Maimonides: Abraham, Idolatry and G-d’s Unity


Moshe Ben-Chaim




Last week we discussed the progression of idolatry. We noted that man’s instinctual drive to imitate the “parent” and their security in physical forms is the cause of all idolatrous practice. It is only through the acceptance that man is powerless, and so is all creation, that man can rise above his instinctual world, and instead pf projecting his fantasies onto reality, he can view reality and adjust himself accordingly.


As we read further (Maimonides Laws of Star Worship; 1:3) we learn of Abraham’s encounter with, and self-extrication from idolatry. Even as a child just weaned, Abraham was a unique personality, already pondering the world around him, “day and night”. Such a preoccupation teaches that Abraham found satisfaction in pursuing his curiosity. He wondered, “How can this sphere (planets, stars) constantly spin without anyone controlling it? For it cannot turn itself!” Maimonides states, he had no teacher or one to inform him of anything – he was alone in his research. But it did catch my attention that Abraham asked “who” controlled the sphere, and not “what” controlled it. Evidently, Abraham realized that if this sphere cannot control itself and generate its motion, other planets cannot either. (This is consistent, and Abraham followed consistent reasoning. Reasoning, by definition means that a “rule” exists, and rules are consistent.)


So Abraham realized that spheres couldn’t control themselves. How did he know this? Well, he must have argued as follows: a planet, and all we see, cannot “create itself”. This is impossible. For if something already exists, then there is nothing to create. And if it does not exist yet, what will do the act of creating? It is clear; something cannot cause its own existence.


Based on this first truth, Abraham recognized that just as the substance of anything requires creation by another entity, so too, its properties require design. For example, sun is created by something else. This “something else” also had to be the cause for its shape, and its ability to revolve. Thus, Abraham arrived at the idea that the spheres revolve, not by its own abilities, but only due to an external force. Realizing that this must be so not just for the one sphere, but for all the other planets and stars, Abraham knew he had to seek something outside of physical creation as the source of all he saw. He realized that an “object” could not be responsible for creation, as it too would require creation. Abraham concluded that an intelligence must exist that was responsible. This is why he asked, “Who” created everything?


It appears to me that only because Abraham sought a “who”, meaning, something that is self-aware and intelligent, (not a static god of stone) this is why he was able to find G-d. For if a person is not looking in the correct area for a lost object, he cannot find it. So too if one seeks to explain creation, but examines physical objects as possible candidates, he will come up empty. Abraham was searching in the right “area”, meaning, he was looking for an intelligence, not an object. This, he found G-d.


Maimonides describes Abraham’s path as a “righteous line” of reasoning. Meaning, just as a line is a very thin and precise path, and any deviation places you off the line, this is also true with reasoning. One must take great care to be precise in his reasoning, and remain to the singular course of clear and honest questions and answers. For if one veers he will not result in accurate findings.


Abraham’s next observation was that G-d is one. There cannot be two gods. How did he arrive at this idea?  If  there were two gods, and we mean all-powerful as our definition of a “god”, then there is a problem: two gods means that neither one created the other. This means that there exists something outside of the power of each one of these gods: “A” did not create “B”, and vice versa. So “A” is powerless over “B”, and vice versa. Therefore, we cannot view either as a god, as neither one has total power.


There is a more profound reason why there cannot be two gods as I read in the commentary on Maimonides. It is a bit difficult, but can be grasped: Maimonides teaches, (Yesodei HaTorah 1:7) “things which are exactly the same (two gods) and are subject to number (because there are 2) can only be distinct from each other (as 2 gods must be) if they are physical.” And a physical god is impossible, for all physical requires its own creation, thus, it is not a god. What does Maimonides mean? Again, he states that two identical gods is impossible. For if we describe anything non-physical and say there exists its twin, we have said nothing. For example, I can say, “There exist an idea of addition, and there also exists the idea of addition.” Did I just describe two things that are distinct in any way, or did I repeat myself? Of course, it is the latter. For if I cannot show any distinction between two ideas, then I am in fact, describing one and the same idea. If I say addition exists, and then I say again, addition exists, I am merely repeating what I already stated. So if I say G-d exists, and then say again, G-d exists, it cannot mean another god. For I have not distinguished one from the other. There can only be “two” of something if there is some distinction. For example, I can say there are two souls. This makes sense, for I can distinguish my soul from yours. Now, if I were to say that one god is distinguished from the other, the distinction would be in terms of capabilities. In such a case, the one with lesser capabilities is not a god, as “lesser” does not meet the definition of “all powerful”, required for a god. We end up with only one G-d.


This principle, that G-d is one, is Maimonides’ second of his Thirteen Principles. It is an essential idea that we must strive to comprehend. Maimonides teaches another idea, that the ideas we have of “one”, are not to be applied to G-d, as our idea of G-d is greatly limited. We cannot know Him, so how can we say he is “one”? What we are to derive from this statement, is that no idea of number known to us may be applied to G-d. We can only possess knowledge of what G-d “is not”, we can never know what He is, as G-d Himself stated, “man cannot know Me while alive.” (Exod. 33:21) So what is meant that we can only know what G-d is not? It means that we can make correct statement with respect to ideas like, “G-d is not unjust”, G-d is not evil”, “G-d is not human”, and so on. By removing false ideas of G-d, we come closer to truth. Just like learning something positive is knowledge, so too, removing false ideas is also knowledge. Let us return to Abraham.


Ur Kasdim is where he was raised. He, his parents, and all townspeople were idolaters. Once Abraham arrived at a knowledge of his Creator at the age of 40, he began to argue and debate with the inhabitants. Abraham openly discussed his ideas, writing responses to their views. He broke the idols, and published writings on his knowledge of the Creator, and that idolatry was false. He used reason to arrive at his own realizations, and used reason to educate others. He told them that what they followed was not “truth”. It is clear, man can be steeped in idolatry, but can still maintain an appreciation for truth, if exposed to it properly. This is what Maimonides means that Abraham told them “this is not the path of truth that you follow”. How could Abraham talk about truth, unless this faculty to determine truth resides in every man?


With reason alone, Abraham helped so many others arrive at a denial of idolatry, and an acceptance of the truth of a Creator. People saw that reason was perfectly in line with the workings of the world. We are designed to be convinced by reason, and if we adhere to truth over all other considerations, we too can abandon what is false.


We learn a profound lesson: man has the innate capability to discern truth from false. Using reason alone, with no teachers, Abraham arrived at a true concept of how the world operates. So accurate was Abraham that G-d revealed Himself to him, and designated him as a leader of a new nation. The world knows this. This is why Abraham is adopted by other nations as their leader too.


It is amazing how devoted Abraham was to truth. He risked his life. We see that he argues with the people until jailed, and as my friend Jesse informed me, even in jail he argued against idolatry. We must take a lesson: teaching others what is fallacy is not to be squelched, and even demonstration that idols are defenseless - as he showed by breaking them – is mandated as a means of education. What better argument exists than breaking it into pieces, that a stone god is no god! Abraham is the forefather of Judaism, and for good reason: G-d wished that Abraham’s perfection – including his open debates – be a model for others. This is why G-d set up Abraham as a founder of Judaism.


After being exiled, (for no argument could counter Abraham’s truths) Abraham once again began to teach with a “great voice”. This may means a conviction that affected others, for how great can one’s vocal abilities surpass another? Maimonides teaches that Abraham amassed tens of thousands of students. Abraham taught each one on his own level. His message was his proofs, and that G-d alone was worthy of service and sacrifice.


Abraham then “planted in their hearts this great principle”, that there is one G-d, and that idolatry is false. If Abraham was able to expose truths through his methods, and he did not silence himself, we must model our behavior after him, as G-d selected him as upright. We too are bound to use reason to teach others, and not be silent. Through reason, other nations will see the flaws of their religions, just as Abraham exposed the flaws of earlier cultures. Man has in it in him to realize truth and withholding truth from anyone is sinful. Abraham’s devotion to truth also demanded his devotion to mankind.


Based on Abraham’s lesson, we must abandon the popular “don’t make waves with other religions” sentiment, which is hurting, not helping Judaism, and violates G-d’s designation of the Jewish nation as a beacon.