Maimonides and belief in G-d: legal or spiritual?

Thursday, 7 August, 2014 - 7:31 pm

In belief in G-d there are many philosophies and schools of theology that have come down through history. These include theism, monotheism, pantheism, agnosticism, atheism, unitarianism and others. What would be the correct approach from the perspective of Jewish philosophy? This subject is a historic debate between the medieval rabbis. In this essay, we will aim to present two fundamentally opposing views in the context of Jewish philosophy and attempt to reconcile the two views giving rise to a comprehensive view of a Jewish theological approach to the belief in G-d.


A Scriptural source to the belief in G-d is in Deuteronomy (4:35):  “You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him”. This statement refers to the experience of the revelation at Mount Sinai where the truth of the existence of G-d was revealed to Israel, becoming the source to the knowledge of G-d in Jewish tradition. As the law of the Torah has its origin at Sinai, according to Jewish tradition, the concept of Jewish belief in G-d also has its origin at Sinai. We find, however, that this very experience and revelation, implicit in the above passage, is subject to opposing views, confusing the very concept it is supposed to have clarified.


The fundamental question is, whether the existence of G-d is defined as a source of life to all existence and there is no other source or power other than Him, or that the existence of G-d is the only existence and nothing else exists - to exclusion even of the world itself as a separate entity. When reading the statement ‘there is none else besides Him’ it may lend itself to both possible views, either that He is the only G-d, implying there is no other power or source of life to existence, or, equally, one may read it to mean literally that nothing else exists other than the unity of G-d.


There is also an additional interpretation. The verse stating “You have shown, in order to know that the Lord He is G-d; there is none else besides Him” is not meant to be informing us of the nature of G-d’s existence at all but rather the very fact that there is a G-d. It is stating matter-of-factly that the miracles that G-d shows us is to let us know that there is G-d. This would then come to negate not an erroneous view of G-d but rather the concern that one may deny G-d’s very existence, were it not for the show of miracles.


The three above views are of Maimonides (1135-1204), Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105), and Italian Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550), born at Cesena and died at Bologna. In this essay, as we attempt to present the concept of G-d in Jewish belief, we will focus on the dispute between the view of Maimonides and Rashi pertaining to this subject.


Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (laws of Mada 1:1-4):


1. The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being. 2. If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist. 3. If one would imagine that none of the entities aside from Him exist, He alone would continue to exist, and the nullification of their [existence] would not nullify His existence, because all the [other] entities require Him and He, blessed be He, does not require them nor any one of them. Therefore, the truth of His [being] does not resemble the truth of any of their [beings]. 4. This is implied by the prophet's statement [Jeremiah 10:10]: "And God, your Lord, is true" - i.e., He alone is true and no other entity possesses truth that compares to His truth. This is what [is meant by] the Torah's statement [Deuteronomy 4:35]: "There is nothing else aside from Him" - i.e., aside from Him, there is no true existence like His.


Thus, the view of Maimonides is that G-d’s existence is the only true existence. This belief would recognise the existence of the world also as an existence, however, as its existence is contingent on G-d’s existence, it does not constitute a true existence. The definition of a true existence is a non-contingent existence, which is only found by G-d’s being. This, Maimonides concludes, is meant by the verse ‘There is none else besides Him’.


Rashi, the primary Biblical commentator of the medieval period, however, takes his commentary substantially further than Maimonides. He writes on the above verse:


“When the Holy One, blessed is He, gave the Torah, He opened for Israel the seven heavens, and just as He tore open the upper regions, so did He tear open the lower regions, and they saw that He is One (yechidi). Accordingly, it is stated, “You have been shown, in order to know [that the Lord He is God-there is none else besides Him]”.


Rabbi Menachem M. Schneershon, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994), explains (Likutei Sichot vol. 24 p. 43) that it would appear that Rashi, by exegetically including in his commentary the revelation of the Divine in the ‘lower regions’ is attempting to read a profound concept of G-d in this Biblical passage. This implies a concept of G-d whose existence is to the negation of all other existence. What appears as an existence in the ‘lower regions’ is in truth a concealment of the Divine which may be ‘opened’ and ‘torn through’ revealing the existence of G-d.


To emphasise this point, one may contrast it with the statement in the opening of Ezekiel (1:1): “Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year in the fourth [month] on the fifth day of the month, as I was in the midst of the exile by the river Chebar - the heavens opened up, and I saw visions of God.” This vision of Ezekiel refers only to the opening of the Heavens - higher regions - revealing the existence of G-d, recognising the world as its own, albeit contingent, existence. In contrast, according the reading of Rashi on the Biblical verse in Deuteronomy, not only the Heavens opened revealing G-d, but also the lower regions, that in all of existence there is nothing besides Him.


This presents a fundamental dispute between two of the greatest medieval rabbis about such a fundamental matter – the nature of G-d’s existence - from a Jewish philosophical perspective. Is the Jewish view of G-d that He is the only true – non-contingent – existence, as according to Maimonides, or does Judaism believe that there is in fact no other existence before G-d’s existence? It would appear that Maimonides’ view as presented above lends itself to the argument that Maimonides is a rationalist that will not deny the existence of the world as we understand it, whereas Rashi would permit himself to stray into the realm of the Midrashic and mystical, albeit as long it can be justified within the reading of the Biblical text.


Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508) in his work Rosh Amana (ch. 20) points out that the rationale for the view of Maimonides is based on his concern as a legalist pertaining to Jewish law. While a belief in G-d as the only existence provides for a profound union with the Divine it would possibly negate the importance of Jewish law, which is predicated on the world as a medium through which one fulfils the law. It is for this reason, Abrabanel points out, Maimonides would choose to present Jewish belief in G-d as the only true - non-contingent - existence, which allows for the existence of the world, albeit not defined as a true existence as it is necessarily contingent on G-d’s existence.




As mentioned in the opening of this essay, it is possible to reconcile these two opposing views diffusing tension in such a profound area of Judaism - belief in G-d. There is the view among later rabbinical scholars that one may read in Maimonides a less rigid view pertaining to G-d’s existence that would allow us to then reconcile the views of Maimonides and Rashi also in our case.


Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe (1740-1813), acknowledges (Tanya ch. 2) that the existence of G-d as ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Creator’ of the universe is the conventional view of Maimonides, and has its origins in the Scripture (Genesis 1:1 Yonasan ben Uziel Aramaic translation) and, in fact, many of the great Jewish mystical works agree with this view (Arizal). He argues, however, this should not be understood as the sole definition of G-d, even in the view of Maimonides and the mystics, as this is only meant to be referring to G-d as He is manifest in the form of Creator of the universe. It does not negate, however, the concept of G-d as infinite, which transcends the manifestation of G-d as ‘Wisdom’. Thus, he argues, Maimonides, as the mystics, do not fundamentally disagree with the concept of the infinity of G-d as transcending the realm of wisdom.


In a similar way, one may argue, Maimonides and Rashi are talking about G-d on different planes and don’t necessarily disagree in essence. Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law Mishneh Torah, prefers, justifiably, to interpret the verse ‘There is none besides Him’ in the context of Jewish law that, by definition, would require the world to exist, albeit in a contingent form, to be relevant. However, this does negate the revelation of G-d as revealed by Sinai as as infinite and all-encompassing being, a level of the Divine before whom the world does not have any existence at all – i.e. a pre-creation level of the Divine .


In a further attempt to reconcile the view of Maimonides with Rashi, one may differentiate the two in terms of chronology (Likkutei Sichot vol. 24 p. 45 footnote 56). The view of Rashi, one may say, relates to the temporary revelation of the Divine as revealed at Sinai itself, which in turn, however, permitted, once the revelation departed, the profound awareness post Sinai of the existence of G-d as a true, non-contingent existence. Accordingly, Maimonides would be referring to the result of the Sinaitic revelation, whereas Rashi is referring to the revelation itself, but they don’t necessarily disagree in substance.


In conclusion, one may summarise the Jewish belief in G-d as made up of three concepts: the fundamental idea and what constitutes Judaism's main contribution to the world - the belief in monotheism. This can be viewed as the thrust of all the Biblical works from the beginning of Genesis with the story of Creation through the books of Prophets, rebuking and admonishing Israel for serving idols. According to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, the aim to prevent Israel from idol worship is in fact the main rationale to all the laws of the Torah.


In addition, there is the legal and rationale idea of G-d as the true and non-contingent existence, which is how G-d is defined within the context of Jewish law. This is manifest in G-d as Creator and Primary Being who brings all of existence into being. Thirdly, based on the arguments in this essay, all the medieval rabbis, including Maimonides and the later mystical traditions, would agree that there is a more sublime spiritual belief in G-d that transcends logic and rationale – the infinite - elevated beyond the universe, whereby the world has no existence at all. It is the combination of the two concepts of G-d as wisdom and transcendentally spiritual, infinitely beyond the corporeal, that allows for the eternity of the law itself.


Comments on: Maimonides and belief in G-d: legal or spiritual?

Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW wrote...

An important drash on a profound topic.