Sunday, January 21, 2007

Maimonides and Spinoza on Prophecy I

We previously explored Spinoza's critique of the Maimonidean approach to reconciling Scripture with reason. In this installment of our series on Maimonides and Spinoza, we will examine their difference of opinion regarding the nature and purpose of prophetic inspiration.

It is fairly well known that the Rambam views prophecy as the most advanced level of intellectual apprehension that the human mind can attain. When an individual reaches a point of extraordinary depth in his comprehension of God's wisdom, a totally new dimension of Divine knowledge may open up to him. For Maimonides, a personal encounter with this dimension of Divine Wisdom is the very essence of prophetic inspiration.

Like all human understanding, prophecy operates via the cooperation of two agencies of the soul - the imagination and the intellect. Generally speaking, when we reflect upon a matter of interest, we manipulate images and impressions we have received through our senses in an attempt to uncover the pattern or principle that they display to us. The "Aha!" moment of discovery occurs when a rather confusing collection of sense data is suddenly illuminated and made coherent by an abstract concept. Once that unifying concept is brought forth, we look upon the information differently in light of it. The data now appear simple, well ordered and intelligible. Our very perception and recollection has been transformed by the introduction of a principle or idea.

A prophet's intellect and imagination are well attuned to God's wisdom and are thus highly receptive to profound "Aha" experiences. The imagery presented to the prophet in prophecy serves as a vehicle through which his mind can derive a deeper understanding of the Divine plan. As soon as the prophetic dream sequence appears to the prophet, his intellect apprehends the underlying message it is designed to convey.

What distinguishes prophetic insight from ordinary intellectual growth is threefold. First, prophecy requires the complete isolation of the imagination from any outside influence, so as to ensure that the only force shaping it is the reality of God's truth that is being disclosed. This is why all prophets, with the exception of Moshe, only receive prophecy while asleep, and find it to be quite overwhelming. This prevents any "interference" from the world of sense perception. Second, the certainty of prophecy is intrinsic - the prophet knows the truth of what has been revealed to him, but cannot necessarily demonstrate why it is true. Finally, prophecy can be withheld from a potential prophet, even if he is fully prepared for the experience.

Since Maimonides maintains that prophecy is really an elevated form of metaphysical insight, it is obvious why he holds that prophets are capable of receiving philosophical, theological and moral messages through inspiration. Spinoza takes issue with this view and argues that, in fact, the prophets are nothing more than passionate moralists with rich imaginations. In the second chapter of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza writes,

It follows from the last chapter, as I have already stated, that the prophets were not endowed with a more perfect mind, but with a more vivid power of imagination...Those with a more powerful imagination are less fitted for purely intellectual activity, while those who devote themselves to the cultivation of their more powerful intellect, keep their imagination under greater control and restraint, and they hold it in rein, as it were, so that it should not invade the province of the intellect. Therefore, those who look to find understanding and knowledge of things natural and spiritual in the books of the Prophets go far astray...(p.21)

According to Spinoza, the Prophets are neither theologians nor philosophers; in fact, he argues, many of their ideas about God and angels are deficient and even contradictory:

…Prophecy varied not only with the imagination and temperament of each prophet, but also with the beliefs in which they had brought up, and that their prophesying never made the prophets more learned…God adapted His revelations to the understanding and beliefs of the prophets, who may well have been ignorant of matters that have no bearing on charity and moral conduct but concern philosophic speculation, and were in fact ignorant of them, holding conflicting beliefs. Therefore knowledge of science and matters spiritual should by no means be expected of them. So we conclude that we must believe the prophets only with regard to the purpose and substance of the revelation. (p.22, 33)

Thus, in Spinoza's view, the prophets are poetic souls whose message is divine not because of its metaphysical underpinnings, but because of its ethical content - that is, the fact that they preach to the people about the virtues of charity and justice is what makes their communications "holy" and "inspired". The subjects that concern the prophets are not philosophical; if they were, they would be more appropriately left to natural reason than to revelation.

Much of Spinoza's effort to limit the scope of prophetic influence was motivated by a desire to establish the legitimacy of independent philosophical inquiry, and to show that the analysis of metaphysical questions need not be influenced by the words of the prophets, who were not experts on these matters. He thus relegated the significance of the prophets to the realm of morality and virtue alone, and justified his dismissal of their philosophical opinions.

How would the Rambam respond to Spinoza's analysis of prophecy? Is it possible to demonstrate that the prophets were, in fact, competent theologians who taught us meaningful philosophical ideas as well as moral lessons?

To be continued soon in the next installment....


Anasazi said...

>He thus relegated the significance of the prophets to the realm of morality and virtue alone, and justified his dismissal of their philosophical opinions.

A consequence of Spinoza's pantheism is that a prophet should feel that he merges with God (not unlike the mystical experiences in the Far East).
However, the Biblical prophets felt that they were facing God as separate entity, and always maintained their identity in His presence.

B. Spinoza said...

I know this is an old post, but do you ever plan on returning to this discussion?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Honestly, just this week I was thinking of how to reopen/complete this series...coming soon!!!

B. Spinoza said...

I'd guess it has something to do with the fact that I posted on your blog recently which then triggered your Spinoza memory

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