Shiur #12: Was the World Created?

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        Three Opinions Regarding the Origins of the World


In chapter thirteen of Book II of the Guide, the Rambam presents three opinions concerning the creation or origin of the universe. The Torah teaches that God created the world, and – along with it – time. Plato taught that matter had always existed, but God formed the heavens and earth out of it. Finally, Aristotle held that the world always existed, in its present form. This is a point of direct conflict between philosophy and traditional Jewish faith, and the Rambam, seeking to set forth a path for the perplexed, devoted extensive and in-depth attention to this problem.


In our times, the conflict is largely moot, since even scientists believe that the universe came into being through the “Big Bang," and did not always exist. However, this view became widely accepted in the scientific world only in the mid-20th century. Until then, all enlightened people believed that the world had always existed (and ridiculed religious people who believed that one fine day it was created). From the perspective of the philosophy of science, infinity is the preferred view. Science accepts the laws of nature as a given. The idea of creation undermines this fundamental concept: if the world was created, this means that there was a time when the world did not behave in accordance with the laws of nature. There was nothingness, and a moment later there was everything. This is an idea that cannot be explained by the laws of nature.


In the Rambam’s time (and for many years afterwards), educated people believed that the world had existed forever. However, the Torah presented a different approach. The Rambam says of the Torah’s position:


It is without question one of the main principles of the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu – second to the principle of God’s Unity.


Admittedly, in the usual formulation of the Thirteen Principles of Faith as enumerated by the Rambam in his introduction to the chapter Chelek, there is no mention of the creation of the world. However, at a later stage the Rambam added a comment of his own to the Thirteen Principles (to be found in Rav Shilat’s edition of The Rambam’s Introductions to the Mishna). The fourth principle, with his later addition, reads as follows:


The fourth principle: that this aforementioned One existed prior to everything, and everything other than Him is not primordial in relation to Him. And there is extensive proof of this in Tanakh. And this is the fourth principle, as indicated by the verse, “The Eternal God is a dwelling” (Devarim 33:27).


Know that the greatest foundation of the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu is that the world was created; God brought it into existence and created it out of complete nothingness. And the fact that I devote attention to the matter of its infinity according to the philosophers is in order that the phenomenon of His existence should be absolute, as I explained in the Guide. (Rambam’s introduction to Perek Chelek)


In this principle, the Rambam establishes that according to the Torah, the world was created ex nihilo. This being so, why does he himself, in the Guide of the Perplexed, prove the existence of God on the basis of the assumption that the world is eternal, as maintained by the philosophers (as we explained in shiur eleven)? The Rambam explains that he proves God’s existence even according to the assumption that the world has always existed; this implies an even greater certainty than stating He exists only assuming the world was created.


As noted, Plato proposed that matter had always existed, and that it was out of this that God created the world. The Rambam notes that on the face of it this position seems to limit God’s ability, but in truth this is not necessarily so. Why would this view seemingly imply a diminution of God’s ability? Because according to this approach, God does not create ex nihilo. He needed, as it were, to begin with some sort of pre-existing “raw material.” Those who accept this view indeed argue that God is unable to create something out of nothing, but by the same token one might argue that He is unable to create a four-sided triangle. The concept of a “four-sided triangle” is an empty set; it is a concept that has no substance, it is merely a group of words. The same may be said of the concept of “creation ex nihilo," in the eyes of those who believe it to be impossible. Therefore, opponents of this view cannot criticize the implication that God is incapable of creation ex nihilo; according to the proponents of this view, these words are meaningless.


While Plato’s view is at least an argument that a believing Jew can address, Aristotle’s view entails far more serious ramifications for a religious world-view. The Rambam formulates this as follows:


Aristotle finds it as impossible to assume that God changes His will or conceives a new desire, as to believe that He is non-existing, or that His essence is changeable.


According to Aristotle, too, God is the source of movement in the world – but this God is not dynamic, possessing will and initiating, but rather an automatic Cause that operates within the general necessary causality of nature. This image of God is very different from the God of Judaism.


It must be pointed out that according to many Aristotelian philosophers, the image of God that arises from Aristotle’s teaching is in no way inferior to the traditional view of God; on the contrary, it is greater. These philosophers regarded all change as a defect, since in their view change means that the original situation or state was imperfect. Hence their fundamental view that God, Who is perfect, must be unchanging –which implies that He also does not initiate or respond.[1]A God that does not change does not bring a universe into existence, either. The static God of the eternal universe, then, seemed to be a far more impressive concept. However, as noted, this image is certainly very different from the traditional, biblical view of the God of Israel.


The Rambam’s View on the Question of the Origin of the Universe


In chapter sixteen of Book II, the Rambam emphasizes that in his view, there is no decisive proof either way concerning the eternity of the universe. This being so, he decides the question in accordance with the teaching of the Torah. Further on we shall see that this decision does not arise directly from the plain meaning of the text in Bereishit; the matter is more complicated than that. In any event, this is one of the clearest examples of the limitations of human logic, according to the Rambam. Logic is incapable of helping us (as the Rambam himself concludes) resolve one of the most important questions in religious life.


Chapter seventeen provides a striking explanation of why Aristotle’s conclusions on the subject are inconclusive. Aristotle, he states, assumed that the nature of reality was always as we see it today. However, the act of creation was a miracle that lay outside of the laws of nature. We cannot deduce from the way that the world works today how it behaved at the time of creation, since nature did not yet exist. God created it. The Rambam illustrates this with a fitting metaphor:


Let us assume… that a man born without defect had after his birth been nursed by his mother only a few months; the mother then died, and the father alone brought him up on a lonely island, until he grew up, became wise, and acquired knowledge. Suppose this man has never seen a woman or any female being; he asks some person how man has come into existence, and how he has developed, and receives the following answer: "Man begins his existence in the womb of an individual of his own class, namely, in the womb of a female, which has a certain form. While in the womb he is very small; yet he has life, moves, receives nourishment, and gradually grows, till he arrives at a certain stage of development. He then leaves the womb and continues to grow till he is in the condition in which you see him." The orphan will naturally ask: "Did this person, when he lived, moved, and grew in the womb, eat and drink, and breathe with his mouth and his nostrils? Did he excrete any substance?" The answer will be, "No." Undoubtedly he will then attempt to refute the statements of that person, and to prove their impossibility, by referring to the properties of a fully developed person, in the following manner: "When any one of us is deprived of breath for a short time he dies and cannot move any longer. How then can we imagine that any one of us has been enclosed in a bag in the midst of a body for several months and remained alive, able to move? If any one of us would swallow a living bird, the bird would die immediately when it reached the stomach, much more so when it came to the lower part of the belly! If we should not take food or drink with our mouth, in a few days we should undoubtedly be dead. How then can man remain alive for months without taking food? If any person would take food and would not be able to excrete it, great pains and death would follow in a short time, and yet I am to believe that man has lived for months without that function! Suppose by accident a hole was formed in the belly of a person; it would prove fatal. Nevertheless, we are to believe that the navel of the fetus has been open! Why should the fetus not open his eyes, spread forth his hands and stretch out his legs, if, as you think, the limbs are all whole and perfect?" This mode of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that man cannot come into existence and develop in the manner described. (Guide, II:17)


This youth, who erroneously deduces conclusions concerning the existence of a fetus from the reality of a mature person, is repeating Aristotle’s mistake. Aristotle argued that, according to the laws of nature that are familiar to us, there can be no such thing as creation ex nihilo. In fact, however, it is possible, since creation does indeed lie outside of these laws just as the manner of existence of a fetus deviates from the laws that guide the existence of a mature organism.


Intellectually, logically, there is no way of proving either that the world is created, or that it is not. Therefore the Rambam decides, in accordance with the teaching of the Torah, that the world was created, and is not eternal. The theory of the eternity of the universe contradicts directly the teaching of the Torah, and in the absence of any intellectual proof in its favor, we must rule against it.


C.        Esoteric Reading of the Rambam


Why did the Rambam believe that the theory of the eternity of the universe was so dangerous for Jewish faith? The answer lies in his statement concerning the benefits of faith in creation:


Accepting the creation, we find that miracles are possible, that Revelation is possible, and that every difficulty in this question is removed. We might be asked: why has God inspired a certain person and not another? Why has He revealed the Law to one particular nation, and at one particular time? Why has He commanded this and forbidden that? Why has He shown through a prophet certain particular miracles? What is the object of these laws? And why has He not made the commandments and the prohibitions part of our nature, if it was His object that we should live in accordance with them? We answer to all these questions: “He willed it so; or, His wisdom decided so. Just as He created the world according to His will, at a certain time, in a certain form, and as we do not understand why His will or His wisdom decided upon that peculiar form, and upon that peculiar time, so we do not know why His will or wisdom determined any of the things mentioned in the preceding questions." (Guide, II:25)


According to the Rambam, a person who believes in the eternity of the universe will have great difficulty explaining the phenomenon of miracles. The eternity view maintains that the laws of nature have always existed, just as God has always existed – and hence, He does not control them. If, instead, we accept that God Himself created nature, then it is clear that He is able to change its laws.


The Rambam adds that a person who believes in the eternity of the universe will also have trouble understanding such questions as why God grants prophecy to one person and not to another, why He commands us to perform some act and not some other, etc. A belief in the eternity of the universe identifies divine activity with logical necessity. Logically, there is no reason that the world should have been created at one particular time, rather than any other. For this reason, this view concludes that the world must have always existed. Likewise, it is difficult to find any logical necessity for the precise formulation of any of the commandments as we know them, or for any of the prophecies to have been given to any particular prophet. On the other hand, if we believe in creation, then we assume that God wills, initiates, and acts even where there is no such logical necessity.


Some scholars have posited that the Rambam engages here in esoteric writing, since his line of argument seems to suggest that the commandments have no real underlying reason, whereas in other places the Rambam goes to great efforts to find the reasons for the mitzvot.[2]From what the Rambam says here, it seems that God made an arbitrary decision to create the world at some particular moment, and He likewise made an arbitrary decision that, for example, Jews should put on tefillin every morning. These scholars maintain that the Rambam actually believed that the world was infinitely old but wrote that it had been created, thereby deliberately misleading the masses, who were not ready for true rational belief.


However, this would seem to be an erroneous understanding of the Rambam. The Rambam does not mean to say that the mitzvot have no rational reason; he means that the reason is not logically necessary. Those, like Aristotle, who believe that the world is eternal, maintain that God can act only in an automatic manner, according to whatever is logically necessary. As noted above, from the perspective of this view it is difficult to explain why God commanded any particular commandments, or why He granted prophecy to any particular person, etc. These decisions and acts may have a rational reason, but they do not arise necessarily from the purpose-oriented logic of a knowing, free-willed mind, nor from logical, automatic causality. The wearing of tefillin certainly has a logical reason – but it is not a logical necessity. (By way of contrast, the equation 1+1=2 is logically necessary.) The Rambam viewed the free-willed, creative character of God as an important foundation of Jewish thought and explained that the attempt to describe God as part of the automated system of the world uproots Jewish belief. It is for this reason that the Rambam insists that the God of Israel is also the Creator of the world.



Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]In various contexts, the Rambam, too, emphasizes that perfection is static. For example, he writes that among all living beings, physical movement occurs “in order to approach that which is good for them and in harmony with their nature, and to escape from what is injurious and contrary to their nature” (Guide, I:26). This means that movement is a necessity for living creatures, which possess external needs of nourishment and protection from predators. A being that is in no way dependent on anything outside of itself, will never move. Therefore, in terms of our perception of God, it makes no difference whether we speak of Him eating, or drinking, or moving, since all of these imply need to the same degree. Logically, this concept applies not only to physical movement, but to any sort of change. Likewise, the Rambam writes elsewhere: “Indeed, God states, ‘I am God, I do not change’ (Malakhi 3:6). If He were sometimes angry and sometimes happy, He would undergo some change, but such phenomena exist only among the dark, lowly creatures that inhabit clay houses, and who are created from dust. But God, blessed be He, is blessed and elevated above all of this” (“Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” 1:12). Likewise he writes concerning the desire to avoid the frequent performance of miracles: “Something that is changed, is changed only because of some deficiency in it, in order to complete it, or in order to remove some part of it that is superfluous. God’s works, in contrast, since they are altogether perfect and cannot possibly have anything superfluous or lacking, exist and endure forever as they are, since it is impossible that anything should exist that would cause them to change” (Guide, II:28). Nevertheless, we will see later on that the Rambam avoided the extreme view of the static, uncaring Deity that arises from Aristotelian philosophy.

[2]See the view of A.Z. Berman, as quoted by A. Nuriel, "Chiddush Ha-olam o Kadmuto al pi Ha-Rambam", Tarbitz 33, 5724, p. 374.