Maimonidian Qabbalah – Part III

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So, in the past two posts in this particular series (part 1, part 2) I hopefully established the notion that both sides of the Maimonidian Debate portrayed creation in terms of G-d causing something which causes something… etc… down to the physical world, which is a distinct way to view Creation than picturing that Hashem “poofed” various things into existence and then formed and moved them around to construct something. According to the Rambam, this “something” is a chain of intellects, and according to the Leshem it is a progression of worlds each filled with ever more substansive items as the Divine Light descends from one to the next. The substances of one world becomes the forms of the one below.

In Models of Creation, I mentioned the Rambam’s embracing both the “manufacture” model of creation as well as that of “atzilus“, both describing creation as Hashem making the universe, and has it being something He chooses to emanate. The Rambam describes the two as identifying Hashem as Cause vs identifying Him as Agens, and shows they are really identical in the Moreh Nevuchim I ch. 69.

THE philosophers, as you know, call God the First Cause (in Hebrew ‘illah and sibbah): but those who are known by the name of Mutakallemim are very much opposed to the use of that name, and call Him Agens, believing that there is a great difference whether we say that God is the Cause or that He is the Agens. They argue thus: If we say that God is the Cause, the coexistence of the Cause with that which was produced by that Cause would necessarily be implied: this again would involve the belief that the Universe was eternal, and that it was inseparable from God. When, however, we say that God is the Agens, the co-existence of the Agens with its product is not implied: for the agens can exist anterior to its product: we cannot even imagine how an agens can be in action unless it existed before its own production. This is an argument advanced by persons who do not distinguish between the potential and the actual. You, however, should know that in this case there is no difference whether you employ the term “cause” or “agens“; for if you take the term “cause” in the sense of a mere potentiality, it precedes its effect; but if you mean the cause in action, then the effect must necessarily co-exist with the cause in action. The same is the case with the agens; take it as an agens in reality, the work must necessarily co-exist with its agens. For the builder, before he builds the house, is not in reality a builder, but has the faculty for building a house-in the same way as the materials for the house before it is being built are merely in potentiâ–but when the house has been built, he is the builder in reality, and his product must likewise be in actual existence. Nothing is therefore gained by choosing the term “agens” and rejecting the term “cause.” My object here is to show that these two terms are equal, and in the same manner as we call God an Agens, although the work does not yet exist, only because there is no hindrance or obstacle which might prevent Him from doing it whenever He pleases, we may also call Him the Cause, although the effect may not yet be in existence.

Since Hashem doesn’t need anything but His own Will to create, there is no untapped potential that Hashem then taps, there is no difference between Hashem being First Cause or being viewed as the Agent. (We also find the Ramban opening his commentary to chumash with the beri’ah – yetzirah perspective of creation ex nihilo of substance, which is then given form during the six days, but he also refers repeatedly to the notion of atzilus and the descent of the Light through veils to lower and lower worlds.)


I mentioned only as an aside that angels not only cause an event, they actually are the event. The Rambam’s concept of mal’akh is not only as a link in the chain of intellects / forms from the Creator down to physical objects, they also mediate motion and change.

From the Moreh Nevuchim (II:6; tr. Friedlander):

We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed — he uses the term “Intelligences,” and we say instead “angels.” His theory is that the Intelligences are intermediate beings between the Prime Cause and existing things, and that they effect the motion of the spheres, on which motion the existence of all things depends. This is also the view we meet with in all parts of Scripture: every act of God is described as being performed by angels. But “angel” means “messenger”; hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of the brute creation are sometimes due to the action of an angel, when such movements serve the purpose of the Creator, who endowed it with the power of performing that movement; e.g., “God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths that they have not hurt me” (Dan. vi. 22)…. It is also used of ideals, perceived by prophets in prophetic visions, and of man’s animal powers, as will be explained in another place.
When we assert that Scripture teaches that God rules this world through angels, we mean such angels as are identical with the Intelligences. In some passages the plural is used of God, e.g., “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. i. 26); “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language” (ibid. xi. 7). Our Sages explain this in the following manner: God, as it were, does nothing without contemplating the host above.

Here we see the Rambam defines a mal’akh, a messenger (which is also what the Greek “angel” means), as an Intelligence that does G-d’s Will in this world. He explains the mal’akh with Aristotle’s terms of the intellects that mediate between Hashem’s world and actions in this world. This is much like the notion of steps in the flow of atzilus, but here they are Intelligences, not forms.

The need for intelligences to perform action is part of Artistotelian physics. Aristotle didn’t have a notion of momentum, which is conserved. Unsurprising, because in the real world momentum is generally turned into heat (the momentum of molecules) by friction, and thus we see motion dissipate. Instead, Aristotle taught that Intellects impart impetus to objects, which then continue moving until the impetus runs out. It is for this reason that the Rambam asserted that the spheres are intellects (Yesodei haTorah 2:7), since the stars and planets continue in motion eternally, there must be intellects repeatedly imparting impetus to them.

Thus, the Rambam’s conception of a mal’akh is a being of form without substance that is a step in the chain of Divine Atzilus by being the intellect that drives the actions of the next step in the chain, down to actions in this world.

In the next installment on this topic, “Forms and Information”, I intend to look at how the Rambam can see these two concepts as identical.

And your thoughts...?

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