Maimonides, Abarbanel, and Cognitive Dissonance


Isaac Abarbanel, a highly intelligent fifteenth and sixteenth century Bible Commentator, used his introduction to the biblical book Amos to express his difference with Maimonides on the issue of prophecy. Abarbanel insisted that the view about prophecy held by most people, that prophecy is miraculous, is correct, and that Maimonides’ teaching on the subject is wrong.

He notes that Maimonides expressed his rational view in his Guide of the Perplexed in 2:32 through 2:48. Abarbanel recognized that Maimonides felt that prophecy is a natural event, not a miraculous communication from God. Maimonides was convinced that if a person, male or female, Jew or non-Jew, has an unusually high intelligence and also has the ability to communicate – what Maimonides calls imagination – and tells people what he understands, he or she is prophet. Some scholars understand that Maimonides was convinced that the wise pagan philosopher Aristotle upon whom Maimonides based many of his ideas could be called a prophet.[1]

Abarbanel knew that this was Maimonides’ view and says so. He also says that this is not the Torah concept.[2]The Torah concept, according to Abarbanel, is that prophecy is not a natural phenomenon, it is a miraculous event, it is only given to Jews, and only when the Jew is in Israel. He notes that this is the position of the poet Yehudah Halevi, who described this view in his book Kuzari, and states that he agrees with Halevi.

The problem with this Halevi-Abarbanel view is that there are many examples in the Torah which show that this is untrue. According to the Torah, Abraham received a prophecy from God while he was outside of Israel to travel to Canaan, Israel’s name in the Five Books of Moses. Similarly, Moses had a prophetic vision while living outside Canaan, while he was in Midian, at the burning bush, to go to Egypt and work to free the Israelites from bondage. Jonah had a message from God after he left Israel, while he was in the body of a great fish that swallowed him. Baalam, a non-Jew and an enemy of the Israelites, received prophecy from God while being outside of Israel.

Abarbanel ignores this problem and states that contrary to Maimonides even an unlearned person can be a prophet if God want him to prophesy.

Abarbanel feels that the biblical book Amos proves his point. In 1:1, the book sates: “The words of Amos, who was among the herdsmen of Tekoa.” In 7:14, Amos tells the priest at Bethel: “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Abarbanel understands these two verses to reveal that Amos was a common herdsman with little or no education.

Abarbanel is reading an idea into these two texts that is not explicit in the passages. Amos is described in 1:1 as va’nokdim, which is obscure. Many translations render nokdim as herdsman, but the term is used in II Kings 3:4 to describe Mesha, king of Moab, who was certainly not a common herdsman, but an owner of herds, which may be the meaning here. This is the view of Altschuler, Kimchi, and others and how the Targum renders it here and in 7:14. In 7:14, Amos states that he was a dresser of sycamore trees, which the Targum renders “and I have sycamore trees,” indicating that he was a wealthy man and most likely well educated. His education and his articulation skill are also shown in his eloquent and poetic speech throughout the biblical book. Thus the verses do not clearly show that Amos was a common worker, and many rabbis and scholars see it saying he was a wealthy man. Furthermore, even if he was a common worker, he could still have been a man with a high level of intelligence.

This discussion demonstrates two things. First, ignoring whether Abarbanel proved his point, we see that even a man who disliked Maimonides’ philosophy understood that Maimonides was certain that prophecy is a natural event. This is significant because a large number of people, who insist that prophecy is a miracle, argue that Maimonides never said what Abarbanel knew he did say.

Second, we see the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in action, both as it affected Abarbanel and as it affects many people today who are unable to see Maimonides’ true view in his Guide. Both are seeing something that is not present because they need to see what is not present.[3]

Cognitive dissonance occurs when people cannot accept an idea because they are too committed intellectually or emotionally to a different thought and they are unable to see or accept that their view is dead wrong. An example is the feelings that many children and spouses have for their parents or spouses. Although a father or husband may have committed many wrongs, even hurting his children and wife, they may be unable to see the wrongs. They may continue to insist that dad and spouse was a good man long after he is dead and buried.

This also occurs in scholarship. If a scholar is so wedded to an idea, he may be unable to see that what he is reading states the opposite. Abarbanel saw two verses in the book of Amos as proving his view that prophecy is a miracle despite the verses being obscure and despite other scholars and rabbis contending that the word nokdim suggests a wealthy man who owns herds and not a common workman.

Cognitive dissonance also explains why there are many people, including scholars, who are convinced that Maimonides felt that prophecy is a miracle and also held the view of the multitude in regard to other issues.


[1] Contrary to what people generally think, virtually all of the biblical prophecies were not fulfilled. King Josiah and King Zedekiah, for example, were promised long lives in prophecies, but both were killed before they became old. Tosafot to Yevamot 50a notes this and states that a prophet does not foretell what will be, but what ought to be. This phenomenon of unfulfilled prophecies is difficult for those who maintain that God directed the prophet to make the pronouncement and foretell exactly what will occur.

[2] Actually, the Torah does not define prophecy. Abarbanel either means that the ancient rabbis understood that the Torah implies the way he understands prophecy or that his reading of the Torah leads him to believe that this is what the Torah implies.

[3] This could also be stated as follows: Each is not seeing what is present because they need to know that what is stated is not stated.