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The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy
Howard Kreisel. Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001. Pp. x + 669. Cloth, $200.00.
This is a big book on a big subject. Kreisel offers us a full view of the most substantial discussions in the Jewish Middle Ages of the phenomenon of prophecy (the cognitive awareness of the word of God) and of the bearer of the prophetic message. Even more, he does not stop with the end of the medieval period, but proceeds to Spinoza, whose ideas about prophecy and the prophet are shown, however, to depend upon medieval views, even while turning them on their head.
Kreisel presents the views of seven thinkers: Saadiah Gaon, Judah Halevi, Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, Albo, and Spinoza. The chronological span of those covered is roughly seven hundred years, from the middle of the tenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century. Equally broad are the geographical span, from Baghdad to Andalusia to Amsterdam; and the linguistic diversity, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin.
The challenge to be met in such a large project is to produce a coherent narrative in which the various participants talk to, not past, each other. After all, there is no prima facie reason why seven thinkers, writing at different times, in widely dispersed geographic locations, and in different languages, should all be conjuring up the same general ideas about prophecy. Even allowing for the religious tradition common to them and the biblical (Hebrew) background, there is still potentially much to divide them. The success of the book depends upon weaving together in a perspicuous fashion the disparate discussions.
Kreisel is very aware of the challenge and rises to the occasion. He does much more than just present seriatim the views of his chosen thinkers. He presents their respective positions in dialectical fashion, with, for example, Maimonides responding to Halevi, Gersonides to Maimonides, and Spinoza to the entire prophetic tradition. The dialogue between thinkers throughout the medieval centuries on the subject of prophecy moves between poles of naturalism and supernaturalism, from understanding prophecy and the prophet without emphasizing divine intervention to understanding the same in less naturalistic ways. No one before Spinoza dismissed this project of accounting for how mortal (finite) minds could comprehend the divine, and within the medieval period itself Kreisel distinguishes strongly between those (especially Maimonides and Gersonides) who emphasized the human element in prophecy, the intellectual and moral conditions for prophetic insight, and those (especially Halevi and Crescas) who emphasized the role of the divine in prophecy. Given this latter dichotomy, Spinoza and Maimonides, so different in other ways, may be seen as sharing more in common with each other than either share with Halevi and the "supernaturalist" tradition that he represents.
Kreisel works hard to present a philosophical dialogue between thinkers. This is important, lest the debate collapse into one between rationalists and religious fundamentalists. Halevi and Crescas emerge as important philosophers in their own right, even as they indicate the shortcomings of Greek wisdom and, in the case of Crescas, of the naturalism and reductionism of Maimonides and Gersonides. The end result of Kreisel's careful reconstruction is a deep discussion of the epistemology and politics of prophecy. The interested historian of ideas will learn much about medieval debates relating to (divine) knowledge of particulars, the nature of miracles, the nature and role of the imagination in prophecy, human happiness and perfection, and the prophetic mission.
I would signal for special notice and attention the importance, stressed by Kreisel, of the universalist and cosmopolitan (Enlightenment) implications of the prophetic teachings of thinkers like Maimonides and Spinoza, who (again) diverge from each other in so many ways. Kreisel demarcates the latter thinkers from those like Halevi, whose supernaturalism undergirds a parochial, even racialist, belief in the superiority of the Jews. Finally, by stressing the (human) intellectual and/or moral qualities that are requisite for prophecy, Kreisel makes a...