Maimonidean Controversy and the Story of Creation




Naomi R. Frankel



Maimonidean controversies are as old as Maimonides himself.  The post publication history of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon’s (Rambam) major writings has been fraught with tension and often bitter debate practically from the moment the ink dried on Rambam’s manuscripts.  These well-known controversies generally centered not only about the frequently execrated Guide, but also on aspects of otherwise admired works such as Mishneh Torah and even Peirush Ha-mishnayot. 

Publication of the Mishneh Torah in France and Germany caused a great stir.  This monumental work synthesizes and systematizes the laws, rendering rulings on all disputed halachot and providing a modern taxonomical structure for the previously widely scattered legal materials that served, and still serves, as the paradigm for all subsequent formulations of Jewish legal codes.  While instantly recognized and applauded for the epic scholarship that it so self-evidently embodied, several of its radical innovations also engendered severe criticisms. Thus Maimonides dispenses with the usual back and forth arguments found in the Talmud, choosing to record only the final verdict as he perceives it, without citation of discarded opposing views.  He also neglects to provide the textual sources or insight into the thought processes that informed his legal renderings, while in the Introduction, he suggests that, with the advent of his Mishneh Torah, it may no longer be necessary to learn Talmud at all.  The elevation of correct philosophical beliefs to religious obligations as embodied in the first section of Mishneh Torah was also unlikely to be taken kindly by the traditionalists.  All this along with many other well trod issues – such as his identification of an obligatory Jewish dogma or confusion with respect to his position on Resurrection that had been left off Rambam’s canonical list of thirteen – caused a well known uproar in the Jewish world which it is not our purpose to reprise here.  Perhaps the greatest flashpoint however, revolved around Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed.  Its perceived extremes of allegorization, historico-utilitarian approach to ta’amei ha-mitzvot, unapologetic elitism, and – underlying all – the apparent attempt to reconcile traditional Jewish beliefs with Aristotelian philosophy were anathema to many who could discern in it, unlike the Mishneh Torah, no redeeming virtues at all.  The involvement of the Rabbis of Northern France, the herems and counter herems leading to the dramatic book burnings of the Guide in 1232 and the subsequent cyclic flarings of public controversy down to modern times is now the standard fare of all Jewish intellectual histories.  Presently, a kind of stasis has been achieved, in which the religiously inclined who disagree with the Maimonides’ philosophical views will ignore them while continuing to greatly esteem the man and his Mishneh Torah.

However, it is not as widely appreciated that there exists yet another form of Maimonidean controversy with a provenance fully as ancient as these more publicized disputes, dating back almost to the very first publication of the Guide[1]  This debate revolves around the postulate that Maimonides deliberately obscured his true beliefs that were, in some instances, at considerable variance with his declarations in the Guide.  In his Introduction to the Guide, Rambam informs the reader that he employs certain devices to conceal some of his true beliefs from the uneducated reader that will be perceived by the educated reader as contradictions.[2] (The “seventh reason” in Rambam’s description, for the possible appearance of contradictions)  Those discerning readers, the elite few for whom the Guide was actually written, who see beneath the exterior layer are enjoined to keep what they learn a secret. Of course such statements immediately drew people to a search for Maimonides’ hidden beliefs.  Maimonides tries to make this difficult for unworthy people by interrupting matters and scattering them; by using ambiguous terms; and through other literary devices of concealment. In his words, “the vulgar must in no way be aware of these contradictions; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.”[3]  The belief that beneath the external declarations in the Guide of Rambam’s explicitly expressed religio-philosophical opinions, the so-called exoteric Rambam, lies a layer which contains Rambam’s true but concealed beliefs, drives the search for the esoteric Rambam. For the esoterician, combing the Guide’s contradictions pursues the key to unlocking an understanding of the true, hidden, and perhaps quite radical Maimonides.

Beginning in Maimonides’ lifetime and continuing through the current day, scholars have struggled to find the esoteric meaning of the Guide.[4]  Called into question were the truthfulness of Maimonides’ apparently emphatic statements of his views on Creation, Prophecy, Divine Will, and Miracles.  In 1199, Rambam’s first translator Samuel ibn Tibbon sent a letter of inquiry to Maimonides asking for explanations of certain doctrines.  Although he never received a response, Ibn Tibbon often attributed radical views to Maimonides and his writings influenced many future generations.  The 13th century brought the interpretations of Moses of Solerno and Shem Tov Falaqera.  Scholars of the 14th century, such as Yoseph ibn Kaspi and Moses Narboni, tended toward an even more radical interpretation of the Guide.  With the growing strength of Jewish Aristotelianism in the 14th century, exegetes were more confident in directly attributing to Maimonides philosophical beliefs such as the eternity of the world, despite its grave theological implications.  Narboni went so far as to say that all contradictions in the Guide should be interpreted as Aristotelian truths.

This extremist view intensified over the 14th century, as Jewish Aristotelianism took root.  Its influence continued on into the 15th century with scholars such as Isaac ben Shem Tov and Shem Tov ben Joseph.  However, with the decline of Jewish philosophy toward the end of the Middle Ages, these esoteric interpretations lost their grip and a more traditional approach took hold.  It was not until the mid-1800s that esoteric readings again rose to the fore.  In 1839, Solomon David Luzzatto encouraged authors to look beyond Maimonides rhetoric and allusive devices and work to understand the secrets contained in the Guide.  Several modern interpreters, such as Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines have made important contributions to this world of esoterica, tending to a more radical interpretation of Maimonides beliefs.

Thus, there is a long history of people challenging the veracity of Maimonides stated beliefs.  To illustrate this controversy, we will focus on the paradigmatic issue of the Rambam’s true appreciation of Creation and examine some of the various arguments in more detail.  Publicly, Maimonides professed his conviction in Creation ex nihilo, asserting it to be identical with the Jewish position.  Many have argued that he did not actually believe it.  

Maimonides begins his discussion of Creation in the Guide by reviewing three possibilities: the Mosaic, Platonic and Aristotelian.[5]  The Mosaic position, as learned from Scriptures, holds that God created the world and everything out of nothing, or ex nihilo.  Platonic Creation, on the other hand, believes in the existence of an antemundane matter out of which God created everything.  Thus, there was always present some eternal matter that coexisted with God, and at some point, God Created, i.e. formed it into Heaven, Earth and all that is contained within.  Aristotle, however, believes the world is eternal.  Through an initial act, God caused the world to be brought to its present state, but not from a state of nonexistence, and not by a series of “miraculous” interventions but “of necessity,” by the utterly deterministic unfolding of an inexorably inevitable series of “mechanical” causes, flowing one from the other all the way back to the First Cause, which is God’s “Act.”  According to Aristotle, this world follows the rules of nature, from which it cannot deviate. Consequently, since God cannot change the “of necessity” unfolding of what must be, he cannot intervene in nature and miracles are not possible, Maimonides lumps the Platonic and Aristotelian positions together, since they both believe in the eternity of matter, and adamantly rejects them both.  He claims one is obligated to believe in Creation ex nihilo because to think otherwise would strip God of the power to do miracles.  In his own words, to believe in Aristotle’s eternity “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.”[6]  To make it quite clear, Maimonides spends fifteen chapters arguing against Aristotle and staunchly defending his apparent belief in Creation ex nihilo.

While most esoterically inclined thinkers have mined the Guide for conceptual contradictions in often widely scattered Maimonidean assertions, Avraham Nuriel[7] has gone down a different path, focusing on so-called “linguistic” contradictions. Energized by Rambam’s admonitions that every word in the Guide was carefully selected, Nuriel scours the Guide for passages in which particular words employed are out of kilter with, or “contradict”, the passages in which they are found. In the Guide, Maimonides typically references God as “El,” such usage occurring literally hundreds of times.  However, in only nineteen places, he chooses to call God HaBoreh – the Creator.  Nuriel finds great significance in this fact, and tries to demonstrate that in all nineteen instances, the term HaBoreh does not fit the context of the passage that employed it.  An example of Nuriel’s exegesis is provided as follows: In the Maimonidean discussion of metaphorical usage by Scripture, Maimonides explains that the term nitzav, standing, should be understood metaphorically to mean the maintenance of a spiritual state, as God does not literally “stand.”  It is also in this passage that Maimonides chooses to employ one of his few usages of “HaBoreh” when referring to God. This is a usage that Nuriel finds ill fitting to its contextual matrix as the dynamic, active connotation of “Boreh” does not conform to the sense of passivity, and static maintenance conveyed by nitzav. This ostensible linguistic contradiction is then a clue to Maimonides concealed message that something is amiss with the plain understanding of the term Boreh-Creator and in fact God cannot Create in the ordinary sense. Similarly Nuriel identifies the Maimonidean passage that discusses the continuing emanations, the shefah, that maintain the world and conveys a sense of unchanging continuity as discordant with the Rambam’s employment of the active term Boreh in the relevant passage.  Thus Maimonides is hiding his true belief in an Aristotelian “Creator” and Aristotelian eternal world.

Yisroel Ravitzky,[8] in a direct response to the Nuriel’s thesis, vehemently opposes this interpretation.  He calls Nuriel a one-sided extremist who pushes the material further than it can go and fault’s Nuriel’s entire “linguistic” approach, as Maimonides himself seems to indicate, in Ravitzky’s appreciation, that one should be looking for conceptual contradictions. Taking on Nuriel’s assertion that the appellation “Boreh” is used only a few times and so each appearance must be invested with special significance, he asserts that, on the contrary,  Boreh” is in fact the only appellation used by Rambam who generally did not refer to God by any of the common appellations.  To find HaBoreh employed nineteen times is thus not rare but actually prolific. Furthermore, his relatively abundant employment of this single appellation is precisely reflective of the fact that Creation is the central axis around which the entire Guide revolves – Prophecy and Divine Will are contingent upon God’s ability to interrupt the natural order – and Maimonides often calls God “HaBoreh” to emphasize this key belief.

Ravitzky subsequently analyzes each of Nuriel’s nineteen linguistic contradictions and finds each of them wanting He dismisses Nuriel’s contradiction of an active Creator who is passively nitzav, by stating that it is not unusual for Maimonides to use Boreh when attempting to distance himself from anthropomorphism In the passage discussing shefah, the overflow of God’s emanations, Ravitzky accuses Nuriel of failing to grasp the whole picture.  In this section Maimonides traces the stages of necessary Causes, going back to the Primary Cause and to God’s Creation.  After Creation, emanations, which are also considered a Cause by Maimonides, continued.  Nuriel only looks at a small static part of this without noticing the part about the Primary Cause and Creation.  Had he done so, the term “HaBoreh” would not seem to be out of context.  While some of Nuriel’s interpretations seem rather forced, so too do Ravitzky’s summary dismissals and, in the face of Rambam’s own claims for the exacting scrutiny required to understand the employment of each word, we are left with the impression that Nuriel’s approach – if not its precise execution in the specific instances – may be on to something.

Sarah Klein-Braslavy[9] also argues against Creation ex nihilo, while adding an interesting caveat.  She claims that Maimonides is a skeptic, who is not fully convinced of either the Mosaic or the Aristotelian view and therefore explains both, while leaving the final decision to the reader.  Her central argument is exegetical, stemming from the equivocal Arabic translation of the word bara in the Creation story.  The Arabic term ‘adam by which Maimonides explains the Hebrew verb bara can mean either ‘nothing’ or ‘matter.’  Thus the interpretation of Genesis I:I can be either that God brought things into existence “out of nothing” or that he did so “out of matter.”  The former case reflects Creation ex nihilo while the latter is indicative of either the Aristotelian or the Platonic view.  She goes on to say that in the Guide Maimonides uses two univocal expressions for Creation ex nihilo: the expression “after pure and absolute nonexistence” and “not from something.”  This precise terminology is used whenever Maimonides wants to speak of Creation ex nihilo.  However, a third variation is used when speaking of the Creation story.  There, Maimonides says that God brought things into existence “from nothing.”  Klein-Braslavy professes to see uncertainty in this and claims that from nothing actually means from something.  This reflects Maimonides’ genuine view that Creation is not necessarily ex nihilo.

However, Klein-Braslavy’s argument is based on her unproven assertion that Maimonides takes from nothing to mean from something.  One could equally well infer the exact opposite.  We may equally and convincingly profess to infer that “from nothing” could simply refer to Creation ex nihilo, while Creation “after nonexistence” implicitly acknowledges a time before, in which something existed before God came along and created the world – some antemundane matter that provided the substance out of which God formed the Creation.  In point of fact, she gives no compelling arguments to induce an objective reader to agree with her readings.    

 Herbert Davidson[10] presents a cogent advocacy for the identity of the esoteric Maimonides with the Platonic view.  Davidson focuses on conceptual contradictions, rather than the linguistic incongruities and ambiguities favored by Nuriel and Klein-Braslavy, respectively. Davidson’s first argument looks at Maimonides’ initial collective and simultaneous rejection of the Aristotlelian and Platonic positions.  Rambam’s stated reason for dismissal is that Aristotle’s God, bound by necessity, has no opportunity for independent action and therefore important religious precepts such as Divine Providence, Prophecy, and miracles are not possible.  However, this objection does not apply to Plato’s God, who chose to create out of pre-existing matter, and therefore has freedom to intervene in nature.  Plato’s position would not “destroy the foundations of the Law,”[11] as would Aristotle’s belief.  Moreover, Maimonides explicitly states in another location that, with reference to the Platonic view, “It would also be possible to interpret figuratively the texts in accordance with this opinion.”[12]  That Maimonides does not choose to do so reflects only his exoteric belief that the Scriptural view of Creation ex nihilo is more in keeping with tradition and hence, preferable.  Thus Maimonides early rejection of Platonic Creation by lumping it together with an Aristotelian eternity to which his stated objections do not in fact apply constitutes precisely the kind of conceptual contradiction so eagerly sought by the esoretician.

Davidson’s second argument ascribing a Platonic perspective to Maimonides is strikingly ingenious.  It focuses on Maimonides’ observation that, “Just as people have … three opinions concerning the eternity of the word or its Creation in time, so are there also opinions concerning prophecy.”[13]  Assuming Maimonides’ language is precise, there is then some parallelism between the views on Creation and Prophecy.  The first position on Prophecy is that of the fool, who believes there is no preparation for prophecy.  God arbitrarily selects a moral person as His prophet.  The second position is that of the philosophers who believe Prophecy is a completely natural phenomenon.  Through rigorous training, one can train oneself to the requisite sensitivity to the divine emanations that are always present.  The third position is that of the Jewish Law that holds Prophecy to be, essentially, a natural phenomenon subject to divine veto.  Painstaking preparation is indeed necessary to sense the continuing emanations, however in the final analysis, God can choose to hold back Prophecy from an otherwise qualified prophet. 

These three positions on prophecy must parallel the views of Creation, according to Maimonides statement.  The Aristotelian view of Creation obviously corresponds to the philosophers’ view of Prophecy.  However, the discerning reader will sense trouble with the rest of the parallelism as it is the fool’s view on Prophecy, that God arbitrarily chooses to bestow His Divine Communications without necessary preparation on the part of the apprentice Prophet, that actually parallels ex nihilo, which Rambam claims is “our position” [i.e. that of Jewish Law] on Creation.  It is the Platonic view of Creation that is the parallel to what the Rambam identifies as the position of Jewish Law on Prophecy. This is a conceptual contradiction that Davidson solves by attributing a belief in Platonic Creation to Maimonides, while ex nihilo is relegated the province of fools.

For the as yet unconverted, Davidson offers a third argument. Introducing the subject of Creation, Maimonides refers consistently to Creation ex nihilo.  Subsequently, when offering arguments in favor of Creation, Maimonides neglects the words ex nihilo, referring simply to “our opinion, that is, the opinion of the community of those who affirm the production of the world in time.”[14]  This omission allows for the possibility that “our opinion” might correspond to that of Plato.  Significantly, two of the three arguments put forth in support of Creation are compatible with the Platonic position.  Davidson concludes that, accepting Maimonides’ assertion that all contradictions in the Guide were deliberate, one is led to believe that Maimonides was a closet Platonian who feared this information falling into the wrong hands.

 Davidson’s arguments were critically reviewed by William Dunphy.[15]  Dunphy accuses him of conflating Creation ex nihilo with Creation de novo.  Only de novo Creation necessarily implies a temporally finite universe, while ex-nihilo Creation remains compatible with eternity.  Maimonides indeed believes in both Creation ex nihilo and de novo, however while ex nihilo can be demonstrated, de novo cannot.  According to Dunphy, this subtlety is lost on Davidson, who thinks that ex nihilo automatically implies a finite aged universe and who also falsely believes that ex nihilo was not demonstrable.

Confronting Davidson’s first argument that Maimonides lumped Plato with Aristotle in a joint rejection whose rationale, incompatibility with Jewish belief in the possibility of Divine intervention, applied only to Aristotle but not Plato, Dunphy asserts that Maimonides actually offered an additional reason for their joint rejection that Davidson overlooked. Scriptural verses can be interpreted either literally or figuratively.  Dunphy maintains that Maimonides only interprets figuratively when the literal translation contradicts something already demonstrated to be true.  Since eternity has not been demonstrated, Maimonides has no need to interpret the verses that imply otherwise in anything but a literal manner.  This literal interpretation thus causes the rejection of Plato’s position of an eternal antemundane matter.  However one may well protest that Dunphy has nowhere proved that Rambam may not interpret figuratively even if not driven to it by contradiction with demonstrated truths. In fact, amongst all medieval commentators, Maimonides is famous for the breadth of his figurative explanations.  It is certainly not clear that all of those instances fly in the face of proven propositions.  For example, when three visitors come to Avraham in the desert,[16] Maimonides refuses to accept it as a literal happening although it is not clear what would be violated by accepting its literal truth. 

Dunphy’s second point attacks the alleged contradiction in Maimonides’ various uses of the word Creation.  Davidson infers that neglecting to reference ex nihilo when describing “our position” indicates a Platonic disposition.  However, Dunphy simply attributes this to a faulty translation of the Guide that vanishes when using a good translation, such as the Pines edition.  While this might seem like an unassailable riposte on Dunphy’s part, it does not hold up to scrutiny.  Upon direct inspection, Pines’ translation, which Dunphy suggests is authoritative, is by no means as clear cut as Dunphy asserts and, in particular, Pines does not simply restore the missing “ex nihilo” as implied by Dunphy’s comment.[17]  Dunphy also conspicuously omits all mention of Davidson’s clever argument from the parallel conceptions of Creation and Prophecy that ostensibly demonstrated that the Platonic position conforms to the enlightened Jewish view.  The failure to come to grips with this credible argument detracts considerably from the overall persuasiveness of Dunphy’s critique.

We have spent some time and effort reviewing the nature and persuasiveness of the kinds of evidence typically adduced to support the notion of an esoteric Rambam.  There remains of course one other possible comeback guaranteed to take the wind out of the sails of esoreticians of whatever persuasion.  And that is the possibility that all such exegeses are misplaced since we have only Rambam’s word that he was as careful a writer as he claimed.  Indeed a thorough going exoretician such as Seeskin,[18] while not explicit, comes close to such a claim when he asserts that some changes in the Maimonidean language stem not from some finely calibrated underlying referent, but rather from Rambam’s disinclination to be bound by one particular form of expressive language, employing sometimes one and then some other equivalent.  There is however little independent evidence to support for such a “whimsical Rambam” interpretive school despite its obvious potential to provide a unifying explanation for all Maimonidean textual difficulties.  In the end, there seems no reason not to accept the Rambam at his word, that he carefully hid intellectual treasures beneath the shifting sands of the Guide.  Just what and where they are and the journey towards their discovery will hopefully engage and provoke as much fruitful scholarship over the next eight hundred years as it has the last.  


[1] Ravitzky, Aviezer.  The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed: Between the Thirteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  In: I. Twersky, ed., Studies in Maimonides.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 159-207.

[2] Maimonides, Moses.  The Guide of the Perplexed.  Translated by Shlomo Pines.  Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 18-20.

[3] Guide, Introduction, p. 18.

[4] See note 1.

[5] Guide II:13, p.280-285.

[6] Guide II:25, p. 328.

[7] 387-372 (תשכ״ד) לג תרביץ، .הרמב״ם פי על קדמתו או העולם חידוש . נוריאל אברהם 

[8] 348-333, (תשכ״ו) לה תרביץ .הרמב״ם בתורת העולם קדמות או חידוש .רביצקי ישראל

[9] Klein-Braslavy, Sara.  The Creation of the World and Maimonides’ Interpretation of Gen. I-V.  In: S. Pines and Y. Yovel, eds., Maimonides and Philosophy.  Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht: 1986, p. 65-78.

[10] Davidson, Herbert.  Maimonides’ Secret Position on Creation.  In: I. Twersky, ed. Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 16-40.

[11] Guide II:25, p. 328.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Guide II:32, p.360.

[14] Guide II:19, p.308.

[15] Dunphy, William.  Maimonides’ Not-So-Secret Position on Creation.  In: Eric L. Ormsby, ed., Moses Maimonides and His Time.  Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1989, p. 151-172.

[16] Genesis 18:2.

[17] Guide II:19, p.308 and II:13, p.281.

[18] Seeskin, Kenneth.  Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.66-91.