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Maimonides #4 - Creation Ex Nihilo

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld

With this Principle, the Rambam parts company with Aristotle and describes a God who necessarily preceded Creation and is free to choose to create.

Based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory.

We believe that this Oneness is necessarily primary. All that exists other than Him is not primary in relationship to Him. There are many references in the Scriptures. This is the fourth Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deuteronomy 33:27): "God who preceded [all existence] is a refuge..."

-- Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith


Ani Ma'amin, an unabridged version of the 13 Principles written by an unknown author, reads, "I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the first and the last." The point of this statement seems to be that God has no beginning and no end; He exists outside of time and is therefore not limited by it. Thus, the statement in Ani Ma'amin appears to be a repetition of the first Principle of absolute existence, which, by definition, means that He has no beginning and no end. If He suddenly sprang into existence, He would be dependent upon the source that brought Him into being. As discussed in the examination of the first Principle, it is impossible to conceive of God as an absolute being from which everything else derives unless He Himself has not beginning.

By adding the idea of eternity, Ani Ma'amin is misleading. It implies that the Rambam is referring to God existing outside of time. A careful reading of the Rambam, however, shows that this implication is incorrect. Instead, the Rambam is actually presenting the idea that the Almighty preceded the universe and created it ex nihilo. This is evident from the verse he cites (Deuteronomy 33:27): "God who preceded all existence is a refuge..."

The Principle is not that "He was the first," a statement which implies that He may have had a beginning; rather, He was "without a beginning," the absolute first: He preceded all Existence and created all Existence from a perfect void.


This Principle of creation ex nihilo has been the subject of a classic dispute among philosophers throughout history. In his Guide to the Perplexed (Vol. 2, ch. 25), the Rambam states that it would be possible (though wrong) to accept the story of Creation in Genesis while still assuming that matter was eternal. This concept of the eternity of matter implies that God and the universe co-existed without any beginning, an idea held by Aristotle.

The Greek philosopher acknowledged a beginning and no end, its role as a creator had not beginning and no end. To Aristotle, the eternity of matter was not a contradiction to his belief that God was the Source of all Existence.


It is with this Principle that the Rambam parts company with Aristotle. The god of Aristotle is merely a docile machine. It cannot choose to act or react. It is what it is. It could not and cannot choose to become Creator. It is impotent, with no understanding, no awareness and no freedom. Such a god, so limited, cannot be served.

The god of Aristotle is merely a docile machine. It cannot choose to act or react.

In contrast, the Rambam's God preceded Creation and is free to choose to create. He observes and controls. The world is His.

Aristotle's god has no control; even man has more control than Aristotle's god. It is bound by its own nature and therefore has no relationship with creation. None of the names of God that describe Him as He relates to creation would be applicable to the god of Aristotle. It is neither a Lord nor a Master nor a Power. In Aristotle's world, there is nothing to serve because it is impossible to serve a limited force.


This Principle of creation ex nihilo we know only from the Torah. Both the Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed, ch. 16) and Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari 1:63-67) admit that it is impossible to prove Aristotle wrong through logic. Up until this point in our discussion, intellect acted as a guide to considering the truth of each of these Principles, step by step. Since Aristotle cannot be proven wrong by logic, we must now rely on God's revelation to Israel in order to know the truth.

It would seem, however, that this Principle could be derived through reason as well. Wasn't that what happened in our history with the story of Abraham? Didn't he look at the "palace" (Midrash Hagadol 12:1; Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) and understand that there had to be an Owner? He observed the universe and knew that there had to be a Creator.

Not only did Abraham perceive a God who creates, but he also concluded that this Creator cares for and imposes obligations upon creation. With total clarity and an extraordinary fidelity to his convictions, he deduced all these facts to the extent that he was willing to be thrown into the burning furnace rather than worship idols (Bereishis Rabbah 38:19), he had to understand that there was a system of morality that came from a Creator. This system of morality defined the relationship between the Creator and man to the extent that it was proper and necessary to defend the truth even at the cost of life itself.

With his intellect, Abraham saw in the universe a God far different from the impotent, mechanical god of Aristotle. The God of Abraham related to man in such a way that man could address Him as "my Lord, my Master" (Genesis 15:2; see Berachos 7b). One might say that the inference of a caring God from the perfect design of the universe is a subtle step that demands trust as well as logic.

To Aristotle the "why" of Creation must remain a mystery. Obviously, the world was not created in order to fulfill the needs of the Creator, because by definition He lacks nothing, He has no needs. If, according to Aristotle, creating is part of the very definition of the Creator, then there never existed a separate act of Creation or a separate will on the part of the Creator to create.

To Abraham, the sublime order of the universe testified to purpose and meaning.

In Aristotle's term there never existed an act of giving -- of chesed, such that one could term Creation an act of giving to the created; the question of "why" in Creation does not exist.

Abraham, on the other hand, could not leave this "why" unresolved. To him the sublime order of the universe testified to purpose and meaning. This conviction led him to conclude that the Almighty was not always a Creator. He became convinced that God willed Creation for the benefit of man. This benefit is the absolute pleasure that is derived from closeness to the Source of all existence. The more man would emulate the Creator, the closer he could come to Him.

Since Abraham came to know God through a Divine attribute manifested in Creation – that of chesed, of giving – it follows that the theme of Abraham's life became one of giving to others.

This article is an excerpt from "Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam's 13 Principles" by Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld.


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