Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 4: Spiritual Awakening and Prophecy
Basic to Maimonides’ vast legacy has been his emphasis on prophetic consciousness. Far more than other rabbinic thinkers of his time, he emphasized that this exalted state of awareness is not only natural to human capability but attainable by nearly everyone who cultivates spiritual growth in daily life. In this sense, Maimonides had a truly universalist and “democratic” viewpoint—one that encouraged individuals everywhere to develop their higher sensitivities through conscious effort and attention. For he believed that each of us, regardless of family background or status, has a tremendous unused potential for spiritual achievement.
Certainly as a practicing physician, Maimonides was intimately acquainted with emotional turmoil, unrest, and illness. Both his Judaic and his medical writings are filled with references to the “dark side” of human nature and such negative states as anger, sadness, and worry. He strongly believed that, when chronic, these emotions serve as serious blockages to inner development.Yet in Maimonides’ influential view, we can diligently learn to overcome these tendencies and thereby connect more fully with the divine that surrounds us.
In this regard,was Maimonides a kabbalist—perhaps teaching chosen disciples secretly—as some commentators have long insisted? The answer is unequivocally no. Though later, renowned Jewish mystics like Abraham Abulafia of Spain eagerly cited his writings—especially Guide for the Perplexed—it’s likely that Maimonides would have sternly disapproved. His works contain no references to central kabbalistic concepts like the ten sefirot (divine emanations) and the Tree of Life. Nor did he cite texts in which such ideas appeared.Temperamentally, too, he was always more comfortable with measured rationalistic discourse than with the poetic and imaginative exuberance of full-blown mysticism. He wrote with disdain about what scholars today call “practical Kabbalah”—associated with amulets, astrology, and divinatory techniques.
Nevertheless, Maimonides’ approach to prophetic consciousness has for centuries held an undeniable fascination for kabbalists—and exerted an encouraging influence on Jewish mystical study. For he clearly taught that personal revelation is not only possible in the postbiblical world but within our reach through the right daily regimen. And, in this powerful regard, he kept Judaism’s door open for ecstatic seekers and visionaries to the present day.
If we desire to attain human perfection—and to be truly people of God—we must awaken from our sleep. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 3, chapter 52)
At times, revelation shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. [But] then our nature and habit draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves amid the thickest darkness of the night.
For some persons, the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be bathed in continuous light. Their night is as clear as day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by Moses, the greatest of prophets. Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets. For others, only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, “They prophesied, and [then] they did no more” (Numbers 11:25). (The Guide for the Perplexed, introduction)
Experiencing the Divine
I have shown you that the radiance that emanates from God onto us is the link that joins us to God. It is within your power to strengthen that bond if you so choose—or to weaken it gradually until it breaks, if you prefer that. It will only become strong when you employ it in the love of God and seek that love. It will be weakened when you direct your thoughts to other things. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 3, chapter 51)
You must know that even if you were the wisest person with respect to the true knowledge of God, you break the bond between yourself and God whenever you turn your thoughts entirely to necessary food or any necessary business. For then you are not with God, and He is not with you—your relationship is actually interrupted in those moments.
The pious were therefore particular in restricting the times in which they could not meditate upon the name of God and cautioned others about it, saying, “Let not your minds be vacant from reflections upon God.” (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 3, chapter 51)
Encountering the Divine
Those who have no knowledge of God are like those who are in constant darkness and have never seen light. We have explained in this sense the biblical verse “The wicked shall be silent in darkness” (1 Samuel, 2:9), whereas those who possess that knowledge and direct their thoughts constantly toward it are, as it were, always in bright sunshine. Those who have the knowledge of God but who are at times engaged by other themes experience, as it were, a cloudy day—the sun does not shine for them on account of the cloud that intervenes between them and God. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 2, chapter 51)
Boundaries of the Human Mind
It was not the object of the prophets and the sages in their utterances to close the gates of investigation entirely and to prevent the [human] mind from comprehending what is within its reach. [Rather], their whole object was to declare that there is a limit to human reason—where it must halt. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 1, chapter 32)
The Nature of Prophecy
The prophets sometimes prophesy in allegories. They use a term allegorically, and in the same prophecy the meaning of the allegory is given. In our dreams, we sometimes believe that we are awake and relate a dream to another person who explains the dream—all of this goes on while we dream.
Our sages call this “a dream interpreted in a dream.” In other cases, we learn the meaning of the dream after waking from sleep. The same is true with prophetic allegories. Some are interpreted in the prophetic vision [itself].
There are other prophetic allegories whose meaning is not given in a prophetic vision. The prophet learns it when he awakens from his sleep. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 2, chapter 43)
The Two Forms of Prophecy
Prophecy is given either in a vision or in a dream—as we have said many times. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 2, chapter 44)
Prophecy and Imagery
It is undoubtedly clear and evident that most prophecies are given in images, for this is the characteristic of the imaginative faculty: the organ of prophecy. (The Guide for the Perplexed, book 2, chapter 47)