Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vayigash (Rambam)

Prophecy: Human and Divine Roots

This week’s parsha seemingly leaves the visionary motifs present in the last five portions to focus upon the figure of Joseph as a practical man of affairs. Following the dramatic, heart-rending scene in which he reveals his true identity to his brothers, we encounter him as the practical “doer” in the family, busily arranging everything for the sojourn in Egypt of his brothers and especially of his elderly father, and in his public persona as architect of the new socio–economic regime in Egypt. (Thomas Mann, in his famous Joseph quadrilogy, compares him here to FDR.)

Nevertheless, just below the surface there remains a close connection to vision and prophecy. First and foremost, in the fulfillment of the visions that came earlier—the telos and mark of truth of any prophecy: the realization of the dreams of the sheaves and the stars, when Joseph becomes the leader and savior of his family; and in that of Pharaoh’s dream of the seven lean and seven fat ears of grain and cows. These latter are not only fulfilled but, through rational, careful advance planning, are dealt with, their deleterious consequences for the Egyptian population being softened somewhat. (The side results of this policy pose a problem from a modern, egalitarian, democratic socialist perspective—but that’s another story.)

But this parsha contains elements of vision even in the literal sense. In the midst of this intimate family reunion, Jacob is shown undergoing visionary, theocentric experiences. God appears to Jacob as he is about to descend to Egypt, and tells him not to fear (46:2-4). Then, at 46:29, when Joseph falls on Jacob’s neck weeping, Jacob does not reciprocate, but, according to the midrash cited by Rashi, “Our Rabbis said that he was reading Shema.” In the very next verse, Jacob’s statement that “I shall die this time” is interpreted as: “I thought I would die twice—in this world and the next, because the Shekhinah had departed from me (i.e., during the period of separation from Joseph, when he was grieving; perhaps because the Divine spirit only rests on one who is joyous, and not on one chronically depressed and melancholy)….” (God willing, we shall examine these midrashim more deeply on some future occasion.)

Returning to the matter of Rambam’s approach to prophecy and vision, which I began last week: this chapter is very important for understanding Maimonides, and specifically for what I referred to at the beginning of this series as his “spirituality.” This passage contains perhaps the quintessence of his vision of the ideal human being, mores so than any other place in his oeuvre. Indeed, some scholars (the late Shlomo Pines, for example) hold that Rambam considered himself a prophet. I quote from Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah (“Fundaments of the Torah”), Chapter 7:

1) It is one of the foundations of the Law to know that God causes human beings to prophesy. But prophecy only rests upon a wise man, who is great in wisdom, heroic in character, and who is never overwhelmed by his Impulse regarding any thing in the world, but always overcomes his Impulse, and he is a person of exceedingly broad and correct mental compass.

There are three important points to be noted in this opening sentence. First, the centrality of belief in prophecy from the dogmatic viewpoint, as one of the fundaments of Jewish faith. Rambam, as we noted in an earlier issue, reduces to a minimum the number of things a Jew is required to take “on faith,”—viz., miracles, the nature of the afterlife, of Providence, etc. But he is very insistent on the centrality of belief in prophecy, and in what it implies: the possibility of communication between the Divine and the human; and its corollary: belief in the Sinaitic revelation, which is unique, sui generis, of a higher order than other kinds of prophecy, but ultimately a manifestation of the same basic conception. We shall return to this point later.

Second, prophecy requires certain definite qualities on the part of the human being who is the recipient of prophecy, as well as long, arduous preparation, which he describes below. A person’s being chosen as a prophet is not arbitrary. This is different from the conventional image, in which the prophet is called suddenly “out of the blue.” From the literal sense of the Biblical text, there is no indication what preparation was undergone by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like. In some cases, we are told something of their prophetic “call,” and even of their resistance to their mission, but we know nothing specific about their character per se.

Third, there are certain specific qualities that Rambam deems essential for prophecy. These involve a combination of intellectual and moral qualities: that he be a hakham, presumably in the sense of a Torah sage; that he be of outstanding moral character; that he have iron self-control and will-power, never (NEVER! Think about what that would mean!) surrendering to his ordinary urges or drives. Finally, he must have “exceedingly broad and correct mental compass” (ba’al de’ah rehava nekhona ‘ad me’od). What does this mean? What is the nature of this knowledge? How does it differ from ordinary intelligence? Does it refer to extensive knowledge of natural science? Or does it also include a broad cultural orientation, knowledge of the best of human thought and creativity? (This issue was one of the central axes of discussion at the Soloveitchik Centennial Conference held this past week: how did the Rav see the relationship between secular or general thought and Torah knowledge, and how, by implication. ought his disciples to see them?)

A person who is filled with all these qualities and whole in body: when he enters into Pardes and delves into those great and distant matters, and he has correct intellect to understand and to apprehend them; and he progressively sanctifies himself, and withdraws from the ways of the masses of the people who walk in darkness. And he continuously exerts himself, training himself not to have any thought of any trivial things, nor of transient vanities and their deceits, but his mind is constantly open toward Heaven, connected beneath the throne of Glory, to understand those holy and pure forms, and he gazes at [meditates upon?] all the wisdom of the Holy One blessed be He, from the first form to the navel of the earth; and he knows from them His greatness.

Here we have a description of the stage of preparation leading to prophecy. It seems very similar to the mystical state. Indeed, it appears that, in potentia, prophecy is the natural next stage or culmination of the mystical experience (whose ultimate goal is some sort of vision or knowledge of God, albeit without the component of mission or message to the public that is the hallmark of prophecy). He even uses the word Pardes, used in the Talmud (Hagiggah, Ch. 2) to refer to the esoteric secrets of the Torah. Several salient points here: a) an essential stage is a certain withdrawal from ordinary social intercourse, from constant involvement with other people. If not becoming an actual hermit, the potential prophet separates himself from the community and spends most of his time alone (see Deot 6.1, which we will discuss in due course); b) a corollary of this is negation of hevlei hazeman, of the trivial or transient pursuits that occupy so much of the average person’s time; c) the contemplative element—the prophet prepares himself through acquiring knowledge of God, through meditation upon His greatness. This is accomplished through reflection upon “the wisdom of the Holy One blessed be He, from the first form to the navel of the earth”—that is, the subjects of physics and metaphysics outlined in Yesodei ha-Torah 2.3 - 4.12.

To summarize, the prerequisites of prophecy are Intellectual, moral, and contemplative. These, it must be noted, are necessary but not sufficient conditions of prophecy. As Rambam states explicitly a little bit later, prophecy is not simply a natural phenomenon: there is a clear element of Divine will involved: at times the Holy Sprit rests upon such a person, at times it does not.

Immediately the holy spirit rests upon him. And when the spirit rests upon him, his spirit shall be upon the level of the angels known as ishim, and he becomes another person, and he will understand by himself that he is not as he was before, but that he has ascended above the level of the other sages, as it was said of Saul, “And you shall prophesy with them and become another person” [1 Sam 10:6].


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