Maimonides’ First Principle
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Lance: Greetings to you. I have a question regarding Maimonides and his 13 principles. Basically, my question boils down to this: What is the first principle?
Some sources—such as the Jewish Virtual Library—seem to indicate the first principle is nothing more than “God exists.” Admittedly, this does seem to be pretty primary in the structure of monotheistic faith, so it is an apt first principle.
However, other sources—such as Chabad—appear to posit something more along the lines of “God is the Creator” or “God is the (First) cause of existence.” Your own website seems to concur with this interpretation of the first axiom of Maimonides.
Maybe I’m making a fuss about nothing; but to me, “God exists” and “God is the Creator” are two very distinct assertions. Moreover, the differences between one online source and another in portraying the first principle of Maimonides makes the matter quite confusing to me. Therefore, I’d appreciate your own clarification in this matter.
Rabbi: Lance, thank you for raising this important question. As you are questioning Maimonides’ formulation, the answer will lie in his words:
Principle I. To know the existence of the Creator
To believe in the existence of the Creator, and this Creator is perfect in all manner of existence. He is the cause of all existence. He causes them to exist and they exist only because of Him. And if you could contemplate a case, such that He was not to exist…then all things would cease to exist and there would remain nothing. And if you were to contemplate a case, such that all things would cease to exist aside from the Creator, His existence would not cease. And He would lose nothing; and oneness and kingship is His alone. Hashem of strength is His name because He is sufficient with His own existence, and sufficient [is] just Him alone, and needs no other. And the existences of the angels, and the celestial bodies, and all that is in them and that which is below them…all need Him for their existence. And this is the first pillar and is attested to by the verse, “I am Hashem your God.”
We see, neither suggestion “God exists” or “God is the Creator” accurately represents Maimonides’ precise formulation. For there is much more Maimonides includes in his words…
1) We must first “believe in the existence of the Creator”
That is, we must first realize:
A) the universe in fact owes its existence to an ultimate “Cause.”
B) This further means this cause is a single cause.
C) Additionally, we must not subscribe to the alternate view of an eternal universe.
2) “The Creator is perfect in all manner of existence”
What does this mean? This means we must recognize that as the Creator, God has a certain “type” of existence. When the term “existence” is applied to both the universe and God, typically, one understands the existence of both as equal. Maimonides’ second point is to distinguish between God’s existence, and the existence of all other things. All other things exist only accidentally. Meaning, of their own ‘nature’ (which too is not due to their own doing) all else has “dependent” existence. All else but God, was ‘given’ existence, and at one point in history, did not exist. This means that the universe’s existence is not mandatory or absolute: it cannot exist on its own…it requires God’s will to exist. In contrast, God’ existence is not dependent. His very nature is to exist, whereas all created things by definition do not have existence as part of their nature.
3) Due to this distinguishing quality, Maimonides states “and oneness and kingship are His”
But can there be a king without subjects? This means that man—the only intelligent creature on earth—must view God as king. The knowledge of God’s unique nature to (eternally) exist, and that He is the Creator (2 complementary truths) must generate in man a respect for God, as the king.
4) “Hashem of strength is His name”
Here, Maimonides says God has a name. A “name” by definition, is that which distinguishes one being from another. When applied to God, Maimonides means to teach that God’s uniqueness is “known,” it is famous. As in, “he made a name for himself.” Maimonides teaches an idea similar to that of Rav Hai Gaon, who said the first of the Ten Commandments—“I am God”—is in fact not a command. Rav Hai Gaon said that God’s existence is so obvious, it would belittle the honor due to God, had there been a “command” to know Him. God intentionally designed the universe precisely to reflect His existence and wisdom, so that mankind would stand in awe of God and all His marvels, and enjoy a life pursuing sciences, truths, and morality, to better understand the Creator. Thus, the overwhelmingly apparent wisdom reflected in the universe makes God’s existence undeniable. A command to know God would thereby belittle the obvious nature of His existence.
5) “because He is sufficient with His own existence”
We must not assume creation was made due to anything lacking in God, as if He has a motive, or a need, or loneliness. For motive, need and loneliness are all human traits. And, as God created humans, He is not governed by human traits.
6) “And the existences of the angels, and the celestial bodies, and all that is in them and that which is below them, all need Him for their existence”
Finally, Maimonides teaches that although the earthly creations may not be on par with God’s existence, man might falsely equate higher beings’ existences to God’s existence. Therefore, Maimonides dispels this fallacy as his final lesson of his First Principle.
What is Maimonides’ First Principle?
To realize the Creator.
To know He is one.
To reject the eternity of the universe.
To distinguish His existence from all else, knowing that He exist by His very nature, and all else has dependent existence.
That honor is due to God.
That His existence is obvious.
Not to project human motive onto God for creating the universe.
That He is elevated over all else, including the heavens and angels.
Thank you for your question, as you have enabled me to better understand this principle.