Thursday, August 07, 2008

Are There Prophets Among Us? - Personal and Missionary Prophecy

The fourth difference between Moshe and other prophets is in my opinion the most important and practical one from our perspective as Homo Religioso. But first, a little bit of a digression.

I have discussed in the past that not all prophecy is for the consumption of others. One can be a private prophet that has developed himself to such a point that he can apprehend physical and metaphysical truths beyond what a less developed thinker would. It is a result of both behavioral and mental perfection.

הנביא, אפשר שתהיה נבואתו לעצמו בלבד, להרחיב ליבו ולהוסיף דעתו, עד שיידע מה שלא היה יודע, מאותן הדברים הגדולים.

A prophet’s prophecy may be a personal experience only, whereby he broadens his mind and adds knowledge to the point that he now knows things about these great matters that he never knew. (Rambam Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:7)

I believe that Rambam holds that this kind of prophecy is based on merit and no outside interference may stop it. I would also tentatively venture, that according to Rambam this type of prophecy never ceased and may still be attained nowadays. It is completely dependent on the prophets’ development and perfection - a natural human phenomenon. Obviously, not all the rules of prophecy, such as infallibility[1] and authentication[2], apply.

The other kind of prophecy is the one addressed to others. The prophet gets an uncontrollable urge and need to share his prophecy with others. It is to this type of prophecy that all the rules, such as infallibility and authentication, apply. This prophecy requires traits other than just developed thought and personality. Giving a sometimes-unwanted message or risking one’s life just in the authentication process requires courage and boldness.

Explaining how prophecy in Judaism differs from advanced human mental development, Rambam writes –

For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. According to my opinion, this is like all the miracles and takes the same course as they. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is prevented from it, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings Xiii.), is prevented from moving his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings Vi. 18).” (MN 2:32).

As I have shown many times, Rambam understands miracles as anomalies in nature that prove that God wills. Prophecy is a natural human development that cannot be suppressed or stopped and when it is, it is seen as a natural anomaly – “this is like all the miracles and takes the same course as they.” I understand this to mean that unforeseen circumstances outside the prophets’ internal life interfere and prevent him from prophesying. Rambam uses Baruch ben Neria as an example for someone that is ready for prophecy and could not.

That those who have prepared themselves may still be prevented from being prophets, may be inferred from the history of Baruch, the son of Neria; for he followed Jeremiah, who prepared and instructed him; and yet he hoped in vain for prophecy. (MN2:32)

Yet the same Baruch is listed among the prophets –

מיתיבי ברוך בן נריה ושריה בן מעשיה ודניאל ומרדכי בלשן וחגי זכריה ומלאכי כולן נתנבאו בשנת שתים לדריוש תיובתא

(Megilah 15a)

Clearly, although he was prevented from what I would call missionary prophecy, he still was a prophet in the sense of apprehending things that only prophets do. The circumstances that Baruch had to confront as one of the exiles during the destruction of the first temple prevented him from getting on a pulpit and promulgating his prophecies.

The same circumstance, prevalence of sadness and dullness, was undoubtedly the direct cause of the interruption of prophecy during the exile. For can there be any greater misfortune for man than this? To be a slave bought for money in the service of ignorant and voluptuous masters, and powerless against them as they unite in themselves the absence of true knowledge and the force of all animal desires?” (MN 2:36)

Baruch himself however was a prophet and was able to “broaden his mind and add knowledge to the point that he now knows things about these great matters that he never knew.” He was prevented from broadcasting his prophecies being seen as a prophet to himself and not to the world. It is based on this that I believe that only the second type of prophecy, the one that is shared with others, can be prevented by circumstances while the internal kind, though affected, would not be stopped completely. It has to do with the involvement in missionary prophecy of traits other than the intellect. It is those traits such as courage and boldness that can be inhibited by circumstances. This explains the following –

The same was the case with Moses after the disastrous incident of the spies and until the death of the warriors of that generation. He received no message of God, the way he used to do, because – seeing the enormity of their crime – he suffered greatly because of this matter. This was so even though he did not receive prophetic inspiration through the medium of the imaginative faculty, but directly through the intellect.” (MN 2:36)

Rambam is telling us that the intellect is not affected by outside circumstances that make the prophet suffer. The imaginative faculty is apparently affected by mood brought upon the person from the outside, however as Moshe did not involve that faculty in his prophetic experience, there must be another reason that his mood affected his prophecy. When describing the need for courage in prophecy Rambam writes –

Their courage was so great that, e.g., Moses, with only a staff in his hand, dared to address a great king in his desire to deliver a nation from his service. He was not frightened or terrified, because he had been told, "I will be with thee" (Exod. iii. 12). The prophets have not all the same degree of courage, but none of them have been entirely without it. Thus, Jeremiah is told: "Be not afraid of them," etc. (Jer. i. 8), and Ezekiel is exhorted, "Do not fear them or their word" (Ezek. ii. 6). In the same manner, you find that all prophets possessed great courage. (MN2:38)

I understand that this trait, courage, is one of those needed for missionary prophecy that is affected by outside circumstances and have an impact on the prophet’s mood.

Please note the conditional tone Rambam uses when describing Moshe’s changed prophecy after the disastrous incident of the spies and until the death of the warriors of that generation. He says He received no message of God, the way he used to do. This proviso is very important and I will discuss it as I continue with this subject.

Cautionary Note:

The ideas that I present in this post, the difference between missionary and personal prophecy being affected by outside circumstances, are tentative and my own. I have been thinking about this issue for a long time and I believe this resolves some of the problems I have on this specific subject. I would like to hear from others on the issue.

[1] See Introduction to Pirush Hamishna explaining Yaakov’s fear that his sins may have changed God’s promise to him.

[2] See the Halacha quoted above in its full context –

ואפשר שישולח לעם מעמי הארץ, או לאנשי עיר או ממלכה, לבונן אותם ולהודיעם

מה יעשו, או למנוע אותם ממעשים הרעים שבידיהם;

וכשמשלחין אותו, נותנין לו

אות ומופת כדי שיידעו העם שהאל שילחו באמת

Only in this last instance does he require authentication.



  1. Is this personal nevuah what some might term as ruach hakodesh?

    Are there not plenty examples in chumash of Moshe saying over to klall Yisroel dinim in the name of Hashem after the spies. According MN his nevuah was different after this incident - surely we cannot argue that his nevuah thereafter was personal only?

    "I would also tentatively venture, that according to Rambam this type of prophecy never ceased and may still be attained nowadays" - would you like to suggest any gedolim from the 20th century who might have been worthy of such a level?

  2. Ergo,

    Re your first question, where do you find that Moshe gave new laws during the midbar?

    We find at sinai and in arvot moav,

    Personal prophecy is something that a person gets internally as it is not for broadcast. how can we know what another person thinks? It is however clear that whoever claims that a "godol" nowadays foresees the future prophetically negates the gemara that says it was batel. Ruach hakodesh is the personal kind as far as I understand.

    Ergo, the nonsense we were taught in Yeshivah on these matters is exactly that nonsense.

  3. BS"D
    I think something went wrong with the footnotes in your article. For some reason they display programming codes instead of Rambam and Chazal quotes.

  4. 1. Don't Chazal discuss how Yaakov Avinu did not get prophecy for 22 years since he thought Yosef was dead which would seem to be a loss of the personal prophecy.

    2. logically why couldn't the personal prophecy be prevented circumstantially, doesn't that also need great concentration on ideas which mood could affect?

    3. If the thing which prevents prophecy are external natural phenomena why would they be categorized as miraculous? wouldn't it be simpler to describe a person who is unable to prophesize as an actual break in the laws of nature since as you entioned prophecy is a natural process?

  5. Maestri, In my browser the notes are fine. Try Mozilla.

    R. Yaakov,

    1 and 2. Good point however I would imagine that it would depend on the type of sadness and how strongly a person was affected. Prophecy in the sense of apprehension is hard to measure as there is no outward manifestation. It is apersonal experience. Read carefully the introduction to the Moreh

    "Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day."

    This is a very personal presentation and seems to talk about us in our times. If you read the rest of that segment it becomes even stronger. So prophecy in our times exists although we are in galut.

    3. You again make a good point and I struggled with it and still do. When you read Rambam at first blush it would seem to be miraculous as he compares to the paralyzed or frozen hand of Yeravam and the altar. However he later says that in Galut we cannot have prophecy because of the state we are in. That is not miraculous. So if we look back at it, the hand of Yerovam was maybe not miraculous but a psychological impediment. The miracle for the altar was the prediction of the prophet of the happening and not the occurrence itself. A new altar may crack.

    So that takes us back to rambam's "miracles". They have quite a wide range and cover many possibilities not all unnatural.

    I have opted for the explanation that fits better the way I read Rambam on prophecy.

    I hope this helps.

  6. In regards to the miracle isn't the Rambam trying to contrast our view with that of the philosophers? why wouldn't they agree that a depressed person cannot receive prophecy?

    That in fact seems to be the Rambam's main point i.e. that you will interpret all of the Pesukim such as "Their prophets did not receive a vision from God" as being natural due to the Galus (which is a natural factor) however that would be incorrect since there are many statements which show prophecy as depending on God's will. meaning that God can interfear with the natural process. For example in the case of Baruch even though he was not depressed and should have received (public?) prophecy.

  7. R. Yaakov,

    I am not sure what you mean that Baruch was not depressed. here are the pessukim
    כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, עָלֶיךָ, בָּרוּךְ.
    אָמַרְתָּ אוֹי-נָא לִי, כִּי-יָסַף יְהוָה יָגוֹן עַל-מַכְאֹבִי; יָגַעְתִּי, בְּאַנְחָתִי, וּמְנוּחָה, לֹא מָצָאתִי.
    כֹּה תֹּאמַר אֵלָיו, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הִנֵּה אֲשֶׁר-בָּנִיתִי אֲנִי הֹרֵס, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-נָטַעְתִּי אֲנִי נֹתֵשׁ; וְאֶת-כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, הִיא
    וְאַתָּה תְּבַקֶּשׁ-לְךָ גְדֹלוֹת, אַל-תְּבַקֵּשׁ: כִּי הִנְנִי מֵבִיא רָעָה עַל-כָּל-בָּשָׂר, נְאֻם-יְהוָה, וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ אֶת-נַפְשְׁךָ לְשָׁלָל, עַל כָּל-הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֶךְ-שָׁם

    and you say no depression?

  8. R. Yaakov,

    Re your other point - the philosophers would not see yad hashem here but mikreh. I think that is the difference. Though your interpretation is not necessarily incorrect and many of rambam's interpreters see it that way. I am just trying to be consistent with how I read him generally on this subject.

  9. Re Baruch
    1 Wass't he depressed as a result ofnot receving prophecy. Howw would that indicate that he was depressed earlier so that depression would be a cause?
    2 Why was he surprised not to receive prophecy he knew the idea that a depressed person was not appropriately prepared for it

  10. Re the philosophers
    If it is only a question of interpretation that wouldn't that just be a difference in their understanding of nature in general as opposed to being 2 distinct ideas of prophecy?

  11. re Baruch

    He says that bad things will happen therefore don't hope for prophecy. Who says that it was a surprise? It is a statement of fact and cause and effect. Rambam just uses it to prove his point.

    Re the philosophers see how Rambam ties in the three opinions on creation to prophecy at the beginning of 2:32. The opinion about creation is based on Ratzon and so is Nevuah - both are interpretations of natural events.

    Yaakov - what you point out is very helpful and I think I need to write and clarify this more especially the connection between the two - creation and prophecy according to Rambam's understanding of the two. BTW much was written about that intro of Rambam as I am sure you are well aware.

  12. Yirmiyah seemed to be responding to a complaint Baruch had. apparently Baruch did not know the idea which explained why he didn't have Nevuah. If it was because of depression that seems like a fundamental idea which he was sure to know.

    Also could you elaborate on why you think a natural nes is more likely to be meant here than a break in the Laws of nature. (of that also is a system but one with it's own rules)

  13. R. Yaakov,

    In general I try to follow Rambam's approach, especially when I learn him, to minimize miracles as unnatural events. I have written quite a bit about miracles - see the tag - and I understand Rambam that they are all natural events but rare. but rambam can be read your way too here in 2:32.
    היה מקום להגיד שזאת אמירה מפורשת שביחס לברוך הנבואה היא גדולות. וכן היו אומרים שדברו גם נביאיה לא מצאו חזון מה' (איכה ב', 9) הוא מפאת היותם בגלות, כפי שנבהיר16. אולם מוצאים אנו לשונות רבים, מהם לשונות שבספרים ומהם דברי חכמים, אשר כולם נוקטים בעקביות בעיקר זה, והוא שהאל מנבא את מי שהוא חפץ כאשר הוא חפץ, אבל את השלם המעולה בתכלית.

    Rambam seems to waffle here and accepts reluctantly the position he finds in chazal although he does not give us the many sources that pushed him to it. He however seems to be baffled why they say that.

    I will therefore say you may be right but I would like to be more consistent and assume that Rambam leaves it as an open question, preferring his own understanding - especially when he seems to be repeating that there is personal prophecy nowadays (in the intro and in MN 3:51
    דרגה זאת אינה דרגה שאיש כמוני יבקש להדריך אל השׂגתה
    אבל אותה דרגה שהוזכרה לפני-כן יש לבקש להגיע אליה בתרגול זה שהזכרנו. נתחנן אל האל שיסלק את המכשולים החוצצים בינינו ובינו, אף אם רוב המכשולים האלה מקורם בנו, כמו שהבהרנו בפרקי ספר זה67: עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם היו מבדִלים בינכם לבין אלהיכם).

  14. What does the question of miracles have to do with personal prophecy nowadays? couldn't you maintain Chazal's position while still having personal prophecy nowadays?

  15. R. Yaakov,

    You are the one who argues that repression of prophecy is miraculous.

  16. If I understood you correctly you were saying the fact that the RAmbam hilds that there is personal prophecy nowaday is proof to your interpretation.

    "I will therefore say you may be right but I would like to be more consistent and assume that Rambam leaves it as an open question, preferring his own understanding - especially when he seems to be repeating that there is personal prophecy nowadays (in the intro and in MN 3:51"

    You are tying the question of prophecy nowadays with the question of whether the RAmbam holds prophecy is a break in nature. Why is one question dependant on the other?

  17. On another note:

    How are you differentiating between prophetic knowledge and other knowledge?

  18. R. Yaakov,

    I see. If it is by divine decree and we accept the passuk "lo Matz'u Chazon Mehashem" literally as a miraculous event it would not change until yemot hamashiach. If it is a statement describing natural state events, indivduals may overcome enough to gain personal prophecy though not enough to allow for prophecy to others.

    Re prophetic knowledge being different than other knowledge, Rambam differentiates it by explaining the ability of the prophet to arrive at true conclusions without having to sequentially deduce. I see it as something akin to intuitive knowledge. He can therefore grasp things that a scientist could not especially in the area of metaphysics. Read again the intro to the Moreh where he describes this knowledge as flashes of lightning that appear and disappear. Thus that knowledge is not always retained and most of the time not transmittable. I have been planning to write about it but I need to get time and get to it.

  19. Thanks fo the claification!

    I wil need some time to think into all of these points