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Lebovic 1

Malka Lebovic
Dr. Rynhold
The Early Modern Period: Spinoza and Mendelssohn
Fall 2014

The Prophetic Vision: An Examination of the Role of


Prophecy in the Thought of Maimonides and Spinoza
Scripture is replete with instances of divine revelation in the form of
prophecy. Perhaps, the Bible can even be categorized as a chronicled
account of the prophetic experience; the narrative of the interaction between
man and God. Therefore, understanding the prophet and the role of prophecy
is essential to properly interpreting our biblical history. In this paper I
explore Maimonides and Spinozas descriptions of the prophet in the hopes
of better understanding the role of prophecy and what, if any, its relevance is
for us today.
In Maimonides Introduction to Perek Helek, he identifies thirteen
principles upon which our religion is based. 1 The sixth fundamental principle
is prophecy.2 Maimonides writes, Among men are found certain individuals
so gifted and perfected that they can receive pure intellectual form. Their
human intellect clings to the Active Intellect, whither it is gloriously raised.
These men are the prophets; this is what prophecy is.3 Here Maimonides
describes men with intellects of such a high caliber that they are capable of
understanding truths unreachable by the average man. This process of
1 This view of prophecy is not exclusive to Maimonides Introduction to Perek Helek.
A similar definition is given in his Commentary on the Mishnah and Shmonei
Perakim. I am using Perek Helek as representative of this view.
2 The discussion of prophecy in this paper is limited to regular instances of prophecy and not the
exceptional case of Mosaic prophecy which according to Maimonides thirteen principles is its own
independent principle (the seventh fundamental principle).
3 Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1972), pgs. 418-419

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clinging to the Active Intellect to receive prophecy has been explained by


some using the imagery of a radio.4 The radio is perpetually transmitting
signals, but only men with perfected intellects can tune into the correct
station and tap into the divine via the Active Intellect. Understood in this
way, prophecy does not cause any change in God (which would present
certain philosophical problems to Gods perfection), rather, it reflects a
progression, a development within man. By perfecting himself, man can
broaden the reception of his spiritual antenna.5 The Active Intellect is
constantly overflowing, or emanating, from the divine. While the Acquired
Intellect is the knowledge that man embodies, his human intellect. When the
Acquired Intellect clings to the Active Intellect it transforms from potentiality
into actuality. Since abstract contemplation is universally true, when the
Acquired Intellect develops it can share the exact same knowledge as the
Active Intellect. This is how the two can become one and the same.
Therefore, an enhanced and developed understanding of fundamental truths
and the workings of the world, namely, a perfection of the rational faculty
allows the human intellect to achieve union with the Active Intellect.6
When Maimonides constructed the thirteen principles of faith, he intended
these principles to be available to the masses. Unlike some of his more
esoteric writings, these principles are fundamental and must be internalized
by every Jew. Maimonides principles have become so essential to Jewish life
4 Rav Eli Hadad in his sixth shiur on prophecy (available online through the Israel Koschitzky Virtual
Beit Midrash) successfully explains the Active Intellect in laymens terms: According to the medieval
understanding of existence, which Maimonides fully ascribed to, between God and the material world
there are matter-less intellectual beings...each one influencing in some way the natural order of the
material world. The active intellect refers to the lowest intellectual being that influences our sublunar
world. This entity may be viewed as the supreme law of nature in our world.
5 Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Maimonides Essential Teachings on Jewish Faith and Ethics: the Book of
Knowledge and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2012), pg. 156
6 Alvin J. Reines, Maimonides Concept of Mosaic Prophecy (Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute
of Cincinatti) pg. 327

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they appear in the siddur and songs and prayers have been written about
them. It is interesting to note Maimonides intended audience particularly in
contradistinction to that of the Guide to the Perplexed which was written for
a specific student with a clear stipulation to safeguard its truths from those
people who may be incapable of comprehending them and therefore could
distort the true meaning of his work. Maimonides employs many tactics, in
the Guide, to preserve its esotericism such as intentional contradictions,
obscure language, difficult content, and some have even argued that the
views Maimonides blatantly puts forth are not the ones he agrees with,
rather, those least spoken about contain the most truth.7 Bearing these
distinctions in mind, it is quite noteworthy that Maimonides definition of
prophecy in his Introduction to Perek Helek fails to mention a seemingly
essential element of prophecy and quality of the prophet that is described at
length in the Guide. This, of course, is the imaginative component.
In the Guide Maimonides outlines three different views of prophecy
that of the Pagans (the masses), the Philosophers, and Jewish Law.8 The
Pagans believe that God miraculously selects a man and turns him into a
prophet. There is nothing man can do on his own to receive prophecy. God
can choose a wise man or a foolish man, an old man or a young man. The
Philosophers have an equally extreme view yet with the focus on man. They
maintain that prophecy is a natural result of a certain intellectual and moral
perfection. If man reaches this high stature, he will become aware of certain
truths previously unknown and thereby prophecy will be bestowed upon him.
God does not choose, in effect, God plays no role in who receives prophecy.
According to this position, it is not possible for a man to be worthy of
prophecy and not receive it, being fit for prophecy and receiving prophecy
are one in the same. The final view that of Jewish Law is synonymous with
7 Maimonides, Shlomo Pines, the Guide of the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press, 1963)
Introduction pgs.5-20
8 Ibid, Secton II, Chapter 32 pgs. 360-363.

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the Philosophers position except for one caveat. God can, by an act of divine
will, prevent an otherwise fit individual from receiving a prophetic vision. 9 In
both the second opinion and the third the imaginative faculty plays an
essential role: his imaginative faculty is in its most perfect statehe will
necessarily become a prophet,10 the true reality and quiddity of prophecy
consists in its being an overflowof the Active Intellect, toward the rational
faculty in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative facultythis
state is the ultimate term of perfection for the imaginative faculty.11 It is
interesting that such an integral part of the prophetic experience is
completely left out in Maimonides account of prophecy in Perek Helek.
The imaginative element is what separates the prophet from the
philosopher. A philosopher could possess the same wisdom as a prophet,
however the imaginative faculty is what enables the prophet to be a political
leader. Both receive an influx of knowledge from the Active Intellect on to the
rational faculty (knowledge of philosophical truths, basic concepts, and the
like) but the prophet also receives the influx on his imaginative faculty
granting him political prowess. The statesman only has the political expertise
without the rational guidance that clarifies and instructs.12 This discussion of
these three different types of influential people further identifies the

9 The line between the philosophic position and Maimonides position becomes complicated when you
try to define divine will. It seems that Maimonides very naturalistic understanding of divine will could
conflate the distinction between these two positions. Some scholars have argued that the more esoteric
and therefore correct reading of Maimonides is the philosophic understanding of prophecy while others
have preserved the distinction between the opinions of the philosophers and Jewish Law.
10 The Guide, II:32 361
11 Ibid, II:36 369
12 S. Daniel Breslauer, Philosophy and Imagination: The Politics of Prophecy in the
View of Moses Maimonides (The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 70, No. 3
(Jan., 1980), pp. 153-171), pg. 155

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importance of the imaginative faculty.13 The imagination element is not


simply a subsidiary component; rather it is the distinguishing characteristic
between the philosopher and the prophet.
Taking the role of the prophet into consideration, it is clear why a
perfected imagination is essential to the job description. Often times the
prophet is called upon to relay a message to the masses who do not have
perfect rational faculties. Therefore, the prophet must use various
imaginative tools to make the prophecy intelligible to the masses through
methods such as parables, signs and symbols.14 Pines in his book
Maimonides and Philosophy describes this political function of the prophet,
[the prophet] helps to restore virtuous action and communal order within a
particular communitythis use of signs and wonders points to the exercise
of the imaginative faculty by the prophet, who thereby is able to influence
the masses to gain wisdom or act in accordance with the divine will.15While
the philosopher can perpetually reside in the proverbial ivory tower and fuel
his intellect, the prophet cannot accomplish his prophetic duties disengaged
from the community he inspires and therefore must have a perfect
imagination to fulfill the statesman elements of his divine task.
Spinoza, like Maimonides in the Guide, emphasizes the importance of the
prophets imaginative faculty. However, in doing so, he rejects the primary
role of the rational faculty arguing that the rational and imaginative faculties
have a type of inverse relationship: the greater the imagination, the weaker
the intellect and the greater the intellect the more controlled and more

13 The Guide II: 37, pg. 374


14 Shlomo Pines, Maimonides and Philosophy (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers,
Netherlands, 1986) pg. 193
15 Ibid, 194

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modest power of imagination. 16 The prophets vivid imagination is at the


expense of a perfected rational faculty. For Maimonides, the prophet receives
rational information and is skilled enough to break it down to the imagination
in a way that the masses will understand it. For Spinoza, the prophet
receives the imaginative component and turns it into something rational and
understandable.
In his Theological-Political Treatise (TTP), Spinoza defines a prophet as
someone who interprets things revealed by God to those who cannot
themselves achieve certain knowledge of them and can therefore only grasp
by simple faith what has been revealed.17This definition of the role of the
prophet indicates the important relationship the prophet has with the
community at large. It is the prophets duty to enlighten the masses who are
incapable of their own enlightenment. Already through Spinozas
understanding of the role of the prophet it is clear that the imaginative
property must play an essential role as the prophets duties revolve around
his ability to coherently transmit higher level information to the more simple
minded. Indeed Spinoza highlights the significance of the prophets vivid
imagination over a developed intellect. As he writes, therefore prophecy
does not require a more perfect mind but a more vivid imagination.18
Even though prophecy resides in the realm of the imagination it is not
made-up, prophets deal with truth. However, the truth they relay is
specifically moral truths. Spinoza describes the three requirements for
prophetic certainty thereby acknowledging the importance of an objective

16 Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (Cambridge University Press, New York:


2007) pg. 27
17 Ibid, pg. 13
18 Ibid, pg. 20

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means by which to ascertain whether a said revelation is indeed prophetic.19


This type of external criteria to determine reality is only necessary if
something can be right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Prophecy, for Spinoza,
is accountable to truth and must be real. Spinoza qualifies the spectrum of
prophetic truth, the certainty the prophets derived from signs was not
mathematical certaintybut only moral certainty.20 Even if a particular
prophet had a false perception of God, God still revealed Himself to the
prophet in that false way because the form of prophecy is not nearly as
important as the goal it achieves in inspiring and encouraging the people.
For example, Adam believed God was confined to a particular space and
therefore God hid Himself from Adam and was revealed to Adam as if God
was unaware of Adams sin. Similarly Noah, who believed nobody resided
outside of Palestine believed God destroyed the entire human race with the
flood.21 A prophet can be ignorant of philosophical and mathematical truths
as long as they are of excellent moral character and inspire the public to do
good thus creating a more peaceful and moral community.
Spinoza draws on the Scriptural accounts of prophecy for support. Biblical
characters who did not possess developed intellects received prophecy (ex:
Hagar), prophecy and miracles adapted to fit the philosophical views of the
receiving prophet (ex: Joshua and the sun), prophecy encouraged repentance
and moral acts (ex: Isaiahs exhortation of the people to pursue social
19 It is not objective in the sense that it is similarly true for all, as Spinoza admits
that what may convince one prophet would not convince a different prophet (TTP,
30). Rather, it is objective in that although prophecy is presented to the
imaginative faculty, certainty is achieved by appealing to the prophets reason
which takes it out of the subjective realm of his mind and into the more objective
sphere of logical reasoning despite the fact that this type of logic is still subjective
to the prophets particular convictions and temperament.
20 TTP pg. 30
21 Ibid pg. 35

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justice), and due to the changing nature of imagination prophecy was rare
and even among the prophets (for the most part) occurred occasionally and
fleetingly (ex: Balaam). For Spinoza, prophecy can be understood as a lower
level alternative to philosophy as opposed to Maimonides view where the
prophet has all the skills of the philosopher plus the additional quality of the
imagination. In an ideal world where everyone has perfectly developed
intellects there would be no need for Spinozas prophet, however,
Maimonides prophet would have as important a role as ever. Norman Brown
in his article, Philosophy and Prophecy: Spinozas Hermeneutics draws a
comparison between Kants definition of tutelage as mans inability to make
use of his understanding without direction from another and Spinozas
definition of prophecy as someone who interprets for those who are
incapable on their own. Prophecy is below self sufficiency, below what Kant
terms enlightenment, namely the ability to achieve unaided understanding.22
The historical reality of the Hebrews following their Exodus from Egypt
required prophetic guidance. The Hebrews were primitive and reduced to
the most abject slavery therefore, it is fitting that Moses did not teach them
anything besides a way of life, and that not as a philosopher, so that they
might eventually live well, from liberty of mind, but as a legislator obliging
them to live well by command of the lawworship and love of God was more
servitude to them than true liberty.23 Prophecy is distinct from philosophy in
that it does not encourage free thinking. Heidi Ravven in an article discussing
Spinoza as a response to Maimonidean philosophy notes this point, he writes
we can turn to Spinoza who articulates a relevant principle Reason
promotes autonomy whereas imagination, servitude.24 For Spinoza,
prophecy resides in the realm of imagination which is perfectly befitting its
22 Norman Brown, Philosophy and Prophecy: Spinoza's Hermeneutics (Sage
Publications inc. Political Theory, Vol. 14, No. 2. May, 1986) Pg. 197-198
23 TTP, pg. 38-39

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goal of servitude and obedience particularly in moral matters. Prophecy


viewed in this way can be understood as a stepping stone for the, indeed,
more developed state of being philosophy. Brown writes, Philosophic
freedom emerges as humanity outgrows the need for authority; philosophy
itself is a new and more enlightened chapter in the history of prophecy 25 For
Spinoza, philosophy is a perfected form of prophecy.26 This is drastically
different than Maimonides understanding of the relationship between
prophecy and philosophy.
For Maimonides, prophecy is the highest level of enlightenment a human
being can achieve. In order to receive divine revelation, the prophet must
already have the qualities of an excellent philosopher and a prolific
statesman. Prophecy is the pinnacle of human perfection. Indeed,
Maimonides maintained that Moses, whose revelation surpassed that of the
ordinary prophet, was superior in attaining the knowledge of God to any
other person who ever lived or ever will live. He surpassed the normal
human condition and attained the angelic, thereby acknowledging that the
most enlightened man is the prophet, and the most enlightened prophet is
Moses. 27 Prophecy, for Maimonides, is not a stepping-stone for a more
elevated state of existence, rather prophecy itself is the culmination of
human achievement. Although Maimonides, like Spinoza, stresses the
importance of the imaginative faculty on prophecy, it is Maimonides

24 Heidi M Ravven, Some thoughts on what Spinoza learned from Maimonides


about the prophetic imagination part 1. Maimonides on Prophecy and the
imagination (Johns Hopkins University Press, Journal of the History of Philosophy Vol.
39, Issue 2, Baltimore April 2001) pgs. 193-214
25 Brown, pg. 198
26 Ibid, pg. 201
27 Maimonides, Introduction to Perek Helek. The 7th fundamental principle.

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incorporation of the perfected rational faculty as well that prevents


philosophy from superseding prophecy.
The Maimonidean and Spinozan divide regarding the proper place for
prophecy in the hierarchical scheme of human intellectual development
affects their respective understandings of the importance of biblical
prophecy. Spinozas view lends itself to make prophecy obsolete. Indeed,
Spinoza argues:
We are not required to believe the prophets in anything beyond what
constitutes the end and substance of revelationfor example, the
revelation of Cain only teaches us that God admonished Cain to lead a
true lifealthough the words and reasonings of that admonition very
clearly entail freedom of the will, we are nevertheless permitted to adopt
a contrary opinion, since those words and reasons were merely adapted
to Cains understanding.28
The idea being that while we can look to the prophetic narratives in scripture
for moral inspiration if we so desire, they do not have the force of law and
are not necessarily universally applicable. Just as Spinoza understands the
ritual laws given to the Hebrews as particular and applicable only to the
political reality of the Jews at that time and nowadays hold no special merit,
so too Spinoza understands prophecy as befitting only the particular prophet
and receiving community of the time. That is not to say we cannot learn
things from internalizing past prophecies, however, their essential
importance is gravely diminished. As remarked earlier, even at the time,
prophecy was essential for those who were incapable of achieving moral
truths on their own; however, for those who did live a good life, prophecy
was unnecessary for them. Therefore, prophecy is almost a short-cut for the
needy at a particular point in time. This perspective certainly undermines the
traditional lofty and reverent perception of prophecy belittling its essence to
a pragmatic function for the unenlightened multitudes particularly in the
28 TTP, pg. 40-41

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wake of their transition from slaves to freemen (and earlier as nomadic


simpletons).

In stark opposition, Maimonides view enables the significance of


prophecy to prosper with the passing of time as opposed to diminish in
importance. The prophet has the ability to gain access to essential divine
truths as he taps into the overflow of divinity in the form of the Active
Intellect. As prophecy has all but disappeared in our current times it is even
more essential that we cling to the teachings and knowledge of the prophets
who achieved the peak of human perfection. Through understanding
Maimonides position it is apparent why prophecy makes it into the thirteen
principles of faith. The prophet relays objective (and often universal) truths
regarding a wide array of knowledge (moral, philosophical, spiritual,
mathematic, etc.). To reject belief in the prophet is to reject the truth of his
prophecy. A prophet is revealed to be authentic or false based on the content
of his prophecy thereby blending the distinction between the prophet and
that which he prophesizes. For it is the prophecy that makes the prophet and
the belief in the prophet, required as a principle of faith, that confirms the
importance of his revelation. Interestingly, the point that makes prophecy
relevant and important is that it contains eternal truths. It is the prophets
perfection of his rational faculty that enables him to receive rational
knowledge that transcends the confines of time and space. This difference in
the content of prophecy for Spinoza and Maimonides, resulting in a varying
hierarchical order of the statesman, prophet, and philosopher, is the only
element of prophecy stipulated in the thirteen principles of faith. Despite
Maimonides emphasis on the imaginative faculty (highlighted in the Guide),
when it comes to demanding unequivocal faith in prophecy, it is only the
rational faculty that is mentioned as it is specifically this component that
grants prophecy its eternal significance and worthy place in the thirteen
principles of faith.

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For both Maimonides and Spinoza, prophecy is a universal human


experience not specific to Jews,29 prophecy is a natural phenomenon,30 and
prophecy relies heavily on the imaginative faculty.31 However, for
Maimonides in order to receive prophecy the prophet must have a certain
level of wisdom and moral character32, while for Spinoza prophecy is
exclusive to moral perfection.33 The intellect is stressed over the imagination
for Maimonides, while Spinoza does not attribute a significant role to the
intellect. However, in doing so Spinoza is not belittling the imagination, in
fact, he makes it very clear that since the prophets perceived the things
revealed by God through their imaginations, there is no doubt that they may
have grasped much beyond the limits of the intellect. For far more ideas can
be formed from words and images than from the principles and concepts
alone...34 The imagination, understood in this way, occupies an elevated
status. Additionally, according to Spinoza, natural knowledge is divine but it
is not prophecy because although natural reason depends on knowledge of
God it is accessible to all and therefore, other men may discern and
embrace what they teach with as much certainty and entitlement as they do
themselves. They do not just accept it on faith.35 Spinoza still considers
natural reason and philosophic truths important (perhaps even more so than
29 Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah 7:1; Maimonides Epistle to Yemen; Spinoza, TTP,
Chapter 3 in general, but more directly in Ch. 3 Section 8 pg. 49.
30 I Samuel 10:6; the Guide II:32; TTP pg. 43-44
31 See earlier in the paper for specific quotes supporting this claim
32 Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah 7:1;the Guide II:32
33 TTP, pg. 23
34 Ibid, pg. 26
35 Ibid, pgs. 14-15

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prophecy) but they cannot be constituted as prophecy, while for Maimonides,


natural knowledge can be part of the greater canon of prophecy.
While the above similarities and distinctions are apparent between
Maimonides and Spinozas perspectives on prophecy, Maimonides view still
retains an element of esotericism given the differing accounts presented in
the Guide and his introduction to Perek Helek. Perhaps Maimonides Mishnah
Torah can bridge the gap between his two views. In the Mishnah Torah,
Maimonides outlines two different tasks of the prophet: personal and
communal. In Yesodei Hatorah, Maimonides describes these two tasks, it is
possible that the prophets prophecy will be for himself alone to broaden his
mind and to increase his knowledge, so that he will come to know what he
previously had not known concerning the above mentioned great matters.36
In this instance, the prophets task is personal and this revelation exclusively
requires his rational faculty as it focuses on broadening his knowledge of
physics and metaphysics. This description of prophecy, which makes no
mention of the imaginative faculty, is compatible with the account of
prophecy written in the Introduction to Perek Helek and Maimonides
Commentary on the Mishna.37 The prophetic account in Yesodei Hatorah
continues, thereby elucidating the second role of the prophet his communal
tasks. It is also possible that the prophet will be sent to a particular people
to give them wisdom or to announce to them what they must do or to
prevent them from doing the evil actions in which they are engaged. And
when he is sent he is given a sign or wonder so that the people will know
that God, in truth, has sent him.38 This second description of prophecy
requires the imaginative and rational faculties of the prophet and is
compatible with the view purported in the Guide. Therefore, it is possible to
36 Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah 7:6
37 Pines, pg. 193
38 Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah 7:6

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reconcile the two different accounts of prophecy, in light of the dual


description in the Mishnah Torah, not as two contradictory explanations,
rather as putting forth two distinct tasks of the prophet both of which are
equally authentic39. While this clears up the confusion of potential
contradiction, it does not resolve the more relevant question of why
Maimonides chose to compartmentalize the tasks of the prophet, describing
the communal without any mention of the personal in the Guide, and the
personal, without any indication of the communal in his Introduction to Perek
Helek.
A possible answer surfaces when understanding the greater contexts and
goals of Maimonides different works. As mentioned earlier, The Commentary
on the Mishna and his Introduction to Perek Helek, were written and made
available for the masses. The thirteen principles of faith are eternal dictums
required by all Jews regardless of intellectual ability. In sharp contrast, the
Guide was written for a particular student of stellar mental ability and is
extremely complex and intentionally rigorous. While you can learn from the
biblical prophetic narratives, the prophets communal tasks were relevant to
a specific time and place, for example, Jonahs prophecy to convince the
people of Nineveh to repent. There is an abundance of lessons one can take
away from the story, but the content itself does not contain eternal truths
essential to future generations. Therefore, in outlining the thirteen principles
of faith, it is particularly the personal prophetic experience that makes an
appearance. For the acknowledgment of the existence of prophecy is a
cornerstone to our faith in Gods ability and interaction with man and the
content of the personal component of the prophet contain truths whose
significance and relevance will never cease. On the other hand, the
discussion of prophecy in the Guide has a particular focus on interpreting the
39 This method of resolving contradictions is in line with the fourth cause out of
seven causes of contrary statements delineated by Maimonides in his introduction
to the Guide.

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scriptural accounts of prophecy, comparing the Jewish view of prophecy to


that of the masses and the philosopher, and comparing ordinary prophecy to
Mosaic prophecy. All these goals require a focus on the communal element of
the prophet: in interpreting scripture it is important to understand the biblical
narratives in the context in which they occurred (most of these narratives
involve a prophet fulfilling his communal duties), the pagan and philosophic
prophet occupies a role of statesmanship so that component of the Jewish
prophet is most relevant to the discussion, and one of the major distinctions
between Mosaic and ordinary prophecy was that Mosaic prophecy was
completely rational without any need for interpretation using the imaginative
faculty. Therefore, in showing the contrast between ordinary prophecy and
Mosaic prophecy it is essential to discuss ordinary prophecy that involves the
imaginative faculty (in addition to the rational) which appears with the
prophets communal tasks.
This interpretation also helps to shed light onto Spinozas focus on the
imaginative faculty at the exclusion of the rational. The imaginative
component which corresponds to the prophets communal tasks is the only
element of significance to Spinoza. Spinoza identifies the communal as being
important because there is no significance to personal religion for him. With
his pantheistic view of God, Spinozas religion focuses on living a life in
correspondence with nature and natural reason (which is outside the realm
of prophecy). The prophet is only important because he can help create the
ideal society to enable people to further develop their intellects free from
distraction and chaos. The prophet qua statesman is the only prophet of
value. Additionally, Spinoza has a very untraditional interpretation of
scripture. The Bible, according to him, is not written by God and is only
relevant to future generations in its ability to inspire people to become more
moral individuals.

40

40 Steven Nadler, Baruch Spinoza and the Naturalization of Judaism, (Cambridge


University Press, New York, 2007)

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There is another possible explanation for the sharp divide between


Maimonides and Spinoza and the internal focus shifts within Maimonides
different works that does not require an appeal to distinct tasks of the
prophet, rather, Maimonides in the Guide and Maimonides in Perek Helek are
discussing the same role of the prophet. Yet, Maimonides intentionally left
out the imaginative component in the thirteen principles. Maimonides was
particularly wary of misinterpretation and therefore purposefully created the
Guide so that only those capable of comprehending the most significant
truths would be able to unearth them to begin with. Maimonides cautious
behavior allowed him to become one of the most read and respected Jewish
figures. While at times Maimonides does challenge certain notions of
traditional Judaism he has been branded within the corpus of accepted
traditional religious views. Spinoza on the other hand received an extremely
harsh writ of herem for his wholly untraditional and arguably heretical
opinions. While Spinoza cared to an extent how he was received as indicated
in his initial attempt to conceal his identity by only authoring his TTP with his
initials41, for the most part Spinoza was very blunt and unabashedly shared
his views despite the controversy they consequently stirred. This is relevant
to our discussion of prophecy as the imaginative element is a dangerous
component to insist upon. Since the acknowledgment of the role of the
imagination on prophecy admits that at least an element of prophecy is
adjusted by man and thereby based on the prophets subjective
interpretation, it is difficult to understand how this element is compatible
with the more traditional conception of prophecy as a pure divine revelation.
Certainly, imagination can be reconciled with traditional Judaism, however it
can also be misunderstood and lead to more heretical conclusions.
Maimonides, therefore, stayed away from mentioning it when speaking to the
masses who could likely misinterpret its implications but, made sure to
explain it in the Guide since it is an essential component to understanding
41 Seymour Feldman, Introduction to Spinozas Ethics (Hackett Publishing
Company ,Indiana 1992) pg. 4

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prophecy. Spinoza, who did not mind purporting untraditional or dangerous


views, overemphasized it. Perhaps Spinozas treatment of prophecy is a
direct response to what he may categorize as Maimonides intentional
neutralization of prophecy as to placate the masses.
While Spinoza and Maimonides do contain many similarities in their
description and understanding of prophecy as delineated above, their few
differences cannot be overlooked. In fact, Spinozas point of departure from
Maimonides completely undermines the assertion that prophecy is the
pinnacle of human achievement and their different positions on the content
of prophecy affects the relevance (or lack thereof) of prophecy on our current
lives.

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Works Cited
Angel Rabbi Marc D., Maimonides Essential Teachings on Jewish Faith and
Ethics: the Book of
Knowledge and the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Woodstock, VT:
SkyLight Paths, 2012
Breslauer S. Daniel, Philosophy and Imagination: The Politics of Prophecy in
the View of Moses
Maimonides. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 70, No. 3.
Jan., 1980
Brown Norman, Philosophy and Prophecy: Spinoza's Hermeneutics. Sage
Publications inc.
Political Theory, Vol. 14, No. 2. May, 1986
Feldman Seymour, Introduction to Spinozas Ethics. Hackett Publishing
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