Prophecy, the Jewish Way

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama tips his hand at the beginning of the nineteenth sha’ar, telling us he intends to contrast the Torah’s version of prophecy to the one advanced by philosophers, among whom he includes several traditional thinkers (he singles out Ralbag, as we will see). He is invested in the topic, in other words, because a common view seems to him to run counter to the Torah’s.

Philosophers and Chazal do agree people need to fulfill certain prerequisites for prophecy. Nedarim 38a records R. Yochanan’s statement Hashem only rests the Divine Presence on a chacham, gibor, and ‘ashir, one wise, strong, and rich. The uneducated do not realize this truth; they think Gd can and does decide to visit prophecy on random people, of no qualifications.

Rambam, Guide II;34, agreed with one aspect of the popular view, prophecy only happens when Hashem decides to make a person a prophet. To Rambam, it explains our certainty an idolater could never achieve prophecy—Hashem would never have reason to bestow it on such a person. He reads Moshe’s request ve-niflinu ani ve-‘amecha, let us (the Jewish people) be different from all other nations as meaning prophecy, to make it attainable only through the kind of service Hashem laid out in the Torah, unavailable to anyone who worships any other power.

Prophecy In One’s Own Image

Philosophers engraved prophecy in their own image, defining a prophet as one who acts as the intellect deems proper. Sustained excellence in actions makes a prophet of action, one who develops his/her intellect to the highest level becomes a prophet of insight. They envisioned a clear ladder, from grammar to logic to mathematics and on, with metaphysics the last rung, the study of which gives knowledge of Gd.

R. Arama objects to the conflation of prophecy and logic. He notes the philosophers themselves offered the parable of a blind man cured one day. He will already have known the city well from his wanderings while sightliess, will now have added enjoyment, deepened knowledge of the city, although not a radically different experience. It’s the same city.

They miss a crucial aspect of prophecy, its ability to reveal aspects of the world inaccessible to intellect alone. Their insistence their human intellect can find all needed knowledge traps them in the error of the serpent in Eden, the misguided overemphasis on the Tree of Knowledge we saw in R. Arama’s reading of Bereshit.

Philosophers are trapped by their dedication to their intellects, can only accept what they can understand, leading them to deny the miracles in Tanach, stuck in their materialist (chomri) view of the world. [An error sadly rampant in our time as well.]

The Damage They Cause

They misled the masses to reject important ideas of faith, such as providence, which in turn makes people insufficiently grateful to Hashem for the bounty of the Divine Will. People think there’s no reason to thank Hashem or pray, because life follows the course of Nature [another idea with strong contemporary parallels]. Sure the world is set, with no room for divine reward or punishment, people end up saying what the Midrash denigrates as the height of heresy: leit din ve-leit dayyan, there is no judgment and no Judge (Gd forbid), leading people to deny the need for fear of Heaven.

At the same time, such people are confident they have improved themselves as necessary or valuable, a tendency Mishlei 30;12 decried as dor tahor be-‘einav, a generation pure in its own eyes. R. Arama again likens them to the serpent, who falsely told us we can figure out life, when in fact we will see life clearly only when we immerse in the cleansing waters of the Gdly wisdom of the Torah (his metaphor, not mine).

Their overconfidence irks him especially regarding prophecy, because the human intellect can only understand as much about Hashem as Hashem shows us. Philosophers insist the only truths worth knowing can be deduced logically, letting them overestimate how much they  understand [an idea still true today, where intellectuals look at what they and colleagues have accomplished, and satisfy themselves they either have discovered or are on the verge of knowing all—only to be blindsided by a complete revolution in their field.]

R. Arama mentions Yechezekl 29;3, where Hashem mocks Pharaoh for his claim to own the Nile, to have made it, and Ovadyah 1;3, where Edom flatters itself for living in the high rocks, oblivious to those rocks also being the limit of how high they can go (when there’s a whole sky above them). They model the attitude R. Arama decries, being too impressed with themselves.

Where Jews Could Have Done Better, But Often Do Not

Our Jewish model takes a different path, each prophet minimizing his or her significance and accomplishments as s/he advances in understanding of Hashem. Upon reaching prophecy, Avraham repeatedly refers to himself as ‘afar va-efer, dust and ashes. Tehillim 8;4-5 records David’s wonder at the heavens, moon, and stars, his incomprehension of why Hashem then pays any attention to humans.

I am skipping his extended reading of Mishlei 30 as making these points, especially about the error in philophers’ insistence on Nature’s following strict laws, with no room for miracles or divine interventions). Worse, many Jews are drawn to this view [appealing, I think, because it ratifies our desire for self-sufficiency, tells us we can figure out the world on our own].

To skirt the Biblical stories which contradict their approach, they naturalize and rationalize miracles, constraining Tanach, the record of prophetic experiences, to fall in line with the truths of philosophers, and to allow predictions only of what could be inferred logically about the future [in our times, too: which scientific claims do we take to be overriding, forcing us to reinterpret miracles? Rambam did think some philosophical truths were sufficiently proven to re-read pieces of the Torah. The question is where on the slippery slope we find a handhold].

Ralbag read Hashem’s words at Sodom—erdah na ve-er’eh, let Me descend to see—to mean Hashem knew the possible choices, not the actual ones (which “forced” Hashem to make an effort to go see), an idea he drew from non-Jewish philosophy. Hashem knows the generalities of the world rather than the specifics, and certainly not what people will eventually choose. His attempt to bridge the disciplines strikes R. Arama as unsuccessful, more harm than help.

R. Hasdai Crescas took a different tack, the ins and outs of which seem to me a distraction from R. Arama’s main concern, both Ralbag’s and Crescas’ inappropriate (in his view) concern with bringing the Torah in line with philosophy. He thinks the Torah makes clear Hashem knows the future, first by telling Moshe in Devarim 31 to write down Ha’azinu, which predicts the eternal rhythms of the Jewish people’s behavior, their need for reminders of Hashem.

The Torah also says the song will never be forgotten, a firm prediction only possible if Hashem knows the future. Ralbag claimed Hashem was laying out the way Nature forces the world to work, which denies freewill to the Jewish people, an idea R. Arama cannot tolerate. He instead falls back on Rambam’s Hilchot Tesshuvah 5;5, Hashem’s knowledge differs from ours in an indescribable way, which leaves room for freewill.

Or, as R. Akiva says more succinctly in Avot 3; 15, all is seen and freewill is given. The end of that Mishnah, ha-kol lefi rov ha-ma’aseh, all is according to how much a person does, tells R. Arama much of what happens in the world is determined by Hashem, reward or punishment for the actions people have taken. People’s actions, however, remain free.

The Knowledge in Prophecy

Until this point, he has treated prophecy as qualitatively different than human knowledge. Now, R. Arama redirects our attention, says prophecy is a higher form of knowledge than the intellect, parallel to how the intellect is higher than sensory information. Hashem tells Shmuel people see with their eyes where Hashem sees to the heart (I Shmuel 16;7, where Shmuel mistakes David’s older brother for the one chosen to replace Shaul as king), and Yeshayahu (55; 8) has Hashem say His thoughts, as it were, are not ours.

Aimed at the false prophets of the time (R. Arama thinks), the line still puts the truths we find through prophecy in the realm of thought. The blind philosophers reject and object to ideas the religious person accepts on faith, which allow the religious person to become comforrable with them, to grow in understanding of them, to the point they are part of his/her intellectual world, truths as obvious and undeniable as more mundane ones. The growth is what Hashem meant in Yeshayahu 42; 18 , I will lead the blind on a path they did not know.

A path on which Hashem has already led the prophets of old, showing them elements of the world’s working intuitive logic would have rejected. The idea leads R. Arama to also object to Rambam’s claim many of the miracles in Scripture were actually prophetic visions, because it, too, assumes we know what to reject as impossible, when we do not. Only where Tanach says an event was a vision do we say it was (as Yechezkel tells us about his visions).

The first step of R. Arama’s journey into prophecy reminds us it is a qualitatively different form of knowledge, one not accessible to intuitive human intellect. It is still on the continuum of knowledge, however, which starts with our senses, moves through our intellect, and then, if we are fortunate, follow the dictates of our intellects and of what Hashem has told us, to a closer knowledge of Hashem.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter