Thursday, July 10, 2008

Existence of God and Prophecy - Beliefs Based on Reason.

Not all beliefs are equal. Some beliefs are based on rational concepts that one can arrive at through reasoning, deduction or induction. Others are based on faith and acceptance. Knowing how to categorize them and to which category each belief belongs is most important for a person that wants to internalize Judaism in a rational way. Rambam in his listing of the Ikkarim and his other writings has done a lot in clarifying this issue. In this post, and probably a few more thereafter, I will try to address this important issue. Though I have written about it in the past, I feel there is much more to be said.

The existence of God is a belief that stems from the problem of contingency. I believe this has been formulated well by Isaac Franck and my post on this, way back in 2006 does not translate into a belief of a personal God, just that there must be a non-contingent entity. We really cannot even use the words “is”, “out there”, “somewhere” or even the word “exist” other than equivocally when talking about this entity which we call God. All these words connote physical existence in time and place and there cannot be such an “existence” for a non-contingent entity. This insight, the “existence” of such an entity, does not say anything about the essence of God. It tells you what this entity is NOT. God is not physical, multiple, time-bound and cannot really be known at all. The word that most closely describes God is “transcendent” in the sense of “being beyond the limits of experience and hence unknowable”. This makes Him unique. There can only “exist” one non-contingent, transcendent entity.

All of the above is covered in the first four Ikkarim: God’s existence, uniqueness, non-physicality and timelessness. These are not beliefs based on acceptance and faith but philosophically rational answers to the problem of endless contingency. That is why Rambam uses the word “to know” rather than “to believe” when he discusses the Mitzvah of believing in the existence of God. This is not something one has to believe but rather know and understand rationally. We accept it on authority but spend a lifetime to apprehend it as much as we can.

יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון

(Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:1)

The fifth Ikar is a natural segue from the first four. Considering that there is only one such non-contingent entity, one may only worship Him and not anything else. If one wants to apprehend as much as possible God, which is what worship in this context means, that should be the sole concern and not anything else. This Ikar is the natural conclusion and practical application that stems from the first four Ikkarim. Like with other Mitzvot, Judaism is not satisfied with apprehension and concepts but requires action. Here the action is worship.

The sixth and seventh Ikarim deal with prophecy and also belong to the category of beliefs that are knowable rather than taken on faith and acceptance, the sixth all the way while the seventh partially as we will see. Rambam’s prophecy unlike Rabbi Yehudah Halevy’s is a natural human capacity. I will paraphrase/translate the way he presents the sixth Ikar in his introduction to Chelek.

The sixth foundation is prophecy. That is to KNOW that within this human species there are people with very developed capabilities and talents and great perfection. Their mind is prepared to the point that it accepts the Form of the intellect and this human intellect joins with the Active Intellect. [1]

I have written about this many times at great length so I will just summarize. Medieval thinkers described the acquisition of knowledge as a process of binding the human mind with the science and general information that is out there. It is the way they visualized the absorption of knowledge into the human mind. The information is always out there waiting to be apprehended. Scientific observations and theories explaining them are only discovered by man at some point in time. This totality of information is the Active Intellect (AI). It is assumed that if one were to absorb or connect with that AI he would know all there is to know about the world past, present and future. A prophet is such a human being at an advanced stage of development. As this AI contains not only physical but also metaphysical truths, the latter can only be apprehended once personal perfection is developed whereby the material part of man is controlled. A person that wallows in materialism cannot apprehend immaterial and non-physical concepts. The greater control a person has over his materialism, the greater is his ability to apprehend these truths. Moshe Rabbeinu’s separation from materialism is symbolized by his separation from his wife. His ability to apprehend transcendental truths was therefore higher than that of any other prophet’s commensurate with his lack of materialism[2]. The fifth Ikar is therefore completely understandable and does not require any acceptance – it requires knowledge or Yediah. The sixth, when dealing with Moshe’s capabilities is also something we can understand logically namely that a person may reach such a high level of knowledge. It takes on the aspect of acceptance and faith when it adds that there never was nor never will be a prophet as great as Moshe. Past can be explored and demonstrated but to say that for the future is a matter of acceptance and faith. (I have an aversion to the word Faith, as it is such a large component of Christianity, so I always try to couple it with another word that is not so obvious hence acceptance). However, the belief in the uniqueness both past and future of Moshe is essential for the immutability of the Torah. There was, is and will be only one lawgiver forever and ever. That portion of this Ikar must be accepted – it cannot be demonstrated.

There is a very important aspect in Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, the fact the prophet learns and knows about physics and metaphysical truths but is only an observer in that sense. He can take advantage of those truths when necessary just as Moshe took advantage of certain events like the splitting of the sea et al. but he does not change the course of nature. Unlike idolatry’s shamans and priests, the prophet does not endeavor to change God’s mind or influence Him. He rather wants to know God’s mind, apprehend God’s will and act accordingly. That is the message in this week’s Parsha where Bile’am is taught and his story teaches that lesson. Bile’am is that mixture of prophet and shaman. Although he learned and understood many of the metaphysical truths to the point that he was considered a prophet, which BTW teaches that one does not have to be Jewish to attain that level, he did not absorb the fact that knowledge does not give license to change God’s mind. He was operating with the shamanistic idea that somehow one can bribe God and change the course of history through “spiritual” manipulation. The Rabbis see the story of the talking ass as an allegorical teaching of that point. They list the talking ass as something created at dusk on the sixth day of creation. In other words, Balaam’s vision of the talking ass came with the realization that even such an abnormal and “miraculous” occurrence is embedded in nature. That is why he wants to turn back but is compelled to continue to teach the important lesson that prophecy means apprehension of God’s will and not its manipulation. In his final prophecy, he comes to the full realization of this fact and this is how he describes it:

טז נְאֻם, שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי-אֵל, וְיֹדֵעַ, דַּעַת עֶלְיוֹן; מַחֲזֵה שַׁדַּי יֶחֱזֶה, נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינָיִם.

Word of him who hears God’s speech, who obtains knowledge from the Most High and beholds visions from the Almighty, prostate, yet with eyes unveiled:

He no longer has ambitions to change God’s mind but rather obtain knowledge from Him.

In upcoming posts, I will expand on this issue of beliefs and the categorization thereof. I want to develop further this issue of prophecy especially how it relates to Moshe and Torah. This post has reached and surpassed my limit for length.

[1] . והוא שידע אדם, שזה מין האדם ימצא בהם בעלי

טבעים ממידות מעולות מאוד ושלמות גדולה, ונפשותיהם נכונות עד שהן מקבלות

צורת השכל אחד. כן ידבק אותו השכל האנושי בשכל הפועל, ונאצל ממנו עליו

אצילות נכבד. ואלה הם הנביאים. וזו היא הנבואה וזו עניינה.

Please note that I translate from Rabbi Kafih’s edition/translation while the text I append here is from the traditional one found in the Gemarot available at

[2] וכי הוא עליו השלום הגיע התעלותו מן האנושות עד המעלה המלאכותית, ונכלל

במעלת המלאכים, לא נשאר מסך שלא קרעו ונכנס ממנו. ולא מנעו מונע גופני,

ולא נתערב לו שום חסרון בין רב למעט, ונתבטלו ממנו הכוחות הדמיונות

והחושיות והשגותיו, ונבדל כוחו המתעורר המשתוקק, ונשאר שכל בלבד. ועל

העניין הזה נאמר עליו שהיה מדבר עם השם יתברך בלא אמצעיות מן המלאכים.


  1. No standardization of spelling?

    You know while the Rambam mentions all the ikkarim in Sefer HaMada he does number rather he explains all of them with proofs. I think his Sefer HaMada should be the root and the ikkarim the branch not the other way around.

  2. Would the Rambam agree or consider acceptable the explanation in this post:

  3. I am not sure what you mean. In sefer hmada he does not offer many proofs re existence or prophecy. In MN he doeas but he insists that thereare proofs only for existence and prophecy the rest are all mekubalot.

  4. Re spelling, my word dictionary is not always consistent as I add words on different days. Sorry!

  5. In his introduction he calls Sefer HaMada the fundamentals of our faith. When explaining concepts in it he does not merely mention the principle and claims it to be part of our faith. He mentions it and brings source for it while he is at it.

    This is what I meant by proof. I did not mean, for example, the proof of God's existence, or the such, as you understood me to mean.

  6. What do you mean that the 7th we can partially prove? it seems from the story of Moshe Aaron and Miriam that they did not know that Moshe could reach a level which would demand seperation from his wife.

  7. R. Yaakov,

    You are correct. Moshe's prophecy is not empirically provable while normal prophecy is an experience that many had especially the personal kind.

    That is exactly the story of Miriam. She did not grasp that his prophecy was so different.

    For a deeper discussion see my article Negative Attributes and Direct Prophecy linked on the sidebar.

  8. So which part of the 7th is provable?

  9. The second and third difference were seen by the people and were therefore provable. The first and fourth (the latter maybe when he said Imdu... was noted by them too) were known to Moshe alone.

    But you are right as far as we are concerned we cannot prove any of the 7th ikar.