Sages Over Prophets

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 12, part 2

The Talmudic sage Amemar makes a daring comment in Baba Batra 12a that Ran struggles to explain. Scholars, Amemar states, are greater than prophets. Ran explains that prophets have one power only, to communicate what they were told; we’re obliged to listen, even if that command temporarily contravenes Torah law, other than worshipping powers other than Hashem.

Scholars, on the other hand, use their intellects to understand the Torah, and we follow them even though they might turn out to be wrong. Our obedience to them is broader than to prophets. In that sense, scholars are greater than prophets.

The Comparability of Prophets and Scholars

However, the Gemara launches into proofs that Amemar is right, focused on finding ways to show that Torah scholars are actually also somewhat prophetic. Ran explains that comparisons only work if they use a similar rubric. If scholars use their intellects only, and prophets their prophecy, the different impact of their words doesn’t show that one group is greater or lesser, just different.

For that reason, Abbaye, Rava, and R. Ashi worked to show that there’s an element of the prophetic to Torah scholars as well. Abbaye started with the claim that two scholars’ arriving at the same idea independently (as happens not only in Torah but in science) shows there’s an element of the prophetic to what they’re doing (although the similar occurrence in science serves as a counterargument). Once we know that scholars also work off inspiration, we can say their inspiration goes to greater uses.

Rava rejects the example, saying the two scholars might have the same mazal. He might have meant that literally, that they were born under the same star. Ran modernizes that to say the two scholars might share matter and form (in his time, the antecedents and determiners of behavior); bringing it to our times, we would say they might have shared enough heredity and environment to arrive at the same conclusion. However we say it, he means their shared discovery might result from shared formative influences, not necessarily prophecy.

R. Akivas Unapproachable Greatness

Rava instead says that scholars sometimes come up with an idea only to later find out that R. Akiva said it. For Rava, that rules out a shared intellectual source, since (clearly) no one has the same intellectual makeup of R. Akiva (a reminder of the awe in which R. Akiva was held).

R. Ashi says that this doesn’t prove the point, because the later scholar might, in that one area, have found his way to the same place as R. Akiva. Whereas Rava thought R. Akiva’s intellect was so unique that none of his innovative ideas were accessible to other humans’ intellects, R. Ashi suggests it might have been the breadth of his oeuvre that made him who he was, but that on any particular topic, another person could be his equal.

R. Ashi’s answer is that people sometimes come up with ideas that turn out to have been an הלכה למשה מסיני, a law handed down explicitly at Sinai. Those, Ran says, cannot be accessible to the human intellect, because if they were, they would have been given over to the ordinary processes of Torah. Hashem made halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, in Ran’s view, for ideas or issues that were not amenable to regular human thought. For a scholar to have come up with it, therefore, shows that an element of prophecy was mixed in, allowing Amemar to correctly say that a scholar is greater than a prophet.

I don’t think Ran has quite clarified the discussion. Rambam, for example, states that all halachot given at Sinai were widely known, making R. Ashi’s idea hard to understand. Leaving those concerns aside, Ran is clear that the Gemara means that Torah scholars are not only more powerful than prophets—in that their decrees last forever and are a function of their freewill, as opposed to the prophet who obediently transmits exactly what told—but they also partake of the prophetic, that some of their ideas and insights bear the mark of inspiration, not simple thought.

Certifying Authorities

One last way they are greater, Ran says, is that Torah scholars are the ones who articulate the standards by which we can judge the validity of prophets, not vice versa. In saying that, he makes the remarkable claim that if a prophet told us not to listen to a particular scholar, we would ignore that prophetic directive.

He quickly moves to a different aspect of the issue, but I think he is saying that just as a prophet cannot uproot a mitzvah, the prophet cannot deny a certified scholar the authority the Torah gives him. Were I able to engage Ran in conversation, I would wonder why the prophet could not, as an horaat shaah, a temporary command, tell us not to listen to a certain scholar (or even tell us, prophetically, that this scholar has personal deficiencies that rule him out from being a source of Torah knowledge).

However Ran would have answered, his bigger point was that the Torah tells us to listen to a prophet and provides rules for identifying a false prophet. But not every false prophet will show themselves that way, so how do we authenticate a prophet? That was left up to Torah scholars, who gave us some rules, such as Nedarim 38a’s saying that a prophet has to be wise, strong, and wealthy (which Ran discussed before, here and here) and guiding principles.

Next time, we’ll see Ran’s view of how we authenticate prophets, and how prophecy relates to other ways of knowing the future. For now, we’ve seen his understanding of scholars as being above prophets, in their right to use their intellect combined with quasi-prophetic ways of arriving at their ideas. And that element, the mixing in of the supernatural with the seemingly natural (coming up with an idea), the blurry line between the intellectual and the prophetic, the natural and the supernatural, will be the focus of next time, the final piece of the Drashot haRan.

About Gidon Rothstein

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