“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.”- Bertrand Russell
One of the great debates of classical philosophy focused upon the question of the eternity of matter: did the world as we presently know it always exist? Aristotle argued in his Metaphysics that matter has existed eternally. This concept seems to directly conflict with Rambam’s fourth principle of faith listed in the introduction to “Perek Chelek” in the Mishnah “that we should believe that this One mentioned above [i.e. God] is the First absolutely and that ever other existing object besides him is not first relative to Him.” Furthermore, if God’s existence does not precede the creation of the world, “yeshi mi’ayin” in Hebrew or creatio ex nihilo, then the entire concept of miracles can be called in to question: how can God manipulate and create new matter and how can we understand all the passages in Tanach that relate to miracles?
Rambam’s answer to this philosophical-theological problem sheds a light on his general exegetical approach Tanach. Rambam disabuses us of fundamentalist or literal readings of Tanach:
We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal.
Rambam has already reinterpreted anthropomorphic passages from Tanach. Indeed, the majority of Book I of the Guide was dedicated to doing exactly that. For Rambam, reinterpretation is a valid method of understanding difficult passages. If so, what holds him back from doing so here? Rambam gives two reasons to refrain from reading these passages in a novel way:
The Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favor of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.
Rambam, at first blush at least, is prepared to utilize his exegetical skill and metaphorical methods to reinterpret the Torah when Torah and other forms of knowledge seem to conflict; however, these tools should be used cautiously and only when necessary. If, as Rambam claims is the case regarding the eternity of the world, an idea has not been proved, then there is no compelling reason to choose a non-traditional or literal understanding of the Torah.
Furthermore, Rambam raises a critical and essential problem with Aristotle’s proposition:
If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.
In his second objection to re-reading scripture, Rambam declares that there are cases where philosophic or scientific claims conflict with Torah in such a way that reinterpretation would tear asunder the framework of Torah and Judaism. Coupled with the fact that Aristotle did not prove his case, Rambam decides on a more religiously conservative path.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz spells out in his powerful essay “What is Jewish Philosophy”, that despite the fact that Rambam and other Rishonim were dealing with the burning theological issues of the middle ages, which may or may not be the same as the questions asked today, none-the-less, the great thinkers of the past can serve as models for us. Rambam gives two criteria when and where to creatively read verses: when there is an absolutely confirmed rejection of a traditional or literal reading and when a novel reading will not do violence to foundational beliefs. Given the challenge to religion presented by other intellectual communities, this approach seems as relevant today as in Rambam’s time.