Monthly Archives: June 2014

Maimonides’ Argument for God’s Existence: Another Answer to 2:24

One of the most hotly debated contradictions of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed is found in 2:24. Unlike the work’s many alleged contradictions, the problem of 2:24 is unique in that it unquestionably contradicts an earlier argument. Indeed, this type of blatant contradiction is astonishing in light of Maimonides’ description of the type of contradictions that one could expect an author to make. In his explanation of the seventh cause for contradictory or contrary statements, Maimonides divulges that an author may choose to carry on two discussions which assume conflicting premises. In doing so, the author is able to conceal his true stance from the vulgar for whom certain information would be deleterious. Notwithstanding, the contention of 2:24 obviously and openly contradicts Maimonides’ argument put forth but a few chapters earlier. Furthermore, this contradiction is surprising for yet another reason. It assumes that Maimonides would, and indeed did, construct an argument only to pull the rug out from underneath it a few chapters later. In view of these perplexities, we will begin by explicating the actual contradiction and then go on to offer yet another reconciliation to the ever-expanding literature on this issue.

To start, let us review the contradiction. It is made by contrasting the conclusion of an argument with a later assertion. In the chapters leading up to 2:24, Maimonides provides several arguments for God’s creating the world purposefully (be-kavanah).[1] The third argument is that the apparent disorder and irregularity of the spheres’ movements point to the fact that God set them in motion. By establishing that God acts purposefully, Maimonides is implicitly arguing that God created the spheres from non-existence.[2] Despite the persuasiveness of this argument, five chapters later Maimonides declares that one cannot construct a demonstrative (burhān, mofet) argument employing any conclusions drawn from information about the heavens. He says:

However, regarding all that is in the heavens, man grasps nothing but a small measure of what is mathematical; and you know what is in it… the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions, and the causes of the heavens. But he has enabled man to have knowledge of what is beneath the heavens… this is the truth. For it is impossible for us to accede to the points starting from which conclusions may be drawn about the heavens; for the latter are too far away from us and too high in place and rank. And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects.[3]


So, while Maimonides claims in 2:19 that he has a proof that God created the spheres, he subsequently undercuts that conclusion by arguing that no one may construct a demonstrative argument regarding the Mover, or anything else for that matter, based on the heavens.[4]

This is all the more surprising when we take into account Maimonides’ four apodictic arguments for God’s existence at the beginning of book two.[5] Unlike Judah HaLevi who predicates belief in God on the collective experience of the Israelites in the desert, [6] Maimonides aligns himself with Sa’adya Geon and Bahya ibn Pakuda[7] who put forth either teleological or cosmological arguments to prove God’s existence. In a comparable fashion, Maimonides proffers four proofs for God’s existence that follow from the twenty-six propositions recorded at the beginning of book two of the Guide. The four proofs logically follow from conclusions already demonstrated by Aristotle and his followers. Yet, while these arguments are philosophical in nature (formulated without the need to appeal to empirical data), Maimonides repeatedly claims that the best argument for God’s existence is drawn from the heavens. He says: “For it is the greatest proof through which one can know the existence of the deity – I mean the revolution of the heaven – as I shall demonstrate.”[8] Similarly, he says: “We shall make it clear that there is no proof indicating to us the existence of the Maker, according to our opinion, like the indication deriving from the heavens.”[9] In the accompanying footnote, Pines elucidates the latter assertion. He explains that “the meaning seems to be that the proof in question is the most convincing of all.” Even in the very chapter of the argument at hand, Maimonides puts forth a matching claim. He says: “[T]here is no proof of purpose stronger than the one founded upon the difference between the motions of the spheres and upon the fact that the stars are fixed in the spheres.”[10] So while Maimonides claims to have proven God’s existence in the opening chapters of book two, several times he declares that the greatest proof of God’s existence is drawn from the heavens. But, the heavens – as Maimonides opines in 2:24 – cannot be used to prove God’s existence. Consequently, Maimonides’ arguments for God’s existence at the beginning of book two are also put into question. These problematic proofs for God’s existence only further highlight the force of the contradiction from 2:24.

Numerous Maimonidean scholars and translators have proposed answers to deal with the contradiction stemming from 2:24. For instance, Samuel Ibn Tibbon was the first to pen a reconciliation to the contradiction in his translation of the Guide. He construes the abstruse passage from 2:24 to mean that all information gathered from the heavens is inherently unknowable to mankind, save the existence of the Mover. With this explanation, Ibn Tibbon makes 2:24 consistent with Maimonides’ conclusion from his earlier argument for God’s existence. However, this interpretation did come at a price. Ibn Tibbon is able to substantiate this interpretation only by inserting the phrase ‘aval she’ar inyanam’ (but everything else) into the text of the Guide. In Ibn Tibbon’s defense, though, it may not have been his intention that this addition be added to the actual text. Harvey has already pointed out that in the gloss to some manuscripts of the Guide, the additional words are attributed to Ibn Tibbon’s pen, and not to Maimonides.

Joel L. Kraemer[11] puts forth the surprising hypothesis that Ibn Tibbon may have “had a different text before him” and “proposes” what that missing text would have said.[12] Kraemer attempts to deal with the contradiction by amending the text to read to exactly as Ibn Tibbon had already emended it. Kafah also follows a comparable approach to the contradiction in his translation of the Guide. According to Kafah’s translation, as understood by Davidson, he asserts that while the heavens do in fact demonstrate God’s existence, they cannot be used to demonstrate other matters.

On the other hand, there are scholars who do not feel that demonstrative proofs could be drawn from the heavens at all, even when dealing with the First Mover. In the quote from 2:24, “And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects,” Herbert A. Davidson[13] retranslates “general conclusion” (istidlal in Arabic) to mean “drawing up of a proof.” Following a lexicographical analysis of Maimonides’ usage of ‘istidlal’ throughout the Guide, Davidson shows that one cannot be said to know or not know “drawing up of a proof;” rather, it is merely something one can contemplate. Accordingly, when ‘istidlal’ is used in the passage from 2:24, it is not the subject of the sentence in question. Davidson concludes that “[i]n the case of the heavens, man cannot acquire such propositions, and the heavens are therefore a matter to the knowledge of which humans can never attain.”[14]

Harvey argues that Maimonides knew the argument from the heavens was unsuccessful, but by placing it alongside the proofs from “contingent existence to Necessary Existence,” Maimonides desired that his readers will ignore the unconvincing aspects of his argument, and take note of the argument’s positioning. This argument is placed at this juncture solely in order to call his readers to acquire scientific knowledge. Similarly, Shlomo Pines also maintains that the contradiction is meant to stand and was purposefully placed as such. He affixes a footnote to his translation of the 2:24 text that says, “In Ibn Tibbon’s translation the passage has a different meaning.”[15] This, of course, implies that Pines rejects Ibn Tibbon’s reconciliation of the contradiction.

Generally speaking, these scholars follow one of two approaches: to reinterpret one side of the contradiction (and occasionally amend the text), thereby harmonizing the two contradictory statements, or to reveal that Maimonides had an agenda when he furtively planted the contradiction. Like Harvey,[16] we will take the latter approach. So, let us start by a new analysis of the paragraph in which the contradiction occurs. In it, Maimonides makes three distinct claims about Divine and human knowledge:

A)    Mankind can and does understand the workings of the sublunar world.[17]

B)    Mankind comprehends the observational and mathematical aspects of the heavens,[18] but does not grasp their ultimate reality.

C)    God alone understands the true nature of the heavens.


It is not at all obvious, philosophically speaking, what led Maimonides to the latter two assertions; even his contemporary, Averroes, disagreed with Maimonides’ assessment of mankind’s capabilities of knowledge of the heavens. There is no ostensible reason to differentiate between how Aristotelian logic or syllogistic reasoning applies to the sublunar world and the heavens.[19] And even if Maimonides is correct – if we cannot have true knowledge of the heavens – then why should we trust our mathematical or observational data about that realm at all? Quite possibly, those calculations are also inaccurate, and should be avoided when constructing a logical argument.[20]

While the aforementioned quote clearly establishes Maimonides’ positive attitude towards employing the sublunar world in constructing a syllogism, as well as his reservations about utilizing the heavens in an argument, we can still further clarify his stance on the remaining entities that possess form, but no matter.[21] There are many entities that reside somewhere between mankind and God in the medieval philosopher’s metaphysical hierarchy. While all physical items found on earth are ostensibly inferior to mankind, it is less clear what is above humanity. For example, while some rabbinic sources imply that angels are superior to their human counterparts, others indicate that man’s free will pushes him just over angels in the metaphysical ladder.[22] In Yesodei HaTorah 2:8, Maimonides says:

All these [spiritual] forms are alive. They recognize and know the Creator with very immense knowledge, each of the forms according to its level and not according to its greatness. Even the highest level is unable to conceive of the true nature of the Creator as He [truly] is, since its intellectual capacity is too limited to know or to grasp [Him]. It does, however, comprehend and know more than the form which is below it. This is true regarding each and every level, including the tenth level. This [level] also knows the Creator in a manner that surpasses the potential to know and comprehend [God possessed by] human beings made up of body and soul. None [of these levels] can know the Creator as He knows himself.[23]


This ambiguity is not present by Maimonides’ estimation of the heavens. He opines that the heavens are superior to mankind. He candidly announces in our quote from 2:24: “For the latter [the heavens] are too far away from us and too high in place and in rank.”[24] The heavens are not only physically above the human race, they are also metaphysically above.[25]

However, does this metaphysical chasm necessitate that mankind cannot understand but “a small measure of what is mathematical” about the heavens?[26] Indeed, it does. In this one aspect, the heavens are more similar to God than to mankind. The reason we cannot know the true reality of the heavens is because we lack the intellectual capability.[27]

In this regard, we can draw upon the doctrine of divine attributes, and apply it to the heavens. This doctrine of Maimonides’ is his most well-known example of human intellectual failings. In short, Maimonides maintains that one may not attribute positive characteristics to God. He even goes so far as to say that one who does so “has abolished his belief in the existence of the deity without being aware of it.”[28] The only way to garner true knowledge of God is through negative theology. Even terms that appear to be equally applicable to both mankind and God only seem that way; in truth, they are nothing more than homonyms. Maimonides spends most of book one proving these notions through a lexicographical study of a number of biblical terms. Maimonides concludes that mankind cannot access positive knowledge about God in any meaningful way.

In a similar vein, mankind does not have access to the true reality of the heavens. While mankind can both observe the heavens and calculate its motions, these empirical facts rely on mankind’s limited observational abilities and his interpretation of that data. Both these factors suffer from fatal flaws: mankind is not sensitive to all that happens in the moon’s sphere and above, and second, there is no guarantee that mankind possesses the proper tools to satisfactorily analyze the given data; even Aristotle misinterpreted and misapplied his astronomical data because of certain faulty assumptions! In this regard, we are no better that the prisoners chained to the wall in Plato’s “allegory of the cave.” Mankind does not perceive the true reality of the heavens, but only a shadow of their true form. For that reason, all speculation about the heavens is suspect.

Faur puts it succinctly in his summation that in “areas where no adequate tools of investigations are available, nothing can be known scientifically, and, therefore, knowledge is not certain.”[29] Faur is correct in perceiving that Maimonides took for granted that a true knowledge of the heavens was beyond the boundaries of the human mind.[30]

Now, Maimonides’ declaration – which immediately precedes our problematic passage – comes into full view. He says that “the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions and the causes of the heavens.”[31] One should take care to note one of the facets on Maimonides’ list: the motion [of the heavens]. Maimonides – who was himself an expert astronomer well versed in the motions and rotations of the spheres as well as in the failings of other people’s calculations – would not even give in on this detail. While there is no reason to suppose that mankind could not eventually perfect the science of the spheres’ motions, Maimonides without chagrin claims that it will never happen. There is no reason for Maimonides to make such a bold assumption, save that he opines that mankind simply lacks a true understanding of the heavens.

Now that we have proven that Maimonides indeed opines that logical arguments and syllogistic reasoning cannot be based on heavenly data, how do we account for Maimonides argument in 2:19 that God created the world bekavanah based on the irregularity of the spheres’ motion? His unambiguous disavowal of information drawing from the heavens should negate any arguments drawing information from the heavens to get off the ground. Given that Maimonides includes this argument in the Guide, we would be remiss if we did not digress to examine the different types of arguments Maimonides recognizes as demonstrative.

Maimonides explicates which arguments are available for constructing a demonstrative argument in his Sinā’at al-mantiq (Treatise on the Art of Logic). He enumerates four types of true knowledge available for arguments: sense percepts, intelligibles, generally agreed upon opinions, and opinions received through tradition. Defining the type of argument, as well as the type of knowledge employed in said argument is particularly significant by arguments which draw data from the heavens. The heavens possess the unique feature that facts pertaining to them may fall into each of the four categories.[32] Depending on the type of supposition, the clout of the argument will shift between demonstrative, dialectical and sophistic.

Now, we possess the tools to categorize Maimonides’ arguments. In truth, Maimonides does not have any demonstrative argument for God’s creation of the spheres be-kavanah – he cannot; he rules out the very possibility in 2:24. Accordingly, when Maimonides says: “For it is the greatest proof through which one can know the existence of the deity – I mean the revolution of the heaven – as I shall demonstrate,”[33] he sincerely meant that it is the best argument for God’s existence, even though it lacks demonstrability.

A serious look at Maimonides’ introduction to book two makes it perfectly clear that he never really intended to prove God’s existence. He says: “The premises needed for establishing (be-qiyum) the existence of the deity, may he be exalted, and for the demonstration (moftim) that he is neither a body nor a force in a body…”[34] Four times in this short introductory paragraph Maimonides employs some version of the word ‘mofet,’ but when he speaks about proving God’s existence, he uses the word qiyum. He does not claim to go on to prove God’s existence demonstratively in the subsequent chapters; rather, he attempts to establish God’s existence based on both the first twenty-five demonstrative proofs, as well as the infamous twenty-sixth proposition. Accordingly, when we read his arguments in 2:1 and 2:19, we are not reading a demonstrative argument.

In fact in 2:19, where his arguments for a purposeful (be-kavanah) God, as opposed to a God who acts out of necessity (żad ha-hiyuv) appear, Maimonides never claims to tender a demonstrative argument. He says “My purpose in this chapter is to explain to you, by means of arguments that come close to being a demonstration (be-ra’yot q’rovot le-mofet), that what exists indicates to us of necessity that it exists in virtue of the purpose of One who purposed.”[35] Clearly, his aim in this chapter is to present dialectical arguments, not demonstrative. Accordingly, we could outright dismiss his claim from 1:71 that he will present mofet arguments; according to his own testimony, he only submits arguments that are close to mofet. Similarly, when Maimonides explains Isaiah 66:1 that “the heavens indicates (yoru)[36] My (God’s) existence, grandeur, and power, as a throne indicates the greatness of the individual who is considered worthy of it,”[37] one should not take the word ‘yoru’ to mean demonstrative. The heavens indicate His existence, but cannot be used to prove His existence demonstratively.[38] In the end, Maimonides implicitly acknowledges that there are no arguments of this world that can demonstratively prove God’s existence.

Just as by demonstratively proving God’s existence, Maimonides admits failure, so too by the question of the eternity of the world or its temporal creation, Maimonides must also claim mankind lacks the intellectual tools. This point cannot be conveyed in any more straightforward manner than how Maimonides does so in book one of the Guide. He says:

And everyone who engages in speculation, who is perceptive, and who has acquired the true knowledge of reality and does not deceive himself, knows that with regard to this question – namely the eternity of the world or its temporal creation – no cogent demonstration can be reached and that it is a point before which the intellect stops.[39]


In the end, the creation-eternity debate is beyond the ken of the human intellect.[40] It remains in the realm of the dialectical, not because Maimonides lacks the proof to tip the scales in one direction, but because that proof does not exist in nature. Consequently, it should be no surprise that Maimonides requires such an exceptional person – he enumerates four qualities – to admit this heart wrenching fact. In Maimonides’ day, practically every religious and philosophical group laid claim to the ultimate truth in the creation-eternity debate. Maimonides, on the other hand, keenly observes that no party possessed the whole truth – demonstratively.

This also explains why Maimonides knows with certainty that no proof for creation in time will be found in nature. After explaining that creation in time was the opinion of both Moses and Abraham, he says: “Do not turn away from the opinion according to which the world is new, except because of a demonstration. Now such a demonstration does not exist in nature.”[41] The qualitative chasm that separates God and the heavens from the physical world preclude syllogistic reasoning from one realm applying to the other. Based on the first form of knowledge Maimonides enumerates, in his work on logic, that can be used to construct an argument – namely, sense precepts – Maimonides is quite certain that the sublunar world will not produce any proof for the eternity of the world. But how could he be so sure? Apparently, there is a qualitative chasm separating the physical world from its metaphysical counterpart and the feebleness of mankind’s intellectual feebleness precludes the possibility of his intellect ever being capable of bridging this gap. Hence, Maimonides explains by Job that “our intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them.”[42] Ours minds did not and will not ever comprehend the metaphysical underpinnings of the physical world. But, this does not obviate the possibility that the world could one day be demonstratively shown to exist eternally based on the second type of knowledge, intelligibles (leaving aside the third or fourth types of knowledge). This is why Maimonides says: “Now such a demonstration does not exist in nature (emphasis mine).” Maimonides cannot rule out this other possibility, even though he maintains that creation in time was the opinion of both Moses and Abraham.

Now we can understand the ending to Maimonides’ mysterious quote: “And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects.”[43] While one can and ought to draw general conclusions about God’s existence, providence and nature from the heavens,[44] in no way could those arguments ever produce a demonstrative argument. In truth, philosophically speaking, God’s existence remains a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects for it can never produce a philosophically valid demonstrative argument. The heavens are too dramatically different from the sublunar world to produce a legitimate syllogism from one that applies to the other, and vice versa. Nonetheless, it is important to exert oneself to buttress the proof of God’s existence to the utmost of one’s ability for, in the end of the day, “There is no way to apprehend Him except it be through the things He has made; for they are indicative of His existence and of what ought to be believed about him, I mean to say, of what should be affirmed and denied with regard to Him.”[45]

In summation, we have seen that the heavens truly cannot be used to construct a dialectical argument (opposed to Maimonides claims in 2:19). Their nature is so totally different from anything a human could comprehend that whatever one concludes about them will inherently be faulty in some aspect. For the same reason, one cannot construct a demonstrative argument to prove God’s existence, and thus Maimonides does not really believe that he proffered a demonstrative argument for God’s existence.[46] Accordingly, whenever Maimonides claims he has proven, or will prove, God’s existence demonstratively, he has some ulterior motive in mind.[47]

Appendix: The findings of this paper take Pines’ conclusions in his article “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides”[48] to their natural conclusion. While he opines that Maimonides takes an agnostic stance towards metaphysical knowledge, we are asserting that Maimonides would take an agnostic view towards arguments for God’s existence as well, which rightfully so, ought to be included in metaphysical knowledge. In other words, short of prophetic inspiration (and possibly even with it), a philosopher can never arrive at demonstrative knowledge of God’s existence.

If Davidson took such an unenthusiastic stance towards Pines “startling new thesis,”[49] one can only imagine how he would respond to the findings in this paper. In light of the criticism that one can rightfully lodge at the conclusions of this paper, we will proffer several other reasons to accept these findings and show why this thesis would not be solely “born within the context of contemporary Maimonides’ scholarship.”[50] First, let one of the fine points of this paper be clarified; it is not that knowledge of God is impossible; rather, knowledge of God that is demonstratively proven (dalla) is impossible.

a. The most important proof for these findings is that Maimonides dilly dallies in regards to his arguments for God. Not only does he claim to have proffered arguments that simply do not exist, he even says that he will offer the best argument for God, but then goes on to undercut that argument in 2:24.

b. The four apodictic arguments for God’s existence require the twenty-sixth premise in order to be valid. It should, at least, be questionable that Maimonides employs a controversial proof in a demonstrative argument. According to the policy he established for constructing a demonstrative argument, one may not employ contentious proofs. While Maimonides tries to do his readers a favor by proving God’s existence in two separate ways: by assuming the world’s eternity and then by not, it would be prudent for us to remember that if we base an argument on a premise that is dialectical, obviously, the conclusion is dialectical. This is still the case even if Maimonides uses P & –P in his argument, for while modern logic would accept the validity of an argument that follows from P & -P, Maimonides would not deem that argument philosophically worthwhile for, in truth, it is not demonstrative.

c. Davidson is irked over the fact that Maimonides asserts numerous details regarding God. For example, both in the Guide[51] and in the Mishneh Torah,[52] Maimonides makes clear that God “is the intellect as well as the intellectuality cognizing subject and the intellectually cognized object, and that those three notions form in Him one single notion in which there is not multiplicity.”[53] Technically, this is a positive assertion about God. In truth, Maimonides has no problem asserting positive attributes about God as long as the reader is aware that they do not represent God’s true reality. Because God’s knowledge is unlike ours, his intellection is completely different too. Maimonides accepts the dictums of the philosophers that are generally accepted because they allow one to speak intelligently about God. They allow mankind to legitimately reflect upon God’s existence.

d. Pines argues that Maimonides’ assertion in 2:24 that “Moses is the only human being that may be assumed to have had this knowledge” implies that Maimonides “considers that man can have scientific knowledge only of the phenomena of the sublunar world… Maimonides is of the opinion that no scientific certainty can be achieved with regard to objects that are outside the sublunar world.”[54] Davidson rejects that Maimonides is putting forth “a radical epistemological skepticism,” in this statement, but there is not really a better way to read it. Sure, it may be surprising to perceive just how different Maimonides viewed Moses from the rest of the human race, but that is not a reason to deny that Moses was truly that different.

e. While this is not the place to argue the relationship between the Mishneh Torah and the Guide, we would be remiss if we did not point to several halakhot in the opening book that further supports out argument. At the beginning of chapter two of Yesodei HaTorah, Maimonides informs his readers how it is that one can come to love and fear God. Subsequently, he details one chapter dealing with ma’aseh mirkava and then two chapters on the topic of maa’aseh bereishit. But in Yesodei HaTorah 4:12, Maimonides writes:

בזמן שאדם מתבונן בדברים האלו ומכיר כל הברואים ממלאך וגלגל ואדם כיוצא בו ויראה חכמתו של הקב”ה בכל היצורים וכל הברואים, מוסיף אהבה למקום ותצמא נפשו ויכמה בשרו לאהוב המקום ברוך הוא, ויירא ויפחד משפלותו ודלותו וקלותו כשיעריך עצמו לאחד מהגופות הקדושים הגדולים, וכ”ש לאחת מהצורות הטהורות הנפרדות מן הגולמים שלא נתחברו בגולם כלל, וימצא עצמו שהוא ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה ריק וחסר.


Accordingly, Maimonides explains that he recorded these chapters on metaphysics and physics in order to inform his readers “how to add to his love for God,” not just so they should gain knowledge of God. All the information on ma’aseh mirkava becomes a subcategory to the prescription to love God. Accordingly, philosophic knowledge is valuable in so far as it lends to love of God; otherwise, Maimonides should have included the information in these three chapters (or at least chapter two) within the first chapter of the Mishneh Torah where he describes the biblical prescription to acquire knowledge of God. As much as Maimonides denies the validity of the Kuzari’s God from tradition, this seems to be the exact God in which Maimonides is relegated to prescribing people to believe in, but for philosophical reasons. Maimonides does put forth all the philosophical knowledge of his days that points to God’s existence, but even he must admit in the end, that all these arguments failing is exactly the God he presents in the Mishnah Torah.

In the end, we have to ask: why would Maimonides spend so much time on arguments for creation when none of them work, on arguments for God’s existence when they all predisposed to a crucial flaws, on describing God when even he candidly fesses up that, ideally, silence would be a better option than prayer? Like the prophets and Sages before him, Maimonides employs arguments that are dialectical (or authoritative) in order to buttress a reality which lends support to what the religious community ought to believe.[55] In truth, the contradiction between 2:19 and 2:24 is one of the few clear examples of Maimonides systematically employing the seventh cause for contradictory or contrary statements. And while the Maimonidean commentators have all thought of ingenious ways to circumvent the contradiction, sometimes one must sit back and brood over the fact that a cleverly placed contradiction is not something to “answer up,” but something to appreciate.


[1] All Hebrew references are taken from the Ibn Tibbon translation and all English references are taken from the Pines translation and the page references are to this work.

[2] This type of argument is a version of the theological argument for particularization found in Alghazali’s writings.

[3] Guide 2:24 p. 327

[4] This is idea is reinforced by the prophetic revelation that Job experienced. Maimonides explains that Job realized that “there is no going beyond the description of natural matters – namely, description of the elements or description of the meteorological phenomena or description of the natures of the various species of animals, but of nothing else” (Guide 3:23 p. 496). The implication of the last phrase – “but of nothing else” – is that mankind has no access to the true reality of the heavens.

[5] The four proofs are summarized in J. David Bleich’s With Perfect Faith: The Foundations of Jewish Belief (Ktav Publishing House: New York, 1983) in the chapter on the “Existence of God,” p. 78.

[6] See Kuzari, part one

[7] See Hovevot Levavot (first treatise, chapters five and six) where he presents an argument demonstrates the existence of God based on the created nature of the universe

[8] Guide 1:70 p. 175

[9] Guide 2:18 p. 302

[10] Guide 2:19 p. 310. In a similar vein, Maimonides indicates as early as chapter 58 of book one that he has earlier proven God’s existence demonstratively. He says: “After this preface, I shall say that it has already been demonstrated that God, may He be honored and magnified, is existent of necessity and that there is no composition in Him, as we shall demonstrate” (1:58 p. 135). While Maimonides seems here to be alluding to his forthcoming four arguments at the beginning of book two, surely Maimonides did not put forth a philosophical argument for God’s existence before this point in the Guide.Pines also is bewildered by Maimonides’ claim to have proven God’s existence. He says in the footnote on page 135: “The statements regarding God are considered in this sentence as already demonstrated and as to be demonstrated later. This inconsistency, which may of course be explained away, cannot but strike the reader of this sentence.”

[11] Joel L. Kraemer’s “Maimonides on Aristotle and Scientific Method ,” from Moses Maimonides and His Times, ed. Eric L. Ormsby (The Catholic University of America Press: Washington, 1989), pp. 53-88.

[12] p. 79; it is possible that Kraemer was unaware of Harvey’s observation in the Guide manuscripts.

[13] Herbert A. Davidson’s “Further on a Problematic Passage in the Guide for the Perplexed 2:24” from Maimonidean Studies, vol. 4, ed. Arthur Hyman (Yeshiva University Press: New York, 2000), pp. 1-13.

[14] Jose Faur in his Homo Mysticus (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York, 1998) argues that in the fields of metaphysics and astronomy, certainty is unattainable, istidlal is mankind’s only possibility. Mankind lacks the proper tools to reach certainty regarding theological matters for “burhan transcends the human faculty” (p.103). In other words, demonstrative proofs can only be produced from information that one has direct experience of. Like Davidson, for Faur, God’s existence could be inferred from the heavens, but cannot be demonstrably shown.

[15] Guide 2:24 p. 327

[16] Though Maimonides’ argument in 2:19 is deficient, working along side the subsequent argument, Maimonides goads his readers to acquire scientific knowledge.

[17] Like Averroes, Maimonides completely believes that Aristotle possessed perfect knowledge of the sublunar world. For example, he says that “everything that Aristotle has said about all that exists from beneath the sphere of the moon to the center of the earth is indubitably correct, and no one will deviate from it unless he does not understand it or unless he has preconceived opinions that he wishes to defend or that lead him to a denial of a thing that is manifest” (2:22 p. 319). There are many other such examples throughout the Guide.

[18] Even Aristotle’s knowledge of the heavens was wanting. Maimonides says that “Aristotle expounds with regard to the sphere of the moon that which is above it, except for certain things, something analogous to guessing and conjecturing” ( 2:22 p. 320). Averroes, on the other hand, felt that the knowledge of astronomy regressed in his day and that Aristotle had possessed a true knowledge of astronomy.

[19] Maimonides accepts that logical impossibilities are beyond God’s capabilities. This is evident from his discussion of Platonic philosophers where he explains that “His not bringing impossible things into existence does not argue a lack of power on His part – since what is impossible has a firmly established nature” (2:13 p. 283). But, this assertion – God’s inability to perform certain acts – is based on “what has a firmly established nature,” and that nature is firmly established by human logic working in the sublunar world.

[20] Unfortunately then, astronomers’ conclusions would be both be meaningless and worthless. In truth, Maimonides asserts that the job of the astronomer is functional in that he is to postulate the fewest orbits at a constant velocity for the spheres, regardless of whether his system represents reality as it truly is. See Menachem Kellner’s “On the Status of the Astronomy and Physics in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed,” from British Journal for the History of Science 24, 1991, pp. 453-63.

[21] See Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:3

[22] While aspects of the heavens would be identical with the angels in Maimonides’ schemata, the point made in this paragraph refers solely to their visual aspect.

[23] Translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah by Eliyahu Touger, (Moznayim Publishing Corporation: New York, 2000). Also examples include: “They (the spheres) have neither taste nor smell, because these phenomena are present only in matter lower than they (3:3).” And, he says: “The knowledge of the stars and the spheres is less than the knowledge of the angels, but greater than that of men (3:9).”

[24] Guide p. 327

[25] See Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah, chapter 2:4-8. See Howard Kreisel’s “The place of Man in the Hierarchy of Existence in the Philosophy of Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides in Alef Shefer: Studies in the Literature of Jewish Thought, ed. Moshe Hallamish (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1990). Strauss explains in his introductory article preceding the Pines translation of the Guide: “the Law agrees with Aristotle in holding the heavenly bodies are endowed with life and intelligence and that they are superior to man in dignity; one can say that he (Maimonides) agrees with Aristotle in implying that those holy bodies deserve more than man to be called images of God” (p. xxiii).

[26] In the Guide 1:52, Maimonides says: “It is clear at the first glance that there is no correlation between Him and the things created by Him” (p. 117). This implies that the heavens share a greater affinity with mankind than with God.

[27] And not because mankind lacks the mathematical know-how. If that were the case, then Maimonides would not be so pessimistic about mankind ever acquiring a true knowledge of the heavens. Furthermore, see Guide 1:73 p. 209 where Maimonides links knowledge of a thing’s causes with knowledge of it true reality.

[28] Guide 1:60 p. 145

[29] Jose Faur Homo Mysticus, (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York, 1998), p. 103.

[30] Faur’s reasoning, though, is faulty. He anachronistically superimposes a modern skepticism (based on the common criticism lodged against inferential logic) upon medieval Aristotelians logic. He rightly claims that only istidlal (inference) is possible by astronomy, and not certainty. But, he then explains this contention by appealing to the fact that “scientific knowledge is restricted to areas that can be submitted to direct analysis. Thus ‘certainty’… is not operative in areas such as metaphysics and astronomy. There is no reason to acquiesce to Faur’s version of metaphysical skepticism.

[31] p. 327

[32] A) Al-mahsūsāt (ha-muhashim, sense percepts) – all mankind views the stars: their color, their shape,          their size, etc.

B) Al-ma’qūlāt al-awwal, (ha-muskalot, first intelligibles) – there are many self evident propositions in regards to stars; for example, they are exceedingly far away or the moon is closer to earth than the stars.

C) Al-mashūrāt (ha-mefursamot, generally agreed upon opinions) – for example, the substance of the stars is inherently different than the matter sublunar items are made from.

D) Al-maqbūlāt (ha-mequbalot, opinions received through tradition) – the Talmud records countless traditions about the heavens.

[33] Guide 1:70 p. 175

[34] Guide p. 235

[35] Guide 2:19 p. 303

[36] See the end of 1:31 where Maimonides writes that “the external meaning is indicative (yoru) of the corporeality of God” (p. 67). See also the end of 1:53 where Maimonides explains the way in which we should understand the divine attributes in Tanach. He says: “This is what ought to be believed with regard to the attributes mentioned in the books of the prophets; or, as we shall make clear, it may be believed with regard to some of them that they are attributes indicative (yoru) of a perfection likened to our perfections, which are understood to us.” In all three instances of the word ‘indicative (yoru), Maimonides employs it in a dialectical fashion that is based on the fourth type of knowledge we mentioned above, namely, ‘opinions received through tradition’ (ha-mequbalot). Similarly, when Maimonides explains that “there is no proof indicating to us the existence of the Maker, according to our opinion, like the indication deriving from the heavens” (2:18 p. 302), he truly believes that the heavens produce the best argument for God’s existence even though the argument will not be demonstrative.

[37] Guide 1:9 p.35

[38] Even when God made known the proofs for His own existence to Moses to be given to the Israelites’ “men of knowledge,” Maimonides employs the word ‘dalil’ (ra’yah, proof) instead of mofet (1:63) because, it seems, even God cannot provide demonstrative proof for His existence. Though, it is possible that Maimonides understands that God gave a dialectical proof to Moses because he knew that would be effective.

[39] Guide 1:71 p. 180. Similarly, Maimonides says: “I shall make it clear that just as a certain disgrace attaches to us because of the belief in the creation in time, an even greater disgrace attaches to the belief in eternity” (2:17 p. 294). In other words, neither opinion can be demonstrated.

[40] Strauss in his introductory essay to Pines translation of the Guide: “Creation is according to Maimonides not demonstrable, whereas God’s unity and incorporeality are demonstrable” (xxiii).

[41] Guide p. 322

[42] Guide 3:23 p. 496.

[43] Guide 2:24 p. 327

[44] Accordingly, Maimonides says: “For this reason that there is no stronger proof of [God acting] purpose[fully] stronger than the one founded upon the difference between the motions of the spheres and upon the fact that the stars are fixed in the spheres] you will find that all the prophets used the stars and the spheres as proofs for the deity’s existing necessarily,” (2:19 p. 310) even though the argument is not demonstrative. That was the job of the prophet.

[45] Guide 1:34 p. 74. Similarly, Maimonides says: “I have already let you know that there exists nothing except for God, may He be exalted, and this existent world and there is no possible inference proving His existence, may He be exalted, except those deriving from this existent taken as a whole and from it details (1:71 p. 183). Even though Maimonides claims but a few lines earlier that he intends to “formulate for your benefit with a view to demonstration regarding the three problems in question – I mean the existence and oneness of the deity and the refutation of the doctrine of His corporeality,” our present quote shows that Maimonides does not intend to give more than “a possible inference (ra’ayah) proving His existence.” But, we should not minimize the place of ra’ayah in Maimonides’ thought. He would reject Faur’s assertion that: “Although some of the opinions may be highly probable, they should not be regarded as certain” (p. 102). To the contrary, Maimonides feels they should be regarded as certain. Many times, the best argument one could produce is supported by hijaj or istidlal, but that does not mean one should suspend one’s claim to certainty until burhan is produced, for in most cases, it never will. See Arthur Hyman’s article “Demonstrative, Dialectical, and Sophistic Arguments in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides,” from Moses Maimonides and His Times, ed. Eric L. Ormsby (The Catholic University of America Press: Washington, 1989), pp. 35-51, where he provides evidence from Maimonides’ parable of the royal palace “that dialectical no less than demonstrative arguments have cognitive significance” (p. 51) for Maimonides to some extent equates he “who has achieved demonstration” with he who has reached “close to certainty.”

[46] Maimonides maintains that one of the goals of philosophical training is to turn religious beliefs, generally inculcated from tradition and/or authority, into certain knowledge. In the Guide (3:23 p. 492-3) Job’s shift from traditional knowledge to certain knowledge comes to culmination with the appearance of the whirlwind. How could this take place; what was Job made aware of? It seems he was only made aware of the fact that he cannot understand. In this context, this was definite knowledge.

[47] In a similar vein, in 2:33, Maimonides explains that the Israelite nation did not hear God speak at Mount Sinai, but rather, “everyone who knows of God’s existence demonstratively knows of God like he is a prophet.”

[48] The essay was published in Isadore Twersky’s “Medieval Jewish History,” vol. 1 (Harvard University Press: Oxford, 1990), pp. 82-109.

[49] See his article “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge” from Maimonidean Studies, vol. 3, ed. Arthur Hyman (Yeshiva University Press: New York, 1993), pp. 49-103.

[50] Davidson, “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge,” p. 54.

[51] Guide 1:68

[52] Sefer Madda, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:9-10

[53] Guide 1:68

[54] Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” p. 93.

[55] Faur explains: “The aim of the theologian – unlike the philosopher – is not to expose the truth but to defend and promote a set of doctrines” (95).


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Welcoming Death

I welcome death: not to be lowered into hollowed out earth, or to perceive a snapshot of the afterlife, but to greet the sullied concept into the vicissitudes of my daily life along with everything else trite. Now that I am in my thirties, death trickles in… In youth, most people know no death. Maybe a grandparent or a dog, but those are exceptional, special, sad. Death, however, is not common then. With an overdose here, a suicide there and an occasional freak accident, eventually death knocks at our everyday door for entrance, to be welcomed into our mundane lexicon until it becomes as common as the morning sun. I’m excited everyone is finally catching up.

For me, death has always been there, or at least since my father’s death. Most people can recall vividly their worst memory. Not because of its impact, but because it’s sealed within you without any hope of extrication. One sight on the day of my father’s death is that memory. I had not known my father was dying. He had cancer for several years, but I was twelve and stupid. This sounds surprising, and even amusing in its naiveté, but I had not known that my father could die. It was not a possibility that my mind ever broached. It never entered my train of thought, no matter how sick or lifeless he was. I did not deny the future, but simply did not recognize it.

On the last day of his life, I went to school. In fact, I remember my younger brother remained home, and I was angry that he was taking advantage of my sick father’s situation. After all, my brother was not sick. He should go to school along with me and my other two siblings. But he cheated my mother, or so I thought, and fooled her. While she knew this was my father’s last day of life, and kept my younger brother at home purposefully, that explanation never crossed my mind at the time. When we returned home around four o’ clock, there were no less than fifteen cars sprawled throughout my driveway, front lawn and parked in the street. I had never seen so many cars flooding a house’s façade. Every inch was covered with cars. I had no memory to compare this sight with. But. It hit me then, as quick as a gunshot. He’s dead. To this day, I don’t understand how I made the leap from father to dead father, but it was instantaneous. Maybe the idea of his immanent death rest is my subconscious, but that sight of those cars permitted the notion of death to barge immediately in. The second we got halfway down SW 32nd Terrace, the bend in the road quickly revealed my house and those cars, and I knew he was dead. I didn’t know the next step, or the emotions to stream or how to feel at all. Death was not part of me. But, I evolved. Death was part of me.

I felt comfortable with joking about death, jokes of the Holocaust, AIDS, cancer. These jokes and comfortability with death has made some people feel uncomfortable, but that was OK. They would learn from my wisdom, eventually.  My newly formed outer shell made me immune to the sensitivities of regular folk. I felt a special kinship with those who also experienced the death of a parent. We knew something that no one else knew, even if we could not articulate it. Death was in me, and I was proud of it. I was better. I could wear death on my shoulder like a war wound, whip it out when I desired a laugh, sympathy or just to continue an awkward conversation. Death is interesting, and I was better for owning it. It made me stronger, and more dominant. But my calm and security with death was/is odd to some.

Two thousand years ago, the average life expectancy was under thirty years of age. Death was common, and part of the vernacular. He who knew no death at all stages of life was impossible. We live in the first century where I can wear death proudly as an anomaly. But that also dissipates with time. Death is creeping up, trickling in, on my peers finally. They soon will wear her, not as a sign of pride as I did, but as one wears wrinkles and bad knees. It’s different. They will never experience it as I had it, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m excited that life’s tide is pulling back to reveal death’s shore. Soon you will be me too.

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