Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Rambam: Life and Thought
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Dedicated by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family in memory of our grandparents
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, and Shimon ben Moshe,
whose yahrzeits are this week.
#10: NATURE AND MIRACLES
In our previous lecture, we
emphasized the significance of Maimonides's decision to prefer the proposition
that the world was created to the idea that it has existed from eternity.
Maimonides marks the possibility of miracles as one of the important
derivatives of this position, and we added in clarification that its primary
significance lies in the recognition that God relates to the world, and not
only to knowing Himself.
Maimonides's stand on miracles is
also quite complex. On the one hand, Maimonides resolutely embraces the idea
that "the world follows its normal course." That is to say, the world
operates according to the fixed laws of nature that are constant and unchanging.
On the other hand, he regards the possibility of miracles, which constitute a
deviation from the world's natural order, as a necessary corollary of the
principles of the Torah. How is it possible to reconcile these two assertions?
"THE WORLD FOLLOWS ITS NORMAL
Maimonides writes in Hilkhot
Melakhim (12:1) that in the days of the Messiah the world will continue to
operate according to the laws of nature without change.
no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will
be set aside, or any innovation will be introduced into creation. The world
will follow its normal course.
Maimonides's opening words "Let
no one think" (al ya'aleh al ha-lev) indicate that he is engaging
here in polemics. Maimonides was certainly familiar with other opinions current
in the Jewish world, according to which the Messianic period will usher in
changes in the natural order, and he emphatically comes out against these
views. Rabad (Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres), who criticizes Maimonides
on this point, was also counted among those who advocated the opposite view.
Regarding the Messianic king as well, Maimonides opens in a similar fashion:
"Do not think (ve-al ya'aleh al da'atkha) that King
Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being,
revive the dead, or do similar things." And he immediately follows with
the unequivocal assertion: "It is not so."
This assertion leads Maimonides to
reinterpret the words of the prophets and understand them figuratively,
wherever, according to their plain sense, they seem to imply that the laws of
nature will change. Thus, he continues:
words of Isaiah, "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard
shall lie down with the kid" (Isaiah 11:6) are to be understood
figuratively, meaning that Israel
will live securely among the wicked of the heathens who are
likened to wolves and leopards, as it is written: "A wolf of the desert
spoils them, a leopard watches over their cities" (Jeremiah 5:6). They
will all accept the true religion, and will neither plunder nor destroy, and
together with Israel earn a comfortable living in a legitimate way, as it is
written: "And the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:7).
All similar expressions used in connection with the Messianic age are
metaphorical. In the days of King Messiah the full meaning of those metaphors
and their allusions will become clear to all.
Maimonides continues this exegetical
approach in his Guide (II, 29), where he deals with the prophetic
passages that appear to imply that the world will be destroyed. Maimonides
rejects these understandings and proposes figurative interpretations of the
passages in question. Regarding this issue as well, Maimonides was well
acquainted with other opinions. He was certainly familiar with the view of
Rabbenu Sa'adiah Gaon in the final chapters of his book "Emunot
ve-De'ot," where the describes the changes that will occur in this
world, to the point that the world will be entirely different, "this
world" turning into the "world-to-come." That is to say, it will
change into a world whose natural laws are totally different from those with
which we are presently familiar.
Maimonides absolutely rejects this
position. He argues that the "world-to-come" is not a world that will
"come after" this world, but rather the world of the
disembodied souls who will merit eternal life after death. The world-to-come is
a world that parallels the existing world known to us. Maimonides was
certainly familiar with the alternative understanding, and so he concludes his
discussion of the topic (Hilkhot Teshuva 8:8) with an explanation of the
literal meaning of the expression "world-to-come." Here too he adopts
a polemical approach, negating the opposing view:
reason why the Sages styled it "the world-to-come" is not because it
is not now in existence and will only come into being when this world shall
have passed away. It is not so. The world-to-come now exists, as it is
stated: "Which You have treasured up for them that fear You, which You
have wrought [for them that trust in You before the children of men]"
(Psalms 31:19-20). It is called the world-to-come, only because human beings
will enter into it at a time subsequent to the life of the present world in
which we now exist with body and soul, and this existence comes first.
Here too Rabad expresses his
disagreement, forcefully chiding Maimonides for his opinion: "It seems
that he denies that the world will return to chaos and nothingness, and that
the Holy One, blessed be He, will create His world anew." Rabad adduces
support for his position from a talmudic passage in Rosh Ha-shana (31a):
"And [the Sages] have said: 'The world lasts six thousand years, and one
thousand years it is waste.' Thus, there will be a new world."
Maimonides did not respond directly
to Rabad's stricture, but in the Guide II, 29 he connects the two
issues, restating his opposition both to the idea that our world will be
destroyed as well as to the notion that it will deviate from its normal course:
notion toward which we are driving has already been made clear; namely, that
the passing-away of this world, a change of the state in which it
is, or a thing's changing its nature and with that the permanence of this
change, are not affirmed in any prophetic text or in any statement of the Sages
relates to Rabad's proof-text from the Gemara in Rosh Ha-hana. Pressed
into a corner, he argues that the view stated there is a lone dissenting
when the latter say: "The world lasts six thousand years, and one thousand
years it is waste," they do not have in mind total extinction of being.
For his expression, "and one thousand years it is a waste," indicates
that time remains. Besides, it is the saying of an individual that corresponds
to a certain manner of thinking.
We see then that Maimonides, in a
complex exegetical move, totally rejects two opinions that were current among
the Jewish people, and boldly asserts that our world will not be destroyed and
that the natural order will not change. What lies behind these two assertions?
THE BEST OF
ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
In several places in his writings,
Maimonides identifies the book of Ecclesiastes as the foundation of his
thought. In the Guide II, 29, he adds that the book of Ecclesiastes is
the basis of the position of all the Sages (with the exception of that sole
dissenting opinion cited earlier).
the other hand, you constantly find as the opinion of all Sages
and as a foundation on which every one among the Sages of the Mishna and the
Sages of the Talmud bases his proofs, his saying: "There is nothing new
under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and the view that nothing new will be
produced in any respect or from any cause whatever.
In the Guide II, 28,
Maimonides explains this position, as well as his reliance on the words of
he says: "That whatsoever God does, it shall be forever; nothing
can be added to it, nor any thing taken from it" (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Thus
he imparts in this verse the information that the world is a work of the deity
and that it is eternal. He also states the cause of its being eternal; namely
in his words: "Nothing can be added to it, nor any thing taken from
it." For this is the cause of its being for ever. It is as if he said that
the thing that is changed, is changed because of a deficiency in it that should
be made good or because of some excess that is not needed and should be got rid
of. Now the works of the deity are most perfect, and with regard to them there
is no possibility of an excess or a deficiency. Accordingly they are of
necessity permanently established as they are, for there is no possibility of
something calling for a change in them.
Maimonides explains his position,
basing it on the argument that this world is perfect, or more precisely, the
most perfect world possible. This argument is based upon two assumptions:
1) The works of God are
2) Our world is the work
From this it
3) Our world is the most
perfect world possible.
To this we must
add another assumption:
4) Any change in something
that is perfect necessarily detracts from its perfection.
follow from this:
5) The natural order will
never change, because this is the most perfect state of the world.
6) There will never be
another world, for this world is the most perfect.
conclusions regarding the permanence of the laws of nature and of this world
result from his basic perception of this world as the most perfect world, it
being the work of God. From this
follows also his conclusion regarding the world-to-come. That is to say, the
world-to-come will not be created after this world within history and in the
framework of existence within time. Rather, it is an eternal world that exists
parallel to this world. It seems that Maimonides was the first to appreciate
the depth of this understanding of the world-to-come and fashion it as the basic
outlook of the Jewish world, though we do find hints to this view among some of
THE NATURE OF
miracles possible in this world?
First of all, it should be noted that
Maimonides faced various claims regarding the nature of the world. While he
resolutely asserts that the world is nature, that is, a fixed and unchanging
natural order, there were Arab theologians who claimed that the world is a
continuous expression of God's will. This means that the constancy of the world
evident to our eye does not result from natural laws implanted in the universe.
Rather, God continuously invokes His will and in every instant creates the
world anew, though we perceive it as constant.
Already in his Commentary to the
Mishnah (introduction to Avot, chapter 8), Maimonides refers to this
group of theologians, the Mutakallimun, known in Hebrew as the Medabberim ("Speakers").
He rejects their view, relying here as well on verses from the book of
this matter, the Mutakallimun disagree. For I heard them say that the
[Divine] will expresses itself in everything, in every instant, continuously. We,
however, do not believe this. Rather, the [Divine] will expressed itself during
the six days of creation, and all things follow always from their nature, as it
is stated: "That which has been, it is that which shall be"
(Ecclesiastes 1:9); "that which is, already has been" (ibid. 3:15);
"there is nothing new under the sun" (ibid. 1:9).
According to Maimonides, will can be
attributed to God only at the moment of creation, but not over the course of
the existence of the world. As opposed to the view of the Mutakallimun that
the will of God continuously operates in the world, Maimonides maintains that
God's will expressed itself only at the moment of its
creation. From the time that the world was created, the world operates in
accordance with a fixed natural order.
It turns out then that Maimonides
adopts the middle path between Aristotle and the Mutakallimun. Aristotle
maintained that the natural order of the world is a necessary derivative of
God's wisdom. God's wisdom is reflected in the world's order, and therefore the
world had no beginning. Rather, it is eternal, like God Himself. The
Mutakallimun, on the other hand, maintain that the world is created every
instant anew. Each and every moment, God's will brings the world into
existence, so that in truth there is no order in the world, but only an
illusion of continuous order. We can, therefore, say that while according to
Aristotle, the world results from God's wisdom, according to the
Mutakallimun, it results from His will.
Maimonides adopts an independent
position. When it first came into being, the world was the result of God's
will; this is the meaning of creation as opposed to eternity. But from the
moment that it was created, the world has operated in accordance with natural
law. In this respect, Maimonides accepts the view of the Mutakallimun regarding
the moment of creation, but the view of Aristotle regarding the nature of the
We have already noted that Aristotle
leaves no room for miracles. Since the world's order is a necessary and eternal
derivative of God's wisdom, never were there or will there be miracles in the
world. In contrast, according to the Mutakallimun, the world is in effect an
expression of hidden miracles transpiring at every moment. How are miracles
possible according to Maimonides? How are miracles possible despite the world's
natural order and regularity?
PART OF NATURE
Later in the eighth chapter of his
introduction to Avot, Maimonides writes:
this reason the Sages were forced to say that all the miracles that
deviate from the normal course of the world, in the past and promised for the
future, were all determined by the [Divine] will in the six days of
creation. It was then stamped upon the nature of those things that
something new would be produced. And when that something new was produced at
the appropriate time, they thought that it was something happening at that
time, but this is not so. They have already spoken about this at great length
in Midrash Kohelet and other places. They said about this: "The
world follows its normal course." You will find in all their words, peace
be upon them, that they always flee attributing [Divine] will to all things in
To resolve this difficulty,
Maimonides presents the position of the Sages that all miracles were
predetermined at the time of creation. That is to say, at the time of creation
the Divine will established the natural laws as well as the deviations from
those laws. Thus, it follows that there is no willful Divine intervention over
the course of the existence of the world. Here Maimonides implies that he identifies
with this position, but in the Guide II, 29, the matter is more
Maimonides first presents his own position:
have said that a thing does not change its nature in such a way that the
change is permanent merely in order to be cautious with regard to the
miracles. For although the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood,
and the pure and noble hand became white without a natural cause that
necessitated this, these and similar things were not permanent and did not
become another nature. But as they, may their memory be blessed, say:
"The world goes its natural way." This is my opinion, and this
is what ought to be believed.
this position, changes in the natural order are possible, though they are not
permanent, but only of limited duration. That is to say, a miracle is possible
provided that it will persist for only a set time. We shall discuss this
position below, but let us first deal with the view of the Sages that
Maimonides cites after presenting his own position:
Sages, may their memory be blessed, have made a very strange statement about
miracles, the text of which you will find in Bereishit Rabbah and in Midrash
Kohelet. This notion consists in their holding the view that miracles too
are something that is, in a certain respect, in nature. They say that when God
created that which exists and stamped upon it the existing natures, He put it
into these natures that all the miracles that occurred would be produced in
them at the time when they occurred. According to this opinion, the sign of a
prophet consists in God's making known to him the time when he must make his
proclamation, and thereupon a certain thing is effected according to what was
put into its nature when first it received its particular impress.
this statement is as you will see it, it indicates the superiority of the
man who made it and the fact that he found it extremely difficult to admit
that nature may change after the work of creation or that another volition may
supervene after that nature has been established in a definite way. For
instance, he seems to consider that it was put into the nature of water to be
continuous and always to flow from above downwards except at the time of the
drowning of the Egyptians; it was a particularity of that water to become
divided. I have drawn your attention to the spirit of that passage and to the
fact that all this serves to avoid having to admit the coming-into-being of
is said in the passage (Bereishit Rabba 5): "Rabbi Yonatan said:
The Holy One, blessed be He, has posed conditions to the sea: that it should
divide before Israel. That is [the meaning of the words]: "And the sea
returned to its strength when the morning appeared" (Exodus 14:27). Rabbi
Yirmiyahu son of Eleazar said: The Holy One, blessed be He, has posed
conditions not only to the sea, but to all that has been created in the six
days of creation. That is [the meaning of the words}: "I, even My hands
have stretched out the heavens and all their hosts have I commanded"
(Isaiah 45:12). I have commanded the sea to divide; the fire not to harm
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; the lions not to harm Daniel; and the fish to
spit out Jonah. All the other miracles can be explained in an analogous manner.
Maimonides cites this position at
length, its essence being that the miracles were predetermined at the time
of creation. He adds that a miracle is not a change in the natural order, but
rather God informs the prophet when the predetermined deviation will occur.
On the one hand, Maimonides calls
these words of the Sages "very strange." On the other hand, he
asserts that the statement "indicates the superiority of the man who made
it." The explanation offered for this praise is that those who advocated
this position wished to avoid admitting the possibility of changes in the
natural order after the world was created. This seems to imply that Maimonides
identified with this view. But he fails to explain what is "strange"
about this opinion. Apparently, he believes that asserting that deviations from
the natural order are part of that order is a contradiction in terms. Natural
order implies constancy without exceptions; miracles constitute deviations from
the natural order. If a natural order was established at the time of creation,
deviations from that order could not have been established within it.
A reasonable resolution of this
contradiction is that the deviations are not real; they merely appear as
deviations to those who are not fully familiar with the natural order.
According to this approach, a prophet who is forewarned about when a
predetermined deviation will occur is in effect being informed about the
natural order in its entirety. Some Maimonides scholars maintain that
Maimonides identified with this position, even though he dismisses it as
"strange," and even though he explicitly states that his own opinion
A MIRACLE AS
A TEMPORARY DEVIATION
As we noted at the beginning of
our discussion, Maimonides himself rejects this position, proclaiming that he
accepts changes in the natural order that are of limited duration. The
reasoning behind this argument is implicit in his words. If a miracle is
permanent, so that from now on the world will operate in accordance with it, it
will turn into "another nature," that is, a different natural order.
A change of this sort is impossible, for it violates one of Maimonides's
fundamental arguments that the world as it is, with its natural order, is the
most perfect world possible. A permanent change in the world's natural order
creates a new world that disqualifies the old world, and this is impossible.
Does a temporary change impair the
claim regarding the world's perfection? We noted earlier that our world is
"the most perfect" world, the most perfect world possible, but this
does not mean that the world has no flaws. Maimonides notes that in the
material world things do not operate in perfect order. Matter, owing to its
very nature, does not allow the natural order to reach perfect expression in
this material world. In other words, even the most perfect world possible is
not a perfectly flawless world. It is a world with the least possible number of
imperfections, but nevertheless it is not absolutely perfect.
It seems, therefore, that, owing
to its imperfections, the world requires certain interventions. A great number
of interventions would testify to an essential flaw in the world, but a small
number of interventions turns the world into a better place than a world
without any interventions whatsoever. We may, therefore, say that Maimonides
severely limits the phenomenon of miracles, but insists on their possibility.
It follows then that even in the orderly world of Maimonides, there are
exceptional cases in which the Divine will intervenes.
This is the way that Maimonides
summarizes his position in the Guide II, 29:
matter has now become clear to you and the doctrine epitomized. Namely, we
agree with Aristotle with regard to one half of his opinion and we believe that
what exists is eternal a parte poste and will last forever with that nature
which He, may He be exalted, has willed; that nothing in it will be changed in
any respect unless it be in some particular of it miraculously –
although He, may He be exalted, has the power to change the whole of it, or to
annihilate it, or to annihilate any nature in it that He wills. However, that
which exists has had a beginning, and at first nothing at all existed except
God. His wisdom required that He should bring creation into existence at
the time when He did do it, and that what He has brought into existence should
not be annihilated nor any of its natures changed except in certain particulars
that He willed to change; about some of these we know, whereas about
others that will be changed in the future we do not know. This is our opinion
and the basis of our Law. Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks that just as the
world is eternal a parte post and will not pass away, it is also eternal a
parte ante and has not been produced. Now we have already said and explained
that this doctrine can be arranged in a coherent way only through recourse to
the law of necessity and that necessity contains a presumptuous assertion with
regard to the deity, as we have explained.
Aristotle maintained that the world
is eternal, with no beginning and no end. Some of the Sages of Israel were of
the opinion that the world had a beginning and will have an end. Maimonides
thinks that that it had a beginning, but that it has no end. So too he believes
that the world's natural order is permanent, in accordance with the principle
that the world follows its natural course. Within that order, however, miracles
that deviate from the natural order are possible for a limited period of time.
Thus, it has been established that the world is founded on Divine wisdom, but
despite the natural order the revelation of Divine will is possible. On a
deeper level, this deviation does not contradict the natural order, but rather
is in accord with it, for the world thereby becomes "the best possible
world," as befits the work of God.
(Translated by David
This series is
posted in conjunction with the Maimonides