Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Miracles as human psyche - a possible understanding of Rambam.

I was reading an article by Professor Tzvi Langerman and he brought to my attention two interesting comments by Rambam on free will and prophecy. In Shemona Perakim chapter 8 he discusses why Pharaoh was punished although the Torah repeats several times that God hardened his heart. He explains that part of punishment is the temporary removal of free will just as Yerovam had his hand paralyzed and the people of Sodom’s eyesight were removed. The way I understand removal of free will is that one becomes so entrenched in a position that he cannot see any other possibility. Pharaoh was so committed to thwarting the exodus of the Jews that he could not conceive changing direction. No amount of logical argument could sway him. How does that compares to Yerovam who’s hand was frozen and paralyzed stretched out towards the prophet who foretold the demise of his brand of religion (see Melachim 1:13)? How does it compare with the blindness of the people of Sodom?

It gets more intriguing when we read Rambam in MN 2:32, where he explains his understanding of prophecy that it is the result of study and contemplation following preparations in self-improvement. Theoretically anyone that goes through the proper preparatory regime prophesizes however not everyone does. He explains it as follows:

“For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as, regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings Xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings Vi. 18).”

First note how he replaces the Sodom people with the camp of Aram (Syria). But even more striking is his seeing the withholding of prophecy as a miracle comparing it to the paralysis of Yerovam’s hand. He goes on to explain that the withholding of prophecy is a natural result of outside circumstances. In this chapter he touches on it and in MN 2:36 he expands:

“Imagination is certainly one of the faculties of the body. You find, therefore, that prophets are deprived of the faculty of prophesying when they mourn, are angry, or are similarly affected. Our Sages say Inspiration does not come upon a prophet when he is sad or languid. This is the reason why Jacob did not receive any revelation during the period of his mourning, when his imagination was engaged with the loss of Joseph. The same was the case with Moses, when he was in a state of depression through the multitude of his troubles, which lasted from the murmurings of the Israelites in consequence of the evil report of the spies, till the death of the warriors of that generation.”

What is common to all these examples is the human psyche element. Just like Pharaoh’s hardening of the heart can be seen as his entrenchment in an untenable position, so too can we understand Yerovam’s frozen hand as the result of internal conflicts. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 101 – 102 depicts Yerovam as a very complex person with many virtues. The Rabbis discuss in detail what did him in. As usual they were able to discern ambiguity in the way the story in Tanach relates to him.

Similarly the blindness of either Sodom people or Aram could be seen as the result of possibly some kind of hypnotic state brought about by the angels or the prophet (Elisha). The army of Aram that came to take Elisha followed him blindly to Shomron. Somehow Elisha convinced them to follow him. In the case of the sodomites it would seem that Rambam had a similar point of view. Especially as we know Rambam sees that whole episode with Lot and the angels as Avraham’s prophetic dream. That makes it even more telling that even in a prophetic dream Avraham saw the blindness as a natural event.

Rambam is consistent minimizing miracles wherever he can. Where did the hagiography that we hear so much about nowadays about great Tzadikkim and Talmidei Chachamim performing miracles that would put Moshe’s to shame come from? Even Rambam has suffered from this malaise as he is depicted in popular literature.

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