Monday, October 08, 2007

Spirituality and Mysticism: Prophecy (part 1)

Prophecy is seen by Rambam as a natural ability that all humans, man or woman whether Jewish or not, can develop. It is a potential that we are all born with that if nurtured in a proper and methodical way, all of us should be able to develop it. It can be described in modern parlance as the result of the balancing and fine-tuning of the rational and imaginative faculties coupled with the full control of the emotional self thus overcoming the narcissistic tendencies that we all are born with. A person that has attained this level of perfection who focuses on trying to understand his environment, whence he and it come from and tries to apprehend God to the extent a human can, will prophesize. Paradoxically Rambam sees it as a miraculous divine intervention when such a perfected person does not.

The prophetic experience is generally understood as divination. To Rambam this is just one aspect of it. Furthermore, prophecy is not necessarily shared with others. We are accustomed to think of a prophet as a person that shares a vision with others, warns them about future events and is generally seen as an extrovert who cannot contain the urge to share his convictions. In fact, only a small minority of prophets do so. Prophecy is a description of a state a person attains in his relationship with God. In Breishit 20:7 as Avimelech dreams that he is about to die for kidnapping Sarah, God tells him –

ז וְעַתָּה, הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת-הָאִישׁ כִּי-נָבִיא הוּא, וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְךָ, וֶחְיֵה

7 Now, therefore restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shall live.

Unlike Rashi who relies on a Midrash, Rashbam explains that God was saying that Avraham talks my talk; I like his words and listen to his prayer. Therefore, it behooves you to see to it that he pray for you to relieve the barrenness of your womenfolk. Radak explains it similarly. Avraham being a prophet accordingly is a description of his relationship with God, nothing more.

Here is how Rambam describes the person that attains prophecy (Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:1) – (My translation/paraphrase Italicized with comments in brackets.)

א מיסודי הדת, לידע שהאל מנבא את בני האדם; ואין הנבואה חלה אלא על חכם גדול בחכמה, גיבו במידותיו, ולא יהיה יצרו מתגבר עליו בדבר בעולם אלא הוא מתגבר בדעתו על יצרו תמיד, בעל דעה רחבה נכונה עד מאוד.

ב אדם שהוא ממולא בכל המידות האלו, שלם בגופו, כשייכנס לפרדס ויימשך באותן העניינות הגדולים הרחוקים, ותהיה לו דעת
נכונה להבין ולהשיג, והוא מתקדש והולך פורש מדרכי כלל העם ההולכים במחשכי הזמן, והולך מזרז עצמו ומלמד נפשו שלא תהיה לו מחשבה כלל באחד מדברים בטילים, ולא מהבלי הזמן ותחבולותיו, אלא דעתו תמיד פנויה למעלה, קשורה תחת הכיסא, להבין באותן הצורות הקדושות הטהורות, ומסתכל בחכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא כולה מצורה ראשונה עד טבור הארץ, ויודע מהם גודלו--מיד רוח הקודש שורה עליו.

ג ובעת שתנוח עליו הרוח--תתערב נפשו במעלת המלאכים הנקראים אישים, וייהפך לאיש אחר, ויבין בדעתו שאינו כמות שהיה, אלא שנתעלה על מעלת שאר בני אדם החכמים: כמו שנאמר בשאול, "והתנבית עימם; ונהפכת, לאיש אחר" (שמואל א י,ו).

Among the foundations of the Law is to “know” [believing is not enough – one has to learn about it and know it intellectually] that God prophesizes the sons of man. [Note the language, not Jews but all men]. Prophecy rests only on one who has great knowledge of Chochma [Rambam uses the word Chochma to describe all knowledge including primarily the sciences], mighty with [over] his inclinations (tendencies) [in other words has them under control] to the point that his natural urges never overtake him under any circumstances. He always puts his [rational] mind in control of his natural urges. He has an extremely broad and correct [rational] mind. [His thinking has to be unbounded but based on correct notions.]

Such a person who is filled with all these tendencies and who has a healthy body [sick people have a hard time to concentrate], when he enters the Orchard [metaphor for physics, metaphysics, philosophy and theology] gets involved in those elevated and distant subjects. He is also sanctifying himself by removing himself from the ways of the masses who are walking in the dark paths of time [time is a function of change, which in turn is a function of matter or material existence. Following the paths of time means to be involved in material existence]. [At the same time] he is training himself to not think at all about any one of the useless things nor about the empty machinations of time so that his [rational] mind can be turned upwards at all times bound under the Throne [a metaphor for the presence of God. Note the wording – the rational mind is bound (fully engaged) with God’s presence and not the imagination or an emotionally driven experience]. [The purpose] is to discern those holy pure Forms [as opposed to Matter] so that he can observe all of HKBH’s wisdom [Chochma] from the smallest Form to the belly of the earth [metaphysics and physics which are the “Chochma” of HKBH as the First Cause] thus “knowing” His greatness. Immediately Ruach Hakodesh [literally: the Spirit That Emanates from the Holy Place] overtakes him.

At the time the Spirit rests on him, his soul
[rational and imaginative faculty as well as natural urges and emotions – see beginning of Shemona Perakim] mixes [finds itself] at the level of the angels [Note: level not angels themselves] called Ishim [Active Intellect] and he becomes a different person. He [now] discerns in his [rational] mind that he no longer is as he was before. He is been elevated to a higher level than other wise people are, as it says with Sha’ul “you will prophesize with them and become another person”.

Rambam is describing a beautiful spiritual experience. It is an experience one gets as a result of rational thinking that has a defined purpose. If a perfected human being who is also a scientist/philosopher is interested in understanding the world he lives in, with the goal to also apprehend the non-physical aspects of our existence, the non-contingent Entity that is the cause of all existence, he becomes a prophet. The key is the goal and purpose of his inquiry. I think we can differentiate between pure research for the sake of knowledge and practical research. The latter deals with “the empty machinations of time” while the first is dealing with “so that he can observe all of HKBH’s wisdom”. To succeed however, all emotions that are the results of man’s narcissistic tendencies have to be overcome “to the point that his natural urges never overtake him under any circumstances” otherwise, judgment will be clouded and biased.

I have more to say on this and will do so in my next post.

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