By Israel Drazin 


Two views

As startlingly as it may appear to many people today, the fact is that many intelligent religious people did not believe that God created the world out of nothing.[1] In fact, they are convinced that the Bible itself states that God formed the world out of preexisting material. Greece’s greatest thinker, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE)[2] was convinced that the world could not have been created out of nothing; it must have been formed out of pre-existing material. It is even possible – and many scholars say it is likely – that the greatest Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) agreed with Aristotle.

Does it make any difference whether God created the world out of nothing or he formed it out of matter that, like him, existed for all eternity? I think that it makes no difference. Even if people believe that God used material to create the world, they would still be believing in God, that God miraculously formed a world, placed into it what the Bible calls “good” things, what we call the laws of nature, and we should study these laws to improve ourselves and society.

But others do not and did not think so. They felt that saying God used pre-existing material to form the world belittles God. The Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) said that you either accept the god of Aristotle or the God of the Torah; you can’t do both.[3] Unfortunately, this attitude could be taken to an extreme and lead to an aversion to science, a jingoistic attitude to one’s own religion, and a belittlement of the religion of others, as it did with Halevi, even though everything, including all people of all religions, was created or formed by God.

Let’s examine two points briefly: what was Maimonides view about creation and what are some of the things he thought the Bible’s creation story teaches.


Maimonides’ view of creation

Maimonides discusses at great length Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the universe and what he calls Judaism’s contrary view of creation out of nothing in the beginning of the second of the three parts of his Guide of the Perplexed. He states repeatedly that he rejects Aristotle’s view. However, many scholars[4] recognize that Maimonides wrote for two audiences: those familiar with science and philosophy and those who are not. He frequently makes statements for the sake of the latter group even though he does not believe them. He warns his readers in his introduction that they will find such contradictions in his Guide and they can discern his real view by reading the entire book carefully and not taking statements out of context to prove their preconceived notions.[5]

In this case, these scholars point out that Maimonides generally accepts Aristotle’s views[6] and if Maimonides really wanted to dispute this Aristotle teaching, he would not have spent so many pages explaining it. Furthermore, they point to 2:25 where Maimonides is hinting very strongly that he agrees with Aristotle:[7]

We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe because certain passages in Scripture confirm Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporal being;[8] nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God.[9] We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal.

In essence, scholars assert that Maimonides is saying here to people who read his entire text and who are trained in science and philosophy: despite my saying previously (for the general population) that creation out of nothing is a Jewish view contained in the Bible, this is not so. And despite my saying that I rejected Aristotle’s view, this is also not so; while the Bible is ambiguous on the subject, it seems more likely to support Aristotle’s view.


Maimonides on some of the things the creation story teaches

The Torah starts by telling its readers about the creation of the world, or so it seems. But does it? The Torah story certainly contradicts what science teaches. It is also rather strange. It seems to say that it took God six days to create. This may imply that God is incapable of creating the world instantaneously. It also appears to state that God rested on the seventh day. Does this imply that the all-powerful deity tires? Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us about God at all, but about humanity.

There are no clear answers to any question about the Bible. Highly respected Christian, Muslim, and Jewish biblical commentators disagree on how it should be understood. For instance, the Jewish Bible commentator Rashi (1040–1205) states that the Torah begins with the story of Creation to teach that God created the world, it belongs to him, he can do with it as he wills; and since he gave Israel the land of Israel, no one should argue that Israel does not belong to the Jews. Rashi read the initial Bible narrative literally as a theological and political message.

In contrast, Maimonides read the story as a parable and finds many messages for people in it. In his Guide 1:1 and 2, he states that he understands the biblical description of humans being created in the “image of God” to mean that people are like God in the sense that they can think. As Aristotle taught, he sees this as a basic command: people have a duty to develop their ability to understand the world and how it functions. People can only do so if they learn the sciences. The initial Torah narrative is not an explanation of the science of the creation of the world. It shouldn’t be taken literally. It is only a parable that should prompts people to learn about the laws of nature to improve themselves and society.

[1] Creation out of nothing is called creation ex nihilo.

[2] Aristotle was the student of the great philosopher Plato, who was the student of the philosopher Socrates. Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great.

[3] See Hillel Halkin’s excellent book Yehuda Halevi where he shows that contrary to the thinking of many, Halevi was a superb poet, but a bad philosopher. See also my review of this book on Amazon and the critique of my review.

[4] See Leo Strauss (1899-1973), “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed” in The Guide of the Perplexed, volume one, translation by Shlomo Pines.

[5] The vast majority of people who claim to understand Maimonides’ views take his statements out of context. For example, they insist that Maimonides believed in the existence of angels because he said so. But they ignore his statement elsewhere where he defines angels as any force of nature, including rain and winds.

[6] Maimonides was unafraid of accepting the thoughts of pagans, and says so in his introduction to the Guide. He wrote: the truth is the truth no matter what its source.

[7] The quote is from the translation of M. Friedlander.

[8] Despite the Torah describing God with human features, such as having a strong arm, and human emotions, such as anger, Maimonides spent most of the first part of his Guide rejecting the notion that God is like humans. Despite his strong objection and despite his proofs, most rabbis of his day and even later were convinced that God has a human-like body and human emotions. The sage Raavad, his contemporary, strongly criticized Maimonides for this rational view. Similarly, people criticized Maimonides for believing in the eternity of the universe.

[9] The basic explanation is that the Bible describes God in a human fashion for the sake of the vast majority of people who would not understand an incorporeal deity. As Rabbi Ishmael wrote in the Talmud, the Torah speaks as humans do.