Rational Religion and Aesthetic Philosophy (Maimonides)

Starry Grove
Nahal Nativ

Was it a gentle, gnostic melancholy? A critical theorist and colleague friend who I am positive is “definitely not religious” makes an offhand comment in the early months of the pandemic about “the cruelty of nature.” The anthropomorphism caught my ear. Is nature really cruel? Is the world evil? Early on during the Coronavirus, I was thinking a lot about rational religion, that it’s a balm. Rational religion does not attribute human characteristics to non-human phenomena, not to God and not to nature. It finds its place in the good of the world, not against it. Rational religion is aesthetic.

The kind of aesthetic and in what relation to nature will vary across the history of style. Mendelssohn belongs obviously to this camp. So does Maimonides, whose aesthetic turns out to be ec-centric, even arabesque.

I was reading Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Islamic World as this post came together. In medieval Islamicate cultures, the God of rational religion is a God without attribute, affect and change. From Adamson is also that rational religion conveys its own sense of strange beauty in the world. As I am coming to see it, the world in this culture is not clock-like as with 18th century deism in Europe. In relation to God and to the world, rational religion in the Islamicate milieu is poetic in its big picture view of contingency, not necessity, and of freedom, not mechanism.

In Jewish philosophy, the starting point to all this is well known and familiar enough. Rational religion begins with Maimonides and the via negativa in philosophy, the denial of imputing essential attributes to God, which strips the God of positive attributes like power, knowledge, benevolence. “Every attribute that is found in the books of the deity, may He be exalted, is therefore an attribute of action and not an attribute of His essence, or it is indicative of absolute perfection” (1:53).

There is no way to know the simple (non-compounded) essence of God. In relation to the vision of God’s attributes of action revealed to Moses when Moses demands to see God’s face, the only way to know God is from the back, i.e. the trace effects in the wake of God’s creative action in the world.  Moses cannot see the face of God. What Moses did see was all God’s “goodness.” What Maimonides means by “goodness” is not what modern readers might mean as moral goodness. In this philosophical context, goodness is the aesthetic “display…of all existing things of which it is said: And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” An aesthetic category, goodness is the arrangement of nature into a matrix. Their “display” refers to how all things are “mutually connected” in nature and in the constellation of nature. The ways of God are “the actions proceeding from God, may He be exalted” in reference to the world, manifold, interconnected, beautiful and sublime in their display or manifestation, and moral (applied to human moral actions) only insofar as these resemble human moral action (1:54).

The attributes of action are aesthetic.

There are “doings” of God in the world that are what we today would call very “beautiful.”  One apprehends in the world something like the “kindness” of God’s “governance.” This beauty is seen in “the production of embryos of living beings, the bringing of various faculties to existence in them and those who rear them after birth –faculties that preserve them from destructions and annihilation and protect them against harm and are useful to them in all the doings that are necessary to them” (1:54).

Also aesthetic, the “doings” of God in the world include acts of stern judgment, what the poet Friedrich Schiller called the “pathetically sublime.” The notion of “divine judgment” is brought to mind by “great calamities overtaking certain individuals and destroying them, or some universal matter annihilating whole tribes or even an entire  region, exterminating the children and the children of the children, leaving in existence neither the products of the soil nor the offspring of living beings –for instance, submergence of land, earthquakes, destructive storms, military expeditions, of one people against others in order to exterminate the latter by the sword and to efface all traces of them” (1:54).

In short, tender animal powers of care alongside geological, meteorological, and human forces of destruction reflect the attributes of divine action. As are stars and heavenly spheres, those astral bodies in the heavenly spheres above the moon and in their difference from terrestrial beings below the moon.

About this, the scholarly consensus is that Maimonides has to argue, and he knows he cannot prove it, that the world was created ex nihilo, that it did not exist forever, eternally, as per Aristotle. The contention in Aristotelean philosophy is that since everything that happens in the world is necessary, i.e. is ruled by necessity internal to the working intelligibility of the world itself, then it must be concluded that the world was not created in time, that the world has existed forever either with or without God or divine action. For that very reason, for Maimonides, the world cannot be eternal, if in fact a creative God exists. Monotheism depends upon it, even if Scripture is neutral as regard to this important doctrine. In this philosophical conceptualization, there can only be one unique necessary existent. Without creation ex nihilo founders the very foundation of the divine law (shari’a translated by Pines as “Law,” and by Ibn Tibbon as Torah) (as opposed to nomos). The divine law, itself a social foundation, depends not just on the divine wisdom, but upon divine will and upon God’s unique necessary existence (2:25).

The argument by Maimonides for creation, for religion, for the necessary existence of a creative God therefore hangs upon contingency, not mechanism, upon the notion that things that happen in the world do not have to be the way they are, that they just are, accidental, non-teleological, i.e. with or without a purpose. To Aristotle, Maimonides concedes that everything that happens in the sub-lunar or terrestrial world is necessary, i.e. ordered according to necessity. But, nothing can be known for certain about the supra-lunar world, the world of the stars and other heavenly beings. Viewed from our vantage point, the principle of free creation upon which the entire Torah depends itself hangs upon what Maimonides thought on the basis of the best astronomical science of his day to be the particular and contingent irregularities in the movement of the vast starry spheres over the sublunary world. These, he presumed, do not conform to the principle of necessity (2:19-22).

The following conclusion is somewhat startling.

 “Religious” in the rational religion of Maimonides is contingency itself, and Maimonides was drawn to it, poetically. In his view, the physical human form is also contingent; the structure of the human body (two hands, two eyes) is apart from any human purpose (2:20) So is the divine law in that it was given by God to Moses only for a particular people, not a universal law for all human beings (2:25). Stars, the human being, and Torah do not obey the principle of necessity.

Big in the big world picture in Maimonides is astral. An object of utter fascination and of awe and admiration, the starry motions are, in his view, arrayed contingently. Some are swift, some slow. What he understood from astronomy to be their “striking’ and “strange” motions call attention to themselves as such (2:19). All the prophets in Scripture and the rabbis in the story of Abraham in the midrash contemplate the come and go appearance of the sun and the moon, and saw in the heavens proof for belief in the existence of God as their ultimate mover (2:18, 19). The stars point to the existence of a Creator not because their ways are fixed. Quite the contrary. Their contingency points to the necessity of God. Maimonides’ calls attention to epicycles, eccentric spheres, eccentric circles, eccentric points that are “incongruous,” “dubious,” and beyond what he thought were the bounds of reason as opposed to that which he supposed is clear in natural science. All this is a fatigue to the mind. Maimonides stops at this point which is in our capacity and gives over these things to Moses, who spoke to God mouth to mouth, who was shown by God at Sinai that display of the world (2:24).

Accidents of particular existence are beautiful. In this challenge to Aristotelean physics and metaphysics, the Maimonidean view from science about contingent, particular, irregular modes of supralunar astral existence is particularly luminous. In comments on Genesis chapter 1 and the rabbis in b.Rosh Hashana (11a) and b.Hullin (60a), Maimonides writes about the productive capacity of light and dark producing heat and cold. They are the first of the natural causes that produce generation and passing away. Everything created was created “according to the perfection of quantity, the perfection of form, and with the most beautiful of accidents.” This, Maimonides explains, “is expressed in the word le- ibayon [according to their beauty], which derives from the word ebi [beauty] as used, for instance, in the phrase: which is the ebi [beauty of all lands” (Exek20:6).That is to say, the beautiful accidents are nothing less than part of a “great principle” (Guide, 2:30). The order of creation reflects not just will, but wisdom. This includes the existence of the world as a whole at the moment when it came into existence, being the very relation between existence and non-existence. These phenomena are expressed in the verse from Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 3:11), “He hath made everything beautiful in its time” (Guide, 3:25).

The larger argument in part II of The Guide for positing the creation of the world ex nihilo is wrapped up and arranged in the beauty of light. Citing what he called the “celebrated” chapters of Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer, Maimonides writes at great length about the “strangest statement [he has] seen made by one who follows the Torah of Moses our Master.” The text concerns God’s creation of the starry heavens and the creation of the earth. Puzzling over this passage, he cites the midrashic statement in full:

“Wherefrom were the heavens created? From the light of His garment, He took some of it, stretched it like a cloth, and thus they were extending continually, as it is said: ‘Who covers Yourself with light as with a garment. Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain’ (Ps. 104:2).”
And “[w]herefrom was the earth created? From the snow under the throne of His glory. He took some of it and threw it, as it is said, ‘For He says to the snow, Be thou earth’ (Job 37:6)” (translation of the translation slightly altered) (2:26). Maimonides is left to wonder about the nature of the starry garment in particular. Was it created or uncreated and eternal? And what about the throne of glory which is God’s “throne in the heavens” (Ps.103:19)? Is it eternal? How are we supposed to read this passage?

Throwing up his hands or perhaps wistfully, Maimonides immediately comments, “Would that I knew what that Sage believed.” He rests content, however, with the claim that, at the very least, this text maintains a clear distinction between terrestrial and heavenly matter, comparing the light of God’s garment in the heavens above to the snow, to the whiteness of sapphire below, under the throne of Glory. Maimonides goes on to cite the rabbis in Genesis Rabbah about the creation of heavens from the heavens and of the earth from the earth (2:26) For Maimonides, what matters philosophically is the distinction drawn between the starry heavens and the earth, the supralunar and sublunar worlds. And in the meantime, he has just quoted at length by way of decoration or ornament, a piece of midrashic reflection which he himself knows to be beautiful.

No matter what the sage might have meant, the rhetorical use of and the aesthetic quality of this dictum from Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer is an intentional part or function of the larger project at work in the Guide. The rhetorical force of the midrashic source material is as if designed to draw attention away from planet earth and up to the stars. Indeed, the entire analysis of God, creation, and religion throughout part II of the Guide is as if illuminated by the light of the stars and starlight, guided by the strange motion of the planets and spheres, and their part in the grand “display” of all existing beings, these most beautiful of accidents.

The constant reference to stars and to starlight and the intensive proof-texting from classical Jewish literary sources throughout part II of the Guide make their own strong rhetorical or aesthetic impression. In the constant turning to Scripture, to his wonderful readings of Bible and rabbinic texts that are themselves strewn across the Guide like stars in the sky, Maimonides writes comfortably in a deliberate poetic vein. Reflecting the adab culture of Islamic art and design, it’s not “merely ornamental.” Concerned about the destructive power of doubt, he tells his student-reader that he is intentionally turning to rhetoric or poetics as part of this philosophical program. Even Aristotle, he comments, “the prince of the philosophers, in his main writings has likewise used rhetorical speeches in support of his opinion that the world is eternal. In such cases it may truly be said: Shall not our perfect Torah be worth as much as their frivolous talk (b. Bava Batra 116a).”About Aristotle, Maimonides continues, “If he refers in support of his ravings of the Sabians how can we but refer in support of our opinion to the words of Moses and Abraham and to everything that follows therefrom?” (2:24). No less than for Kant, the often and steady reflection upon the stars –there before his very eye and representing no veiled obscurity– also fill Maimonides with admiration and awe.

About the metaphysical status and aesthetic aspect of stars and heavenly bodies and astral and divine lights:

–They are living beings, angels. They are intelligent and rule the sublunar world and sing silent praise of God (2:5-12). They are the action of God, a luminous overflow of intellect (2:12).


–God is the “master of the spheres and stars.” God governs, i.e. orders the world through the mediation of these separate intellects (2:6).

–As per above, the stars and spheres are “proofs” for the existence of the separate intellects, spiritual being, angels, and prove the necessary existing of God (2:19, 2:20 ) This for Maimonides (as it also was for the more skeptical Kant) is the most persuasive proof for God’s existence as their Mover (2:19).

–The eccentric (i.e. non-centric) ordering of their heavenly motion is beyond human reason (syllogisms, analogies, as per the translation of Pines, p.322n1). The motion of the stars and spheres seem to lack a clear center from, towards, or around which they move. They seem to be moving around an “imaginary point” that is “other than the center of the world.” After ruminating about the heavenly motions and how little is known about the supralunar world of the stars and spheres, Maimonides writes “in the manner of poetical preciousness” citing Psalms (115:16), “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath He given to the sons of men” (2:24).

–Stars and the falling of stars, light and darkness, the sun and the moon, new heavens and new earth, the bright lights of the heavens are basic to this poetic manner of thinking about God about the ways or custom of the world. In Scripture and midrash, they are poetic vehicles (figurative expressions, rhetorical speech) with which to convey truths about human misfortune and joy in this world, about political upheaval and renewal, about instability and stability, about messianic kingship and the future of kingly rule of Israel. At one key moment in the Guide, stunning and beautiful, heaps and heaps of poetry are massed in a tour de force explication of the human condition. The poetic expression of Isaiah and other prophets stands alongside the philosophical upshot in the most important chapter on miracle in the Guide. That upshot is the view known from science that the world “goes its customary way,” and the contention that the world, once created, is established forever, with a beginning but with no end (2:29, cf. 2:27-8).

–Not so much stars and the heavens but a more rarified play between light and darkness figures prominently in Maimonides’ account of ma’aseh Breishit (account of the Beginning). Based upon readings of Genesis, Genesis Rabbah, and Talmud, the account of creation is brought into conversation with medieval physics. Earth is the darkest matter below, above which is water and then air, and fire above them all, a dark fire that is not luminous, only transparent. In this view of things, darkness is the nature of the existence of the lower world with light supervening into it (2:30, cf. the end of 2:29).

–As if following the path of a descent into the world, the stars and the heavens disappear from view. With no stars and no starry light, the conversation darkens. Maimonides now proceeds from the creation of the world out of garments of light and bright snow to more murky interests relating to the prophetic imagination, to the political in part II of the Guide 2:32-48, and then onto the problem of theodicy and the function of divine Law in the majority of part III. Even the intentionally obscure exposition of the account of the Chariot (ma’aseh Merkvah) in Ezekiel’s vision as it appears in the first seven chapters of part III of the Guide has no particular luminosity. Its light is not illuminating.

–The final word on the stars and spheres in the Guide is that, unlike plants and animals in this world and superior to human beings, they exist entirely for their own sake. Intended by God’s own volition for which there is no final end, they occupy terrifying cosmic distances far above the sublunary world. This object-oriented ontology is in answer to the problem of evil and suffering. Not all things exist for human ends. This too is therapeutic. To understand this and not seek a final end for what has no final end apart from its own existence is to calm one’s thinking about the world (3:13-14).

–The light that appears at the end of the Guide is the dazzling light of the Divine light, the luminous overflow out of the dark clouds that hide God and which illuminate the dark world below. The prophetic dictum that concludes the Guide is from Ezekiel (43:2) “And the earth did shine with His glory.” The divine light at the end of the Guide recalls the dazzling light of the beauty of God in part I (3:9, 1:59). Human apprehension of the divine light, cleaving to the divine light, in the pure light of the sun, light of the intellect extended, purified apprehension, intense pleasure. (3:51). God’s intellect turns back on us. The divine light overflows towards us, creating a bond between us and God. Creating light by which God sees us. (3:52). Great light for the people that walked in darkness, in the land of the shadow of death. God is near God to those who call  if “he calls truly and has no distraction (3:54)

As for the context with which I began this long post, Maimonides has taken rational religion a long way from the problem of good and evil and suffering. Most of what we suffer is due to human violence and stupidity (3:12).

[[images Neil Folberg, Vision Gallery, http://www.visiongallery.com/, Starry Grove (1999), Nahal Nativ (1997), Ballistra (2000)]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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