We say that someone has freedom of choice when he has the freedom to choose between two actions or between action and inaction. It is also dependent on will, for without will there is no action. We have to will ourselves to act. Therefore, action that is caused by will is seen as resulting from choice – the choice or decision to will. So what about nature? Can we assign will and choice to forces of nature? Medieval philosophers, detecting a tendency in laws of nature to be constructive by promoting survival of the whole of existence, saw that as a kind of will – the will to survive. Although the forces of nature are unchanging and static, the survival pattern that is detected in them, allowed the philosophers to say that they have a will and choice. Of course, it is nothing like human choice and will but equivocally the same terms may be used.
To make sense of this way of thinking we have to differentiate between nature and forces of nature. The philosophers differentiate between Chomer and Tzura – Matter and Form. Everything we know and can touch and feel is composed of both Matter, which is the physical component and Form, which is the underlying concept of that object. Matter is the physical component of existence and the forces of nature that make the physical come into being are the Form. When the philosophers say that the spheres have a mind, will and choice, they say so because they see them as the distant cause or the underlying concept behind all the Forms that make up our physical existence. They are the distant cause for all Forms that interact with Matter because they are the source of movement and change. I am not knowledgeable enough in Physics to translate this into a contemporary scientific presentation but from the little I do know from general readings on the subject, I can visualize it in my mind, and I think I can make sense of it. Commenters that are more knowledgeable are welcome to enlighten us further. Anyone that feels like elaborating is welcome to propose a guest post on the subject.
I also see all this as a way of looking at things rather than an empirically provable fact. The interesting thing about this outlook is that it is only a small step away from a “spiritual” understanding of what moves things. Going from concepts that seem to underlie existence as having a tendency and therefore a will, to semi-physical entities that are the underlying cause of everything is no more than crossing a fine line. Crossing that fine line however is idolatry, “the core of Avodah Zara” Rambam is talking about and discussed in the preceding post.
“We have already explained that the term "angel" is a homonym, and is used of the intellectual beings, the spheres, and the elements: for all these are engaged in performing a divine command. But do not imagine that the Intelligences and the spheres are like other forces which reside in bodies and act by the laws of nature without being conscious of what they do. The spheres and the Intelligences are conscious of their actions, and select by their own free will the objects of their influence, although not in the same manner as we exercise free will and rule over other things, which only concern temporary beings… These passages show that angels are conscious of what they do, and have free will in the sphere of action entrusted to them, just as we have free will within our province, and in accordance with the power given to us with our very existence. The difference is that what we do is the lowest stage of excellence, and that our influence and actions are preceded by non-action; whilst the Intelligences and the spheres always perform that which is good, they contain nothing except what is good and perfect, as will be shown further on, and they have continually been active from the beginning.” (MN 2:7)
The fact that the “intelligences” and spheres perform only what is good, that in itself is considered to be a choice and in poetic language, they are choosing to follow God’s will. This is the meaning of the Birchot Kryat Shema at Shacharit “Vekulam Mekablim Aleihem Ol Malchut Shamayim” – they [God’s servants or tools – the forces of nature] all accept upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven - and the rest of the Bracha.
“Scripture supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things. They are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are endowed with life, as the philosophers assert, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify… The opinion of Aristotle, that the spheres are capable of comprehension and conception, is in accordance with the words of our prophets and our theologians or Sages. The philosophers further agree that this world below is governed by influences emanating from the spheres, and that the latter comprehend and have knowledge of the things which they influence. This theory is also met with in Scripture [the stars and all the host of heaven] "which the Lord thy God hath allotted them to all the peoples" (Deut. iv. 19), that is to say, the stars, which God appointed to be the means of governing His creatures, and not the objects of man's worship.” (MN 2:5)
If we were to read this last quotation without the preamble of the earlier one, it would seem that Rambam is assigning a “spiritual” kind of quality to the spheres and stars. He however, very subtly, shows us that although the plain poetic text would seem to suggest such a possibility, it in reality means no more than how the philosophers understood the forces emanating from the heavens. It is in this context that we meet again the verse in Devarim 6:19 as an example of how one has to read such a text. Rambam again reiterates his understanding that it refers to the stars being the cause and source of all physical occurrences, the natural force that moves the physical world and not spiritual forces as understood by many.
Next, I will analyze the last Rambam I know that addresses this verse in his Iggeret Techyat Hametim.