Moving From Prophecy to Law

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Until now, I’ve presented Ran’s Derashot in pieces. That allowed us to see more of the many topics Ran takes up in each Drasha, but it also chops up what was originally a continuous presentation. Especially given Ran’s digressive style, we can lose the forest for the trees. This is so true of the Drasha we’re up to that I am going to present it in one essay.

Prior essays in this series

The printers labeled this “the fifth drasha in another version.” It opens with the same statement as the previous drasha, R. Yochanan’s list of the necessary qualities (wisdom, wealth, humility, and strength) for prophecy, and the first segment repeats Ran’s surprise that a prophet should need qualities like strength and wealth. But it quickly moves in another direction.

Who Impresses Us?

Ran repeats his view that prophets need literal strength and wealth, to foster greater impact on the prophet’s listeners. Here, he adds as proof that Taanit 16a thinks that a person of impressive physical stature can be a reasonable choice to adjure a congregation to penitence on a fast day. Since that was the only quality of this person’s mentioned, the Gemara seems to assume that alone was enough to have people listen to you.

This comment raises two issues with practical import: first, Ran assumes Hashem accommodates some of our superficiality, sending us prophets we would allow to impress us. What’s the line on that? When does Hashem—and when should we—work with pettiness and when should we insist on a higher standard and expect people to join us there?

Second, granted that we are impressed by that which we shouldn’t be—so much so that Hashem “has” to send us rich and strong prophets—how do we let our awareness of that flaw impact our confidence in our judgment in other areas (remember this for later, since Ran will come to laud humility, perhaps for this very reason)? Do we stop to consider what that says about how perceptive we are, or open us to the possibility that we might be less astute judges than we think?

Its Not an Absolute Rule

Ran also thinks R. Yochanan didn’t mean his qualities as absolute requirements. For example, Bilam was a prophet, and Sotah 30b understands Tehillim 8:3 to mean that babies joined in the prophetic Song after the Splitting of the Sea. Neither Bilam nor the babies had achieved the four qualities.

Ran’s last example of prophecy that violates R. Yochanan’s rules is the Giving of the Torah, where the entire Jewish people heard the first two commandments (the simplest reading of Makkot 23b). He, like many others, is saying that the experience at Mount Sinai is the lasting proof of the unalterable nature of Moshe Rabbenu’s prophecy.

For Ran, Sinai forestalled future prophets from denying or changing what Moshe Rabbenu said, and also precluded any other ways people might come to deny the Torah, such as (Ran’s example) a philosopher, who uses logic, intellect, or experimentation to claim to show the Torah is fundamentally wrong about anything.

It’s remarkable to me that Ran already knew of those who thought plain human intellect could contradict the Torah. We have such people in our day as well, and Ran is telling us what tradition has long said, that Har Sinai was supposed to be our touchstone, our way to know that those of their claims that contradict the Torah cannot be correct. Do we know that still?

The Importance of Using Our Human Intellects

Starting his move to the real topic he means to address, Ran mentions that the limitations on prophecy created by Sinai extend also to the Oral Law (given at Sinai) including even the principles of how to decide that law. In Ran’s example, a prophet who claims Hashem told him to follow Rava in a particular dispute with Abbaye must be false, since Hashem already told us that halachah is majority-rule, not prophetically guided.

That is also the meaning of the famous story (Baba Metzia 59b) of R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanos calling for various miracles and even successfully summoning a Heavenly Voice to attest to the greater truth of his position. For Ran, the reason it didn’t matter was that arriving at the truth is less important than following the process the Torah set up. Each generation follows those truths the majority of qualified scholars come to accept.

Let’s pause to note and absorb Ran’s allegiance to human reasoning and halachic process. This is particularly remarkable because the first five drashot spoke of how the metaphysical impinges on and affects even what seems to us ordinarily physical. We’re headed in the other direction.

Rabbah bar Nachmani Verifies Hashems Position

For Ran, that explains an odd story in Baba Metzia 86a, where the Gemara tells us that Rabbah b. Nachmani was summoned to decide a dispute between Hashem and the rest of the Heavenly Academy. He eventually ratifies Hashem’s position.

Ran doesn’t understand: obviously Hashem is right, so how could the rest of the Academy disagree, and what did Rabbah b. Nachmani add? His previous discussion offers the answer—while the goal of Torah study is finding the truth of Torah, the only acceptable means to doing that is using our human intellects, operating within the parameters of the texts of tradition.

What Hashem knows about a law only matters if reasonable human intellects could also come to that conclusion; the unanimity of the Heavenly Academy suggested that human beings faced with this question would always decide it was impure, making Hashem’s “true” position irrelevant to the halachah. Rabbah b. Nachmani, a giant of that area of law, was able to show that a properly applied human intellect could indeed reach Hashem’s conclusion (incidentally, Ran assumes that the Heavenly Academy is not bound by majority rule—they care about finding as much truth as human intellects can reach).

The Extent of the Sages Power

Having found his way to the topic of the role of the Sages, Ran notes that Sages also add rules to the system. As Devarim 17:10-11 tells us, transgressing the Sages’ decrees violates a Biblical obligation (ועשית על פי הדבר, and you shall follow what they tell you) and prohibition (לא תסור, you may not stray from what they tell you).

Shabbat 23a extends this beyond rules meant to protect or extend Biblical law. R. Avya tells us—in a discussion of the source that allows saying “Who has sanctified us with His commandments” about lighting Chanukkah candles– that lo tasur applies there as well.

A Torah Preserved and Shaped by Sages

The Sages are so important to the system that rejecting their authority even in a non-halachic context renders one an apikores, a rebel, as we see in Sanhedrin 100a, where a student originally mocked R. Yochanan’s picture of how future times of bounty would look. That student later saw evidence R. Yochanan was right, and came back to retract his original doubts. R. Yochanan was unsatisfied, because the man should have accepted it because the Sages said it; finding external support shows a lack of required faith.

We have entered new territory for Ran. From being someone who includes much room for the metaphysical, he has now taken us to the realm of the human. He insists that human intellect plays a necessary role in the revelation of Torah in the world. Therefore, we must have great respect for the Sages who pass on the tradition of how to understand the Torah, and who are expert enough to uncover new truths of that Torah, using the relevant hermeneutical principles.

Rabbinic Law as an Avenue to True Fear of God

Ran now cites Rabbenu Yonah’s view (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:7) that adhering to Rabbinic law best expresses our appropriate fear of Hashem. The Rabbis mostly create fences to ensure we not transgress, and fences are what we put around those possessions we most fear will be damaged or stolen. By being careful with the fences, we demonstrate our attachment to and concern for Hashem’s Law.

The value of Rabbinic law in protecting the Torah also explains, for Ran, Avot 3;9’s claim that one whose fear of sin is prior to his wisdom will have sustainable wisdom. Based on Avodah Zarah 19a’s note that people only really learn that which interests them, Ran says that one who is building on pre-existing fear of sin will learn more, since every detail of the law, including especially protective Rabbinic ordinances, will be of great interest to him.

Two Kinds of Fear

Ran cites two more sources to highlight the importance of fear of Hashem. Shabbat 31b quotes R. Yehudah that Hashem only created the world for us to fear Him, and R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon that Hashem only “has” fear of Heaven in this world; whatever “has” means, it shows that fear of Heaven is important in Hashem’s scheme.

Contradicting that is Sotah 22b, which includes avoiding sin out of fear or love among seven lesser modes of conduct, although on 31a, the Gemara seems to uphold service out of love or fear as good models.

Ran’s answer (and it’s not his alone, many others have said this) is that there are two kinds of love and fear of Hashem. The lesser one, somewhat denigrated by Sotah 22b (and Rambam in the last chapter of Laws of Repentance), is where we serve purely out of love of reward or fear of punishment. We know that Hashem might send us suffering if we sin in manner x, or that Hashem will send rain to Israel if we fulfill mitzvot, so we do it. It’s not wrong, and we will get the promised rewards, but it is missing much of the point.

The laudable version is where our awareness of Hashem’s greatness, Otherness, and wonders, fills our souls with awe, bashfulness, and modesty, making it impossible for us to contemplate contravening the Will of such a Being.

Maybe Theres a Higher Level

Prior essays in this series

But some statements say that the modesty instilled by fear of Heaven leads (eventually) to hasidut, which Ran equates with love of Hashem. Hasidut is where love of mitzvot and service of Hashem leads a person to want to do what’s required in the absolute best way possible (Ran’s example is from a case where a person is saving other people’s property; the person who fears Hashem will do it in the right way, but will also accept appropriate payment. The person who loves Hashem will want to do the mitzvah completely for the mitzvah’s own sake).

That doesn’t fit with R. Yochanan’s list of a prophet’s necessary qualities, which did not include hasidut. Ran suggests that R. Yochanan agrees with R. Yehoshu’a b. Levi, who thought humility was the highest trait, a view he supported with Yeshayah 61;1, which says that the redemption will be for the benefit of the humble, not the hasidim.

Ran seems to leave it there, with two views as to whether love or fear, in their nobler forms, are to be preferred. He throws in, at the end, a short piece about humility also being the quality that will earn us a share in the Day of the Messiah.

The Drasha as a Whole

Ran’s drashot ramble deceptively, the greater cohesion only becoming clear when we take it as a whole. We started with an apparent repeat discussion of the qualities necessary to prophecy, this one segueing into a reminder of the limitations of prophecy, and the important role of rabbis and Rabbinic law.

That discussion brought us to a reminder of the centrality of fear of Hashem (and love, according to some) in our service of Hashem generally, allowing Ran to work his way back to the original statement of R. Yochanan, to show how a central quality necessary for prophecy was, in fact, the same one as necessary for the highest level of fear of Hashem, humility.

Ran seems to be implying that we can get caught up in wanting or missing prophecy, but in truth, interest in adherence to Rabbinic law will lead us to wisdom and to humility, the very qualities we would seem to need for prophecy. We might not have prophecy, but we have available to us all the building blocks for achieving the highest goals of human existence, which we can hope will take us to the Days of Mashiach, speedily in our times.

Leaving me with two closing questions: Do we get caught up in yearning for that which is impressive and flashy, but might not be vital or essential (as Ran’s audience was perhaps caught up in wanting prophecy, not noticing the more essential qualities of wisdom and humility)?

Second, are we trying to build our love and fear of Hashem, in their highest form, where our awareness of our Creator makes us shy away from sin simply because we know Hashem doesn’t like it? Or, perhaps better, leads us to an anxious interest in serving our Creator in the best ways possible? That, Ran wants us to know, is far more important than prophecy.

About Gidon Rothstein

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