Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Role of the Imaginative Faculty in Prophecy - Ikkarim 6 and 7.

In my last post, I touched on Ikarim 6 and 7 that respectively deal with prophecy itself and with the prophecy of Moshe. Ikar 7 states that the prophecy of Moshe was in a category of its own. Rambam enumerates four differences between the two prophecies. I will analyze each one in upcoming posts and I believe we will gain insights into Rambam’s understanding of prophecy.

As I explained, prophecy is a natural human capability that certain people acquire by perfecting themselves both intellectually through knowledge and by improving the traits they were born with, their Midot. As a person meditates on transcendental issues which are non-material and non-physical he cannot truly picture these concepts in his mind, as they have no relations to his daily life. For example, even if one contemplates the existence of God, fully aware that He is not knowable and “existence” is equivocal when used in this context, man as a human being cannot escape visualizing “existence” in his mind. The mind translates the incomprehensible by attaching and superimposing it onto past experiences that are closest to the abstract concept in question. When we try to grasp the abstract idea that God “exists”, we append that concept onto how our mind understands what “to be” means. The same applies to all Metaphysical meditation about God and the laws and rules that He put in place to bring continuity to the universe and our existence. The concepts that dictate how nature operates, the ideas that underlie nature – not the forces themselves – are visualized as angels or God’s messengers thus Yeshayahu and Yechezkel saw winged beings. That process of allegorizing is what Rambam refers to as the involvement of the imaginative faculty in prophecy. The prophet as he reaches the deeper levels of cogitation about metaphysics translates those insights into his past experience.

The things that the prophet is told in the prophetic vision are in the form of an allegory and the interpretation of the allegory is simultaneously embedded in his mind. (Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:3).[1]

What we have is a process of apprehension of an abstract concept which is translated by the prophet’s mind and presented to his listeners in its allegorical form. At times, the prophet will interpret the allegory to his listeners at others, where the interpretation is beyond being understood by the masses, not. This type of prophecy is inevitably contaminated by the prophet’s subjective state of mind and experiences. It is the word of God in an indirect way. And here is the first difference between run of the mill prophecy and Moshe’s. Moshe was able to dispense with the imaginative faculty, the need to allegorize. By having transcended his material self, he was able to grasp abstract concepts as he saw them. There was no need for him to translate them. His prophecy was therefore uncontaminated by human frailty and subjectivity. That is the meaning of Peh el Peh.

All the prophets [prophesize] through an angel therefore their vision is in the form of allegory and riddle. Moshe Rabbeinu[‘s vision] is not through an angel because it says “I will speak with him Peh el Peh[2] [mouth to mouth]” and it says “and God speaks to Moshe face to face” and it says “he sees the likeness of God”. Namely, there was no allegory. [Moshe] saw it as it was without a riddle or allegory. That is what the Torah attests about him [Moshe], “in a vision and not in riddles”, that he does not prophesize through a riddle but in a vision. He sees things as they are.[3] (Yesodei Hatorah 7:11)

To understand the meaning of prophesying through an angel we turn to MN 2:6 where Rambam explains this based on a Midrash.

We may find a confirmation of the opinion that the natural and psychical forces of an individual are called angels in a statement of our Sages which is frequently quoted, and occurs originally in Bereshit Raba (chap. 78): "Every day God creates a legion of angels; they sing before Him, and disappear."… In Midrash-Kohelet (on Eccles. x. 7) the following passage occurs: "When man sleeps, his soul speaks to the angel, the angel [speaks] to the cherub." The intelligent reader will find here a clear statement that man's imaginative faculty is also called "angel," and that "cherub" is used for man's intellectual faculty. How beautiful must this appear to him who understands it; how absurd to the ignorant!”

When we say that the prophecy came to the prophet from an angel, it means that he translated it internally using his imaginative faculty. Angel is the word used when we want to describe concepts underlying the laws and forces of nature. Those concepts are the early cause and precursors of every action in the universe.

Consider how clearly they say that the term "angel" signifies nothing but a certain action, and that every appearance of an angel is part of a prophetic vision, depending on the capacity of the person that perceives it.”(MN2:6)

To “see” these abstract concepts, a normal human has to engage his imaginative faculty. Moshe, because of his ability to transcend his material self, having subjugated his sensory perceptions completely to his rational mind, was able to apprehend abstract concepts without superimposing them onto his imaginative faculty. That ability is metaphorically described as seeing through a “cherub” instead of through an angel.

וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר

אִתּוֹ, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת

אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר,


89 And when Moshe went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, he would hear the Voice being spoken unto him from above the covering that was upon the ark of covenant, from between the two cherubim; and He would speak to him. (Bamidbar 7:89)

The ability of a human being to attain prophecy as described above is not beyond the limits of our comprehension. The ability to employ all our mental capabilities from the rational to the imaginative and intuitive is something that anyone with a healthy body and mind should be able to develop. Prophecy in its most common and basic sense is a personal state of development that is really very private and internal. When we say that such and such is a prophet, we are saying that he is a human being that we estimate has arrived at a level of advanced development. However, an observer can only conjecture. The individual in question is the only one who knows that he has reached that level if he does not delude himself. It is only when the prophet cannot contain himself and feels the uncontrollable urge to share his prophecy with others, (the story of Yonah describes this urge), that the question of authenticity arises. I will leave that for another discussion. The prophecy that Moshe experienced however is not something that we as normal humans can even try to comprehend. We only know it because the Torah tells it to us. Unlike prophecy itself, it is a belief based on tradition and acceptance thereof. That is why I said in my last post that the sixth Ikar is knowable while the seventh has to be taken on faith partially. That part that Moshe was able to visualize transcendental concepts without the involvement of the imaginative faculty is incomprehensible to us and must be taken on faith. It is that ability that makes Moshe’s prophecy immutable when he gave us the Torah and also is the basic concept that underlies the next Ikar Torah Min Hashamayim.

The difficulty in understanding this type of prophecy is described in the Torah through the story of the interaction of Aharon, Miriam and Moshe at the end of Beha’alotcha. It is also the underlying reason for the conflict with Korach. That is however for another time.

[1] הדברים שמודיעין לנביא במראה הנבואה--דרך משל מודיעין לו, ומיד ייחקק בליבו פתרון המשל במראה הנבואה, ויידע מה הוא

[2] It is fascinating to note that Peh el Peh and dying through a kiss, Missat Neshikah, which was the death described by Chazal for Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, connote a similar imagery.


כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה. ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך, שנאמר "פה

אל פה אדבר בו

, ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים

ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט

כלומר שאין שם משל, אלא רואה הדבר על בורייו בלא חידה בלא משל; הוא שהתורה

מעידה עליו, "ומראה ולא בחידות, שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה, שרואה

הדבר על בורייו


  1. You write: "To 'see' these abstract concepts, a normal human has to engage his imaginative faculty."

    This is true, but doesn't leave the correct impression. I don't think you misunderstood. But just in case a reader does...

    Ever wonder how you know that I see color the way you do? Perhaps the mental image I have when my eye looks at a red object is the one your mind produces for yellow. And perhaps your yellow is my red. I would still call the object red -- such differences wouldn't show up in words or labels. So how could we know?

    Such things are called "qualia". A famous example used in the philosophical debate is "Mary the Colorblind Scientist". Mary knows everything there is to know about colors -- spectral analysis, the psychology of seeing particular colors, the human ability to distinguish colors, how objects reflect the colors they do, etc... Everything, that is but the experience of one. Unfortunately Dr Mary is totally colorblind, and sees in black and white. That is, until one day she has some neurosurgery and they fix her problem. What new thing about color did she learn when she opened her eyes? The experience of color.

    That experience of color when seeing a red rose is also part of Aristotle's concept of Imagination. As is remembering its smell. The usage of the word in classical philosophy is far broader than the meaning of the word in contemporary English.

    When the Rambam speaks of a role of koach hadimyon in nevu'ah, he doesn't necessarily mean the mind is dreaming things up. If it did, why would he have a problem with the "Man" in the chariot? Rather than insisting that it was the Kavod haNivra (a created manifestation of Hashem's glory, like a non-physical pillar of fire), he could have just said their brains filled in that part.


  2. Thank you R. Micha -

    Though the davar nivra seems to be Rambam's concession to a more simplistic view based on Resag. That has been my thinking but I have some second thoughts about it that I have not yet worked out completely.

  3. You might be interested in my discussion of the subject in the first two pages of Mesukim miDevash for parashas Mishpatim. Also related is the Rambam vs the Ramban on whether Avraham's nevu'ah consisted of seeing angels, or if his nevu'ah was interrupted so he could serve the "men" who arrived.

    I think they have a basic dispute as to whether nevu'ah is the ability to see higher planes of reality, or the gift of a message from the A-lmighty. Which also relates to whether nevu'ah would have to be miraculously withheld from someone prepared for it (Rambam) vs gifted to someone capable of getting it (Ramban). See also http://www.aishdas.org/asp/2004/11/aspaqlaria.shtml on whether prophecy is like a lens or a mirror.


  4. >whether nevu'ah is the ability to see higher planes of reality,

    I think is even more that that, there is no higher plane of reality according to rambam. The angels that have a diaphanous physicality according to Ramban are nothing more the Sechalim Nivadlim which have no physical essence according to rambam.

    Thank you for the references . I will read them. I understood aspaclaria as specula which are glasses where the glass distorts the light rather than mirrors.

  5. Aspaqlaria is from "lapis specularis" a clear stone used in those days by people who couldn't afford glass. Yes, same "spec" root as spectacles, spectator, etc...

    But it only appears in the gemara in mashal. Once comparing the aspaqlaria she'einah me'irah of the chokhmah of current generations vs the aspaqlaria hame'irah of earlier ones. The other, which is what I was referring to, was the aspaqlaria hame'ira of Moshe's nevu'ah vs the she'einah me'irah of a regular navi's.

    More to the point, the Abarbanel understands the Rambam's version of nevu'ah to be about seeing non-physical realities, not me. It's how he answers the Ramban's questions in parashas Vayeira.

    I disagree with how you're reading YhT 2:5.

    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. וזה הוא שרמז שלמה בחכמתו ואמר "כי גבוה מעל גבוה, שומר, וגבוהים, עליהם" (קוהלת ה,ז).

    And from 2:6, we see that we're at the bottom of that chain:
    ומעלה עשירית, היא מעלת הצורה שנקראת אישים, והם המלאכים שמדברים עם הנביאים ונראים להם במראה הנבואה; לפיכך נקראו אישים, שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם.

    Mal'akhim are more real than us, not less. Even though they are sikhliim nivdalim (Moreh), tzuros beli chomer (Yesodei haTorah). They are the steps in the chain from the Non-Contingent to the changing physical reality around us.

    All this is unsurprising once I learned an odd bit of history. The translation of Aristotle to Arabic that was considered authoritative was that of ibn Rushd ("Averroes" in Latin). Ibn Rushd's translation of Aristo's Metaphysics contains Plotinus's Enneads as a final section. The Enneads contains the idea of emanation. (Which is sublty different than atzilus, but that's way afield from your post.)

    The Rambam's copy of Aristotle therefore included a neo-Platonic volume.

    I think this also drove his thesis in the Moreh I:49, on the identity of cause (illah, sibah) and agens. (And in this case, the English, being closer to the Greek, is more precise than the Hebrew.) But that's guesswork. My previous bit is how I read the Yad, which I later saw is consistent with how the Abarbanel understood the Rambam's notion of nevu'ah.


  6. >Mal'akhim are more real than us, not less.

    True because reality is not physical and material existence. The word Matzui used here is the same as when used with HKBH.

    I know that later interpreters of rambam felt he believed in Plato's emanations. I am not so sure. Note he explains Shefa in MN 2:12 it is a state and not an emanation!.

    לכן מכנים תמיד את פעולתו של (השׂכל) הפועל בשם "שפע". (זאת) על דרך הדימוי למעיין מים השופע מכל כיוון ואין כיוון מסוים אשר ממנו הוא מושך או (שבו) הוא מספק לזולתו, אלא הוא נובע מכל הכיוונים ותמיד (זורם) לכל הכיוונים ומרווה את הקרובים אליו ואת הרחוקים. כן אותו שׂכל. לא מגיע אליו כוח מכיוון מסוים וממרחק מסוים, וגם כוחו אינו מגיע אל זולתו בכיוון מסוים ובמרחק מסוים ולא בזמן נתון דווקא; אלא פעולתו מתמדת: כל-אימת שדבר-מה מוכן, הוא מקבל את הפעולה הזאת, הנמצאת בהתמדה, הקרויה "שפע".

    It is very similar to how Tzurah is described when something is ready and available in the proper format it attaches itself to it. I therefore do not read it as a chain but different levels of comprehension from a human standpoint. Note hoe Keruv which Rambam calls the sechel is just one above Ishim. Neviim connected with Ishim as their highest comprehension while Moshe connected with Keruv. What I have not worked out is what is the significance of "Mibein shnei Hakeruvim" what are the two and why Mibein.

    Rambam although he used Aristotle's interpreters among them Ibn Rushd as he writes to R.S.Ibn Tibon, did not follow them faithfully and had his own opinion.

    I know Abarbanel's understanding. He was a great interpreter of rambam but also had his own ax to grind and tried to insert some of his ideas. He was not an unbiased reader.(BTW who is?)

  7. Agreed that the Rambam's causal chain isn't quite the same as a Mequbal's "atzilus". He speaks of causal chain, of diminishing tzurah, entities, mal'akhim, not of olamos -- and there is much meaning in that.

    But I disagree with the depth of the difference that you are suggesting. For the reasons I gave above: Yesodei haTorah 2:5, the Abarbanel, that it fits general tendency among Arabic Aristotilians.

    Why do I call it a causal chain? Because the Rambam does -- "vehu matzui mikocho". Da'as holds forms and thus da'as is the key to the causal chain -- and therefore to the Rambam's notion of shefa.

    This isn't a translation issue. An entire section almost the size of one of its books of what the Rambam thought was Aristo's Metaphysics was teaching emanationism. He had to do something with it.


  8. R. Micha

    you are putting too much emphasis on Mikocho

    ו [ה] 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. וזה הוא שרמז שלמה בחכמתו ואמר "כי גבוה מעל גבוה, שומר, וגבוהים, עליהם" (קוהלת ה,ז).

    ז [ו] 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.

    The last halacha takes away the emanation idea which would have been the conclusion if the first one was alone.

    Anyway - later I have a shiur in Havayot de'abaye verava in a few minutes :-)

  9. No it doesn't. As I wrote, the Rambam saw the causal chain (more precise than usual emanationist notions) as being based in knowledge. Each one causes the lower stage's existence BECAUSE each one is "closer" to the Mamtzi by having better knowledge of Him.

    Note also that 2:5's language is a continuation of 1:1's.

    Enjoy the shiur!

  10. David Guttman said-What I have not worked out is what is the significance of "Mibein shnei Hakeruvim" what are the two and why Mibein.

    Maybe its referring to the koach hasichli and koach Hamedama and how prophecy arrives between the two of them (combination of both working together-facing each other)

  11. The problem is that the Passuk is talking is talking about the "kol" which is the type of Nevuah that Moshe had when giving Torah where the koach hadimyon had no part to play.

  12. another source to Micha's point is the Rambam in MN 2:4. where the Rambam treats the first level intelligence as the source of the second etc.

    Also Are you saying that the person is actively using his imagination (that there is something missing so he fills it in himself) or that when idea imposes itself on his mind (due to his preperation to receive it) it will automatically be interpreted through the imaginative faculty?

  13. R. Yaakov,

    So how do you explain the fact that Rambam seems to not take issue with the number of the sechalim that go from 10 to 100 according to how many Galgalim there are? I understand that there is a plethora of concepts that make up the ideas that undelie our existence. These ideas are the sechalim, and it is only us humans who divide them into categories. Their number depends on how we categorize them. We can look at them as one entity - the world of ideas - or as separate for each idea and concept in which case they would be infinite. Attaching them to the galgalim sets a logical limit.

    Apparently what Rambam saw as the cause for movement of the galgalim, the world of ideas, has been substituted in our model of physics by gravity. The idea though of sechalim per se has not been eliminated if you understand it my way. Gravity itself has an underlying concept. (Have a look in the emunah ubitachon booklet printed at the end of Taharot in Chazon Ish in chapter 1:9 - I think he says something similar to what I am trying to convey about the sechalim. It was censored in the emunah ubitachon printed separately.)

    Re imaginative faculty, the way I understand it - a person cannot conceive abstract concepts without relating it to a past experience or a composite of past experiences. That is because we cannot conceive a purely immaterial object where the word object itself is inexact. The imaginative faculty is thus put into action whenever such a concept is apprehended. I am not sure how you would describe this type of reaction - I would consider it as something that happens spontaneously when the rational wants to understand an abstract concept. That is why prophecy always goes to the rational first never to the imaginative which is only a tool to help the rational understand.

  14. if the division of spheres is arbitrary then why is the Rambam expressing this as an argument? wouldn't all of the philosophers agree? I thought that the question of number of spheres is a question about the actual number of principles. Each principle would have to emerge in the physical through its own metaphysical cause.
    Also I am not clear how you are viewing gravity as identical to the "world of ideas". isn't gravity a principle which exists in matter as opposed to the angels which are seperate (and the cause for ideas in matter)?

  15. When you quote the midrash koheles are you claiming that Chruv is intelect and Malach is imaginitive faculty? or that Malach is cause of ideas through a material medium (the imaginative) and Chruv is cause of ideas in a non-material thinker?

  16. According to the Abarbanel's answer to the Ramban's question on the Rambam's take on parashas Vayeira, the Rambam understands nevu'ah to be the ability to "see" real but non-physical events. (See the links I provided in my earlier comment.)

    To make sense of such things, the ko'ach hadimyon is engaged to make them look like physical ones. Thus, prophecy is cloaked in mashal. But the mashal is a product of the navi's seikhel, which is why every navi's nevu'ah is unique.

    It is clear from Yesodei haTorah 2:5 that mal'akhim are less contingent than we are. I don't think that's the same as saying "more real", but it's certainly NOT saying they're less real.

    My own 2 cents on the Rambam's neoPlatonism... First, It's more neoPlatonism -- Plotinus's idea that everything emanates from G-d, rather than Plato's notion that everything is a shadow of its own Ideal. Second, it's clearly in YhT 2:5, and would explain why the Moreh I:46 has to explain why Cause and Agent are identical -- because he was trying to fit an Aristotilian G-d Who gives forms (aside from yeish mei'ayin), the Unmoved Mover, with a neoPlatonic G-d who emanates existence.

    There is a bit of history which became to me the centerpiece in explaining the Rambam's position. Al Kindi and his circle (9th cent CE, centuries before the Rambam), believed that this section of the Enneads was part of Aristotle's Metaphysics. Ibn Rush (Averroes) prints it as an appendix to Metaphysics titled "Aristotle's Theology".

    Arabic speaking students of Aristotle accepted this notion of emanation from Creator to Intellects down to this world as being Aristotilian, even though it was technically neoPlatonic.

    Which would include the Rambam.


  17. >isn't gravity a principle which exists in matter as opposed to the angels which are seperate (and the cause for ideas in matter)?

    Gravity has its "angel" the concept that underlies the physical. Chazon Ish compares it to the idea of for example 2 X 2 = 4 which is a concept.

    The midrash Kohelet Rambam quotes is to show that two parts of the mind are active when the prophet prophesies. Unless the prophet has a developed imaginative faculty he will not be able to absorb the abstract concepts that his intellect has deduced.

    I am surprised you did not pick up that in this midrash there seems to be a reverse order where the imaginative is fed first and only then feeds the rational. That is for a whole other post.

    R. Yaakov I thank you for your comments. They are really helpful and gave me some good ideas for further study.

  18. R. Micha - Thank you for your comment. I know that many believe Rambam to be neo platonic.

    I think it is important to know the sources Rambam used and the scholars have done a good job tracing them (Wolfson, Davidson, Pines et al) to understand what he is saying. But I think it is even more important to us, when we learn Rambam as a teacher in avodat hashem, to learn how he has dealt with the issues of Torah and reality as he saw it. We need to learn from it and deal with our reality accordingly. I think the greatest example is how he dealt with creation ex nihilo. I wrote about it many times and I believe Isaac Franck's summary of that is a very important statement. see my post


    The idea is to see the "how" Rambam did it rather than "what" he says specifically especially when it is based on disproved Aristotelian physics.

  19. R. David thank you for all of your posts, they are extremely insightful.
    I don't fully understand how you are equating 2x2=4 with the intelligences since it seems to leave out the idea that they act based on understanding (as opposed to being automatons which respond to a principle which they themselves do not understand). If you could elaborate I would appreciate it, although these areas might be beyond my current abilities and no clarification will help.

  20. R. Yaakov,

    I thank you for your encouragements.Your question has been plaguing me for the longest. In fact Aristotles held that the intelligences, including God the ultimate non-contingent intelligence, were automatons. That is where we come in assigning will to HKBH based on revelation see MN 2:25. The key to your question regarding the intelligences is in MN 2:7. A while back I thought I had the answer but it escaped me. I know I probably had it based on the introduction of the Moreh where he says that is the nature of this type of knowledge, fleeting, but it is gone. I probably would not have made sense anyway had I tried to write it up.:-)

  21. You asked me what the nafka mina was...

    You're hitting it. We're trying to map ideas like Newtonian gravity to a mindset that simply didn't have them. Knowing that means you can better distinguish between what the Rambam said, and what we extrapolate he would have said today.

    For example, the spheres are both mediating forces in nature, and the source of fate. To us, nature and fate are distinct (and sometimes viewed as conflicting) concepts.


  22. >For example, the spheres are both mediating forces in nature, and the source of fate.

    R. Micha, re source of fate, I don't think Rambam would agree though Ramban would for those who are not righteous and Jewish.

  23. Fate isn't hashgachah peratis, it's mazal. It's something we don't have room for in today's physics, which is sort of my point.

  24. R.Micha

    I don't think I made myself clear. Rambam is not goress mazal.