Psychosis and prophecy

What is the litmus test of true prophecy?

Drawing  by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Drawing by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THRUSTING THE heavy wooden doors aside, with hands outstretched and eyes ablaze the zealot dashes into the synagogue and declares, “God has spoken to me, the messiah is coming.”
Who is this person overtaken with messianic fervor? A prophet of the lord? Someone experiencing psychosis? Both? In the past, society has labeled people who sometimes hear voices, believe strange things, or appear out of touch with reality, as mad, bad or simply sad.
In today’s medicalized world we often think of them as unwell. Recently, psychologists have sought a more nuanced approach to psychosis than the traditional psychiatric one, preferring to regard it as an understandable psychic experience triggered by stress.
Perhaps these experiences can hold meaning or even spiritual value. Many people who experience psychosis believe their voices to have a mystic origin; such voices may be malevolent or benevolent. Whether this is distressing depends not on the experience itself, but how it is interpreted.
Back to our self-proclaimed harbinger of the messiah who interprets his voices as prophecy. It is tempting to dismiss him as mad. But it is not so simple. There was a time in Jewish history when people who heard voices, and understood that the voice they heard was God’s, were revered as prophets. There were many of them. Recall the hordes of prophets killed by Jezebel, their prophecies never recorded in the Bible.
Only prophecies that the rabbis considered as containing eternal lessons made the cut of canonization. How did a society with scores of voice hearers decide who should be regarded as speakers of truth? From the outside, the experiences seem similar. In words that could be taken from a psychologist’s assessment notes, Maimonides observed, “When any of them prophesy, their limbs tremble, their physical powers become weak, they lose control of their senses, and thus, their minds are free to comprehend what they see.” So what is the litmus test of true prophecy? Two Deuteronomy passages provide two such tests: if the seer encourages his followers to worship idols (chapter 13), or if the fortune teller’s predictions do not come true (chapter 18). The latter approach is clear; the person is simply proved to be a story-spinning charlatan. The former test – the encouragement of idol worship – returns us to the issue of interpretation.
The 13th century Sephardi commentator Nahmanides offers the following analysis. If the prophet simply speaks on behalf of an alternative deity, he is the same as the charlatan “who shall speak in the name of other gods” (Deuteronomy 18:20), making this chapter redundant. The passage therefore refers to a different situation: the prophet interprets the vision as an encounter with the Lord, but says that the Lord has proclaimed that worship of an idol is divine will.
This leads us to better understand that all prophecy (except that of Moses) is subject to the interpretation of the vision.
In the situation that Nahmanides cites, the prophet has interpreted the vision beyond divine possibility; the Lord would never command idolatry. A true prophet must interpret visions within the accepted boundaries of what God would or would not permit.
Psychosis is only problematic if processing the experience gives rise to a distressing interpretation. Similarly, prophetic moments are only harbingers of holiness if they are processed via a Torah interpretation. All interpretation, by prophets, by psychotics, or by society at large, is dependent on a unique confluence of individual factors – disposition, education, socioeconomic position, and so on. We understand the world through the lens of our accumulated life experiences.
Maimonides states that a prerequisite for prophet status is someone of wisdom and inner strength. This means that the prophet’s lens of interpretation must be aligned with the Torah and not be subject to the whims of passion. From a Torah perspective, such a person’s apparently unusual or psychotic experiences can have a meaningful interpretation.
But not all God’s communications with humanity are filtered through the interpretative act of the prophet. A seemingly superfluous phrase is appended in the passage on false prophets, “for he [the prophet] had spoken falsehood about the Lord your God – who takes you out from the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 13:6) Why does God refer to the Exodus? Because this was a public unambiguous miracle, not a private vision or mental image. There is no room for interpretation. While prophecy will always be a subjective act, it must remain within the bounds of the objective Sinaitic experience.
In the unceasing attempt to discover what God requires of us, we end up navigating between the fluidity of personal interpretation of a private experience and the rigidity of open revelation experienced unquestionably by all.
Rabbi Samuel Landau is the rabbi of Kingston, Surbiton & District United Synagogue, London, and a clinical psychologist in training at the Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology