Rambam and creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) and de novo (anew)


Rambam and creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) and de novo (anew)


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In Far-Off Wonderment: Maimonides, God and Creation

By Amarnath Amarasingam

Scholars generally agree that Maimonides' treatment of creation is one of his greatest achievements. There is, however, very little agreement on the exact nature of his views on this subject. Most scholars believe that Maimonides defends creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). The esotericist interpretation states that he espouses necessary emanation from an eternal source. Another group argues that he defends a Neoplatonic view according to which the world was created from pre-existing matter. Kenneth Seeskin states that Maimonides' view on creation is based around two central points: [1] He aims to place God far 'above' or away from the created order and [2] he pleads agnostic concerning the actual details of creation and states that prophecy should be trusted when faced with such a level of uncertainty.

At the beginning of the Guide of the Perplexed1, Maimonides spends a great deal of time discussing the incorporeality of God. For him, God is far more transcendent than what the Hebrew Bible depicts when read at face value; He is a 'distant God' and therefore the question of how God created the universe and the world, is just as unknowable or mysterious as the nature of God. The two are related, "because if we do not know what God is, we cannot know by what means God conferred existence on things."2 This essay will examine the three versions of the 'account of the beginning' discussed by Maimonides: that of Moses, Plato and Aristotle. It will also explore the notions of time and motion, creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) and de novo (anew) as well as Maimonides' arguments against Aristotle and those in favour of the Mosaic view.

The first view of creation is "the opinion of all those who believe in the Law of Moses our Master."3 The tone of these sentences sound almost like a warning: If you believe in the Law of Moses, Maimonides seems to be saying, this is what you will believe – not the view of Plato, or the Aristotelian view. The Mosaic view states that the entire universe "was brought into existence by God after having been purely and absolutely nonexistent."4 God is the only eternal 'thing' and before creation, he had 'existed' alone. Creation ex nihilo does not solely mean that something came from nothing but insists that God does not need a material cause in creating. And creation de novo does not mean that God exists in time and space and picks a particular moment to begin His creation.5 This view constitutes a drastic separation between the Creator and His creation – only God is eternal and He alone is responsible for creation.

Time itself is one of these creations – or an accident of creation – it is not eternal. To say that God 'was' existent before creation implies that He existed in time. It is difficult for us to imagine something that was or is outside of time. But as Maimonides states, the fact that we cannot conceive of something extant outside of time has less to do with God's limits than ours. As Maimonides states, "God's bringing the world into existence does not have a temporal beginning, for time is one of the created things."6 For Maimonides, time, since it is the measure of motion, cannot exist in the absence of it and since there is no motion before creation, time also is nonexistent. As Seeskin states, "The claim that God 'was' before creation, where 'was' indicates the passing of time, derives from the imagination and cannot be true…the world exists in time and presupposes God while God is out of time and presupposes nothing."7

Aristotle does not accept that "time is consequent on motion"for him, time is a collection of moments. A moment resides in the middle of a 'before' and an 'after'. Therefore, there cannot be a first moment because it must have something 'before' it. Maimonides, however, suggests that 'before' can be used to mark a limit – "Aquinas argues that denying the existence of time before the first moment is on par with saying: 'Above the heavens, there is nothing'."8 It does not mean there is more empty space above the heavens but simply marks a limit. For Aristotle to argue that the world is eternal, he must prove that there cannot be a first moment because there cannot be a first motion. For him, motion "requires the actualization of a potentiality." As Maimonides states, "if motion is produced in time, it should be considered that everything that is produced in time is preceded by a certain motion…consequently the first motion must of necessity be eternal or else the series will go on to infinity."9

Maimonides often describes creation ex nihilo as "creation after nothing" in an attempt to guard against misinterpretation. He fears that "nothing" may appear to some as the substance out of which the universe was created. "But if nothing is pure and absolute, it cannot be the material cause of anything; it is, after all, nothing."10 Maimonides does not use any single expression when referring to creation ex nihilo – he talks of creation "not from a thing" or "from no thing." He was extremely sceptical about language and may have done this to ensure that he was not misunderstood – creation out of nothing does not mean that nothing itself is a substance out of which God fashioned the universe.

For Maimonides, the main question is: must creation have a material cause? The answer is yes only if creation is equated with change such as when something loses a characteristic and acquires another one. This view of change implies that there is something, which remains unchanged throughout the process. "If this is the paradigm we use to explain creation, the suggestion that absolute non-existence can gain or lose an attribute and therefore be the subject of change is absurd."11 In addition to losing and gaining attributes, change also involves a transition by the subject from the potentiality for change to the act of changing. However, Maimonides states at Guide 2.17 that with creation ex nihilo, "neither the senses nor the intellect point to something that must be preceded by its possibility." He repeatedly argues the idea that creation is unique – it is nothing like building a house or even like human reproduction – "rather than a change in what exists, it is the origin of existence in the most radical sense."12 To state that God created the universe ex nihilo implies that God's actions are beyond anything we are capable of doing on our own.

At Guide 2.13, Maimonides states that the Mosaic position consists of two beliefs: "that there is nothing eternal in any way at all existing simultaneously with God…[and] the bringing into existence of a being out of nonexistence is for the deity not an impossibility." Therefore, the Mosaic position puts forth a view of creation that is both ex nihilo and de novo. The Platonic position rejects the former belief but accepts the latter while the Aristotelian view rejects both. Maimonides states that the philosophers who posit that God cannot create the world ex nihilo are taking too much of a materialistic view. It is true that God cannot do this if we believe that God transforms nothing (as a substance) into something or that nonexistence is transformed into existence. But, this is not what the Mosaic position puts forth. Rather, it states that God, and God alone, is responsible for creation. Maimonides states that, to avoid creation ex nihilo, philosophers bring into the equation another element that is eternal along with God. Like a sculptor working with clay, they believe that God created the world out of this eternal 'matter'. They are willing to compromise the power of God and the uniqueness of creation in order that our view of both is understood according to principles derived from earthly experience. Maimonides points out that there is no reason to believe that this should be the case. For the Platonists, their view of creation does not compromise the power of God. They state that God must operate within what is possible because "what is impossible has a firmly established nature that is not produced by an agent and that consequently cannot be changed."13 This does not make God weak or less powerful because it belongs to the realm of impossibilities. Nevertheless, Maimonides rejects this view and states, "he does not believe what we believe."14 Maimonides seems, again, to sound a warning to his readers: the Platonic view may be psychologically satisfying in that it provides a view similar to your natural experiences but know that 'we believe' in creation ex nihilo.

Maimonides ascribes the third view of creation to Aristotle and his followers. Both the Aristotelian and the Platonic view contend that something cannot come from nothing. The Platonic view, as we have seen, ascribes another something as being eternal along with God. The Aristotelian view simply states that everything has always existed. The deity, in the Aristotelian view, "has never ceased to be as it is in the present and will be as it is in the future eternity."15 For Aristotle, creation is more aptly called 'eternal emanation'. Creation does not come from what God does but from what God is. In other words, "it is in the nature of a perfect being not to remain unto itself but to produce offspring or effects."16 This emanation is necessary and therefore, the universe has always existed and will always exist. Maimonides realizes that he cannot prove Aristotle wrong because the absolute beginning cannot be explored. He simply wants to weaken the edifice upon which the Aristotelian view stands and then show the Mosaic view to be preferable.

At Guide II.15, Maimonides states that Aristotle himself must have realized that he has no real proof with which to demonstrate that the universe is eternal because "it was Aristotle who taught mankind the methods, the rules and the conditions of demonstration."17 Maimonides believes that people follow Aristotle despite this lack of proof because they think that "everything that he has mentioned constitutes a cogent demonstration as to which there can be no doubt."18 Maimonides may also be referring to what he thinks will happen to his work – since his followers may hang onto every word he utters, he may want to anchor them to the Mosaic view for safety. He may in fact believe in another view – Norbert Samuelson, for example, has proposed that Maimonides secretly believed in the Platonic view.19 Since he cannot be certain that his readers will remain with the Law while also accepting the Platonic view, he may think that it is prudent to anchor them to the Mosaic one. As mentioned earlier, Maimonides seems to be warning his audience on several occasions as to what "we believe." He fears that people with no substantial knowledge of the sciences may "decide simply that the world is eternal through acceptance of the authority of men celebrated for their science who affirm its eternity" and reject the prophets because their ideas are not grounded in the scientific method.20 Maimonides also suspects that Aristotle knew he had not demonstrated the eternity of the universe because he vilifies those that disagree with him and states that the physicists of the past also believed what he believes. When something has been proven to be true, Maimonides states, the truth of it is not heightened either by castigating its opponents or backing it with "men of knowledge". Thus he thinks that "Aristotle never at any time had the fantasy that what he said in this connection constituted a demonstration."21

Maimonides is cautious about ascribing to any particular opinion regarding this matter. As Seeskin states, "having restricted knowledge of God as severely as he does, he cannot claim certainty about how God is responsible for the world."22 Maimonides seems to have remained agnostic concerning the question of creation because he could not prove his own view either. He states that when faced with such uncertainty, "it is preferable that a point for which there is no demonstration remain a problem."23 In other words, it is simply too dangerous to attach God to an ideology that cannot be proven to be true or may even be discovered to be false as science progresses.

Modern science has not proven Maimonides to be wrong. In 1929, Edwin Hubble studied light reaching the earth from far off galaxies "and found that the Frauenhofer lines of such lights are shifted, sometimes substantially, into the red region of the spectrum."24 Hubble proposed that the best explanation for this is that these galaxies are moving even farther off at great speeds. The farthest galaxies were moving the fastest "almost as though everything in the universe had been blown apart from a great initial explosion."25 This initial explosion has been aptly called the Big Bang. Thus, cosmological science has found that the universe did have a beginning and it was likely a spectacular beginning at that.

So, what caused the big bang and what existed before it? These questions have produced great amounts of speculation and will probably remain in that realm indefinitely. This is the uncertainty that Maimonides believed follows any inquiry into the divine. Scientists realize that they may have reached a dead end in what can be known – to understand what caused the Big Bang one must fully understand the condition of the universe before it occurred. But since all the rules and 'constants' of science come after the Bang, it makes little sense to think that we can use these scientific rules to understand what came before it. As physicist Brian Greene states, the Big Bang theory "delineates cosmic evolution from a split second after whatever happened to bring the universe into existence, but is says nothing at all about time zero itself…it tells us nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged, or, frankly, whether it ever really banged at all."26 As Maimonides states at Guide II.24 "the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions, and the causes of the heavens." We have learned much about all of those things since Maimonides' time but there is much that is beyond reach and which "the deity alone fully knows." The absolute beginning, time zero, is still unknown. As Marvin Fox notes: "In many respects the highly sophisticated contemporary scientific discussion have done no more to shed light on that mystery than the ancient and medieval attempts to penetrate to the absolute beginning of things."27

For Maimonides, prophecy should be embraced in the face of this uncertainty – if there is no proof that blatantly goes against what is revealed in the Law (and the arguments that oppose it are not strong) then prophecy should be embraced. From Guide II.17 to II.22, Maimonides lays out his arguments against the Aristotelian system. He contends that since no arguments force us to abandon creation ex nihilo, the Mosaic view should be accepted. The first argument he presents against the Aristotelian view is that it seems to believe that "we can begin with knowledge of the world in its present state and reason backwards to knowledge of its origin."28 Maimonides argues that there is no way of knowing, from the present state of the universe and our present knowledge of it, what creation looked like. As we saw, modern science has not yet been able to prove him wrong.

Maimonides accepts the Aristotelian explanation for how the world is now, but his main argument is that these laws cannot be said to function in the universe. Thus, we cannot explain how the universe began nor why the universe is the way it is instead of another way – "if we ask why the planets in our solar system rotate in the direction that they do, rather than in the opposite direction, no answer can be given"29 but once the process has begun, it is fairly easy to discover why things continue as they do. Moreover, there is no evidence to assume that creation ought to be explained using the same principles that apply to the world as it is today. For Maimonides, "though potency and act apply to changes that take place within the world, the Aristotelians have offered no proof that they must apply to the origin of the world as well."30 He gives the example of a male child who has been removed from his birth mother upon being born and raised by a group of men on an island. If we were to explain to the child, after he has reached maturity, that 'his origin' consisted of spending nine months inside the womb of a woman, he will likely respond with disbelief. The child simply cannot conceive of such a process. Maimonides implies that we are like this child – we cannot conceive of our creation because it is completely separate from our natural experiences. He does not venture an alternative argument and perhaps he does not have to. All he must do is show that the Aristotelian view assumes something that is still open to doubt.

The centrepiece of this doubt is volition. If a being reacts to external stimuli, willing something at one point and something else at another, it implies imperfection. A perfect being cannot change into something more perfect; change can only involve imperfection. But there is no reason to think of God's will as even remotely similar to our own; God's will could be completely autonomous. Since He alone is eternal, there are no external factors on which to exercise His will. Thus, His will could be "completely self-determined, so that the only thing operating on the will is the will itself" because for God "willing change is not the same as changing one's will"31 Thus, for Maimonides, the eternity of the Creator does not need to mean the eternity of the universe because God is free from the limits of natural science. Seeskin points out that, "once we think of God as free, a distinction emerges between the act of will and the object willed in the act. Though the former is unchanging, it does not follow that the latter is."32 Maimonides, of course, does not argue that he knows the nature of God's will and the way in which it operates, he has simply poked enough holes in the Aristotelian view to show that spontaneous action, and with it, creation de novo, is possible in God.

At Guide II.23, Maimonides discusses doubt. He states that the number of doubts is not important because "sometimes a single doubt is more powerful than a thousand other doubts."33 Science is difficult to doubt when it is done well but in the matter of creation, it is possible to hold a view that is opposed to it. To do this, Maimonides believes that "you should know how good your mind is" – you should be honest with yourself about your level of knowledge so that you may intelligently conclude that creation is in fact uncertain. You must have knowledge of the natural sciences so that you know why such inquiries lead to uncertainty. The third condition concerns morals. Immoral individuals will be at fault in whatever inquiry they undertake "for he shall seek opinions that will help him in that toward which his nature inclines."34

Maimonides offers several arguments for why creation is more favourable than eternity. According to Aristotle anything that is eternal is necessary and since the universe is eternal "their order and motion is set in the nature of things and cannot be otherwise."35 At Guide II.25, Maimonides discusses several aspects of medieval astronomy to make his case. He states, simply, that at this point science cannot give any reason for anything that happens in 'the heavens' such as why a certain planet moves a certain way, why some move faster than others, etc. Aristotle's philosophy works fairly well when called upon to explain most matters in the earthly realm. When applying this philosophy to the heavens, however, it amounts to conjecture and fragile science. For Maimonides, prophecy always triumphs in the face of fragile science. Therefore, "the least Maimonides has shown is that no argument compels us to accept eternity; the most is that the biblical conception of God is preferable to a God who is incapable of starting or stopping anything."36

At Guide II.25, Maimonides states that his rejection of eternity is not because the Torah requires it – "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." He states that it would be easy for him to offer a figurative explanation of creation in time as set out in the Torah – just as when he rejected the corporeality of God – and accept eternity. This cannot be done, he says, for two reasons. Firstly, since the incorporeality of the deity has been demonstrated, "everything that in its external meaning disagrees with this demonstration must be interpreted figuratively."37 But, the eternity of the world has not been proven and thus it would not be correct to figuratively interpret texts, and come to conclusions, which support a theory that has not been proven. Secondly, the belief in the incorporeality of God does nothing to compromise the 'foundations of the Law'. However, the belief in the eternity of the world, "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."38

Concerning the Platonic view, Maimonides states that it is, for the most part, compatible with the Law but since it also has not been demonstrated to be true, it is not necessary to accept it. In the end, then, the belief in eternity is a threat for Maimonides. This becomes clearer when we read his somewhat soothing reason for why the Mosaic version is preferable: "Know that with a belief in the creation of the world in time, all the miracles become possible and the Law becomes possible, and all questions that may be asked on this subject, vanish."39 For Maimonides, creation ex nihilo is an integral part of the faith – it is ha-yesod- ha-gadol, the great principle, of the Torah – that sustains the uniqueness of creation and the glory of God.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a graduate student in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


1 Moses Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed. Trans. Shlomo Pines. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963)

2 Kenneth Seeskin. Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides. New York:

Oxford University Press, 2000: 68

3 Guide II.13; p. 281

4 Ibid.

5 Kenneth Seeskin. "Metaphysics and Its Transcendence" in Kenneth Seeskin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 92.

6 Guide II.13; p. 282

7 Seeskin 2000: 71

8 Ibid. 74.

9 Guide II.14; p. 286

10 Seeskin 2000: 71.

11 Ibid. 72.

12 Ibid. 73.

13 Guide II.13; p. 283.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid. 284

16 Seeskin 2005: 92.

17 Guide II.15; p. 290

18 Ibid.

19 See: Norbert M. Samuelson. "Maimonides' Doctrine of Creation." The Harvard Theological Review. 84.3 (July 1991): 249-271.

20 Guide II.15; p. 293

21 Ibid. 292

22 Seeskin 2005: 93

23 Guide II.16; p. 293

24 Kenneth R. Miller. Finding Darwin's God. (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999): 224

25 Ibid.

26 Brian Greene. The Fabric of the Cosmos. (New York: Vintage Books, 2004): 272

27 Marvin Fox. Interpreting Maimonides. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990): 255

28 Ibid. 277

29 Ibid. 277

30 Seeskin 2000: 78

31 Ibid. 78, 79

32 Ibid. 79

33 Guide II.23; p. 321

34 Ibid.

35 Seeskin 2005: 97

36 Ibid. 99

37 Guide II.25; p. 328

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid. 329


from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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