When it comes to Jewish thinkers, that broad and illustrious group whose histories span over 3,000 years, there is one name that stands apart from all the rest - Maimonides. It is true that he wasn’t a pioneer like Abraham, or a prophet like Moses, or a king and psalmist like David. He wasn’t around at the formative stages of rabbinic law like Hillel or Rabbi Akiva. Yet, in spite of all the things he wasn’t, no other figure in Jewish history quite matches up to what he was. He combined virtually every aspect of Jewish thought into a single lifetime and managed to produce what is probably the most complete description of the guidelines and the goals of the Torah and how they apply to the Jews at any point in history. Maimonides did it all.
He was born in 1135 in Toledo, Spain to a family with a solid rabbinic tradition. His father’s name was Maimon, hence the Latin name Maimonides. Within rabbinic circles he is better known as Rambam, an acronym meaning Rav Moshe ben Maimon. His most famous work was his compendium on Jewish law, called the Mishna Torah (review of the Torah), which did nothing less than revolutionize the entire world of Talmud Study.
His second major work of this period was written in Arabic, the scholarly language of the time. It was translated during his lifetime into Hebrew with the title, Moreh Hanevuchim, the Guide for the Perplexed. This work has a unique status among Jewish books – it is the most complete attempt to establish a rational basis for Judaism based on philosophical concepts, while ironically becoming the primary impetus for the ascendancy of the mystical outlook.
The Guide, as it is sometime called, is high level philosophy. He was trying to do what many consider to be an impossible and unnecessary task – the integration of a faith whose truths were firmly grounded in non-rational religious tradition with a thought system that had no respect for such a tradition and tried to use rational logic as its only barometer of truth. The book was highly controversial in its time within the rabbinic world. The controversy has never really ceased. It has been burned and banned by learned rabbis of the strict Talmudic tradition, and remains to this day shunned in some yeshiva circles.
The Guide goes through everything, from the nature of creation, to the meanings of all kinds of Biblical concepts, to the basis of knowledge and prophecy. The third and final section goes through the commandments, grouping them into categories and giving rational (and controversial) explanations for their purpose. In chapter 13 of this section he brings Rav Saadia’s assertion that all things were created for human beings, and declares it untenable. He says that human beings could have been created who were fully capable of achieving their intended goal of serving God without this vast supply of helpful but unessential props, meaning the rest of the created universe. Because of this problem he writes, “According to the beliefs of the Torah and what is acceptable to philosophy, it is not possible that the existence of everything is to enable the existence of man, rather, all other things have their own purpose, and not because of anything else.” He then qualifies this far-reaching statement that some things do indeed serve as enablers for others, like plants providing food for people. But the basic idea still holds – each and every thing was created for its own sake.
Maimonides quotes a verse from scripture to back up his radical idea. Proverbs 16:4 states that “All the works of God are for their own sake”. With such an explicit verse it is a wonder that anyone could have suggested anything else. But the truth is that this verse, like many Biblical verses, is subject to interpretation. The key word, lema’anehu, can mean ‘for their own sake’, but it can also mean ‘for his sake’. Furthermore, there is nothing in the context of the verse that indicates it is stating the purpose of everything. In fact, Maimonides himself follows his own interpretation of this verse with the alternative, so that the verse could read ‘All the works of God are for His sake’. This, he explains is the idea that we have already seen, that God’s will was to create everything as a revelation of divine glory. But he doesn’t stop there. He combines the two interpretations into one general idea – everything was created for itself because each thing is a manifestation of the will of God. The way that each thing is, is the way that God willed it to be.
What does all this mean? For starters, it means that everything is the way it is supposed to be. Earthquakes, floods, plagues, the ruthless push for survival and the relentless force of death – these are all there because God intended them to be exactly as they are. There is no good and evil in all this, no matter what we humans may think about it. There is only the will of God. Good and evil, in the sense that we normally use the terms, lie strictly within the domain of human choice. God’s choices are above such human considerations. As Maimonides himself puts it later in this chapter, the famous Biblical verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made and behold, it was very good’, means that every created thing somehow serves its purpose in creation. The term ‘good’ from God’s perspective, means exactly this – that it plays some role in the great scheme of existence.
There is a second aspect of Maimonides’ explanation of the purpose of creation that is nothing short of remarkable. He takes two distinct ideas – that everything was created for itself, and that everything was created solely because that was will of God – and equates them. They are two sides of the same coin, or, two interpretations of the same Biblical word, lema’anehu. Maimonides means exactly what he writes, that these two ideas really are the same thing. ‘Everything was created for its own sake’ is the same thing as ‘everything was created for the sake of God’s will’. What is God’s will? That everything that exists should exist. What is the intrinsic purpose of each thing and the reason that it was created? It is to reveal the will of God.
The will of God is purpose. Purpose is the manifestation of God’s will. It is as if there is a breeze blowing throughout all of existence, a subtle and gentle breeze that permeates everything and enables it to fulfill its divinely assigned task. This breeze is the will of God. It exists within every single particle in creation. It is the hidden energy that cannot be sensed by any physical detector, no matter how sophisticated and cleverly designed, but can be felt by any being who chooses to seek out meaning and purpose. It is the will of God. It is in each and every part of creation, and creation as a whole. It is all of creation existing for its own sake.
This idea is one of those rare theological insights that cuts through the believer/non-believer divide. Whether one believes in God or is a sworn atheist, this idea penetrates into the mind and stimulates that most wonderful of human experience, the experience of wonder. For one minute, forget about whatever version of God your religious beliefs may have taught you. This idea is more important than all that. All creation has its own purpose. It was meant to be here, and in being it is playing its irreplaceable part in existence. If you are religious in some way, you may call that purpose the will of God. If you are not religious, if you do not believe in God, you can simply call it an intrinsic purpose, a purpose in being.
Saadia Gaon wrote that all was created for the sake of man. Maimonides wrote that everything was created for its own sake. Their ideas intersect in the common theme that the ultimate purpose of creation is the will of God. But the difference between them is vast. According to Rav Saadia, nothing other than human beings has an intrinsic purpose. Only man possesses this angelic, almost divine gift. This view is pretty fundamental to human nature and has probably been with us from the time we sensed our own uniqueness as thinking beings. It gave us great privileges and great responsibilities. But it is highly self-centered and very easily leads us into disregarding everything other than ourselves, including our world, other people, and even God. It is a basic worldview that carries its share of problems.
Maimonides’ view, on the other hand, grants human beings all these privileges and responsibilities (he writes this elsewhere), but acknowledges the intrinsic purpose of everything. This difference is crucial. Human beings can use the world however they choose - they have the power and the intelligence to do so. But they cannot let this right get to their heads. The trees and the stars have just as much right to be here as we do, as do worms and weeds and dirt. They may play some role in enabling people to thrive, to extend their lives and their understanding of the world, and to enjoy life, but they nevertheless are an equal expression of the will of God. They too have ultimate purpose.
Are you interested in a having spiritual experience, by any chance? Spiritual experiences are defined by temporarily leaving the humdrum purposelessness of ‘normal’ life and briefly entering into a state of wonder and purpose. Religious people would generally describe this state as connecting to God. But we don’t need to go down that road. Leave it as a sense of wonder and purpose. In all likelihood, everyone craves this experience, and if they don’t there is probably something missing in their lives. Well, if you’ve managed to get past the religious and psychological barriers that may be preventing you from seeking out a spiritual experience, here’s a plan of action that may set you off in the right direction. It’s just a plan - you must decide where to go with it.
When you feel you have the time and wherewithal to not be disturbed by anything else, and the energy to resist distractions, try to become aware that everything you see or sense has its own purpose in existence. It’s not as hard as it sounds. It just means letting go of some of your own self-importance and recognizing the intrinsic value of everything. If a dog walks by, realize it's purpose as a dog. Do the same for a tree or a plant. It can work for inanimate objects like rocks and old tires, air and smells. It even works with other people. It is simply a matter of attributing purpose to everything that is.
The feeling that everything has its own intrinsic purpose is extremely humbling. Humility lies at the core of the spiritual experience. The ego may be a great motivator when it comes to personal needs, but it is a major obstacle to spirituality. Unless the barrier of self-centeredness is overcome spirituality will remain an unreachable dream. The reason for this is simple – one cannot sense what lies beyond, as long as one cannot see beyond the end of one’s nose. The ego blocks all else out, most of all the subtle feelings of the spirit.
When the ego obstacle is removed, all else almost magically becomes elevated. You are no longer the old ‘you’, but an equal with all the rest of the creations. With time, you may become aware that you are sensing the will of God permeating through all of creation, from the most ethereal spot in heavens to the grimiest mud hole on earth. It is the experience of sensing purpose in existence. You will be forever changed.
Food for Thought
Maimonides was the philosopher’s philosopher whose barometer of truth was rational thought. Is it really so rational that every little thing in creation exists for its own sake?
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Date: 11/17/16 at 11:57:07
If everything has intrinsic value because they fulfill the will of God by being what they are then why do people need commandments? Shouldn't the fact that they are be enough?
Date: 02/01/17 at 05:02:20
They are fulfilling the will of G-d at that particular moment, to exist at that stage of their story. But it is only one stage of that story, for many objects the story then progresses towards a commandment, which is then equally His will.
In addition there's the concept discussed in other entries on this topic, that part of the purpose of creation is that His will should be revealed. This is the purpose of His commandments, to reveal His will as the intrinsic essence of each thing.
Date: 02/01/17 at 04:57:08
Another supporting quote for the equivalence of all creation:
"In what way is the I of this leaf inferior to yours?"
-The Rebbe Rashab, Likkutei Diburim Vol. 1, Pg. 170.