Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Spirituality and Mysticism: Prophecy (part 2)

In my last post, I described the process a person has to follow in order for him to attain prophecy. I also began by saying that Prophecy has more than one aspect to it and that not all prophecy is directed outwards. In Hil Yesodei Hatorah, we indeed read (7:7) –

[ז] הנביא, אפשר שתהיה נבואתו לעצמו בלבד, להרחיב ליבו ולהוסיף דעתו, עד שיידע מה שלא היה יודע, מאותן הדברים הגדולים. ואפשר שישולח לעם מעמי הארץ, או לאנשי עיר או ממלכה, לבונן אותם ולהודיעם מה יעשו, או למנוע אותם ממעשים הרעים שבידיהם; וכשמשלחין אותו, נותנין לו אות ומופת כדי שיידעו העם שהאל שילחו באמת

The prophet may experience a personal prophecy. Its purpose is to broaden his “heart” [thinking - thoughts are placed in the heart in scriptures and by medieval thinkers – a subject on its own] and increase his [rational] mind to the point that he knows what he did not know before about those great things [metaphysics]. It is also possible that he [the prophet] be sent to any nation among the nations of the earth or to the inhabitants of a city or kingdom, to make them discern [right from wrong]-[I translate “Lebonen” - to discern. It is a derivative of Bein - between] telling them what to do or to stop them from continuing with the evil things they are now doing. It is when he is sent that he is given a sign or proof so that the people know that God has truly sent him.

Reading this Rambam and the one quoted in my last post carefully we can learn several things about prophecy. A person that knows science, the description of the physical aspects and mechanisms of existence, is only a scientist. A person that goes the additional step of trying to understand whence all this existence comes from, the metaphysical aspects of existence - the “holy pure Forms” – such a person may experience prophecy if he follows “correct” paths and is emotionally balanced and unbiased. A person that attains prophecy will only at times feel the need to share with others what he learned. Many prophets were only prophets to themselves. Even when he feels the need to share with others, the prophet does not necessarily foretell a specific future event. The goal is to share with the people what he has learned and how they can make use of it practically by improving their ways and in fact, should they heed his words, the bad things that he foresaw may not come to pass, without penalty to the prophet. Divination - “sign or proof” -is only a way of helping the recipients of the prophets words know that they indeed are taught correct notions. It is telling them that just as the prophet is able to foretell a verifiable future event, he has therefore reached the level of the Ishim, and his warnings about the future based on their current actions are to be taken seriously. Ishim and Active Intellect according to Rambam are identical and two names for the same entity [Form}.

The mention of Ishim is where Rambam may be seen as accepting a mystical experience as defined in my first post on the subject. There I defined (quoting Prof Blumenthal's definition) a mystical experience when the spiritual experience of God’s presence is achieved by navigating a hierarchical progression of entities, Ishim being the lowest level of that hierarchy as we will see.

In Yesodei Hatorah 2:6 Rambam describes the three categories of existents: those composed of Matter and Form that change namely all material things – Those that are unchanging – in the Greek universe those are the spheres and the third category is comprised of -

ומהם ברואים צורה בלא גולם כלל--והם המלאכים, שהמלאכים אינם גוף וגווייה, אלא צורות נפרדות זו מזו.

Among them [the three categories] are entities that are Form without Matter – those are the angels, for angels are not of matter just separated Forms.

ובמה ייפרדו הצורות זו מזו, והרי אינן גופין--לפי שאינן שווין במציאתן, אלא כל אחד מהן למטה ממעלתו של חברו והוא מצוי מכוחו זה למעלה מזה; והכול נמצאים מכוחו של הקדוש ברוך הוא וטובו
זה שאמרנו למטה ממעלתו, אינה מעלת מקום כמו אדם שיושב למעלה מחברו; אלא כמו שאומרין בשני חכמים שאחד גדול מחברו בחכמה, שהוא למעלה ממעלתו של זה, וכמו שאומרין בעילה, שהיא למעלה מן העלול

How are Forms that have no bodies differentiated? [Bodies have limits thus can be differentiated. Forms which are non – physical, just concepts that may attach themselves to bodies, have no boundaries. How is one differentiated from the other?] They differ in their existence. Each one is below the status of the other and exists as a result of its predecessor. [I understand this to mean that there is a conceptual progression of cause and effect underlying the reality of how things come into being. Gravity is real. Underlying it is the concept of gravity. It is hierarchical because what gravity causes cannot exist without it existing first.] And all derive their existence from HKBH and His goodness [He is the First Cause]. When we say one above the other, we are not talking about a position like when a person sits higher than the other does. It is as when we compare two wise men to each other where one is smarter than the other we say that he is above the other and as we also say that the cause is above the effect. [This comparison needs to be fleshed out. Rambam seems to be teaching a combination of two different comparisons – when one entity is better than the other and at the same time the lesser one is dependent on the better one for its existence. I can understand it in the Aristotelian worldview but have not yet worked out how it would fit with our current understanding of existence.]

שינוי שמות המלאכים, על שם מעלותם היא; ולפיכך נקראים חיות הקודש והם למעלה מן הכול, אופנים, ואראלים, וחשמלים, ושרפים, ומלאכים, ואלוהים, ובני אלוהים, וכרובים, ואישים.

The different names of the angels relate to their status [position]. Therefore at the highest position are the Holy Beasts. They are above all. [They are followed] by Ophanim, Er’elim, Chashmalim, Seraphim, Angels, Elohim, the sons of Elohim, Cherubs and Ishim.

ט כל אלו עשרה השמות שנקראו בהם המלאכים, על שם עשר מעלות שלהם הם. ומעלה שאין למעלה ממנה אלא מעלת האל ברוך הוא, היא מעלת הצורות שנקראת חיות; לפיכך נאמר בנבואה, שהן תחת הכיסא. ומעלה עשירית, היא מעלת הצורה שנקראת אישים, והם המלאכים שמדברים עם הנביאים ונראים להם במראה הנבואה; לפיכך נקראו אישים, שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם.

All these ten names that refer to the Angels are based on their ten hierarchical positions. The highest of all positions, excluding the status of God Himself, are the Forms referred to as Beasts (Chayot). That is why they are referred to in prophecy as being below the Throne. [Throne is a metaphor for the “place” of God’s presence]. The tenth level is the Form known as Ishim. They are the angels that speak with the prophets and appear to them in the prophetic vision. That is why they are called Ishim, because their status is close to what man can apprehend. [Literally: their status is close to the status of man’s mind.]

Rambam presents us with a hierarchy of entities implying that they emanate from each other in a preset progression. In MN 2:4, he in fact says the each conceives the next level below him. I understand that as a simple description of cause and effect in the Aristotelian conception of how things work. Even if we were to understand it as emanations, clearly, man can conceive or navigate no further than the lowest rung, Ishim. Even there man can only get close to that level of apprehension – not all the way there [שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם]. I see a description of an assumed hierarchy that is not for man to navigate, just know it is there, just like he knows that God is there – no more. I do not see a navigation of a hierarchical progression to experience the presence of God – the spiritual experience. I am therefore not convinced so far that Rambam accepts the possibility of a mystical experience as defined.

You may wonder why I am so invested in trying to see if Rambam accepts mysticism. I understand that Rambam sets a limit to man’s ability to apprehend the transcendental. I understand that it is foundational in his thought. Right at the beginning of the Moreh, as he gets into the whole discussion of transcendence as it relates to God, he forewarns of that human limitation. He tells us in MN 1:5 that the reason Moshe was able to reach his high levels of apprehension, the highest a man can strive to, is because he accepted his human limitations from the start. He contrasts Moshe’s self-awareness with the arrogance of the Princes of Israel and Nadav and Avihu, who lost sight of that human limitation. While Moshe attained the high levels of apprehension they on the other hand strayed and ended up with a “burned soul and an extant body”. Rambam talks about the hierarchical system but does not navigate it nor does he touch on the particulars of each[1] – they are beyond man’s comprehension. So far, in Mishne Torah, I do not see Rambam saying anything that would indicate he accepted the possibility of man “navigating’ the hierarchies in his quest for God.

I will try to address the areas in MN that Prof. Blumenthal tries to prove from them that Rambam accepts mysticism. I have to however clarify that Prof. Blumenthal “mysticism” is very different from the mysticism of the Kabbalists. He makes that point many times in his writings. However, I am even loath to agree to that type of “navigation”.

[1] Except in his discussion of Yechezkel’s vision in the first few chapters of part 3 in MN where he does seem to interpret the vision in that vein. I need to work that through at some point.


  1. David - I am not sure whether you've mentioned this elsewhere, but Shmuel Toledano's extended commentary on the MN includes a section from his Tlemcen rav on the kabbalistic hints incorporated in the work. So not only was the Rambam a mystic, he was a mekubal!

  2. Steve - I have not read Toledano's commentary. I think I saw it the other day at Biegeleisen (it was a pirush by a sefaradi sounding person so I assume it is the same)but after perusing it for a few minutes decided against buying it. Accusing Rambam of being a closet Mekubal or one who left philosophy for kabbala in his old age is an old canard. The Migdal Oz was one such believer as can be seen from some of his comments in MT. To Rambam Kabbalah was plain and simple heresy. I am trying to address Blumenthal's claim that there is an element of mysticism in his thought. That is not kabbalah but a spiritual experience that is based on a certain way of thinking. It involves trying to understand details about transcendental "entities" beyond just "knowing" they are out there. Before I make up my mind, (my bias is to disagree) I find it productive to revisit Rambam with that question in the forefront.

  3. Your point is well taken that it's ill-advised to conflate mysticism with the Kabbalah, especially since in the Rambam's historical context Ibn Gabirol had a fundamentally different view of mystical attachment to Hashem.

    The Toledano book is called 'Dibbur veMachshavah' and does indeed make reference to the Migdal Oz as support for the contention that the Rambam died a mekubal in one of the four introductions to the MN. But his argument is much broader and sophisticated than just restating that 'old canard'. I can't do it enough justice, but it does make some interesting points on the relationship between grasping religious truth and the understanding the nature of good and evil in terms of absolutes vs relative values. Elsewhere, the argument is a bit stretched, like comparing the Rambam's conception of evil as the absence of good as support for the notion of tsimtsum.

    Louis Jacobs (controversial I know) in his compilation "Jewish Mystical Testimonies" picks out Section 3, Perek 51 - advice on how to engage the intellect unceasingly in meditation with Hashem - as evidence of the Rambam's mystical bent. Jacobs cites this passage as a major influence on the idea of devekut in Hasidut.

    I think my broader point here is that it's difficult to draw sharp, clear lines between philosophy and mysticism. If you argue that there is a common thread of mysticism between the Rambam and the first generation of Kabbalists (such as Azriel of Gerona) who were intellectually attracted to the logical precision of philosophy but saw it as a threat to tradition then it's not surprising that there is a concordance with later kabbalistic theories and the Rambam's thought on individual transcendence through stages of intense contemplation.

  4. Steve, The argument you present is exactly waht I am talking about. You are conflating mysticism with spiriyuality. See my first post in the series where I define the terms. One cannot argue that Rambam sees Avodat Hashem as a spiritual experience but I do not agree with Blumenthal and others who call it mystical as defined.

    There is a paper by Shlomop Pines (I think) dealing with the limit of knowledge. Though I do not agree with everything he writes, i do strongly believe that "limit of knowledge" is the foudation of Rambam's theology. Mysticism as defined crosses that border! Anything beyond that border is nonsense as it is a figment of imagination without any rational underpinning by definition!

  5. I'd argue the 'limits of human knowledge' is a consequence, not a foundation of the Rambam's thought, and conception of the relationship between God and humanity. After all, he doesn't start the MN by pointing out because of the limits of human knowledge we can't describe Hashem. Instead, he starts out by pointing that Hashem exists (if we can even use that term) in a unique category.

    I certainly sympathize with your agenda, and you have addressed this issue elsewhere in the blog, but it seems that it might be counter-productive to dismiss the mekubalim, particularly those in the generations immediately following the Rambam. If you look at them as thinkers rather than representative of a divergent stream of hashkafah, they can shed some light on the intellectual background that produced the Rambam and the polemical rejection of MN. I would humbly suggest the 'Biur Ha-eser sefirot' by Azriel of Gerona as a starting point.

    Shabbat Shalom