Rambam and Gaia
I. Download a one-page text study sheet on ecologically valuable ways of thinking in Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed.
II. Read "Maimonides (1135-1204) – His Thought Related to Ecology" from The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Continuum Press, 2005, corrected and expanded (2012, 2018)
by David Mevorach Seidenberg
Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimun, also known as Rambam) is arguably the premier philosopher and theologian of Jewish history. As one of the most influential thinkers, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, of the medieval period, not only in theology but also in medicine and law, the ecological profundity of his work, long overlooked, is only beginning to be understood. Maimonides, uniquely in Jewish thought, challenges the primacy of humanity within the order of creation, asserts that there is complete equivalence between human and animal emotions, and believes that creation as a whole is the only dimension of being which has intrinsic value.
In his most important work, The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests a model of the cosmos that parallels the Gaia hypothesis. Maimonides admonished his reader, “Know that this whole of being is one individual and nothing else,” adding that the whole of creation is “a single being which has the same status as Zayid or Omar,” in other words, the status of a person, endowed with a heart and a soul (1:72, 184). In keeping with Aristotelian cosmology, Maimonides emphasized that all of the spheres of the heavens were “living beings, endowed with a soul and an intellect” (2:4, 259), yet with respect to the outermost sphere, all the others were seen by him as mere organs of the whole. For Maimonides, the idea that the universe is an organic whole was a fundamental scientific fact.
This fact leads to a direct understanding of God’s relation to the world, for, as Maimonides wrote, “The One [God] has created one being” (1:72, 187; see also 2:1, 251). Maimonides believed that in order to develop the intellect “in God’s image”, one ought to understand this truth scientifically by studying the more-than-human world.
I have already let you know that there exists nothing except God, may He be exalted, and this existent world, and that there is no possible inference proving his existence, may He be exalted, except those deriving from this existent taken as a whole and from its details (1:71, 183).
Though Maimonides is generally thought of as expounding a strictly apophatic approach to theology, it is clear here that he believed there were substantive conclusions one could draw about divinity from the study of Creation. For Maimonides, this holistic cosmology also had broad metaphysical and ethical implications, for, as he wrote, “the individuals of the human species, and all the more so the other species, are things of no value at all in comparison with the whole [of creation] that exists and endures” (3:13, 452).
Maimonides rejected the idea that humanity is the final end of creation, rejecting also the idea that other creatures exist to serve human pleasure: “It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes . . .” (3:13, 452). Maimonides arrives at this interpretation after concluding that there can be no telos for Creation, not even humanity: “[E]ven according to our view holding that the world has been produced in time, the quest for the final end of all the species of beings collapses” (3:13, 452). In this respect, his thought contrasts sharply with most other medieval Jewish thinkers like Sa`adyah Ga’on or Bachya ibn Paquda.
Maimonides held that his view was delineated within Genesis itself, explaining that the word “good” used in chapter one of Genesis to describe each creation means that each creature has something akin to what modern philosophers call intrinsic value (3:13, 453). The phrase “very good” in Genesis 1:31 (“And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it is very good”) indicates the overwhelming value of “the whole” of Creation, which overwhelmingly surpasses the value of all individuals and species.
In a later chapter, Maimonides derives a profound conclusion from this idea: “[T]he entire purpose [of God’s actions] consists in bringing into existence the way you see it everything whose existence is possible . . .” (3:25, 504). This formulation is fundamentally congruent with Spinoza’s cosmology; it is also compatible with those who understand evolution to be “directed” towards diversity.
Maimonides' understanding of the diversity of Creation was not limited to the numerousness and variety of the species, but included the complexity of their relationships. More than that, this complexity was a direct expression of divine goodness, and that it constituted the content of God's self-revelation to Moses:
When Moses asked for knowledge of the attributes . . . he was told: I will make all My goodness (kol tuvi) pass before you [Ex 33:19] . . . “All My goodness” – alludes to the display to him of all existing things of which it is said: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it is very good.” By their display, I mean that he will apprehend their nature and the way they are mutually connected so that he will know how He governs them in general and in detail (1:54, 124; see also 1:38, 87).
The divine goodness is nothing other than the goodness of Creation itself, and more specifically, the goodness that arises from the way all the creatures are “mutually connected”!
Maimonides’ approach to natural theology in The Guide laid the foundation for the development of scientific method in the West. In contrast with the Kalam and with most theology of his time, Maimonides asserted that “demonstrations . . . can only be taken from the permanent nature of what exists, a nature that can be seen and apprehended by the senses and the intellect” (1:76, 231; see also 1:71, 179). His ideas about the wholeness and goodness of creation also profoundly influenced the Church, especially Thomas Aquinas, as can be seen in Summa Theologica (1a, q.47, art.1, 1:246) and Summa Contra Gentiles (part 1, ch. 64, 3:213, paragraph 10; also 3:212, paragraph 9).
The fact that Maimonides rejected anthropocentrism and the hierarchy of humanity over the rest of Creation had direct implications both for his understanding of animals and his ethics towards what we call the environment. Most importantly, Maimonides taught that the instruction to “dominate” or “have dominion” ur'du given to humanity in Genesis 1 was neither a commandment nor an imperative, but merely a description of human nature (3:13, 454). Maimonides also explained that instrumental reason by itself is not a mark of human excellence, but merely something that makes human beings into very dangerous animals (1:7, 33).
Congruent with this, in every place in The Guide for the Perplexed where Maimonides discusses non-human animals, he in fact uses the term “the other animals.” More substantively, Maimonides held that animals and humans were equal in their capacity to feel and imagine. This understanding was integral to his interpretation of the commandments:
It is forbidden to slaughter [an animal] and its young on the same day, this being a precautionary measure to avoid slaughtering the young animal in front of its mother. For in these cases animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between humanity and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in humanity . . . (3:48, 599; see also 1:75, 209 and 2:1, 245).
Some modern interpreters have downplayed this passage by emphasizing another passage in which Maimonides states that the prohibition against causing pain to animals is meant to create good habits in people. (3:17, 473). However, he is clear in that passage as well that compassion is enjoined for individual animals; rather, his concern there is to show that providence does not operate in the lives of individual animals. In general, Maimonides minimized differences between humanity and other animals, in contrast with other philosophers and theologians.
For Maimonides, the uniqueness of human nature is not found in dominion or power but only in the capacity to apprehend the divine. This is humanity’s perfection, which only a few individuals reach (1:1-2, 23-4). Yet even this quality, along with the “hylic intellect” (1:72, 190-1), makes human beings “merely the most noble among the things that are subject to generation,” since the spheres and the heavens far surpass humanity in their capacity to contemplate the divine (3:12, 443 – following the cosmology of the Aristotelians).
Much in Maimonides is also problematic for contemporary theologians. As an Aristotelian, Maimonides had a strongly negative attitude towards the sense of touch (2:56, 371; 3:8, 432-3), which is incompatible with the phenomenological approach to the earth that is often embraced in ecophilosophy and ecopsychology. In the same vein, he rejected imagination as inferior (e.g. 1:2, 23-26) and espoused an intellectual elitism that remains controversial. Nonetheless, Maimonides’ rejection of anthropocentrism and his espousal of a holistic cosmology are important starting points for any ecotheology based on the interpretation of Biblical traditions. As we say in the world of traditional Jewish study, “From Moses [the prophet] to Moses [Maimonides], there is none like Moses.”