Monday, September 17, 2007

Are There Prophets Nowadays?

I finished reading Rosh Hashana the excellent book Philosophic Mysticism by Professor David Blumenthal. He argues for a post rational mystical experience in Rambam’s thought. Although I am not convinced that “mystical” is the correct word, there is no question that Rambam understands that there is an experiential awareness of God that comes after rational exploration. I will discuss this in a separate post, or series of posts. I want to focus on a very interesting and insightful idea that Professor Blumenthal proposes on page 138, note 20.

In MN 3:51, the famous chapter towards the end of the Moreh where Rambam lays out a summary of what he sees as the goal of the religious man, he makes a rare personal statement. He starts by describing a process we would call “behavior modification”, where a person trains himself to concentrate on what he is doing without allowing any distractions. As he perfects his concentration and directs it towards thinking of God, that person finds himself in a state of true awareness of being in God’s presence.

The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema or during the Tefilah, and do not content yourself with being devout when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first paragraph of the prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing; and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter… When you are alone by yourself, when you are awake on your couch, be careful to meditate in such precious moments on nothing but the intellectual worship consisting in nearness to God and being in His presence in that true reality that I have made known to you and not by the way of affections of the imagination. In my opinion, this end can be achieved by those of the men of knowledge who have rendered their souls worthy of by training of this kind.”

We see Rambam giving practical instructions to his contemporaries and the future readers of his treatise on how to develop this keen awareness of God’s presence. He then continues by describing a higher level of connection to God where the person is able to retain a sense of God’s presence during all his normal day-to day activities.

“And there may be a human individual who, through his apprehension of the true realities and his joy in what he has apprehended, achieves a state in which he talks with people and is occupied in his bodily necessities while his intellect is wholly turned toward Him …. I do not say that this rank is that of all prophets; but I do say that this is the rank of Moshe…”

He then continues describing this higher level of intense awareness of God ending it with this surprisingly personal statement:

This rank is not a rank that, with the view of attainment of which, someone like myself may aspire for guidance. But one may aspire to attain that rank which was mentioned before this one through the training that was described.”

Though there is some controversy among scholars what exactly Rambam meant - is he saying that he could not attain such a level of cognizance or is he saying that he could not teach others while he himself could attain it? Either way he quite clearly believed that the first type of cognition is possible even nowadays. Furthermore, as we saw earlier, he refers to the higher cognition as “I do not say that this rank is that of all prophets” implying that the lesser one is that of all prophets. Putting these subtle statements together, it would seem that Rambam does hold that prophecy is possible even nowadays. Professor A. J. Heschel wrote a seminal paper “Did Maimonides Believe He Had Merited Prophecy” on the subject. Prof. Blumenthal in his note differentiates between what he calls a legal-dogmatic type of prophecy, which is not attainable, and an experiential- mystical type which is attainable through the training process described by Rambam. Though I do not agree with Prof. Blumenthal definition of the difference, I agree that there is a type of prophecy that is extant in our times as in all times. I would like to expand a little more about this, as I believe it is at the core of Rambam’s weltanschauung.

Rambam’s prophecy is not some miraculous event but rather as I have written many times a natural human ability. In fact, it is a state that all humans can attain through hard work and development. It is the ultimate human goal for perfection. It has however more than one manifestation. It is a personal experiential state of apprehension of God but can also be a feeling of overflowing excitement and need to share this experience with others. The latter is at the root of holy poetry and music as well as the writing of philosophers and in general religious leaders and teachers. It also can bring about an intuitive knowledge of the future which again can manifest itself in personal behavior and action or with the overwhelming need to tell others and prevent them from following a doomed path for example. The highest manifestation which was so unique that it is called prophecy only equivocally (MN 2:35), is the prophecy of Moshe with which he legislated the Torah. The human faculties involved in the prophetic experience are in all cases, except Moshe’s prophecy where the imaginative takes no part , the rational faculty developing information and filtering it through the imaginative (see my August 2007 posts on the subject of these two faculties). These two faculties alone are not enough to compel the prophet to act by telling others, leading and even teaching. As the story of Yonah tells us, a person that has apprehended a future event and knows how to try to prevent it, will not necessarily act on that information. For acting, one needs the additional component of courage.

“Every man possesses a certain amount of courage; otherwise he would not stir to remove anything that might injure him. This psychical force seems to me analogous to the physical force of repulsion. Energy varies like all other forces, being great in one case and small in another… The prophets must have had these two forces, courage and intuition, highly developed, and these were still more strengthened when they were under the influence of the Active Intellect. Their courage was so great that, e.g., Moses, with only a staff in his hand, dared to address a great king in his desire to deliver a nation from his service. He was not frightened or terrified, because he had been told, "I will be with thee" (Exod. iii. 12). The prophets have not all the same degree of courage, but none of them have been entirely without it.” (MN2:38)

I believe that when Rambam suggests that he can teach us how to reach a certain level of prophecy he is referring to the ability of all men to reach a level of experiential awareness of God which is the main component of prophecy at the personal level. It does not mean that a person who has reached that level will feel compelled to act and prophesize to others. That action-oriented prophecy in its First Temple manifestation has been abrogated as of the start of the Second Temple. For whatever reason the courage necessary for the prophet to act even at the risk of ridicule or worse, life and limb, is no longer extant. However, experiential personal prophecy is alive and well.

I believe that to be the explanation of Rambam’s comment in his introduction to Pirush Hamishna (page 6 in the R. Kafih edition) that the reason Yaakov feared Eisav although God had promised him that He would protect him, was because it was a personal prophecy. It depicts the internal struggles a person has in acting based on his own convictions. A prophecy becomes infallible once it has passed the test of public action. When the prophet has enough surety that he can go public with his conviction, it becomes infallible, so infallible that he puts his life at risk.

כט וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים--כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם.
29 And Moses said unto him: 'Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD'S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!'

Gmar Chatima Tova.


  1. >except Moshe’s prophecy where the imaginative takes no part , the rational faculty developing information and filtering it through the imaginative

    Have you ever read the Torah?

  2. JF, The Torah is composed of stories and laws. Moshe received the stories in a format that can be understood allegorically. The laws were as given clear as a whistle. The specila prophecy of moshe was only used in Torah writing . He used the regular prophetic system of Rational/imaginative for normal prophecy as in the burning bush episode.

    I will talk about this too if I have not yet. keep on reading.