Angels and Prophecy

  • Rav Ezra Bick
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
by Rav Ezra Bick

Ramban 06: Angels and Prophecy



One would not think that "Angels and Prophecy" constitutes one topic, but the Ramban combines the two. As we shall see, there is an important point of contact between the two.


Our main text is the commentary of the Ramban to Bereishit 18,1, [see for a scan of this section] which introduces the story of Avraham and the visit of the three angels. The Ramban's point of departure is the commentary of the Rambam, who denies that Avraham could possibly have actually seen three angels, since, according to the Rambam, angels, who are immaterial, cannot be seen. It is a logical impossibility to see, with physical senses, angels. The Rambam therefore states that the entire story was a prophetic vision of Avraham's, but not an actual event in the real world.


The Ramban's response to this interpretation of the Rambam is one of the strongest in the entire Commentary to the Torah. After presenting various textual questions on the Rambam's opinion, he concludes that "these words contradict the verses and it is prohibited to hear them, and surely to believe in them." I think it is obvious that a response like this is generated not merely by incorrect exegesis, but that there is for the Ramban a serious ideological issue involved. One of our tasks will be to understand the philosophic error the Ramban perceives in the Rambam's position.


In contrast to the Rambam, the Ramban advances a new theory of the visibility of angels, together with an explanation of the connection between angels, visions and prophecy.


[Read .]


The Ramban is interested in making a radical distinction between prophecy and visions, including the vision of an angel. Not only can one "see" an angel without being a prophet, but the converse is also true - prophecy is not ever the experience of seeing or communicating with an angel. Angels are not prophecy and prophecy is not a matter of angels. The second point is, in my opinion, the more important. The Rambam had stated that prophecy is generally, with the exception of Moshe, through the intermediacy of an angel. We shall not discuss here exactly what the Rambam meant by that, which properly belongs in a shiur on the Rambam and not on the Ramban. But what is clear is that the Rambam wishes to have us understand that "normal" prophecy is through an intermediary, which is why the Rambam is interested in distinguishing the prophecy of Moshe, which was "face to face," from all others. The Ramban denies that prophecy is ever through an angel or any other intermediary. The purpose of the Ramban is clear, I think. Prophecy, for the Ramban, is an experience of communion with God; that is its defining feature. There also exists a phenomenon where one "sees" things and experiences things which are normally not experienced. This may be a very valuable phenomenon, and may convey deep wisdom and information, but it is not prophecy precisely because it is not an experience of God.


There is an important distinction here which runs through the history of medieval Jewish philosophy. For the Rambam, prophecy is primarily about content, about information. It is a close cousin to wisdom. The Rambam does not think that this divorces it from God, because he thinks that all wisdom comes from God. The real reason for this, once we strip away the religious language in which it is often phrased, is that the Rambam equates God with Truth. The objective source of wisdom is Truth; knowing is the impression of the truth on the intelligence. When one knows Truth (in the philosophic sense of "knowing"), one knows God. Truth which comes to us through the use of reason is wisdom; truth which we acquire not through reason belongs to the area of prophecy. This is closely connected to a second point. The Rambam, after all, has a psychological theory to explain prophecy, based on human faculties. It is precisely for this reason that the Rambam thinks that one who has the proper training and psychological and mental development will necessarily be a prophet, unless God miraculously prevents this. In short, it is fair to say that prophecy is "in this world." The human mind is like a radio receiver, which "catches" the stream of truth, and, under the proper conditions, the stream of prophecy as well.


For the Ramban, prophecy is not primarily about information, but about experience. Prophecy is the experience of the Divine, a transcendence above and out of the world. When God talks to you, there is of course information imparted, but the same information could have been conveyed in other ways – by leaving a note, for instance. In fact, in prophecy there need not be any verbal communication at all. In the next comment of the Ramban on the case of Avraham here, the Ramban states that "God appeared to him in Elonei Mamre" is a case of prophecy, but "the appearance of the Presence (giluy Shechina) here… was not to command a mitzva or for any sort of speech at all." In other words, God came to visit Avraham, Avraham had a prophetic experience, but the content of that experience was not verbal at all.


In the Rambam, at least in those places where he is clear and unequivocal, the only experience of God is intellectual. You experience God, in a manner that the Rambam himself describes as "union," by knowing Him, which means knowing truths about Him. But for the Ramban, the experience of God is not primarily intellectual. The word the Ramban uses most often to describe a connection to God is "d'veikut," closeness, a cleaving unto God. The first use of this verb in the Torah is about the rejoining of Man and Woman after God created Woman from Adam's side – "ve-davak be-ishto ve-hayu le-vasar echad." Of course, there is often a verbal informative side to prophecy, but this is not the distinguishing feature, nor is it essential. Hence, the Ramban quotes those statements of the Sages which distinguish between the prophecies of the prophets and the status of Daniel, who had marvelous visions, full of amazing information which comes from beyond the normal human grasp. There is no way to distinguish between the intellectual content of the visions of Daniel and that of the prophets. The difference is in his personal experience. Daniel spoke to angels; the prophets communicated and experienced God.


I think this is the reason that the Ramban is so opposed to the Rambam's assertion that prophecy is through the agency of angels. The Ramban holds out the possibility of no agency at all – man can experience God. And, what is even more important, the value of that experience is not in the deep wisdom it will convey, but in the religious metaphysical d'veikut of which it consists. The connection with God is valuable and important in and of itself, and cannot be measured by or reduced to the intellectual content that accompanies the experience.


This dichotomy between knowledge, which can be through an angel, and the direct relationship with God, comes to the fore in the explanation of the Ramban for those cases where it appears explicit that there was prophecy through an angel. The Ramban quotes, for example, the statement of the old prophet in I Kings 13,18, "I too am a prophet like you, and an angel spoke to me the word of God." The Ramban explains this to mean that an angel spoke to him (which was not prophecy), and he knew through prophecy that it was the word of God. Hearing the words of God may not be prophecy, though obviously the content of the message is identical whether an angel spoke it or God himself. The prophet, in this case, has an experience which he does not explain, which was prophetic and had the informative result of confirming the Divine source of what the angel had spoken to him.


Another indication of the distinction between prophecy and divinely communicated information is the Ramban's insistence that prophecy is normally accompanied by a cessation of normal bodily functions – sleep and body collapse. Daniel, on the other hand, experienced his visions while strolling on the river bank. Since there is no presence of God, there is no overwhelming of the senses. A man having a vision is basically in a normal state of existence, whereas prophecy is transforming precisely because it is an experience of the transcendental.


I think that this position of the Ramban should not be understood only in relation to prophecy in its fullest sense. The commentary of the Ramban is full of allusions to d'veikut as the goal of a Torah life. Prophecy is only a higher level of this more general state. The point is, however, that the Ramban holds out a genuine communion with God, on the experiential and ultimately mystical level, as a real possibility inherent in Torah life. It involves a transcendence of normal life – just as prophecy does, as is exemplified by his explanation that Avraham needed to first prepare himself to commune with an angel as a preparation for his higher state of communing with God. It is not simple or even normal to communicate with God, and even a great man like Avraham needed to pass through a preliminary stage in order to do so.


What then is the state of "seeing an angel?" The Ramban says it is a vision, but does not elaborate. The Ramban believes that angels are distinct beings, but agrees that they are in principle invisible, being spiritual. Nonetheless, it would appear that the vision is not fiction. It involves a deeper sense of seeing, as is evinced by the phrase that God "opens the eyes" of someone to enable him to see the angels that are really there. You cannot see them with normal eyes, which are sensitive to light waves, but there exists a special faculty, with which God endows you, which allows one to "see" them.


The Ramban adds that in Avraham's case, he really saw the three angels, with his normal physical vision. The sign of this is that they are described as men. He says that this is possible because these angels are clothed in a special "created glory," which can be perceived with normal eyes by specially gifted people – but "I cannot explicate this." The expression "created glory" (kavod nivra) derives from Rav Saadya Gaon, but it is doubtful that the Ramban is using it in the same sense. I suggest we follow the Ramban's implied suggestion and accept that we do not really understand this, and he, in any event, is not going to explain it to us.


The Ramban, at the very end of the section, quotes a midrash that compares the Presence of God on the altar to the Presence over Avraham after the brit mila. In context, what the Ramban is suggesting is of course not communication, since the Presence does not speak to the altar, nor to those who are present at the altar, but rather that Avraham, like all tzaddikim, is the base on which the Presence of the Shechina rests. The very last comment of the Ramban points out that this closeness to the Shechina would also heal Avraham, for "the light of the face of the King is life." Life is transformed by the presence of God, and that is the basis of the phenomenon called prophecy. It is quite clear that the Ramban is widening the concept of prophecy to include, in its widest reach, the goal of all religious life, the cleaving unto God and the bringing of the holy Presence into the world.


So what was so terrible about the Rambam's insistence that there were no angels actually visiting Avraham? I think this is a correlate of the argument about the nature of prophecy. The Ramban, as we saw in the discussion of nature and miracle, is opposed to a separation of reality into the mundane and the extraordinary. God, at least for the His servants who have received the Torah, pervades everything. Nature is transformed by this Presence. Angels, although not the carriers of prophecy, are part of this "super-nature." The Ramban points out that the narrative of the story of Avraham and the continuation with Lot and the destruction of Sdom is based on the influence of the presence of the angels within the natural world. According to the Rambam, the entire story of the mass attack on the house of Lot never occurred, but was part of a vision (of Lot? Of Avraham?). But the Ramban insists that we live in an intersection of natural and supernatural influences – the people of Sdom were really struck with blindness by the angels who they were besieging. We shall see in the future that the Ramban consistently accepts the reality of supernatural and mysterious influences, because the laws of nature hold no special position for him, as they do for the Rambam. Most importantly, there can be no strict divide between the physical world of nature and the spiritual world. The first is dependent on the second and a continuation and reflection of it. Prophecy, and especially the resting of the Holy Presence on the tzaddikim and the altar, are examples of the unification of the one world, which includes both sides of the physical-spiritual equation. So, although ostensibly the Ramban here is strictly distinguishing angels from prophecy, I think what he is really doing is maintaining the continuum of existence across the divide of the worlds – angels visit from on high, and can be seen, in one way or another, and in what is far more significant, God speaks and visits with real people in this world, who perceive and apprehend the sanctity of the Presence. One mitzva, the brit mila, which bound Avraham to God, results in a binding of God to Avraham three days later. Since one of the great principles of the Ramban in understanding Sefer Bereishit is that ma'asse avot siman le-banim" - the stories of the forefathers are signs, hints, pre-occurrences of what applies to the children - this is inherent in the experience of Judaism and Torah in all generations.