Prophetic insights and Aristotle

Along with Ma’aseh Merkava (the account of the Merkava experience) as a subject of intense inquiry was Ma’aseh Breishit, the account of creation. Both had special status and carried a slew of restrictions, as we’ll see. While we won’t deal with Ma’aseh Breishit much here simply because it isn’t the subject at hand, we’ll offer this about the two “accounts”.

Rambam famously said that while Ma’aseh Breishit simply speaks to the laws of nature and the makeup of the cosmos, Ma’aseh Merkava simply speaks to metaphysics and the makeup of souls, angels, and the like [1]. The Kabbalists (Ramchal included) vehemently rejected that view and said it referred to themes discussed in the Zohar and other related mystical pehnomena [2].

Part of the reason the Kabbalists rebuffed Rambam’s model was that it placed the onus of proof upon traditional insights against Aristotle’s theories, which were assumed to be patently true. The Kabbalists held that it was offensive to take anything as more factual than the sort of prophetic visions that Ezekiel, Isaiah and others had of the Ma’aseh Merkava and that Moses had of Ma’aseh Breishit.

We in modernity know that the great preponderance of Aristotle’s ideas are simply wrong (in fact, one need only study Rambam writings on the subject that we cited in the notes to see how outlandish Aristotle’s idea have proven to be). Does anyone in fact claim to be a die-hard Aristotelian, Platonist, or the like today? Does anyone doubt that Rambam himself would reject Aristotle’s ideas if Rambam were alive today?

One point is that Aristotle’s physical model has failed, so subsuming prophetic insight into the nature of things to it is thus proved to be foolish, and we need to draw lessons from that [3].


[1]       Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah Ch’s 1-4; see the Peticha to Section 3 of Moreh Nevuchim, and Ch’s 1-7 there for a discussion of Ma’aseh Merkava. Also see Meiri to Chaggigah 11a.

[2]       See Avodat HaKodesh, Chelek HaTachlit 15; Shomer Emunim 1:9 which cites several earlier sources. Also see Gra to Yoreh Deah 246:4, and Abarbanel’s introduction to his comments on Ezekiel.

[3]          That doesn’t mean to say that we of the traditional community have a “lock” on truth in light of that, since one’s readings of the traditional insights could prove to have been wrong in the end, too. It only means to argue for humility and for patience in the search for truth, which this is all about in the end.

(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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