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This part contains the following six sections: — 1. Exposition of the ma‘aseh mercabah (Ez. i.), ch. i. vii.; 2. On the nature and the origin of evil, ch. viii. xii. 3. On the object of the creation, ch. xiii.,–xv.; 4. On Providence and Omniscience, ch. xvi.–xxv.; 5. On the object of the Divine precepts (ta‘ame ha-miẓvot) and the historical portions of the Bible, ch. xxv.–xl.; 6. A guide to the proper worship of God.
With great caution Maimonides approaches the explanation of the ma‘aseh mercabah, the chariot which Ezekiel beheld in a vision (Ez. i.). The mysteries included in the description of the Divine chariot had been orally transmitted from generation to generation, but in consequence of the dispersion of the Jews the chain of tradition was broken, and the knowledge of these mysteries had vanished. Whatever he knew of those mysteries he owed exclusively to his own intellectual faculties; he therefore could not reconcile himself to the idea that his knowledge should die with him. He committed his exposition of the ma‘aseh mercabah and the ma‘aseh bereshit to writing, bus did not divest it of its original mysterious character; so that the explanation was fully intelligible to the initiated — that is to say, to the philosopher — but to the ordinary reader it was a mere paraphrase of the Biblical text. — (Introduction.)
The first seven chapters are devoted to the exposition of the Divine chariot. According to Maimonides three distinct parts are to be noticed, each of which begins with the phrase, “And I saw.” These parts correspond to the three parts of the Universe, the sublunary world, the spheres and the intelligences. First of all the prophet is made to behold the material world which consists of the earth and the spheres, and of these the spheres, as the more important, are noticed first. In the Second Part, in which the nature of the spheres is discussed, the author dwells with pride on his discovery that they can be divided into four groups. This discovery he now employs to show that the four “hayyot” (animals) represent the four divisions of the spheres. He points out that the terms which the prophet uses in the description of the hayyot are identical with terms applied to the properties of the spheres. For the four hayyot or “angels,” or cherubim, (1) have human form; (2) have human faces; (3)possess characteristics of other animals; (4) have human hands; (5) their feet are straight and round (cylindrical); (6) their bodies are closely joined so each other; (7) only their faces and their wings are separate; (8) their substance is transparent and refulgent; (9) they move uniformly; (10) each moves in its own direction; (11) they run; (12) swift as lightning they return towards their starting point; and (13) they move in consequence of an extraneous impulse (ruaḥ). In a similar manner the spheres are described: — (1) they possess the characteristics of man, viz., life and intellect; (2) they consist like man of body and soul; (3) they are strong, mighty and swift, like the ox, the lion, and the eagle, (4) they perform all manner of work as though they had hands; (5) they are round, and are not divided into parts; (6) no vacuum intervenes between one sphere and the other; (7) they may be considered as one being, but in respect to the intellects, which are the causes of their existence and motion, they appear as four different beings; (8) they are transparent and refulgent; (9) each sphere moves uniformly, (10) and according to its special laws; (11) they revolve with great velocity; (12) each point returns again so its previous position; (13) they are self-moving, yet the impulse emanates from an external power.
In the second part of the vision the prophet saw the ofannim. These represent the four elements of the sublunary world. For the ofannim (1) are connected with the ḥayyot and with the earth; (2) they have four faces, and are four separate beings, but interpenetrate each other “as though it were a wheel in the midst of a wheel” (Ez. i. 16); (3) they are covered with eyes; (4) they are not self-moving; (5) they are set in motion by the ḥayyot; (6) their motion is not circular but rectilinear. The same may almost be said of the four elements: — (1) they are in close contact with the spheres, being encompassed by the sphere of the moon; earth occupies the centre, water surrounds earth, air has its position between water and fire; (2) this order is not invariably maintained; the respective portions change and they become intermixed and combined with each other; (3) though they are only four elements they form an infinite number of things; (4) not being animated they do not move of their own accord; (5) they are set in motion by the action of the spheres; (6) when a portion is displaced it returns in a straight line to its original position.
In the third vision Ezekiel saw a human form above these ḥayyot. The figure was divided in the middle; in the upper portion the prophet only noticed that it was ḥashmal, (mysterious); from the loins downwards there was “the vision of the likeness of the Divine Glory,” and “the likeness of the throne.” The world of Intelligences was represented by the figure; these can only be perceived in as far as they influence the spheres, but their relation to the Creator is beyond human comprehension. The Creator himself is not represented in this vision.
The key to the whole vision Maimonides finds in the introductory words, “And the heavens were opened,” and in the minute description of the place and the time of the revelation. When pondering on the grandeur of the spheres and their influences, which vary according to time and place, man begins to think of the existence of the Creator. At the conclusion of this exposition Maimonides declares that he will, in the subsequent chapters, refrain from giving further explanation of the ma‘aseh mercabah. The foregoing summary, however, shows that the opinion of the author on this subject is fully stated, and it is indeed difficult to conceive what additional disclosures he could still have made.
The task which the author has proposed to himself in the Preface he now regarded as accomplished. He has discussed the method of the Kalām, the system of the philosophers, and his own theory concerning the relation between the Primal Cause and the Universe: he has explained the Biblical account of the creation, the nature of prophecy, and the mysteries in Ezekiel’s vision. In the remaining portion of the work the author attempts to solve certain theological problems, as though he wished to obviate the following objections, which might be raised to his theory that there is a design throughout the creation, and that the entire Universe is subject to the law of causation: — What is the purpose of the evils which attend human life? For what purpose was the world created? In how far does Providence interfere with the natural course of events? Does God know and foresee man’s actions? To what end was the Divine Law revealed? These problems are treated seriatim.
All evils, Maimonides holds, originate in the material element of man’s existence. Those who are able to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the body, and unconditionally so submit to the dictates of reason, are protected from many evils. Man should disregard the cravings of the body, avoid them as topics of conversation, and keep his thoughts far away from them; convivial and erotic songs debase man’s noblest gifts — thought and speech. Matter is the partition separating man from the pure Intellects; it is “the thickness of the cloud” which true knowledge has so traverse before it reaches man. In reality, evil is the mere negative of good: “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen. i. 3). Evil does not exist at all. When evils are mentioned in the Scriptures as the work of God, the Scriptural expressions must not be taken in their literal sense.
There are three kinds of evils: — 1. Evils necessitated by those laws of production and destruction by which the species are perpetuated. 2. Evils which men inflict on each other; they are comparatively few, especially among civilized men. 3. Evils which man brings upon himself, and which comprise the majority of existing evils. The consideration of these three classes of evils leads to the conclusion that “the Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. cxlv. 9).
The question, What is the object of the creation? must be left unanswered. The creation is the result of the will of God. Also those who believe that the Universe is eternal must admit that they are unable to discover the purpose of the Universe. It would, however, not be illogical to assume that the spheres have been created for the sake of man, notwithstanding the great dimensions of the former and the smallness of the latter. Still it must be conceded that, even if mankind were the main and central object of creation, there is no absolute interdependence between them; for it is a matter of course that, under altered conditions, man could exist without the spheres. All teleological theories must therefore be confined within the limits of the Universe as it now exists. They are only admissible in the relation in which the several parts of the Universe stand to each other; but the purpose of the Universe as a whole cannot be accounted for. It is simply an emanation from the will of God.
Regarding the belief in Providence, Maimonides enumerates the following five opinions: — 1. There is no Providence; everything is subject to chance; 2. Only a part of the Universe is governed by Providence, viz., the spheres, the species, and such individual beings as possess the power of perpetuating their existence (e.g., the stars); the rest — that is, the sublunary world — is left to mere chance. 3. Everything is predetermined; according to this theory, revealed Law is inconceivable. 4. Providence assigns its blessings to all creatures, according to their merits; accordingly, all beings, even the lowest animals, if innocently injured or killed, receive compensation in a future life. 5. According to the Jewish belief all living beings are endowed with free-will; God is just, and the destiny of man depends on his merits. Maimonides denies the existence of trials inflicted by Divine love, i.e. afflictions which befall man, not as punishments of sin, but as means to procure for him a reward in times to come. Maimonides also rejects the notion that God ordains special temptation. The Biblical account, according to which God tempts men, “to know what is in their hearts,” must not be taken in its literal sense; it merely states that God made the virtues of certain people known to their fellowmen in order that their good example should be followed. Of all creatures man alone enjoys the especial care of Providence because the acts of Providence are identical with certain influences (shefa‘) which the Active Intellect brings to bear upon the human intellect; their effect upon man varies according to his physical, moral, and intellectual condition; irrational beings, however, cannot be affected by these influences. If we cannot in each individual case see how these principles are applied, it must be borne in mind that God’s wisdom is far above that of man. The author seems to have felt that his theory has its weak points, for he introduces it as follows: — “My theory is not established by demonstrative proof; it is based on the authority of the Bible, and it is less subject to refutation than any of the theories previously mentioned.”
Providence implies Omniscience, and men who deny this, eo ipso, have no belief in Providence. Some are unable to reconcile the fate of man with Divine Justice, and are therefore of opinion that God takes no notice whatever of the events which occur on earth. Others believe that God, being an absolute Unity, cannot possess a knowledge of a multitude of things, or of things that do not yet exist, or the number of which is infinite. These objections, which are based on the nature of man’s perception, are illogical; for God’s knowledge cannot be compared to that of man; it is identical with His essence. Even the Attributists, who assume that God’s knowledge is different from His essence, hold that it is distinguished from man’s knowledge in the following five points: — 1. It is one, although it embraces a plurality. 2. It includes even such things as do not yet exist. 3. It includes things which are infinite in number. 4. It does not change when new objects of perception present themselves. 5. It does not determine the course of events. — However difficult this theory may appear to human comprehension, it is in accordance with the words of Isaiah (lv. 8) “Your thoughts are not My thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” According to Maimonides, the difficulty is to be explained by the fact that God is the Creator of all things, and His knowledge of the things is not dependent on their existence; while the knowledge of man is solely dependent on the objects which come under his cognition.
According to Maimonides, the book of Job illustrates the several views which have been mentioned above. Satan, that is, the material element in human existence, is described as the cause of Job’s sufferings. Job at first believed that man’s happiness depends on riches, health, and children; being deprived of these sources of happiness, he conceived the notion that Providence is indifferent to the fate of mortal beings. After a careful study of natural phenomena, he rejected this opinion. Eliphaz held that all misfortunes of man serve as punishments of past sins. Bildad, the second friend of Job, admitted the existence of those afflictions which Divine love decrees in order that the patient sufferer may be fitted to receive a bountiful reward. Zophar, the third friend of Job, declared that the ways of God are beyond human comprehension; there is but one explanation assignable to all Divine acts, namely: Such is His Will. Elihu gives a fuller development to this idea; he says that such evils as befell Job may be remedied once or twice, but the course of nature is not altogether reversed. It is true that by prophecy a clearer insight into the ways of God can be obtained, but there are only few who arrive at that exalted intellectual degree, whilst the majority of men must content themselves with acquiring a knowledge of God through the study of nature. Such a study leads man to the conviction that his understanding cannot fathom the secrets of nature and the wisdom of Divine Providence.
The concluding section of the Third Part treats of the purpose of the Divine precepts. In the Pentateuch they are described as the means of acquiring wisdom, enduring happiness, and also bodily comfort (ch. xxxi.). Generally a distinction is made between “ḥuḳḳim” (“statutes”) and mishpaṭim (“judgments”). The object of the latter is, on the whole, known, but the ḥuḳḳim are considered as tests of mans obedience; no reason is given why they have been enacted. Maimonides rejects this distinction; he states that all precepts are the result of wisdom and design, that all contribute to the welfare of mankind, although with regard to the hukkim this is less obvious. The author draws another line of distinction between the general principles and the details of rules. For the selection and the introduction of the latter there is but one reason, viz.: “Such is the will of God.”
The laws are intended to promote man’s perfection; they improve both his mental and his physical condition; the former in so far as they lead him to the acquisition of true knowledge, the latter through the training of his moral and social faculties. Each law thus imparts knowledge, improves the moral condition of man, or conduces to the well-being of society. Many revealed laws help to enlighten man, and to correct false opinions. This object is not always clearly announced. God in His wisdom sometimes withheld from the knowledge of man the purpose of commandments and actions. There are other precepts which tend to restrain man’s passions and desires. If the same end is occasionally attainable by other means, it must be remembered that the Divine laws are adapted to the ordinary mental and emotional state of man, and not to exceptional circumstances. In this work, as in the Yad ha-ḥazaḳah, Maimonides divides the laws of the Pentateuch into fourteen groups, and in each group he discusses the principal and the special object of the laws included in it.
In addition to the legislative contents, the Bible includes historical information; and Maimonides, in briefly reviewing the Biblical narratives, shows that these are likewise intended to improve man’s physical, moral, and intellectual condition. “It is not a vain thing for you” (Deut. xxxii. 47) and when it proves vain to anyone, it is his own fault.
In the final chapters the author describes the several degrees of human perfection, from the sinners who have turned from the right path to the best of men, who in all their thoughts and acts cling to the Most Perfect Being, who aspire after the greatest possible knowledge of God, and strive to serve their Maker in the practice of “loving-kindness, righteousness, and justice.” This degree of human perfection can only be attained by those who never forget the presence of the Almighty, and remain firm in their fear and love of God. These servants of the Most High inherit the choicest of human blessings; they are endowed with wisdom: they are godlike beings.
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