Monday, June 01, 2020

R. Arama tips his hand at the beginning of the nineteenth sha’ar, telling us he intends to contrast the Torah’s version of prophecy to the one advanced by philosophers, among whom he includes several traditional thinkers (he singles out Ralbag, as we will see). He is invested in the topic, in other words, because a common view seems to him to run counter to the Torah’s.

Philosophers and Chazal do agree people need to fulfill certain prerequisites for prophecy. Nedarim 38a records R. Yochanan’s statement Hashem only rests the Divine Presence on a chacham, gibor, and ‘ashir, one wise, strong, and rich. The uneducated do not realize this truth; they think God can and does decide to visit prophecy on random people, of no qualifications.

Rambam, Guide II;34, agreed with one aspect of the popular view, prophecy only happens when Hashem decides to make a person a prophet. To Rambam, it explains our certainty an idolater could never achieve prophecy—Hashem would never have reason to bestow it on such a person. He reads Moshe’s request ve-niflinu ani ve-‘amecha, let us (the Jewish people) be different from all other nations as meaning prophecy, to make it attainable only through the kind of service Hashem laid out in the Torah, unavailable to anyone who worships any other power.

Prophecy In One’s Own Image

Philosophers engraved prophecy in their own image, defining a prophet as one who acts as the intellect deems proper. Sustained excellence in actions makes a prophet of action, one who develops his/her intellect to the highest level becomes a prophet of insight. They envisioned a clear ladder, from grammar to logic to mathematics and on, with metaphysics the last rung, the study of which gives knowledge of God.

R. Arama objects to the conflation of prophecy and logic. He notes the philosophers themselves offered the parable of a blind man cured one day. He will already have known the city well from his wanderings while sightliess, will now have added enjoyment, deepened knowledge of the city, although not a radically different experience. It’s the same city.

They miss a crucial aspect of prophecy, its ability to reveal aspects of the world inaccessible to intellect alone. Their insistence their human intellect can find all needed knowledge traps them in the error of the serpent in Eden, the misguided overemphasis on the Tree of Knowledge we saw in R. Arama’s reading of Bereshit.

Philosophers are trapped by their dedication to their intellects, can only accept what they can understand, leading them to deny the miracles in Tanach, stuck in their materialist (chomri) view of the world. [An error sadly rampant in our time as well.]

The Damage They Cause

They misled the masses to reject important ideas of faith, such as providence, which in turn makes people insufficiently grateful to Hashem for the bounty of the Divine Will. People think there’s no reason to thank Hashem or pray, because life follows the course of Nature [another idea with strong contemporary parallels]. Sure the world is set, with no room for divine reward or punishment, people end up saying what the Midrash denigrates as the height of heresy: leit din ve-leit dayyan, there is no judgment and no Judge (God forbid), leading people to deny the need for fear of Heaven.

At the same time, such people are confident they have improved themselves as necessary or valuable, a tendency Mishlei 30;12 decried as dor tahor be-‘einav, a generation pure in its own eyes. R. Arama again likens them to the serpent, who falsely told us we can figure out life, when in fact we will see life clearly only when we immerse in the cleansing waters of the Godly wisdom of the Torah (his metaphor, not mine).

Their overconfidence irks him especially regarding prophecy, because the human intellect can only understand as much about Hashem as Hashem shows us. Philosophers insist the only truths worth knowing can be deduced logically, letting them overestimate how much they understand [an idea still true today, where intellectuals look at what they and colleagues have accomplished, and satisfy themselves they either have discovered or are on the verge of knowing all—only to be blindsided by a complete revolution in their field.]

R. Arama mentions Yechezekl 29;3, where Hashem mocks Pharaoh for his claim to own the Nile, to have made it, and Ovadyah 1;3, where Edom flatters itself for living in the high rocks, oblivious to those rocks also being the limit of how high they can go (when there’s a whole sky above them). They model the attitude R. Arama decries, being too impressed with themselves.

By Gidon Rothstein


Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.

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