Prophecy VI: Why Believe A Prophet?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Why The Torah is Eternal

Other essays in this series

We already discussed why Rambam emphasizes the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy — to make the point that the Torah cannot be changed. But not everyone takes that approach. In Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah (7:7), Rambam enumerates the unique aspects of Moshe’s prophecy (Touger translation):

All the statements made above describe the path of prophecy of all the early and later prophets, with the exception of Moses, our teacher, the master of all prophets… Moses, our teacher, would prophesy while standing awake… Moses, our teacher, [would prophesy] without the medium of an angel… without metaphor or allegory… All the [other] prophets are overawed, terrified, and confounded… All the [other] prophets cannot prophesy whenever they desire…

Rambam explains the importance of Moshe’s unique prophecy later (9:1):

Therefore, if a person will arise, whether Jew or gentile, and perform a sign or wonder and say that God sent him to: a) add a mitzvah, b) withdraw a mitzvah, c) explain a mitzvah in a manner which differs from the tradition received from Moses, or d) if he says that the mitzvot commanded to the Jews are not forever, but rather were given for a limited time, he is a false prophet. He comes to deny the prophecy of Moses…

Moshe’s uniqueness–the incomparable strength of his prophecy–guarantees continuity of the Torah. No future prophet can revoke the Torah that Moshe taught. This is particularly important when debating Christians or Muslims, who claim that Moshe’s laws were revoked by a later prophet.

However, Ramban sees a different source for the irrevocable nature of the Torah. We may not listen to a prophet who instructs us to commit idolatry (Deut. 13:2-6). Ramban (13:2) explains that God commanded us directly at Mt. Sinai to refrain from idolatry. As he continues (13:3,4), Ramban extends this to all of the commandments. If a prophet permanently permits anything forbidden, we must follow the same procedure as with one who advocates idolatry. Similarly, we must fear God directly, not a prophet, and therefore never permanently violate God’s words based on a prophet’s encouragement. To Ramban, the episode at Mt. Sinai–the direct revelation–enforces the eternity of the Torah. No prophet can override direct revelation.

According to Rambam, Moshe’s greatness in prophecy prevents future prophets from overriding the Torah he taught. According to Ramban, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai prevents future prophets from overriding the Torah. Why do they disagree?

II. Why We Believe A Prophet

How do we know who is a prophet and who is not? The Torah (Deut.18:15 ) commands us to follow the instructions of a prophet. We cannot be expected to follow every person who claims to be a prophet merely based on their claim. Rambam (ibid., 7:7) explains:

When [a prophet] is sent [on a mission], he is given a sign or a wonder [to perform], so that the people will know that God has truly sent him.

In order to be accepted, a prophet must either be affirmed by another (already confirmed) prophet or prove his status by giving a sign. I hope to discuss at a later date exactly what constitutes an acceptable sign. However, Rambam’s treatment of this sign deserves notice. He continues (ibid.):

It is possible that a person will perform a sign or wonder even though he is not a prophet – rather, the wonder will have [another cause] behind it. It is, nevertheless, a mitzvah to listen to him. Since he is a wise man of stature and fit for prophecy, we accept [his prophecy as true], for so have we been commanded.

We can never know for sure that a prophet’s sign is real but we must follow, and accept the results of, the process for validating a prophet. It gives us the best result even if it is not foolproof. Rambam compares this to the testimony of two witnesses in court. While it is possible that they might lie, and we take precautions against that happening, we must work based on their testimony because otherwise we would be unable to function. Similarly, we test a prophet to the best of our abilities and then accept him as legitimate.1

This is in contrast to Moshe. Rambam (ibid., 8:1) explains that we accept Moshe’s prophecy because of the revelation at Mt. Sinai:

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery…

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following:….”

We have to add to our explanation of Rambam’s view of the eternity of the Torah. According to Rambam, the revelation at Mt. Sinai proves Moshe’s uniqueness; then Moshe’s uniqueness proves the eternity of the Torah. Ramban takes a more direct route: the revelation at Mt. Sinai proves the eternity of the Torah.

To Rambam, we can never be certain about a prophet because proofs are imperfect; we can only be certain about Moshe because of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Ramban seems to disagree. While he quotes the Rambam in full (Deut. 18:21-22), he does so to explain Rashi, with whom he disagrees. Elsewhere (Deut. 6:16), Ramban writes that we accept Moshe as a true prophet because of the signs he provided. Once a prophet is proven, including Moshe, we must accept him as a true prophet. Ramban seems to accept a prophet’s proof as definitive. This is not just a bureaucratic process we use to approve prophets, for lack of anything better. This is a valid and conclusive method of determining truth.

III. When Prophets Disagree

We now have to ask what the concern is all about. Why would Rambam specify that a prophet who contradicts Moshe is a false prophet? Shouldn’t a prophet who contradicts any other prophet be a false prophet? While it is possible for God to change His mind on some things, such as a future bad event, not everything is subject to change. What if one prophet tells us that we must go to Babylonia and another tells us not? Isn’t the second prophet contradicting the first, and therefore false, just like a prophet who tells us that we may eat pig meat? Rambam seems to only condemn as false a prophet who disagrees with Moshe, not one who disagrees with other prophets.

Based on the above disagreement between Rambam and Ramban, we can understand. According to Rambam, no prophets (except Moshe) are definitively true prophets. We follow them as a matter of process but retain a certain element of doubt. If one prophet disagrees with another, maybe one or both are false. We can’t know for sure but still have to follow them to the best of our abilities, if they have passed the approval process.2

In Rambam’s view, the only prophet who is conclusively true is Moshe because we have direct divine testimony from Mt. Sinai. Therefore, anyone who contradicts Moshe must be wrong.

Ramban believes that any prophet who passes the appropriate test is true. Moshe is also true. They all proved themselves and therefore they are all true prophets, without doubt. While Moshe’s prophecy deserves higher respect for other reasons, it remains just as true as other prophecies. If a later prophet contradicts Moshe’s prophecy, we would not defer to Moshe if not for the Torah having been given at Mt. Sinai.

But what about the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy? Ramban certainly accepts this (Num. 12:6). However, he can attribute that to uniqueness of form, not strength. All prophecies are true because they all come from God. However, Moshe uniquely spoke with God, compared with the way other prophets communicated with God. To Ramban, Moshe’s uniqueness does not guarantee the truth or eternity of the Torah. All prophets are true and direct revelation from God guarantees that the Torah will remain eternal.

 


  1. Rambam writes this explicitly in his Iggeres Teiman (tr. Halkin, p.  113): “Similarly we are enjoined to act in accordance with the declaration of one who asserts that he is a prophet provided he can substantiate his claim by miracle or proof, although there is a possibility that he is an impostor.” 

  2. I’m not sure what to do if it is impossible to obey them both. I suspect we must follow the first. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

One comment

  1. I would think that if two prophets genuinely contradict each other, we follow the latter. This would match the enjoinder to follow the judges who are before you in your days. We apply this to general issues of Psak (where Rabbis are not sitting in judgement), so why not prophecy?

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