Why Is Creation in the Torah?
Why does the Torah begin with the account of creation?The answer depends on the nature and purpose of the Torah.
In traditional circles, the best-known explanation is that of Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–1105), whose question makes it clear that he sees the Torah as primarily a book of commandments,
אמר ר' יצחק: לא היה צריך להתחיל התורה אלא מהחדש הזה לכם (שמות י"ב:ב'), שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו ישראל. ומה טעם פתח בבראשית,
Rabbi Isaac (3rd/4th cent. C.E.)  said: The Torah should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation?
Rashi (still quoting R. Isaac) answers that the Torah wishes to support the people of Israel’s claim to the land:
משום: כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים (תהלים קי"א:ו').
Because of [the thought expressed in the text] (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e., He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.”
שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל: לסטים אתם שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, והם אומרים להם: כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, והוא בראה והוא נתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצותו נתנה להם וברצותו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו.
For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed, He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us.”
Not About History but Science: Maimonides
In contrast, Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) argues that the creation story is meant to teach us science. This is important, Maimonides argues, because correct knowledge of the physical world is necessary in order to have knowledge of God (Guide of the Perplexed, introduction):
God, you see, chose to improve us and enhance our lives in society with His practical norms. But this could not be done without our reaching certain intellectual convictions – chiefly, an awareness of Him, so far as we are able. That depends on metaphysics, theological knowledge, which is won only after study of natural science. For physics borders on metaphysics and is its prerequisite, as its students clearly see.
For Maimonides, the Torah is not merely or even primarily a law book, as Rashi believes, but aims at the overall improvement of individuals’ and society’s moral and intellectual life. Since Maimonides’s Judaism is orthodox, not orthoprax, practical norms (mizvot) rely upon certain intellectual convictions, the first of which is knowledge of God to the greatest extent possible. This, he argues, requires knowledge of metaphysics, the prerequisite for which is the study of natural science:
That is why God opens His book with the Account of Creation, which belongs to physics, as I’ve explained.
Thus, the Torah opens with ma’aseh bereshit, i.e., the science of physics.
Why Is the Meaning Opaque?
Maimonides continues by explaining why the Torah’s creation story does not seem to explain the physical world in the usual Greek-scientific terms, the way Maimonides’ scientifically minded colleagues would recognize it, but instead, lays out its physics in oblique, poetical terms:
Given its immensity and sublimity and our incapacity to grasp such ultimates themselves, the profundities that divine wisdom saw we need were broached obliquely and poetically – in words quite baffling. As the Sages say: “To convey to flesh and blood the power of the Creative Act is impossible, so Scripture baldly tells you, In the beginning God created....” – alerting you that these things are ineffable. You know Solomon’s words: Far off it was, and deep, deep – who can plumb it! (Ecclesiastes 7:24). Everything about it is couched in multivalent terms. So the masses take it as best their limited understanding permits, but the learned and astute take it otherwise.
Given the difficulty of that subject matter and human incapacity, Maimonides argues, the laws of nature can only be taught publicly in what we today would call mythic language. The opening chapters of Genesis are true, but not in the sense that they teach the literal history of the cosmos, as Maimonides will make clear in Guide 2:30.
Thus, while for Rashi, the message of the creation story is about Israel—Jews have a right to the land, where they should follow God’s commandments, and non-Jews should leave them be—for Maimonides, studying the creation story is of universal benefit: All human beings ought to approach knowledge of God by studying physics and metaphysics to the extent that they are capable of it.
The Commandments Themselves Are for Intellectual Perfection
The difference between Rashi and Maimonides’ worldviews about the Torah goes even further, since for Maimonides, proper understanding of physics and metaphysics is part-and-parcel of mitzvah observance (Guide 3:27; Pines, p. 510):
The Torah has two broad aims: material and spiritual well-being.
The soul’s welfare is won when the masses take on sound views, so far as they are able. Some of these views, then, are stated directly, but others broached symbolically, since most people are not able by nature to grasp such things if conveyed just as they are.
Material wellbeing is won by improving human relations in two ways: a) by quelling wrongdoing – so not everyone may do just as he likes and can but must keep to acts helpful to all, and b) by everyone’s acquiring character traits beneficial to society and conducive to the civic order.
Of these two aims, the spiritual is, surely the higher and weightier, imparting sound beliefs. But the material goal, bodily welfare, comes first in nature and in time…
Of course, the Torah devotes most of its attention to the lower aim of material/moral improvement, a prerequisite for reaching the higher aim, the achievement of truth. The commandments, for Maimonides, are the best available tool for achieving the true end of the Torah, philosophical enlightenment, but they are not the only such tool. Here we find an expression of Maimonides’s universalism.
The Rabbis Hid the Torah’s Secrets
Already in his Commentary on the Mishnah, which he wrote when he was young, Maimonides explains that what the Sages called maʿaseh bereshit (“the creation account” of Genesis 1) and maʿaseh merkavah (“the chariot account” [of Ezekiel 1]), refer to what the Greeks called physics and metaphysics (gloss on m. Ḥagigah 2:1):
Listen to what has become clear to me according to my understanding on the basis of which I have studied in the words of the Sages; it is that they call maʿaseh bereshit the natural science and inquiry into the beginning of creation. By maʿaseh merkavah they mean the divine science…
Nevertheless, Maimonides argues, this fact is not obvious to most people since it was hidden not only by the biblical texts, as discussed above, but by the rabbis as well:
Because of the importance of these two sciences, the natural and the divine—and they were justly considered important—they warned against teaching them as the mathematical sciences are taught.
Maimonides explains that everyone should be educated in these disciplines, and probably wants to be, but that many people’s minds are not ready to absorb this knowledge:
It is known that each person by nature desires all the sciences, whether he be an ignoramus or a sage. [It is further known] that it is impossible for a person to begin the study of these sciences, and direct his thought towards them, without the appropriate premises, and without entering the stages of science; they therefore forbade this and warned against it.
Thus, Maimonides argues, the Sages discouraged people without the appropriate background from diving into the study of these disciplines:
They sought to frighten one who directed his thought towards “the account of the beginning” without [appropriate] premises, as he said, “all who look upon four things. . .” They [also] sought to restrain one who would direct his thought towards and would examine divine matters with his unaided imagination, without ascending the rungs of the sciences and said, [with reference to such people,] “all who are not protective of the honor of their master [it were better had they not come into the world]."
According to Maimonides, the Sages were masters of physics and metaphysics. That is not to say that Rabbi Judah the Prince studied Aristotle or that Greek sciences ultimately derived from the Jews (As Rabbi Judah Halevi claimed) or that Aristotle’s books Physics and Metaphysics were “stolen” from the Jews (as later commentators on the Guide of the Perplexed were to claim). Rather, Maimonides is claiming that there is only one truth: what the Sages called maʿaseh bereshit the Greeks called “physics” and what the Sages called maʿaseh merkavah the Greeks called “metaphysics.” The foundation of all religious belief and the most general axiom of all the sciences are equivalent, namely that God exists.
Maimonides Discovers the Torah’s Secrets on His Own
As surprising as it may seem that Maimonides equates the deepest level of Torah knowledge with the Greek sciences of physics and metaphysics, and that the rabbis hid this fact from the masses, Maimonides makes the radical claim in his Guide of the Perplexed that this secret was actually lost (introduction to part 3):
I’ve explained several times that my main aim in this work was to clarify, so far as possible, the Account of Creation and the Account of the Chariot, to meet the needs of the reader for whom I wrote it. These topics, as I’ve explained, are among the Torah’s mysteries, and you know how the Sages reproach those who disclose such secrets and stress the great reward in store for those who keep those secrets, plain as they are to thinkers…
Even one to whom these mysteries are disclosed is halakhically barred from teaching or explaining what he has learned, unless one-on-one to such a person as they describe – and then only the rubrics are shared. That is why such knowledge is extinct in our nation, gone without trace, great or small – understandably, since it was not published but borne from breast to breast and never set down in a book.
In other words, since such knowledge was transmitted esoterically from teacher to student, given the vicissitudes of Jewish history, the chain of transmission was broken. If so, how does Maimonides know the secret? Maimonides admits that he is not passing on a tradition that he received from his teachers:
Besides, my conclusions here reflect my own thought and surmise. No divine inspiration has come to teach me just what these narratives meant. Nor have I taken my beliefs here from any teacher. I just take my lead from the biblical texts, the Sages’ discussions, and the premises reason tells me must hold. But I could be wrong; the intent might be quite different.
In sum, Maimonides’ interpretation of the secrets of the creation and chariot accounts are not things he knows from tradition or prophecy, but rather, he figured it out on his own.
Cautiously Teaching the Rediscovered Knowledge
Now that he has rediscovered the secrets, not sharing them with his students would mean that the understanding he gleaned would die with him. The Torah and good sense, however, forbid broadcasting his understandings to all and sundry. Thus, Maimonides is torn as to how he can reintroduce this knowledge without violating the Sages’ prohibition of teaching the material explicitly to people who are not ready for it:
What means, then, could I devise to awaken others to the truths I have gleaned that seem so plain and clear to me? Failing to record something of what I see so clearly, letting it die when I do, as I must, seems arrant cowardice to me, betraying you and all who are perplexed, as if begrudging them their due and selfishly withholding their legacy. That would be shameful. The law, we know, bans broadcasting these things. So does good sense….
Thus, Maimonides decides on careful phrasing of a passage-by-passage commentary/restatement that will seem trite to readers uninitiated in physics and metaphysics, but whose proper meaning will be grasped by those who have the proper background:
Serious thinking, with God’s help, has brought me to the tack I’ll take in glossing Ezekiel’s words in such a way that anyone hearing my account might suppose I’ve said no more than the text itself, as if I’d just translated the words from one tongue to another or summarized their literal sense. But when the reader for whom this work was written studies it closely and follows it carefully chapter by chapter, he’ll see clearly all that I have, with nothing left hidden. This is the ideal balance between helping everyone and our mandate against blanket disclosure and overexposure.
The approach Maimonides takes in offering interpretations of the “physics” of the creation account in Genesis in the Guide is similar. But this is actually somewhat surprising. Given that the secrets were lost in the past, why did Maimonides think that even physics still had to be taught esoterically? I suggest that he was motivated by more than just the simple rabbinic prohibition, since that does allow for some teaching of the creation account.
It would seem that Maimonides was aware that Aristotelian physics led to the conclusion that the world was uncreated, depending for its eternal existence upon an “Unmoved Mover.” In such a world there was no place for miracles, and for a commanding God. Maimonides devoted Guide 2:13–31 to what he himself admitted was only a partially successful refutation of Aristotle. Teaching Aristotelian physics to one and all was thus very dangerous to traditional Jewish belief.
The Guide: Not a Book of Tradition
Maimonides’ philosophy of the Torah’s secrets as presented in the Guide is, in effect, what we might call “Greek” content (physics and metaphysics and allied subjects), presented in a typically Jewish fashion (i.e., midrashically, which means intertextually). His interpretations are not presented as authoritative in the sense that he hoped the Mishneh Torah would become authoritative.
Maimonides admits that he came up with the interpretations on his own and they were not passed down to him unbroken tradition from Sinai. No such tradition exists, he argues, as the chain was broken long before his time. To understand Genesis properly, we can only use “serious thinking” and hope for “God’s help.”
Why Isn’t the Metaphysics of the Maʿaseh Merkavah in the Torah?
How does Maimonides account for the fact that the Torah begins with maʿaseh bereshit (=physics) but does not get to maʿaseh merkavah (=metaphysics) until Ezekiel? Should not both come up at the beginning or, perhaps, at Moses’s experience at the cleft in the rock (Exod 33 and Guide 1:54)?
Actually, it seems to me likely that Maimonides regretted that the prophet Ezekiel recorded his vision at all, especially in light of the fact that the vision might lead one to see the figure of the man (Ezek 1:27) as referring to God, something Maimonides worked hard to interpret away (Guide 3:5–7).
This supposition gains credence in light of the fact that Maimonides saw the prophet Ezekiel as having reached only a relatively low level of prophecy (5th of 11 degrees of prophecy) in Guide 2:45. Maimonides may even have thought that the prophet Ezekiel was mistaken in his understanding of the nature of the heavenly spheres and bodies, the subject matter according to Maimonides of Ezekiel’s vision.
Maimonides, I am suggesting, thought it was wrong of the prophet Ezekiel to have recorded his vision and certainly would not have wanted such a vision to appear earlier in the Torah.
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October 19, 2022
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Prof. Menachem Kellner is faculty at Shalem College’s Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought. He is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, where, among things, he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Religious Thought. He did his B.A, M.A. and Ph.D. at Washington University. Kellner is probably best known for his book, Must a Jew Believe Anything?
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