Thursday, April 27, 2006

Would that all God’s people were prophets -וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם ה', נְבִיאִים

Prophecy is a central issue in Judaism. Generally its importance is attributed to Revelation and its impact on the Torah's authenticity as divine. That is fine and well for Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy, but the prophecy of all prophets is also one of the basic tenets of Judaism. This excerpt of my article on Prophecy tries to explain how Rambam understands general prophecy. (Edited for this post)

Inspirational Prophecy.
There are two kinds of prophecies, a unique kind that only Moshe Rabbeinu experienced and another kind experienced by all other prophets. The latter one, referred to here as Inspirational Prophecy is a state in which the prophet finds himself in as a result of his metaphysical contemplation and speculation. All prophets experienced this type of prophecy including Moshe Rabbeinu at certain times. In explaining Moshe’s request to G-d - הוֹדיענוּ נא את דרכיך [1]- Rambam comments,

whereupon he [Moshe] received a favorable answer with regard to what he had asked for at first - namely, show me Thy ways. For he was told: I will make all my goodness pass before thee - אנכי אעביר כל טוּבי על פניך -... This dictum - all my goodness - כל טוּבי - alludes to the display to him of all existing things, of which it is said: - והנה טוֹב מאוֹד וירא אלהים את כל אשר עשה- and G-d saw everything that He had made [the universe and its natural laws] and behold it was very good. By their display I mean that he will apprehend their nature and the way they are mutually connected so that he will know how He governs them in general and in detail....”[2]

The process that allows for this type of prophecy consists of the prophet studying, contemplating and understanding the world he is surrounded by and how it works. As he engages in this speculation and as he attains an understanding of nature and its First Cause, the prophet now feels an overwhelming need to act on this insight and to emulate G-d’s actions. Rambam explains the verse -
כי אם בזאת יתהלל המתהלל השכל וידוֹע אוֹתי כי אני ה' עשה חסד משפט וּצדקה בארץ כי באלה חפצתי נאם ה' [3] - but only in this should one glory: in understanding and knowing Me. For I G-d act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight declares G-d -”But he [ירמיהוּ] says that one should glory in the apprehension of Myself and in the knowledge of My attributes by which he means His actions, as we made clear with reference to the verse: הוֹדיענוּ נא את דרכיך - Show me now Thy ways. In this verse he [ירמיהוּ] makes it clear to us that those actions that ought to be known and imitated are loving kindness, judgment and righteousness.[4]

The actions that the prophet is compelled to engage in to imitate G-d which are a result of his contemplation cover a large spectrum. In Moreh II, 45 Rambam lists eleven levels of prophecy, beginning with two “steppingstones to prophecy” such as acts of extreme courage or inspiration, followed by nine others described as prophecy, ending at the highest level with the example of Avrohom Avinu at the Akedah. All these acts are the result of the prophet’s overwhelming need to emulate G-d’s actions. When Moshe asked to know the ways of G-d, his ultimate objective was:

“ואדעך למען אמצא חן בעיניך וּראה כי עמך הגוֹי הזה - That I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight and consider that this nation is Thy people[5] - that is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to make similar to Your actions in governing them”[6].

The prophet’s vision that results from his contemplation upon how the world is run by G-d, informs him on how to lead people so that his leadership meets the criteria of emulating G-d. For this type of prophecy the prophet employs a mixture of the rational and the imaginative faculties just like in his search for G-d through nature where he uses the same faculties.

“Know that the true reality and essence of prophecy consists in its being an overflow overflowing from G-d, through the intermediation of the Active Intellect, toward the rational faculty in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative faculty.”[7]

The interplay of the rational and imaginative faculties allow for a certain kind of apprehension of G-d. That same interplay also lets the prophet interpret his vision and understand how to put it into practice.

This method for understanding G-d and the resulting prophecy are legitimate, necessary and central in Jewish thought. Rambam establishes the belief in this type of prophecy as dogma. It is the sixth of the thirteen central doctrines of Judaism he enumerates in his introduction to the tenth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin. However, because of the involvement of the imaginative faculty, this approach and the resulting prophecy cannot be used to transmit Laws and direct orders from G-d. When the imaginative faculty is used, the resulting vision is במשל וחידה - allegories and riddles, which require interpretation. The interpretation can be part of the vision or the prophet grasps it instinctively[8]. However the fact that interpretation is needed is reason enough for it not to be acceptable for the giving of the Torah. The Torah had to be given verbatim by G-d.
האוֹמר שאין התוֹרה מעם ה' אפילוּ פסוּק אחד אפילוּ תיבה אחת אם אמר משה אמרוֹ מפי עצמוֹ הרי זה כוֹפר בתוֹרה - “If one says that the Torah was not received from G-d, if one says that Moshe himself [rather then repeating verbatim what G-d said to him] said one word or even one letter, that person denies the legitimacy of the Torah.”[9]
A prophecy that requires interpretation does not live up to these criteria as it cannot be deemed verbatim by G-d. The need for interpretation personalizes the prophecy. The prophet’s personality and state at the time of prophecy is involved in the interpretation of the prophecy. That probably is the meaning of the Rabbis סיגנוֹן אחד עוֹלה לכמה נביאים ואין שני נביאים מתנבאים בסגנוֹן אחד - סנהדרין פ"ט. - in other words, the same prophecy is understood by each prophet according to his interpretation. This is therefore a far cry from verbatim repetition which is a requirement for Torah.

Every Jew's goal should be to attain this type of prophecy. It is what is expected from each one of us resulting from living a life driven by self improvement and Torah. Torah in this sense is the totality of the written text, the oral torah and just as important and a part thereof, all sciences. That knowledge coupled with a disciplined way of life as prescribed by the Mitzvos gives one the tools to engage in metaphysical speculation which is the ultimate search – the search for God.

[1] שמוֹת ל"ג, יּ"ג

[2] Moreh I, 54 page 124.

[3] ירמיהוּ ט' כ"ג

[4] Moreh III, 54 page 637. Note that צדקה וּמשפט - righteousness and judgment are the same actions G-d said that Avrohom would instruct his children to follow. see Breishis 18, 19 and Moreh II,39.

[5] שמוֹת ל"ג,י"ג

[6] Moreh I,54 page 125

[7] Moreh II, 36 page 369. See Jose Faur, Homo Mysticus pgs. 69 to 79 for an interesting discussion on the process.

[8] see Moreh II, 43.

[9] הל' תשוּבה פ"ג ה"ח

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