‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Belief in Creation was a major point of contention between Jews and Greek philosophers who believed that the world was eternal. In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers like Nahmanides expended a heroic amount of energy defending Creation and arguing against the universe’s eternity. At stake for them were the possibility of miracles, the power of God over nature and the truth of revelation, but this metaphysical debate seems stale today. In our modern scientific view of the universe, what difference does it make whether the world was started by some Divine “big bang” or whether it was always there? And few of us have any investment in God’s omnipotence over nature.
Maimonides understood the issue differently. He was a student of Aristotle and was deeply committed to science and reason. Because of this commitment, he conceded that if there were a valid proof against Creation he would drop the idea but still believe in the Torah. (It is always possible to read chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis metaphorically.) However, he demonstrated that Aristotle’s proof for eternity was flawed and so he insisted on continuing to believe that God created the universe.
Yet Maimonides’ Creation was hardly the traditional one of God acting at a specific moment in time, for time makes little sense in reference to God. Creation for Maimonides was the Divine overflow of God into the world, a continuous connection between the Divine and his creatures. Aristotle’s God was wholly transcendent and self-sufficient: He needed nothing and no one. But there was one thing that Aristotle’s supremely solitary God lacked: relationship with others. And there was one thing that Aristotle’s God could never be: a giver. By contrast, the God of the Torah is relational. Divine nature is self-transcendence and God naturally overflows to provide and sustain life outside of Himself. Although no Maimonidean, Abraham Heschel was correct: the biblical God is a “God in Search of Man.”
It is no coincidence that Maimonides also defined chesed (loving-kindness) as “overflow.” Human chesed is the act of extending goodness and kindness to others, even when it is not required by law or logic. Human acts of chesed mirror Creation and so Maimonides was fond of quoting Psalm 89:3: “The world is built with chesed.” Maimonides would have translated this as “The world is created with chesed.”
Deists of the 18th century understood that nothing requires God to relate to the world; for them God’s continuing involvement with Creation was superfluous. But the God of the Torah is a “ba’al chesed,” a master of compassion who by nature must stay related to his creatures. For Maimonides, then, believing in an uncreated eternal universe means believing in a world that is an impersonal mechanistic arena, Ernest Hemingway’s world where human beings are doomed to existential loneliness and tragedy.
Belief in Creation is significant not because it demonstrates God’s power over nature, but because it turns the universe into a caring place, one where God showers compassion toward people and, in turn, where people are able to reach beyond themselves and love others.
Creation also has universal moral implications. When arguing for the importance of treating a gentile servant with compassion, Maimonides quoted Job: “Did not God who made me in the belly also make him and fashion both of us in the same womb (rechem)?” Creation makes God the life-giving mother to all, and because of this Maimonides concluded that every Jew must imitate God, develop a compassionate soul and be a rachaman toward all God’s children. He went so far as to rule in his legal code that if you find a Jew who is cruel, you should investigate his pedigree, for his cruelty probably comes from a pagan ancestry.
We can only imitate God if we share something in common with God’s Divine nature. Indeed, the very first chapter of the Torah tells us what this is: All humans are created in God’s image.
Creation is the bridge between philosophy and ethics, between the contemplative and the activist life. The climax of Maimonides’ life’s work came in the last chapter of the Guide of the Perplexed, and to the surprise of many he stated there that after a person reaches contemplative excellence and arrives at the philosophic understanding of God, he must turn to act with chesed. To know God is to act like God, to relate to others with compassion, to be a personality filled with rachamim and to be “a master of chesed.”
The idea of Creation, then, is essential to a Jewish understanding of the world and life. Its importance lies not in relating scientific truth, but in laying the foundation for human ethics and the godly life. The world was built with chesed, and continues to be built with chesed — by God, and more importantly, by human beings. n
Eugene Korn is the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, based in Efrat, and editor of Meorot: A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse.