. Had he wanted to do so, then, he could have
interpreted the biblical verses according to either opinion. On the contrary,
reinterpreting the verses that point to the creation of the world would have
been easier than reinterpreting the verses that imply God's corporeality.
then, is not one of exegesis. We must, therefore, find a different explanation
as to why Maimonides adopted the position that the world was created.
CREATION OF THE WORLD AND THE
FOUNDATIONS OF THE TORAH
Two causes are
responsible for our not doing this or believing it:
One of them is as
follows. That the deity is not a body has been demonstrated; from this it
follows necessarily that everything that in its external meaning disagrees with
this demonstration must be interpreted figuratively, for it is known that such
texts are of necessity fit for figurative interpretation. However, the eternity
of the world has not been demonstrated. Consequently in this case the texts
ought not to be rejected and figuratively interpreted in order to make prevail
an opinion whose contrary can be made to prevail by means of various sorts of
arguments. This is one cause.
second cause is as follows. Our belief that the deity is not a body
destroys for us none of the foundations of the Law and does not give the lie to
the claims of any prophet. The only objection to it is constituted by the fact
that the ignorant think that this belief is contrary to the text; yet it is not
contrary to it, as we have explained, but is intended by the text.
the other hand, the belief in eternity the way Aristotle sees it – that is, the
belief according to which the world exists in virtue of necessity, that no
nature changes at all, and that the customary course of events cannot be
modified with regard to anything – destroys the Law in its principle,
necessarily gives the lie to every miracle, and reduces to inanity all the hopes
and threats that the Law has held out, unless – by God! – one interprets the
miracles figuratively also, as was done by the Islamic internalists; this,
however, would result in some sort of crazy imaginings.
Maimonides offers two reasons for adopting the view that the world was
The idea that God is not a body has been irrefutably demonstrated,
whereas the world's eternity has not been demonstrated.
earlier that, according to Maimonides, only dialectical proof is possible in
this regard. He makes great effort to demonstrate that there is no irrefutable
proof to Aristotle's position. Rather, Aristotle inclined toward this view,
while Maimonides claims that the contrary argument carries greater weight. The
implication is that only when Scripture contradicts what follows from logical
demonstration should the verses be interpreted not in their plain sense. When,
however, opposed to Scripture there stands a position that is not logically
necessary, but rather there are two possible positions, preference should be
given to the plain sense of the biblical text. We have arrived then at a
meta-exegetical argument, that is, a fundamental rule that serves as the basis
for the exegetical process itself: Interpreting verses not in accordance with
their plain sense should be limited to those instances where the plain sense of
the verse absolutely contradicts reason. We would have no difficulty explaining
the verses in accordance with the view that the world has existed from eternity,
but such an interpretation would contradict the principles of exegesis.
Maimonides adds a second, and what appears to be the primary reason. The
conclusion that God is not a body does not contradict the principles of the
Torah, whereas the belief in eternity destroys the Torah's very foundations.
would seem from what he says in the continuation that Maimonides is referring
here in the main to the Torah's principles regarding providence, the reward and
punishment promised to those who observe the Torah and those who transgress its
commandments, and primarily the question of the possibility of miracles.
According to Aristotle's understanding of eternity, miracles are impossible.
THE GOD OF ARISTOTLE AND THE
GOD OF ABRAHAM
According to Aristotle, since the world follows necessarily from God, the
world must exist from eternity. The existence of God necessitates the existence
of the world alongside Him. While the world follows from God, and God serves as
its prime cause, God's existence did not precede that of the world. From a
logical perspective, God precedes the world, because He is its cause, but it is
impossible that the world should not exist as a result of God's existence. It is
not God's will that the world should exist, but it necessarily exists because of
Him. What demonstrates more than anything else that the world is a necessary
consequence of God is the regularity of the world. The universal order that
finds expression in the constancy of things points to the Divine wisdom that is
the cause of this order. But the God of Aristotle does not want this regularity,
nor did He choose it; rather, it is caused incidentally to God's thinking about
This is the basic definition of Aristotle's God: "Mind contemplating
itself." God is the most elevated being, the mind that is engaged in the most
elevated activity, namely, thought, thinking about the most elevated thing,
namely, God. In other words, mind contemplating itself. The God of Aristotle
dwells within Himself and turns exclusively to Himself. The world is an
incidental consequence of this self-thought. This explains why God does not
relate to the world, nor does He want it or take an interest in what transpires
there. The world with its natural order is immutable, and from eternity it has
been shaped with this order. The natural order itself cannot be changed, for it
is the eternal consequence of God's thought about Himself. Therefore, miracles
are impossible, for they constitute a change in the law of the universe. A
miracle would be a change in that law, but since that law is a necessary result
of the eternal thought of God, it cannot possibly change.
The Aristotelian philosopher is fashioned in the image of his God. His
essence is mind, and his entire objective is to contemplate the most elevated
thought. As opposed to God, he does not contemplate himself, but rather his God,
for God is the most elevated thought.
A miracle points to God's "interest" in the world. It indicates that the
world is not merely the necessary consequence of Divine wisdom, but also of
Divine will. Had God contemplated Himself alone, He would have dwelt within
Himself forever, and the world would never have been created. The creation of
the world indicates that God looks beyond Himself, a phenomenon that we call
will. The creation of the world attributes to God will, and not only wisdom.
While in God the two are inseparable, when we look at the world, we can identify
these two different aspects. The world's order points to God's wisdom, whereas
miracles point to His will.
The prophet who walks in the path of Abraham and Moses – he too imitates
his God and acts in His image. Through the creation of the world, it became
clear that thought is not the exclusive objective, but rather there exists an
aspect of will that is directed toward the lower worlds and their leaders. The
prophet follows in God's footsteps to lead man, and he is not satisfied with the
apprehension of the rational truths. Thus, the attainment of prophecy leads the
prophet not only to ascend the ladder, but also to descend it and serve as a
political leader of his people. The creation of the world serves as the
foundation of the Law of Moses in that it supports the prophetic mission.
Fundamentally, Maimonides is prepared to accept the position of
however, one believed in eternity according to the second opinion we have
explained – which is the opinion of Plato – according to which the heavens too
are subject to generation and corruption, this opinion would not destroy the
foundations of the Law and would be followed not by the lie being given to
miracles, but by their becoming admissible. It would also be possible to
interpret figuratively the texts in accordance with this opinion. And many
obscure passages can be found in the texts of the Torah and others with which
this opinion could be connected or rather by means of which it could be proved.
However, no necessity could impel us to do this unless this opinion were
view of the fact that it has not been demonstrated, we shall not favor this
opinion, nor shall we at all heed that other opinion, but rather shall take the
texts according to their external sense and shall say: The Law has given us
knowledge of a matter the grasp of which is not within our power, and the
miracle attests to the correctness of our claims.
Plato's opinion, as opposed to that of Aristotle, allows for miracles; it
sees God as relating to the world, and so it does not contradict the foundations
of the Torah. Indeed, Plato views the philosopher-king who leads the state as
the ideal man. In this respect, Plato's teachings are closer to those of the
Torah than are those of Aristotle. But as Maimonides concludes, this opinion has
not been demonstrated, and so it is preferable to follow the plain sense of
Scripture on this matter.
(Translated by David Strauss)
This series is posted in
conjunction with the Maimonides Heritage Center, http://www.maimonidesheritage.org.