Shiur #13: Prophecy

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         The Rambam's View of Prophecy


Principles 6-9 in the Rambam's list all have to do with prophecy and revelation.  Eventually we will address why the Rambam chose to divide up such closely related ideas in this way.  This week I will focus on the sixth principle which is the bare fact that there is such a thing as prophecy and a brief outline of its nature:


The sixth foundation is prophecy; to wit, it should be known that within the species of humanity, there are individuals who have a greatly superior disposition and a great measure of perfection.  And, if their souls are prepared so that they receive the form of the intellect, then that human intellect will unite with the Agent Intelligence which will cause a great emanation to flow to it.  These people are prophets, this [process] is prophecy; and this is its content.  The explanation of this principle to its fullest, however, would be very long and it is not our intention to demonstrate each of its basic premises, or to explain the ways by which it is perceived for that is the epitome of all the sciences.  Here we shall mention it only in the form of a statement.  The verses of the Torah testifying to the prophecy of the prophets are many. 


Perhaps the most striking thing about this passage is the degree to which it emphasizes the status of the prophet at the expense of either the content of his prophecy or the fact that God desires to communicate through him.  The Rambam is not the only Jewish thinker to emphasize the greatness of the prophetic individual, but his perspective is very radical.  In order to understand the Rambam, and the tradition from which he diverges, we need to appreciate the near impossibility of a flesh and blood human receiving a communication from the divine. 


            As we have discussed repeatedly, the Rambam emphasizes a transcendent notion of God, in which He is not conceivable in any conventional way.  In this context, the notion of God speaking, or conveying a message, is extremely difficult because it constrains God to the limits of language and subjectivity.  Yet take away prophecy or its highest form – revelation, and we are left with a religion with no authentic content.  Religion in which God does not in fact communicate in some way or another is merely the expression of the human need to be connected to the transcendent but not an authentic connection.


            The Rambam tries to resolve this difficulty with a radical conception of prophecy, in which prophecy is essentially a human achievement rather than a divine gift.[1]  It is precisely the ability to achieve a degree of knowledge that is unattainable ordinarily, and as such is not in any ordinary way a communication from God.  In Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, the Rambam gives a fuller description of what prophecy consists in:


Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a very broad and accurate mental capacity.


A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound [is fit for prophecy]. When he enters thePardesand is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses an accurate mental capacity to comprehend and grasp [them], he will become holy. He will advance and separate himself from the masses who proceed in the darkness of the time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatsoever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times.


Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath [God's] throne [of Glory, striving] to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in its entirety, [in its manifold manifestations] from the most elevated [spiritual] form until the navel of the earth, appreciating His greatness from them. [After these preparations,] the divine spirit will immediately rest upon him.


When the spirit rests upon him, his soul becomes intermingled with the angels calledishim,and he will be transformed into a different person and will understand with a knowledge different from what it was previously. He will rise above the level of other wise men, as [the prophet,Shmuel] told Shaul[I Shmuel 10:6]: "[The spirit of God will descend upon you] and you shall prophesy with them. And you will be transformed into a different person."


Prophecy is the highest level of human intellectual achievement, in which the prophet is completely occupied with conceiving the truth to the exclusion of all else.  This vision of prophecy is obviously not easy to accommodate to the stories of prophets in the Bible, from the Avot onwards, but given the Rambam's understanding of the divine nature as so utterly transcendent, it seems to be almost the only alternative.  That God would communicate, in ordinary language, with an ordinary person, presumes a conception of God as part of the world which is an anathema for the Rambam.  If there is going to be Divine-human communication then it must involve the human somehow rising above his earthly, material existence.  For the Rambam, the human capacity for doing so lies in the exercise of intellect.  In fully realizing his intellect, a person can engage with realities beyond those bound by time and space. 


It must be emphasized that for the Rambam, the highest level of intellectual achievement is not arrived at simply by gathering information or even by the musing of someone with great intellectual aptitude (though both are necessary pre-conditions).  Full use of one's intellect is a moral and spiritual state, perhaps even a mystical state, in which a person, while still alive, becomes like an angel and gains a different level of consciousness and cognition.  Strikingly, the content of the prophecy – the prophet's message, is almost incidental; it is like a side effect of a person achieving that level, out of which he or she gains understanding about how others should behave and what they need to hear.


2.         Prophecy in Tanakh


            The Rambam's understanding of prophecy is focused on the Avot (the Patriarchs) and especially on Moshe Rabbeinu, all of whom he conceived of as philosophers.  However, in contrast to this intellectualist vision of prophecy, the prophet in the Bible does not seem to need to be an intellectual giant.  All kinds of people seemed to have prophetic experiences:  The Avot were shepherds and farmers, Moshe Rabbeinu was a refugee prince who became a shepherd, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel were priests; many of the prophets in the Biblical account seemed to be professional prophets (e.g., Eliyahu and Elisha) who depended upon charity for their survival.  With the possible exception of Moshe Rabbeinu, there is no indication that they were intellectuals. 


There is a mystical element to Biblical prophecy: it is sometimes portrayed as an ecstatic experience and very frequently involves visions.  According to the book of Shmuel, there were groups of roving spiritual seekers, called benei nevi’im (literally sons of prophets) or simply nevi’im (prophets)[2] who undergo ecstatic spiritual experiences.  Yeshayahu and Yechezkel especially communicate their mystical visions to their fellow Jews.  But the main image of the prophet is that of the preacher – an individual who speaks truth to power, often in rebuke but also in consolation.  Eliyahu struggles with King Achav against the worship of Ba'al in Israel.  Yirmiyahu rebukes the king in Jerusalem.  Yeshayahu offers comfort and hope after the destruction.  If we have difficulty accepting the Rambam's view of prophecy – and it is clear that most of the tradition, including some of the other Jewish philosophers, like Rav Sa'adia Gaon, did not accept it – then what are we to make of prophecy?


3.         Prophecy as Divine Communication


            The alternative to understanding prophecy as a philosophical achievement is to understand it as in fact a case where God chooses to communicate with human beings.  The theological/metaphysical difficulty is one we have already dealt with – the possibility of such contact involves a conception of God as a subject who exists within space and time rather than as He who transcends space and time. And as before, I believe that the appropriate response to this difficulty is to relax our metaphysical constraints, out of appreciation that all of our experience is mediated by the constraints of our minds and bodies.  How we conceive of God and His message reflects our own limitations and not His.  We can thus embrace a more straightforward notion of prophecy: a prophet is someone who receives communication from God.  Presumably God will choose people for this task who are especially close to Him, intellectually and spiritually, but this need not always be the case – at times God may communicate directly with seemingly simple people like the wife of Manoach.[3]


            That being said, two important questions remain: 1. What is prophecy for?  2. Why do we no longer have it?  In the following I will try to briefly address each of these questions.


4.         The Roles of Prophecy


The first and most central accomplishment of prophecy in Judaism is revelation of the Divine word.  This is the main way that God communicates His Will to humanity in general and to the Jewish people in particular.[4]  The most important prophetic document is without question the Torah which is mostly laws given by God to Moses.  Out of this law all of Jewish life is shaped and formed and from it we understand not merely how to act but how to be.  I will return to this topic in the next shiur in which I will discuss the special standing of the Torah amongst the prophetic books. 


However, a great deal of prophecy does not include revelation of the law.  The Avot received instruction from God, such as Avraham being commanded to go to the land of Canaan but God communicated with Avraham in other contexts as well:  He explained to Avraham His plan for Sodom, and allowed Avraham to argue about it, He made covenants with him, promising him support and future reward.  In short, the Avot furnish us with an ideal of the human-Divine relationship that includes both obedience and worship on the human side and communication, comfort and covenant from the Divine.  In a sense, the model of the Avot is closest to the Rambam’s – their prophecy was a function of their lives and personalities which were on a sufficiently high level such that they not only "called out in the name of God"[5] but were answered.


After the Avot, prophecy moved to the national level.  The prophets represent God to the people and exhibit a model of religious leadership.  The Jewish holy man (or woman, though the Tanakh records only a few female prophets) is not found meditating like a monk in a cave but rather is deeply involved in the lives of his community.  His message is for them and he is a prophet in order to communicate that message, be it spiritual, political, or comfort in distress.  The passionate involvement of the prophets with the people express God's passionate involvement: prophecy in the Bible reflects a Divine need (so to speak) to connect with His people as much as it reflects a human need to connect with God. 


Prophecy in this sense is a part of Divine providence, part of the way that God guides and leads the world and particularly Am Yisrael.  The Avot and especially Moshe forged the relationship between God and Israel.  Successive prophets' role was to maintain that relationship, to offer criticism and comfort as needed. 


5.         Why is there No More Prophecy?


We are left with this very difficult question.  The standard answer is "yeridat ha-dorot," i.e., that the spiritual level of previous generations was higher than that of succeeding generations.  As it is, this is a very unsatisfying answer, in light of the fact that even a cursory reading of Tanakh during the time of the prophets reveals that for much of the period, Am Yisrael was corrupted by idolatry, suffered from internal strife that led to a great deal of bloodshed and much else.  Furthermore, simply asserting that we are not worthy of prophecy in some sense begs the question: if we are so low, so distant from God, then all the more do we need to hear the voice of God through a prophet!


Yet there is clearly an element of truth in the "yeridat ha-dorot" claim.  Jewish tradition lives in tension: on the one hand we have a deep reverence for what went before: the institutions, texts, and opinions that were set up in the past have great authority and significance. [6]  Even the greater holiness of the Torah to Nevi'im and of Nevi'im to Ketuvim is to some extent a function of chronology.  The Sages of earlier generations function as authorities for more recent Sages.  At the same time, Judaism is fundamentally forward thinking: we believe God has a purpose that is played out in history and that culminates in the coming of Messiah.  In this light, later generations are more progressed than earlier ones. 


            With this in mind, we can think of the decline and disappearance of prophecy in a different way.  Above I outlined two roles for prophecy.  The first and most important was foundational: the formation of the Jewish people through covenants with the Avot, alongside the giving of the Torah through Moshe Rabbeinu, required prophecy.  These foundational acts of prophecy were never meant to continue indefinitely.  The further role of prophecy was maintenance of the structures set up – the maintenance of Am Yisrael through all of their temptations and travails.  So the question is why do we not have such prophets today?


            I will suggest that perhaps the reason we have no prophets today, and have not had them since the earliest days of the second Temple, is not because we are lesser spiritually than the Jews of the First Temple, but rather because we radically different.  Something happened during the brief exile to Babylon and the Jews lost their taste for avoda zara, for idol worship.  We do not again find mass idol worship in Jewish history, though the world the Jews lived in would remain largely pagan for at least another 800 years.  Prophecy and avoda zara, in a sense, go together.  They both require a sort of primitive religious consciousness.  By 'primitive' I mean no criticism but rather a kind of guilelessness, a kind of immediate, uncritical religious culture.  The Jews of the first Temple period were people who had difficulty recognizing or accepting the transcendence of God to the extent that they were capable of worshipping forces of nature or the products of his own hands.  There is a power to such unreflective religiosity – an immediacy of passion that a reflective, theological religiosity struggles to achieve.  Such a religious consciousness is open to influence from prophets who come to warn, to inspire and to comfort the people.  But imagine if a real prophet appeared in Times Square?  Forthat matter, imagine if a prophet appeared in Jerusalem of the Second Temple.  We, and to a certain extent also the Jews of the time of the Second Temple as well, can no longer be affected by such direct means.  We are not capable of really hearing a prophet, and that is why God does not send us one.  This is perhaps both a tragedy and an achievement.  It is a tragedy in that our reflective and critical thinking make direct communication with God unavailable.  But it is an achievement in that such reflective thinking positions us to conceive of God as fully transcendent, and thus to lose all temptation to find divinity in "the works of our hands." 


6.         Conclusion


There is clearly a lot more to say and think about prophecy. There is a whole range of particular understandings of its nature while I have paused to consider only that of the Rambam, juxtaposed to one that arises from the simple meaning of Scripture. There is another piece to this puzzle that I will address in a future shiur:  the role of the Rabbis and Torah she Be'al Peh as replacements for prophecy, especially in light of Chazal's dictum, "Chakham adif mi-navi," A wise man (or Torah Scholar) is better than a prophet."



[1]  Though the Rambam believes that it is possible for someone to achieve the level of prophecy and yet nonetheless have the experience of prophecy withheld.  See Guide of the Perplexed II:32 where the Rambam understands that to be the situation of Yirmiyahu's student, Barukh ben Neriya.

[2]  I Shmuel 10:11.

[3]  Shoftim chapter 13.

[4]  I do not think that it is the only way.  Moral sensibility, for example, can also be a source for understanding what God wants of us.

[5]  Bereishit 12:8.

[6]  I will return to this theme at length in future shiurim.