One of the questions I am frequently asked by my students is: "Can God create a rock He can't lift?" They are always shocked when I immediately answer: "No, He can't." When they ask, "Why not?" and I answer, "Because God cannot do the impossible," we usually end up in a heated discussion about whether Hashem can do the impossible. I have also found that many discussions on other topics ultimately lead back to this question. As such, I decided it might be good to write a post about this - at the very least, so that I can at least have all of the sources on hand.
Source #1: Rambam
So far I have found four Rishonim who explicitly discuss this issue. The first is the Rambam:
Rambam: Guide for the Perplexed 3:15That last sentence addresses what is perhaps the most common objection to the idea that God cannot do the impossible. People tend to feel that any statement involving the phrase "God cannot _________" detracts from Hashem's greatness.
The impossible has a stable nature, one whose stability is constant and is not made by a maker; it is impossible to change it in any way. Hence, we do not ascribe to God the power of doing what is impossible. No thinking man denies the truth of this maxim, and none ignore it – except for those who have no understanding of logic . . . Likewise it is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself, or destroy Himself, or make Himself physical, or change Himself – all of these things are in the category of the impossible, and cannot be attributed to God . . . It has become clear then that, according to every opinion and school, there are things which are impossible and which cannot exist. The power to bring about these impossible things cannot be ascribed to God. The fact that He cannot change them does not imply inability or deficiency of power on His part.
The religious person feels compelled to believe, "God can do anything" because we maintain that God is perfect. However, if he thought about what it that means, he would realize that perfection necessitates limitations. Consider the following examples:
- Which is more perfect: a basketball player who can miss a shot or one who cannot?
- Which is more perfect: a machine that can malfunction or one that cannot?
- Which is more perfect: a violin that can be out of tune or one that cannot?
- Which is more perfect: a chess player who can make a mistake or one that cannot?
- Which is more perfect: something that can become perfect or something that cannot?
- Hashem cannot destroy Himself.
- Hashem cannot create a being equal to, or greater than, Himself.
- Hashem cannot make Himself physical.
- Hashem cannot make a mistake or do an act in vain.
- Hashem cannot make Himself imperfect in any way.
Source #2: Saadia Gaon
Saadia Gaon discusses our topic in the context of which praises are appropriate and which praises are inappropriate to use in reference to Hashem:
Saadia Gaon: Emunos v’Deos 2:13In addition to amplifying the points we saw in the Rambam and adding a few new examples, Saadia Gaon provides us with a true (and clever) response to the commonly asked question: "Can God do anything?" Saadia Gaon correctly points out that the answer is, "Yes" - provided we recognize that what is impossible is not included in the category of "anything" because the impossible is not a thing. The statement, "God can make a square-circle!" is no different than "God can make a lksmdnovcjnos!" Both contain "signifiers" which are actually meaningless, and thus, both statements are nonsense. To ascribe nonsense to Hashem in an attempt to praise Him is folly.
[The soul] lauds and praises God justly and uprightly, not by attributing to Him absurdities and nonsense . . . One should not, therefore, praise Him for making five to be more than ten without adding anything to the former, nor should one praise Him for being able to put the earth through the hole of a ring without making the one narrower or the other wider, nor for being able to bring back yesterday once it has already gone by – for all these things are impossible. Of course, certain heretics often ask us about such matters, and we do indeed answer them that God is able to do anything. This thing, however, that they ask of Him is not “anything” because it is impossible, and the impossible is not a thing. It is, therefore, as though they were to ask: “Is God capable of doing what is nothing?” for that is what they are truly asking.
Source #3: Meiri
The Meiri brings up our topic in his commentary on Mishlei 14:15: "פֶּתִי יַאֲמִין לְכָל דָּבָר וְעָרוּם יָבִין לַאֲשֻׁרוֹ" which translates to: "The naive simpleton will believe anything, but the clever person understands every step." The Meiri explains as follows:
Meiri - Commentary on Mishlei 14:15
A fool will believe everything he hears, whether it’s possible or impossible, probable or improbable. But a clever person – one who investigates with his own mind – will understand every step. For example, if he hears something, he will investigate it with his own mind to see whether it is possible or impossible, probable or improbable. The Sages of musar said: “If the speaker is a fool, then the listener should be clever.” Even though this advice is common sense, nevertheless, it is befitting for every intelligent person to analyze with his mind which ideas are proper to believe.
According to the esoteric explanation of the pasuk, one must apply this principle in matters of religious beliefs and in matters of science. In matters of religious belief a person must be careful not to believe things which are impossible for God (blessed is He) to enact, and not to place in the category of the possible that which is inherently impossible. The clever person will strive to discern which of the “impossible” things it is proper to believe, even though they are highly improbable, such as miracles which involve changes in the laws of nature and the fundamental principles which derive from them – all of which are not inherently impossible and for which there is no absolute disproof, and all the more so, they are more difficult to refute than to support – and which things are appropriate to utterly reject, such as the contraries of first principles, like the transformation of a substance into an accident or an accident into a substance, or God making Himself physical, or changing, or creating a being like Himself, and other such things which are intrinsically impossible.
Likewise, in matters of science on which religious beliefs are not dependent and which we are not compelled by our analysis to believe, such as the existence or non-existence of demons, the non-existence or existence of atoms, the non-existence or existence of the void, belief in reincarnation, the attribution of the vital force to plants and the like, and notions about the components of the soul and its existence in totality, and other matters which some of the early authorities mistakenly thought to be true. If only they would fall utterly silent and that would be considered their wisdom!
Source #4: Albo
The fourth and final (for now) source I'd like to cite is Rav Yosef Albo, author of the Sefer ha'Ikkarim. The Albo nicely summarizes the points we've made so far:
Rabbeinu Yosef Albo: Sefer ha’Ikkarim 3:25
Before I respond to his statements I will make an introductory statement which no man of intelligence can doubt, namely that anything that is the subject of belief must be conceivable by the mind, though it may be impossible according to the laws of nature. Such natural impossibilities as the splitting of the Red Sea, the turning of the rod into a serpent, and the other miracles mentioned in the Torah or in the Prophets can be conceived by the mind, hence we can believe that God has the power to produce them. But a thing which the mind cannot conceive – for example that a thing should be and not be at the same time, or that a body should be in two places at the same time, or that one and the same number should be both odd and even, and so on – cannot be the subject of belief, nor is it proper to believe that God has the ability to do it. For example, we cannot attribute to God the ability to create another being completely like Him, or to make a square whose diagonal is equal to its side, or to make now what has happened not to have happened. For since the mind cannot conceive it, God cannot do it, as it is inherently impossible.
The Albo added a further note which was implied by the Rambam and Saadia Gaon but not explicitly stated, namely: that which is impossible cannot be the subject of belief. Thus, not only can Hashem not do the impossible, but even if He could, we could not believe in His ability to do so. If we did claim to believe this, we would just be fooling ourselves.
The Albo also mentioned a point which might be obvious to some but not to others, namely: there is a difference between "supernatural" and "impossible." The belief in miracles is acceptable because it doesn't involve a logical contradiction. Even though the sea doesn't naturally split, one can conceive of such a miracle in one's mind, and it is therefore a valid candidate for belief. The belief in a square circle, however, is not acceptable, since it involves a contradiction in terms. Since it cannot be conceived by the mind, it cannot be the subject of belief.
The Ramban makes a similar point in his debate with Friar Paul:
Friar Paul then arose and declared that he believes in the real Oneness and nevertheless they are three. He said further that it is a very profound matter which even the angels and the ministers on high do not understand.If you can believe God can do the impossible, then you've opened the doors for Jesus (and his two friends).
I arose and said: it is clear that man cannot believe that which he does not know (ein adam ma’amin mah she’eino yodea). If so, the angels, too, cannot believe in the Trinity.
One More Question
The Albo makes one last point, which is more difficult than any of the others we've discussed so far. Whenever the topic of God doing the impossible comes up, someone inevitably raises the following objection: "Maybe Hashem CAN do the impossible, even though our minds can't grasp it? Do you mean to imply that Hashem is bound by the rules of human logic? Hashem CREATED logic, so obviously He is not bound by it!"
This is a tricky question, and I am still working on getting the answer clear, but I'll quote the Albo's words and leave it at that:
For since the mind cannot conceive it, God cannot do it, as it is inherently impossible. Therefore it cannot be the subject of belief, for belief in impossible things does not give perfection to the soul. If that were the case, reason would have been given to man for no purpose, and man would have no superiority to animals, since the mind would not have a basis for believing anything.In other words, if the Torah required us to believe in the absurd, the irrational, or the impossible, then ALL propositions would necessarily be equally valid candidates for belief, and the entire enterprise of truth-seeking would be rendered null and void.
The answer to the question: "Can God do the impossible?" is: NO. This does not detract from God's perfection because perfection necessitates limitation, nor does it detract from His praiseworthiness because it is only proper to praise God with truth - not with nonsense. However, the statement "God can do anything" is still true because the impossible is not a "thing." The discerning individual will distinguish between what is inherently impossible and what is impossible according to the laws of nature, and he will recognize that if something is inherently impossible, then it cannot be the subject of belief. If such notions could be the subject of belief, then all knowledge would be arbitrary, and reason would have been given to man for no purpose.