Shiur #05: God as the First Cause

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.    Introduction


After that long introductory investigation into the general nature of faith, I will now turn to a more specific discussion of particular articles of faith.  This week's shiur will be about the first principle articulated by the Rambam. 


A word of warning: the original text of the thirteen principles is not the "Ani ma'amin be-emuna shelema…" (I believe with perfect faith…) list printed in most siddurim.[1]  The thirteen principles first appear in the Rambam's commentary on the Mishna, in the introduction to perek Chelek (the tenth chapter of Mishna Sanhedrin).  It is a fairly abstruse philosophical text, particularly with regard to the first four principles that deal with the nature of God.  Nonetheless, I will stick to the original, which is both richer in content and more defined in its claims.  This will require a certain amount of delving into the philosophical background and I ask readers to bear with me.  I promise to do my best to keep the technical elements to a minimum and to bring to a focus those elements of the Rambam's text that are of existential importance to 21st-century Jews. 


2.    The First Principle


The text of the first principle is as follows: 


The first foundation is the existence of the Creator,[2] may He be praised; to wit, that there exists a being in the most perfect type of existence and that it is the cause of the existence of all other beings.  In this being is the source of their existence, and from it derives [their] continued existence.  If we were able to eliminate its existence, then the existence of all other beings would be nullified and nothing would remain.  However, if we were able to eliminate the existence of all beings other than it, His existence, may He be exalted, would not be nullified nor be lacking for He is self-sufficient, dependent upon no other for His existence.  Everything other than He of the Intelligences, meaning the angels, the matter [lit. bodies] of the spheres, etc., is dependent upon Him for its existence.  This first foundation is attested by the verse:  I am the Lord thy God (Shemot 20:2, Devarim, 5:6).[3]


That is a mouthful, to put it mildly.  The difficulty of making sense of the above passage is not just a function of the difficulty of translating from medieval Arabic into modern English.  This article of faith is very much part of a philosophical doctrine.  Note that the Rambam is doing his best to be very specific and precise, and each sentence is directed at some potential misunderstanding.  Let me try to break it down into components. 


1.     God exists.  The rest of the passage is an elaboration of what 'God' means and what it means to say that He exists. 

2.    God is the cause of all other existences.  The continued existence of all originates with, and depends upon, God.

3.    God's existence is perfect.  This claim presupposes that existence can be imperfect – there are degrees of existence.  God exists in the fullest possible way.  This means that: 

a.    If God did not exist, then nothing would exist.

b.    If nothing else existed, then God's existence would not be affected or lessened – He is self-sufficient.

c.    The angels (i.e., celestial intelligences) and spheres[4] are dependent on God just like everything else.

4.     The source-text in the Torah for this principle is the first of the Ten Commandments, "I am the Lord your God." 


There are two main points that can be clearly seen.  First of all, the central assertion of the claim that God exists is the claim that He is the cause and source of all existence.  The second point has to do with the nature of God's existence: it is both perfect (whatever it means for existence to be perfect) and necessary for anything else to exist.  God's existence is not dependent on anything else.  At the end, the Rambam goes out of his way to emphasize that nothing, including angels, is independent of God.


3.    Aristotelian Physics


            In order to appreciate what the Rambam is driving at, we need to understand a little bit of Aristotelian physics.  Many of us learned Newtonian physics in school and we may not appreciate how deeply innovative it is.  For our purposes, let us focus upon Newton's first law of motion, that an object remains in motion or at rest unless a force is exerted upon it.  If you think about it, this law is not backed up by day to day experience: if you throw a ball or push a wagon, inevitably, the ball will fall to the ground and the wagon will come to rest.  (Newton explains these results by introducing two forces: gravity and friction.)[5]  Aristotle offers a different, more intuitive, explanation of why the ball falls and the wagon slows.[6]  He claims that objects are naturally at rest, and all motion depends upon the exertion of a force on the object.  Once the force is removed, the object will return to rest.  Thus the ball and the wagon, when the initial force is used up, come back to rest.


            Why is this important?  Well, for the approximately 1800 years in which Aristotelian thinking was the dominant way of understanding the world (at least in the West), this basic physical theory required God as a necessary component of physics.  The world, after all, is in constant motion, both astronomically – in that the spheres revolve around the earth (remember that the notion that the earth revolves around the sun is relatively new discovery!) – and more locally, in that things change, objects move, etc.  According to Aristotelian physics, unless there is continuous energy being put into the system (i.e., force is being exerted), then the universe would, like the ball and the wagon, gradually come to a stop.  The source of this energy is what Aristotle called God.  This most basic force is unique in that it is the cause of itself; it moves without an external cause; it is the unmoved mover.  God, understood in this sense, is a necessary component of the explanation of the physical universe. 


One more bit of medieval philosophy: as you can see, the Rambam does not limit himself to God's causal priority, as in Aristotle.  The Rambam insists on turning the "scientific" theory of how it is that the universe is in constant motion into a doctrine about God's existence: that it is different and more perfect than other existences, and that God's existence is necessary for anything else but the existence of other things is not necessary in order for Him to exist.[7]  An advantage of this approach is that the emphasis on the uniqueness of God's existence frees us from viewing God as simply a (central) cog in the machine of the universe.  God does not require the universe and is independent of it, but the universe requires God.  There is more to be said on this topic, but this should be sufficient for our purposes here.


4.    God as the First Cause after the Fall of Aristotelianism


What does this philosophical/scientific notion of God have to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who revealed Himself on Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah?  Even if we succeed in making such a connection (as the Rambam and other medieval philosophers did), can we salvage that notion of God, now that the physics and metaphysics that support it are no longer plausible? 


Let's start with the second question.  Modern physics does not require a metaphysical source of energy to maintain the universe.  If it makes room for God at all, it is only at the point of origin – as the force that "set off" the Big Bang, so to speak.  In itself, God's absence from physics does not pose a problem for religious belief unless one accepts the bizarre (but widely held) notion that physics is a complete and exclusive explanation of all that exists.   If our modern physics is a good explanation of how the universe works, at least on the level of matter and energy, there is still room for a Creator of matter and energy.  He is just outside the subject matter of physics.


5.    God as the Sustainer of the World  


So we can find room for God in the world as described by our physics, as the Rambam clearly does in terms of his own physics.  However, doing so leaves us at a double disadvantage in comparison to the Rambam. 


First, for the Rambam, God is a necessary component of the scientific explanation of the world.  For us, scientific explanation does not contradict the existence of God but it does not support it either (at least not obviously). 


Second, the Rambam's scientific God is not merely the original cause of all that there is.[8]  The continuing existence of the universe requires a constant force that maintains it.  The Rambam follows Aristotle in identifying this force with God, but he is also connecting to a religious idea that is neither scientific nor philosophical in origin.[9]  That idea is that God is not merely the Creator, but He who continuously maintains the universe.  This notion is familiar from the first of the blessings of Keriat Shema in the daily prayers.  In the morning version of that blessing, we celebrate and give thanks to God not just for creating the celestial bodies that structure our lives and give us light.  We also describe God as mechadesh be-khol yom ma'aseh bereishit, i.e., as He who renews (!) every day the act of creation.  In the evening version of the blessing, this theme is even more explicit, with God described as an active agent who brings about the cycle of days and nights.  This notion of God continuously maintaining and renewing the world fits neatly into the Rambam's conception of God as the ultimate, continuously active force in the world.  From the perspective of modern physics, it is more difficult (or at least requires a more metaphorical understanding) to attribute this role to God.  That is not to say that belief in God as the continuous sustainer of the universe contradicts physics; it is just not supported by physics.


6.    Interim Summary


To sum up what we have seen so far: as far as the first principle is concerned – we can easily accommodate the idea that God is the cause of the universe, but in different terms.  God is the Creator of the universe but not part of its scientific explanation.  Likewise, we can accept that God is the sustainer of the universe, but we need to give different content to that notion than that given it by the Rambam.  I will return to these points in subsequent shiurim.


7.    The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob


To return to my earlier question: despite the advantages of the Rambam's Aristotelian point of departure, the vision of God as part the explanation of physics still does not give us the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of miracles, prophecy and prayer.  The medieval attempt to bring God into their science comes with a price: the God who can readily fit into scientific explanation (even their scientific explanation) is, at best, an anonymous force, lacking personality, concern or interest in what people do and how they behave.[10]  The Rambam and other medieval Jewish philosophers were, of course, well aware of this.[11]  A great deal of the Rambam's philosophical magnum opus, Moreh Nevukhim, can be understood as the attempt to integrate his scientific/philosophical conception of God with the traditional texts of Judaism.  This was a critical issue for the Rambam, but it is more marginal for us.  We do not have a positive scientific/philosophical position about God that threatens our understanding of the texts of the tradition, because, essentially, science and/or philosophy do not tell us very much, if anything, about God.[12] 


In many ways, the disconnect between scientific explanation and God is liberating.  We are not constrained, or at least constrained very much, by a pre-conception of God that is derived from science or philosophy.  It is easier for us to embrace the powerful mythic accounts of God that are found in both the Bible and Rabbinic sources.[13]  We still need to form an integrated picture of the world which accommodates scientific explanation without that explanation becoming all-encompassing and excluding God from the world.  That is a big project and I hope that these shiurim can contribute to it somewhat.  But not today, as this shiur has gone on long enough. 


8.    Concluding Warning


I want to close with a warning.  The famous "Ani Ma'amin" of the Rambam's thirteen principles (I do not know who composed it) has the following rendition of the first principle: 


I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.


I hope it is clear how far removed this rendition is from the Rambam's actual first principle:  For the Rambam, at least, the ideal is knowledge, not faith, as I have discussed in earlier shiurim.  Furthermore, the emphasis of the first principle is not on God as the creator but as the first cause, which is not the same thing (for Aristotle, there is no creator since the world is eternal – more on this topic in subsequent shiurim).  Finally, I have no idea what the last sentence means, that God alone has made, does make, and will make all things.  It does not fit anything in the Rambam and implies that human activity is insignificant, which is certainly an un-Maimonidean thought. 


Now, I have no quarrel with the author of "Ani Ma'amin." It is, after all, a sort of prose poem, and as such is allowed poetic license.  I do want to emphasize, though, that if we want to think about the content of our beliefs, about how Judaism understands the complex nature of the relationship between God, the world and human beings, we should not uncritically take every statement of faith, even if it is printed in the siddur, as the last word on theology.  The topic is truly be-rumo shel olam, atthe peak of the world, and deserves more rigorous attention. 


[1]      There are dozens of poetic and prose paraphrases of the thirteen principles or foundations.  Most famous are the Yigdal piyyut (devotional poem) printed at the beginning of most siddurim and the "Ani ma'amin be-emuna shelema…" list most famous, perhaps, for the song about faith in the coming of the Messiah (the 12th principle).  The significance of such simplifications in bringing about the primacy of the Rambam's codification of the articles of faith should not be underestimated.  It should also be noted that these renditions strip out a great deal of the philosophical language and attendant nuance that is found in the original.  I will return to this point at the end of the shiur.

[2]      Note the absence of any "I believe" clause in the original, as opposed to many of the popular renditions.  In light of the previous few shiurim, it is hopefully clearer why the Rambam did not state this as an article of faith in the sense of something one ought to believe.  Rather, the thirteen principles are foundations of Judaism.

[3]      The Rambam's commentary to the Mishna was composed in Arabic.  There are several Hebrew translations both medieval and modern.  This translation, directly from the Arabic, is by Prof. Menachem Kellner, taken from his book Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 11.

[4]      The spheres (which were also mentioned in the text quoted above) are the location of celestial bodies (sun, moon, planets and stars).  Ancient astronomy had a successful (and exceedingly complicated) theory predicting the motion of all of these that was based on the idea that there are concentric spheres that revolve around the earth.  A different celestial body is attached to each sphere. 

[5]      I ask all those physics sophisticates to forgive me for the oversimplifications.  My point is only to illustrate where Aristotelian physics are coming from.

[6]      I likewise beg the forgiveness of anyone versed in Aristotle.  The point of my rendition here is to illustrate the necessity of a first cause. 

[7]      The roots of this ontological (=theory of existence) shift lie in the importation of neo-Platonist doctrines into the medieval Aristotelian philosophical discourse in which the Rambam participated.  This is not the place (nor am I the person) to delve into this influence.  In any case, I have used up my allotment for medieval philosophy if I want anyone to continue reading this.

[8]      In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers, who were enthralled by Newton's physics, promulgated "Deism" – the idea that God is the Divine watchmaker who designed the universe, set it in motion, and then left it to its own devices.  This sort of position precludes a conception of God as He who intervenes in history, performs miracles, or speaks to prophets.  In short, it eliminates anything but the most abstract religious content, to the extent that it is hard to view such a position as religious at all.

[9]      It is perhaps inaccurate to speak of origins.  The idea of God maintaining (and not merely creating) the world was clearly embraced by (at least some of) the Rabbis, but that does not preclude the possibility that it was developed under the influence of Greek philosophy, which was certainly part of the zeitgeist. Whether or not we can speak of influence, for the Rabbis this idea is not attached to any particular physical theory but stands on its own as part of their understanding of God.  

[10]     The classic Jewish critique of "philosophical religion," which is partly on these lines, is the Kuzari by R. Yehuda Ha-Levi (1075-1141), which predates the Rambam.   

[11]     Actually, some version or another of this problem drove philosophical thinking not only in the Jewish tradition but in the medieval Muslim and Christian traditions as well.  A great deal of the Rambam's exposition of how philosophical religion can be accommodated within traditional Judaism is derived from earlier Muslim sources.

[12]     That is not to say that there are not conflicts between the tradition and science.  Most famously, of course, the account of creation in Bereishit is not obviously in sync with modern physics.  But these issues (which I do not think are as overwhelming as some make them out to be) are not about the nature of God.

[13]     By "mythic" I do not mean, God forbid, false.  The narratives of Bereishit are unquestionably myths in the sense of being founding stories that are basic to Jewish identity. The degree to which we regard them as literal historical accounts is a different question.  The Rambam, at least, says explicitly that understanding the story of Creation literally is foolish.