Shiur #16: The Divine Influence (Part I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     The first part of this lecture will seem like a summary, as most of what will be discussed here has already been clarified in earlier lectures. Nevertheless, we will engage in this overview as an opportunity for review, but primarily as preparation for dealing with the issue of prophecy.


     The ideas themselves are fundamental to R. YehudaHalevi's thought, and they therefore they appear in various forms in many places in the book. I shall attempt to relate to the main source for each idea and comment on the other places in the footnotes.




     I have already mentioned several times Rihal's model of the hierarchy of the world (mineral, plant, animal, man – I, 31-43), within which he establishes three levels of spiritual essences:


The soul – common to all living beings (man and animals).

The intellect – unique to man.

The Divine influence – unique to the elite of man, that is, Israel.


     As we have already seen, the first two are part of man's natural existence, whereas the third is part of his supernatural existence.


     Accordingly, the intellect can bring man to the highest point of natural existence. It can teach him the best way to lead a natural life, perfecting himself, society and the polity.


The Divine influence, in contrast, can bring the person who merits attaining it to existence that goes beyond natural existence. This finds expression in several areas that will be spelled out below. The Divine influence is the Divine quality that reveals itself in the world, appearing at various levels and resting on anyone who is fit to receive it.


     This revelation, however, does not come to every person, just as the intellect does not come to every person, and just as the soul does not come to every being:


For the Divine influence, one might say, singles out him who appears worthy of being connected with it, such as prophets and pious men, and is their God. Reason chooses those whose natural gifts are perfect, philosophers and those whose souls and character are so harmonious that it can find its dwelling among them. The spirit of life, pure and simple, is to be found in beings which are endowed with ordinary primary faculties, and particularly adapted to higher vitality, viz. animals. Finally, organic life finds its habitat in a mixture of harmonious elements, and produces plant. (II, 14)[1]


     According to this, the hierarchy that Rihal constructs is not just different levels one above the other, but rather a series of stages, where each stage receives the next stage that is built upon it when it reaches perfection.[2]




     We have seen that Rihal follows the path of the philosopher. The philosopher asserts that man's intellect does not always appear in a perfect manner, and even when it does, a person must realize it and bring it to expression; so, too, a person who has the unique essence and the potential that will enable him to join with the Divine influence must work to realize his unique essence, to bring himself to his perfect state. Only in this state will he merit the resting of the Divine influence upon him.[3]


As a symbol of the Divine influence, consider the reasoning soul which dwells in the perishable body. If its physical and nobler faculties are properly distributed and arranged, raising it high above the animal world, then it is a worthy dwelling for King Reason… The Divine Influence is beneficent, and desirous of doing good to all. Wherever something is arranged and prepared to receive His guidance, He does not refuse it, nor withhold it, nor hesitate to shed light, wisdom, and inspiration on it. (II, 26)


     The Divine influence, then, is not the unique essence and potential found in Israel, but rather God's turning to and joining with the individual in the wake of his realization of this unique potential.




     Rihal also asserts that even when the Divine influence rests upon a person, it rests on him in accordance with his preparation:


Divine Providence only gives man as much as he is prepared to receive; if his receptive capacity be small, he obtains little, and much if it be great. (II, 24)


     There are many levels, then, to the resting of the Divine influence on a person. I shall attempt to break down the effects of union with the Divine influence into its various factors, and understand thereby the various levels:


The Rabbi: Now all that our promises imply is that we shall become connected with the Divine influence by means of prophecy, or something nearly approaching it, and also through our relation to the Divine influence, as displayed to us in grand and awe-inspiring miracles. Therefore, we do not find in the Bible: "If you keep this law, I will bring you after death into beautiful gardens and great pleasures." On the contrary it is said: "You shall be my chosen people, and I will be a God unto you, who will guide you. Whoever of you comes to me and ascends to heaven, is as those who dwell among the angels, and my angels shall dwell among them on earth. You shall see them singly or in hosts, watching you and fighting for you without your joining in the fight. You shall remain in the country that forms a stepping-stone to this degree, the Holy Land. Its fertility or barrenness, its happiness or misfortune, depend upon the Divine influence which your conduct will merit, while the rest of the world would continue its natural course. For if the Divine presence is among you, you will perceive by the fertility of your country, by the regularity with which your rainfalls appear in their due seasons, by your victories over your enemies in spite of your inferior numbers, that your affairs are not managed by simple laws of nature, but by the Divine Will. You also see that drought, death, and wild beasts pursue you as a result of disobedience, although the whole world lives in peace. This shows you that your concerns are arranged by a higher power than mere nature." All this, the laws included, is closely connected with the promises, and no disappointment is feared. All these promises have one basis, the anticipation of being near God and His hosts. He who attains this degree need not fear death, as is clearly demonstrated in our Law. (I, 109)


     In this passage, Rihal describes various characteristics of the individual or the nation who has attained the Divine influence - in this case, the people of Israel - and I shall relate to each one separately.


1)   Prophecy (or something nearly approaching it), and revelation accompanied by grand signs and miracles.

2)   Providence and governance that is not subject to the laws of nature.

3)   Rising above physicality.




     Prophecy is the pinnacle of every Jew's aspirations. It is through prophecy that the difference between Israel and the other nations finds fullest expression:


The sons of Jacob were, however, distinguished from other people by godly qualities, which made them, so to speak, an angelic caste. Each of them, being permeated by the divine essence, endeavored to attain the degree of prophecy, and most of them succeeded in so doing. (I, 103)[4]


     Rihal is aware of the fact that not everyone achieves prophecy, and he deals with this fact in several ways.


     As we saw above, Rihal recognizes that there are levels of connection to the Divine influence below that of connection by way of prophecy. Later in the book, he defines these different levels more precisely in the course of his description of the pious person:


This is as if the Divine Presence were with him continually, and the angels virtually accompanied him. If his piety is consistent, and he abides in places worthy of the Divine Presence, they are with Him in reality, and he sees them with his own eyes, occupying a degree just below that of prophecy.  (III, 11)


     We see, then, that there are two levels below that of the level of prophecy. The first is the feeling of the Divine Presence being with a person continually. As the Rabbi puts it, this is a "virtual" connection. The second is seeing Divine visions and hearing heavenly voices, which is just below the level of prophecy.[5]


     Earlier, Rihal had mentioned an even lower level, which is meant to bestow a sort of "substitute" on one who has not yet merited attaining connection to the Divine influence:


He directs the organs of thought and imagination, relieving them of all worldly ideas mentioned above, charges his imagination to produce, with the assistance of memory, the most splendid pictures possible, in order to resemble the divine things sought after. Such pictures are the scenes of Sinai, Abraham and Isaac on Moriah, the Tabernacle of Moses, the Temple service, the presence of God in the Temple, and the like. (III, 5)


     The imaginative faculty has an important role to play in advancing the pious man on the course leading to prophecy. He starts by imagining the great scenes and assemblies, continues by imagining the angels and the Shekhina, and finally he reaches true revelation.


     But R. YehudaHalevi goes even further, or to be more precise, he casts his eyes even lower; he asserts that even a person who has not merited piety or prophecy is afforded the opportunity to share in the fruits of prophecy in a passive manner and to be influenced by its visions:


Those who were not successful strove to approach it by means of pious acts, sanctity, purity, and intercourse with prophets. Know that he who converses with a prophet experiences spiritualization during the time he listens to his oration. He differs from his own kind in the purity of soul, in a yearning for the [higher] degrees and attachment to the qualities of meekness and purity.  (I, 103)


We see, then, that Rihal describes a full gamut of levels of revelation and prophecy that a person ascends until he reaches full-fledged prophecy. Here, however, I must sharpen an important point in Rihal's thought, because this scale of prophecy is liable to cast us into a trap. This point is connected to the discussion of the relationship between mystical experience and inspiration, on the one hand, and prophecy, on the other.


Man in general and religious man in particular experiences over the course of his life spiritual experiences that can be described as inspirations that rest upon the person; in extreme cases, they can be described as mystical experiences into which the person enters. From where does such an experience come and grow? Are we dealing with an inner awakening that stirs a person up and brings him to a state of ecstasy that is at times accompanied by visions, which are the product of his imagination working overtime over the course of his ecstatic experience? Or are we perhaps dealing with an objective revelation of some external reality that appears to the person when he has this experience?


Even if we say that the person rises for a moment above the rational or emotional norm in which he generally lives, this elation can still be described in subjective terms; that is to say, the person exposes in the depths of his soul apprehensions, feelings, and experiences, which in the course of his day-to-day existence doe not rise to his conscious awareness.


This question is intensified when we discuss the idea of prophecy. Should we include prophecy among those experiences that flow from a person's inner stirrings and that take place exclusively within his soul, thoughts, and imaginations? Or perhaps prophecy goes beyond such experiences and describes an objective revelation of an external reality that turns to the prophet.


Thus far, we have not discussed the concepts that are below prophecy, for example, the holy spirit, a vision, a maggid,[6] and even a dream, which Chazal say is an eighth of an eighth of prophecy.


It should be noted that those who wish to include prophecy in the framework of internal mystical experiences can be divided into two groups, depending on their motivations. One school includes a considerable portion of modern biblical scholars, who deny, or at least avoid relating to in their studies, an objective reality that exists outside the concrete world, that is to say, God.


The denial of God's existence forces the denier to relate to every instance of biblical prophecy as a personal mystical experience, in the extreme case, or as poetic inspiration in the less radical case.[7]


     An instructive example of religious sensitivity toward such an approach is found in a passage in Rav Kook's writings:


Prophecy and the holy spirit come, by the word of God, to man's innermost being, and from within him they profuse upon all that relates to the entire world. (Orot ha-Kodesh I, Chokhmat ha-Kodesh 16)


     Rav Kook's original manuscript does not read "to man's innermost being," but rather "from man's innermost being." The original reading might have brought the reader to attribute to Rav Kook the attitude presented above.


     Did Rav Kook believe that the idea of the holy spirit describes an exclusively internal awakening? Inasmuch as Rav Kook maintains that God is found in the innermost recesses of man's soul, does he think that there is no real difference between internal and external awakening, and that this is only a matter of semantics? Or perhaps we are dealing with "an error proceeding from the ruler?" Rav Kook's position on the matter goes beyond the framework of the present discussion. I have noted it only to demonstrate how prophecy and the holy spirit touch upon a highly sensitive issue.


There is another school that wishes to include prophecy in the sequential hierarchy of man's religious experiences, an experience that is perhaps more elevated than all the others, but still in the same realm (this school preceded the other by several centuries). I wish to cite the words of GershomScholem:


How puzzling, not to say indigestible, the phenomenon of Biblical prophecy seemed to those in the systematic thinking of the Greeks may be gathered from the fact that in the medieval philosophy of both the Arabs and the Jews there developed a theory of prophecy which amounts to an identification of the prophet with the mystic… Shiite prophetology was essentially a hierarchy of mystical experience and illumination, rising from stage to stage. The Biblical or Koranic concept of the prophet as bringer of a message is so reinterpreted as to denote the ideal type of the mystic, even when he is called a prophet. (On the Kabbala and its Symbolism, p. 9).


As was noted in earlier lectures, philosophy refuses to accept prophecy when understood in its plain sense. This is because, God is not subject to change, and He does not maintain a connection with the world or with man. In addition, for the very same reason, accepting the idea of prophecy in its plain sense, adopting the idea that God turns to man through Divine speech or apparition, involves unacceptable and unpardonable personification of God.


Accordingly, the idea of prophecy is turned into the highest level of intellectual comprehension, identical with union with the Active Intellect (or a side effect of such union, as we saw in the words of the philosopher in various places [I, 1; I, 87]).


Such a prophet as Amos… is transformed by philosophical prophetology into something entirely different: an enlightened one, who passes through successive stages of spiritual discipline and initiation until, at the end of a long preparation, he is favored with the gift of prophecy, considered as a union with the "Active Intellect," that is, with a divine emanation or stage of revelation. (ibid. p. 10)[8]


We might have attributed such an idea to Rihal based on his description, cited above, of the pious man who rises to the level of prophecy by employing his imagination. He imagines great scenes and assemblies, and then he imagines the Shekhina and the angels speaking to him – not "to his innermost being," but "from his innermost being." But Rihal leaves no room for any uncertainty. As we shall immediately see, in many places throughout the book he clarifies his understanding of the nature of prophecy, and he deals with two arguments against biblical prophecy:


While agreeing with him [Moses], they [the sages of Israel] questioned him, and completely refused to believe that God spoke with man, until he caused them to hear the Ten Words. In the same way, the people were on his side, not from ignorance, but on account of the knowledge they possessed. They feared magic and astrological arts, and similar snares, things which, like deceit, do not bear close examination, whereas the Divine might is like pure gold, ever increasing in brilliancy. (I, 49)


     The first possible argument against prophecy is the claim of fraud. There were always charlatans, and it is always possible to accuse a prophet of being one. Here, however, the suspicion is based not on a lack of faith in man, but on philosophical doubt regarding the very possibility that God would reveal Himself to flesh and blood.


     Rihal argues that this concern is real, and that caution necessitates careful examination of anyone claiming to be a prophet. According to Rihal, only one who has attained the Divine influence will stand up to rigorous examination. How do we achieve certainty?


These things, which cannot be approached by speculation, have been rejected by Greek philosophers, because speculation negates everything the like of which it has not seen. Prophets, however, confirm it, because they cannot deny what they were privileged to behold with their mind's eye. Such a number of them, living as they did in various epochs, could not have acted upon some common understanding. These statements were borne out by contemporary sages who had witnessed their prophetic afflatus. Had the Greek philosophers seen them when they prophesied and performed miracles, they would have acknowledged them, and sought by speculative means to discover how to achieve such things. Some of them did so, especially gentile philosophers. (IV, 3)


     We saw earlier that Rihal asserts that prophecy is accompanied by signs and miracles. We are not dealing merely with scenery that comes to bestow greater drama upon the prophecy, but rather with verification of the prophecy and revelation. Rihal's guiding principle, as we saw in earlier lectures, is found here as well. The objections raised by the philosophers against the idea of biblical prophecy are serious objections. But the undeniable signs and miracles that accompany the prophets and their prophecies refute these objections; it now falls upon those philosophers to reconcile the plain sense of prophecy as it is presented in Scripture with their philosophical outlooks. This is certainly possible according to Rihal in light of the flexibility that he attributes to rational speculation. This, indeed, argues Rihal, is what the Moslem philosophers did.


     Miracles prove the certainty of prophecy. What one sees with one's own eyes and hears with one's own ears constitutes proof on the level of rational proof, as we saw earlier, and therefore must be accepted as is.[9]


The second possible way of rejecting biblical prophecy in its plain sense involves "forcing" it into philosophical models, as was pointed out above by G.Scholem. Rihal addresses this possibility as well:


Henceforth, the people believed that Moses held direct communication with God, that his words were not creations of his own mind, that prophecy did not (as philosophers assume) burst forth in a pure soul, become united with the Active Intellect (also termed Holy Spirit or Gabriel), and be then inspired. They did not believe Moses had seen a vision in sleep, or that some one had spoken with him between sleeping and waking, so that he only heard the words in fancy, but not with his ears, that he saw a phantom, and afterwards pretended that God had spoken with him. Before such an impressive scene, all ideas of jugglery vanished. The divine allocution was followed by the divine writing. For he wrote these Ten Words on two tablets of precious stone, and handed them to Moses. The people saw the divine writing, as they had heard the divine words. (I, 87)


     The description of prophecy accepted among the philosophers focuses on the inner world of man. The philosophers understand the expression "Thus says God" as a metaphor describing the highest level of man's intellectual comprehension accompanied by rich imagination, which imagines a speaker and speech. According to the philosopher, the prophet refers to the products of his own imagination as "the words of God."


     The falsity of this idea became evident at the revelation at Sinai. This first prophecy, from which all later prophecies draw their strength and which they resemble in many ways, engraved the idea of prophecy in its plain sense on the tablets of human culture. This is the root of the difference between the god of Aristotle and the God of Avraham:


The Khazar king: Now I understand the difference between Eloh-im and Adon-ai, and I see how far the God of Abraham is different from that of Aristotle. Man yearns for Adon-ai as a matter of love, taste, and conviction; while attachment to Eloh-im is the result of speculation. A feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake, and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation, however, makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake. I would, therefore, excuse Aristotle for thinking lightly about the observation of the law, since he doubts whether God has any cognizance of it. (IV, 16)


     This disagreement, then, goes beyond the question of prophecy. One cannot compare a person who seeks God based on the understanding that he is seeking an intellectual apprehension and a product of his imagination[10] to a person who seeks God based on the belief that if he merits, God Himself will turn to him as an objective reality that can overcome the infinite gap between Him and man.


     The idea that best expresses this radical disagreement about prophecy is "knowledge of God."


     On the one hand, knowledge is rational cognition. Knowledge of God, in this sense, involves study, understanding, and cognition, through which a person acquires information about the "Prime Cause," and this is the nature of the connection between them. To cleave to God means to study Him, to understand and to comprehend. The philosopher strives to encounter God, in the sense of enriching, widening, and deepening his world of ideas. The entire process, from beginning to end, takes place within man, deep in his soul, and primarily in his intellect. He never goes beyond himself.


He ascends from one level to the next, until he reaches the highest level of comprehension, but he never goes beyond activating his own potential. He enlarges and enlarges the bubble that surrounds him, a bubble that can be defined in various ways – rationalism, emotionality, or the like. But this bubble will never burst before a reality that does not depend on the person, and that turns to him in a way that does not depend on his own knowledge, feelings, and perceptions.[11]


Knowledge in the biblical sense has an altogether different meaning. In the opening chapters of Bereishit, we encounter the idea of "knowledge" several times. The first two incidents are connected to eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And it is precisely this eating that distances man and his wife from God.


The first time that man appears to fulfill a Divine command relates to a different type of knowledge: "And the man knew Chava his wife" (procreation). Knowledge in its profound sense means contact, connection, and communion: "That is why a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."


Knowledge of God in this sense cannot leave man within himself. For a connection, for communion, for establishing contact – two are needed. Man approaches God in different ways, each generation with its own manners of drawing near, each thinker with his own approach, each person with his own path, but the goal is always the same: that moment that a person will seek God's closeness and go out to meet Him, but find that God has already gone out to meet him.[12]


Aristotle's God assumes different forms; each generation has its own tree of knowledge: from cleaving to the Active Intellect, to "the opium of the masses," to "ecstatic experience." All of these will disappear like a morning cloud with the arrival of the voice of God that will echo from one end of the world to the other: "I will betroth you to Myself in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord."


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] In II, 44, the Rabbi compares the resting of the Divine influence to the resting of the soul in man's body.

[2] On the one hand, Rihal sees the Divine influence as something utterly different from the other essences (the soul and the intellect) in that it belongs to the supernatural realm. On the other hand, he sees in it a certain Divine emanation that becomes realized in the world: "The Divine Influence, however, found next to the stars and spheres none who accepted his commands and who adhered to the course He had dictated, with the exception of a few between Adam and Jacob" (III, 17).

[3] This is said about Terach, who did not realize his unique essence (I, 47), and about a Jew who sins (I, 95). This is also told to a potential convert in connection with circumcision (I, 115). The Rabbi even says about Avraham that it was only when he realized his unique potential and became worthy of it that he merited the revelation of the Divine influence to him (II, 14).

[4] "But you have already proved to me that he who prays for attachment to the Divine Light, and the faculty of seeing it with his own eyes in this world, and who, nearly approaching the rank of prophets, is thus engaged in prayer - and nothing can bring man nearer to God than this" (III, 20); "The proof is that prolonged practice of this law leads up to the degree of prophetic inspiration, than which there is no nearer degree to God for man" (V, 20).

[5] Elsewhere, Rihal relates again to the level of connection below that of prophecy when he says about the priestly watches that "the Divine Influence was undeniably among them either in the form of prophecy or inspiration."

[6] This is mentioned primarily in kabblalistic contexts.

[7] It should be noted parenthetically that one of the crowns claimed by the world of scholarly research is the absence of preconceived notions on the part of the scholars engaged in such research. The lack of willingness to read Scripture from the perspective of religious belief is a significant bias that, in my humble opinion, diminishes even on a purely scientific level (and I am not talking about the spiritual level) the ability of these scholars to correctly interpret Scripture.

[8] The precise distinction regarding the position of the philosophers is not the absence of the concepts of "communion with God" and "Divine inspiration," but rather the absence of any mention of active turning on the part of God - who is outside of man and not part of him - to man. Rihal alludes to this approach with respect to the nature of the beings that the prophets see in their visions: "Concerning the visions seen by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, there is some doubt whether their objects were newly created, or of the number of those lasting spiritual beings" (IV, 3).

The "lasting spiritual beings" are those spiritual beings that gradually emanate from the Prime Cause down to our world. Rihal does not deny their existence, and on this point he adopts the philosophical model.

"The newly created" are new beings that are created, according to Rihal, for the sake of the prophecy itself, in order to bridge the gap between God and man. But we are still talking about God's active turning to man, even if indirect.

Regarding the beings that appear in the visions of the prophets, Rihal is in doubt about how to categorize them. But he clearly understands that prophecy in its very essence is connected to the second category, whereas according to the philosophers the whole category does not exist.

A summary of the various opinions regarding prophecy can be found in a work of R. Yehuda He-Chasid, one of the Chasidei Ashkenaz who lived at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries. There, he presents a debate between three sages regarding Divine revelation. In the wake of the debate conducted in the presence of the Arabian king of Spain, the king decides to convert along with his entire people. (Prof.YosefDan argues that this format indicates that Jews in Ashkenaz had heard about Rihal's book, but knew no details of it; the tradition regarding the king of the Khazars had not reached them. Since they heard about a book coming from Moslem Spain, they assumed that it dealt with the Arabian king of Spain).

Two of the debaters, whose positions R. Yehuda He-Chasid wished to reject, represent positions that were found among Jewish philosophers:

The first one is that prophecy arises in the prophet's imagination and is unconnected to objective reality. The prophet imagines the visions that he sees and the sounds that he hears.

The second is that prophecy is a created being, unconnected to God, and even subject to the laws of nature like all other created beings. A practical ramification is that this being is visible to anyone found in the prophet's proximity at the time of his prophecy.

The third opinion, according to R. Yehuda He-Chasid, is based on the position of R. AvrahamIbn Ezra that the Divine Glory emanates from God and is therefore part of God, although not part of His transcendental being.

[9] It should be noted that this certainty bestows certainty on the ideas that the Divine influence supports, such as the Torah (I, 84), and Shabbat(I, 86), and the like.

[10] "The philosopher, however, only seeks Him that he may be able to describe Him accurately in detail, as he would describe the earth" (IV, 13).

[11] The Rambam, who adopted the philosophical understanding of prophecy, recognized the conflict between it and the biblical understanding, and tried to hold on to both. He adopts the philosophical model of prophecy which involves union with the Active Intellect and ascending from one apprehension to the next, but he tries to part from this model at the most critical point – God's turning to man. According to the philosophers, a person with perfect intellect will of necessity attain prophecy, whereas the Rambam leaves the realization of prophecy to the free will of God. Even the perfect person who is worthy of prophecy must wait for the free will of God.

The Rambam sets himself apart from the philosophers not only, and not even primarily, with respect to preserving God's free will, but by sharpening and emphasizing God's turning to man, something that does not exist at all according to the philosophical model, not because of the absence of will, but because of understanding prophecy as another level of human comprehension.

[12] So, too, R. YehudaHalevi writes in one of his poems:

God, where will I find You, Your place is lofty and concealed.

And where will I not find You, Your glory fills the world…

I sought Your closeness, with all I my heart I called out to You.

And when I went out to greet You, I found You coming to greet me.