On prophecy

"One of the most important tenets of Judaism is the belief in prophecy."

kotel IDF prayers 521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
kotel IDF prayers 521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
One of the most important tenets of Judaism is the belief in prophecy.
Believing Jews toss the word around, but very few of them understand what it is exactly we are referring to when we use the word. The problem, of course, is that explaining prophecy to one who is not a prophet is like explaining sound to someone who is deaf. There are just no words to convey the experience.
Yet, while belief in God may very well be at the heart of Judaism, it is the belief in prophecy that makes all of Judaism possible. Without the belief that God can and does communicate his will to man, there would be no concept of Torah or commandments.
After all, can we call anything a commandment if no commands can be given? The requirement to believe in prophecy begs the question: what exactly is prophecy? Is it an active communication from God to man, or is it man raising his intellect or consciousness to a level at which he can tap into a Divine Will that passively exists? In other words, is prophecy a method for God to actively “speak” to a specific person, or is prophecy to be understood as God’s constant broadcasting of his intellect, to which one can attune his intellect in order to “hear” His message? Louis Jacobs, in his Principles of the Jewish Faith, argues that Maimonides’s definition of prophecy seems to advocate for the passive notion. Quoting Maimonides, he writes: “It should be known that among this human species there exist persons of very intellectual natures and possessing much perfection.
Their souls are predisposed for receiving of the intellect. Then this human intellect joins itself with the active intellect and an exalted emanation is shed upon them. These are the prophets. This is prophecy and this is its meaning.”
Does this mean that Maimonides rejects God actively communicating with man? That revelation was not so much as God approaching Israel, but Israel approaching God? Also, it seems Maimonides’s approach leaves open the possibility for man to prophesy even today, in our age, and that prophecy is no miracle but a natural consequence of man reaching an intellectual perfection.
Maimonides was fascinated with prophecy and already in his youth he sought to write a treatise on the subject, which he began but never completed.
For Maimonides, when one taps into the Divine through prophecy there is a definite element of the prophets’ own imagination which clothes the prophetic message. The odd and crazy things that the prophets do in the Bible are part of their prophetic vision and did not really occur. This is important for Maimonides, as he sees prophecy as the highest expression of intellect.
This approach also accounts for the many variations of language we find among the prophets. Some prophets are clearly skilled literary geniuses, others are clearly not. Each perceives his vision and then uses his own language and words to describe his vision. As Yehezkel Kaufmann writes in The Religion of Israel, this accounts for “a unity of doctrine not the less for their variety of styles and complexions” in their approach to the world, God, and the people of Israel.
Nahmanides, a Kabbalist himself, rejected Maimonides on this. Nahmanides knew that the mystic isn’t necessarily an intellectual, and that perhaps it is the crazy personality that allows a person to see beyond this world and reach prophecy. As the old saying goes, “Reasonable men adapt to the world, unreasonable men try to make the world adapt to them. And that is why all progress is made by unreasonable men.” The prophets were unreasonable men who made moral progress in a world that was against it.
According to André Malraux, “The strength of the prophets of Israel lay in the fact that they proclaimed the Truth when everything was against it.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel agrees with this notion and casts the prophet not as an intellectual, but as a sensitive soul, a soul so sensitive that he hears the “silent sigh from on high.” Heschel asks, “What manner of man is the prophet?” Heschel sees the prophet as someone completely different from the rest of us. For him, “the prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious... Two staggering facts in the life of a prophet are: God’s turning to him, and man’s turning away from him. This is often his lot: to be chosen by God and to be rejected by the people. The word of God, so clear to him, is unintelligible to them. What baffles the prophet is the disparity between the power and impact of God and the immense indifference, unyieldingness, sluggishness and inertia of the heart.
God’s thunderous voice is shaking heaven and earth, man does not hear the faintest sound. ‘The Lord roars like a lion’ (Amos 1:8). ‘His word is like fire, like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jeremiah 23:29) – and the people go about unmoved, undisturbed, unaware. What to the prophet is like the sun piercing the thickest cloud remains unnoticed by the people. The prophet is scorched by the word of God – ‘There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones’ (Jeremiah 20:9) – but the hearts of the people are asbestos, fireproof.”
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.