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Prophecy: Prophecy in Post-Biblical Judaism


Rabbinic literature presents no detailed account of prophecy. Approaches to this phenomenon must be gleaned from scattered statements and tales. Moreover, rabbinic literature contains the views of numerous sages, living in different times and places, who were subject to diverse cultural influences and who formulated their views in response to different challenges. As is to be expected, they do not speak with a single voice on this issue. Nevertheless, a number of dominant trends of thought relating to this topic can be discerned.

The prevailing view of the rabbinic sages is that the period of classical prophecy ended with the destruction of the First Temple (586 bce), and certainly no later than the beginning of the Second Temple (538 bce). The establishment of the canon of the Hebrew Bible, although an informal process, reflects the feeling that the period of prophecy has come to a close. This view may be attributed in part to the introduction of Hellenism in the Near East in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356523 bce). The major social and cultural-intellectual changes brought about by this event led to a general feeling that a new era has begun. The view that the period of prophecy has ended gained further dominance in rabbinic thought in response to competing sects within Judaism (including the followers of Jesus) who claimed revelation as the basis for their teachings. Yet the general agreement among the sages that classical forms of prophecy belong to the past and to the messianic future did not eradicate a contrary trend that was also very popular. Many continued to view revelation as an ongoing phenomenon that existed in their era in different forms, such as that of a heavenly voice. One can also find in the Talmud a tradition that views the proper understanding of Ezekiel's account of the celestial domain ("Account of the Chariot") as leading to a revelatory experience. Other sages, although acknowledging these types of phenomenon, are adamant in negating revelation's role in determining law after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. Authority in this matter belongs to the sages and their institutions. The sages see themselves as the true heirs of the prophets and in some way even superior to them. Furthermore, the prophets themselves are viewed as having been sages. In keeping with Moses's role in the transmission of the divine law, his prophecy alone is accorded a unique status.

Other issues related to prophecy also find expression in rabbinic literature. Some sages posit necessary conditions for attaining prophecy, such as wisdom, valor, and wealth. This view may also have served to combat popular approaches to revelation that viewed it as an ongoing phenomenon available to everyone. Other sages regard prophecy as depended solely on the divine will. One view goes so far as to accord the wicked Balaam a status that is at least equal to that of Moses. In the Middle Ages Jewish thinkers were to draw from these diverse views in developing and defending their approaches to prophecy.

Saʿadyah Gaon's Approach to Prophecy

The first comprehensive attempt to understand prophecy in medieval Jewish thought is presented by Saʿadyah Gaon (882942) in his theological treatise Book of Beliefs and Opinions (933 ce). Of particular concern to him is the problem of how to interpret the texts of divine revelation in a manner that negates divine corporeality. Agreeing with the rational proofs for the incorporeality of God presented in Islamic theology (kalām ), Saʿadyah interprets figuratively all corporeal descriptions of God in the Bible. He rejects their literal meaning entirely. Saʿadyah is not oblivious to the problems this approach poses to the authority of Scripture once one dismisses its literal truth. He insists that the literal meaning should be maintained in all instances in which it is not blatantly contradicted by knowledge attained by a different reliable source, such as rational demonstration or sense perception. Even in the cases in which the literal meaning is rejected, the figurative interpretation should be in harmony with Hebrew usage. Saʿadyah's approach to biblical exegesis paved the way for reconciling the truths of revelation with the fruits of rational enquiry. It also enabled him to continue to uphold the authority of Scripture as a source of truth in theoretical matters. This approach has a sharp impact on subsequent Jewish thought.

An incorporeal deity possesses no organs of speech nor has any physical form that can be seen. This poses a severe challenge to the veracity of the biblical accounts of God addressing the prophet. Saʿadyah solves this difficulty by maintaining that the divine speech heard by the prophets was audible speech created by God in the air and conveyed to their hearing. The visions of God seen by the prophets were not actually of God but of a special luminous being, termed God's Glory (kavod ) or Indwelling (shekhina ), which assumed different forms in accordance with the divine will. Moses's request to behold God (Ex. 33: 1820) is interpreted by Saʿadyah as a request to see the front part of the Glory. This request is denied him because the intensity of the light would inevitably destroy him; instead he is allowed to attain a close-up view of the back of the Glory. One can detect in some of Saʿadyah's descriptions of the Glory a hint of the idea of the divine Logos, an idea known to him by way of Jewish sources and Moslem theological ones. By accepting the existence of such a being and treating it as composed of a special form of light, Saʿadyah is able to interpret the prophetic visions of God in as literal manner as possible without treating God as corporeal. His approach also enables him to treat the visions seen by the prophets, as well as the words they heard, as empirically verifiable by themthe senses being a source of reliable knowledge in his view. Given his perception of the danger that the idea of a divine intermediary poses to strict monotheism, he at the same time stresses that the Glory is created and not coeternal with God, and he sharply curtails its providential role in the world. Its primary function is to verify to the prophet the truth of the message attained.

Saʿadyah continues the dominant rabbinic trend in not viewing prophecy as a living phenomenon. It existed in the biblical period and will be reintroduced only in messianic times. It served primarily as a mission for conveying divine commands as well as theoretical truths and knowledge of the future. The truth of the prophetic message was verified to the people by means of miracles. God was directly involved in the choice of each prophet, the particular mission bestowed and the miracles performed. In Saʿadyah's view, God's incorporeality and unity do not preclude God's immediate relation with the material world and its inhabitants.

Prophecy in the Philosophy of Maimonides

Already in the period of Saʿadyah a number of Jewish philosophers begin to view prophecy more in terms of a naturally attained perfection than a supernaturally bestowed mission. This followed developments taking place in Islamic philosophy. Two distinct, but not mutually exclusive, models of prophecy emerge based on earlier Greek philosophic approaches. In the first model, prophecy is consequent on the perfection of the intellect resulting in a form of ontological conjunction with the supernal Intellect and the attainment of intellectual illumination or revelation. In addition to the higher level knowledge of theoretical truths attained in this state the individual experiences an immense spiritual pleasure. In the second model, prophecy is consequent on a perfect imagination, enabling the individual to attain knowledge of the future in accordance with the matters that preoccupy the individual's thought. This form of prophecy occurs most frequently in individuals lacking a well-developed intellect, and it generally assumes the form of veridical dreams. Both models can be found in the writings of the tenth century Islamic philosopher Alfarabi, who combines them in the case of one possessing both a perfect intellect and perfect imagination. He regards the one attaining revelation as the ideal ruler, thereby transforming Plato's (c. 428347/8 bce) philosopher-king to the prophet-lawgiver. God's role is confined to being the first cause of all that happens in the world. God does not personally choose each prophet or bestow on the individual a specific message. Alfarabi's approach strongly influenced that of Moses Maimonides (1135/81204), writing in the twelfth century.

No approach to prophecy in Jewish thought is as multifaceted as the one presented by Maimonides. In the Guide of the Perplexed (2.36) Maimonides defines prophecy as an emanation from God through the intermediation of the Active Intellect to the rational faculty and then to the imagination. To attain this emanation the individual must possess a perfect intellect that has mastered all the sciences, a perfect imagination, and a strong moral character. Anyone who fails to meet any of these conditions cannot become a prophet. As a result of the prophetic emanation, the individual attains knowledge of profound theoretical matters, rules for the governance of others, and knowledge of the future. Maimonides leaves little doubt that he regards prophecy as a natural phenomenon. He equates it with the highest level of human perfection, which lies primarily in the perfection of the intellect. The prophetic visions, consisting of sights or words, are the product of the prophet's own imaginative faculty and they have no physical reality.

Maimonides implies that the emanation resulting in prophecy is a force from the Active Intellect that strengthens the individual's perfect faculties and enables the individual to reach new heights of knowledge. God plays no immediate role in what the prophet learns as a result of this experience. A superior imagination enables the prophet to translate conceptual knowledge into figurative form, in addition to attaining knowledge of the future. This is important for the prophet's role in educating the masses, who are incapable of grasping profound theoretical truths in a purely conceptual manner. It may also aid the prophet to grasp better these highly abstract matters.

Maimonides' discussions alternate between stressing the imaginative aspect of prophecy and the intellectual one. In some passages he also alludes to the nature of the experience itself. At the end of Guide (3.51) he describes the death of the perfect individual, in which the human intellect, having conjoined with the Active Intellect, permanently leaves the body and remains eternally in a state of ultimate spiritual pleasure. This description is reminiscent of accounts of ecstatic death found in mystical literature and can be traced to the common Neoplatonic roots of medieval philosophy and mysticism.

Prophecy in itself does not entail a mission in Maimonides' view and may remain an entirely private attainment. Moreover, no one who has attained this illumination is eager to undertake a public role rather than continue to enjoy this most pleasurable of states. The prophetic mission results from the emanating perfection characterizing superior prophets, which drives them to perfect those around them and not rest satisfied with their own perfection. Maimonides compares this to the emanating perfection of the greatest philosophers that lead them to write books and teach others the truths they have attained. As is the case of the individual who has seen the light of the sun but nevertheless is made to return to the cave in Plato's famous myth, the public prophet must return to society and assume a leadership role. Yet for Maimonides it is not any external pressure that compels the prophet to do so. The vision in which God commands the prophet to go to the people is a figurative representation in the soul of the prophet of the feeling of compulsion to act in this manner after experiencing illumination. The mission itself in this case is part of the prophetic experience and reflects the workings of divine providence within the natural order.

Although Maimonides follows Alfarabi in regarding the prophets as philosopher-kings, he stops short of ascribing to them any legislative role. The laying down of the divine law is confined to Moses alone. He treats Mosaic prophecy and the revelation at Sinai as supernatural events, both involving audible speech whose author was God. In this manner he preserves the traditional foundations of Judaism. Yet one can read Maimonides's discussions as subtly indicating that he has a naturalistic understanding of these phenomena as well. Moses attained the highest level of perfection possible resulting in a purely intellectual illumination that did not involve the imagination at all in the apprehension of the most profound theoretical truths. This illumination enabled him to lay down a perfect law that directed society to its utmost perfection, one in which its citizens reach the highest perfection of which each is capable. Only this law deserves the label "divine." This notion is to be hidden from the masses, whose faith in Judaism is contingent on belief that God personally revealed the Law.

When dealing with prophecy in his legal works, Maimonides sharply curtails any role the prophet has in deciding legal matters notwithstanding the ideal leadership qualities they possess in his view. He is very concerned about the threat to Judaism posed by those whom he regards as false prophets, particularly charismatic individuals who seek to introduce major modifications in Mosaic Law on the basis of revelation. Maimonides seeks to insulate the Law from any changes that are not brought about by the formal institutions in Judaism entrusted with the power to determine legal matters. The leadership role of the prophets is be exercised primarily as members of those institutions and not by virtue of their claim to revelation. For the same reason he also posits near impossible tests for any latter-day claimant to public prophecy.

Although Maimonides at times expresses the traditional sentiment that prophecy has ceased to exist and will only reemerge at the advent of the messianic period, his naturalistic approach to prophecy allows for the possibility at least that individuals in any generation may satisfy the requisite conditions for its attainment. It could hardly be otherwise given the integral connection he draws between prophecy and human perfection. There are a number of allusions in his writings to the fact that he regards prophecy as a living phenomenon, one that was attained by some of the great sages of the past after the biblical period, such as R. Judah the Prince and R. Akiva, although they made no claim to public prophecy. There are even hints that Maimonides himself felt he had experienced revelation.

Maimonides's approach to prophecy bridges what appears to be an unfathomable chasm between Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish tradition. The texts of the Bible are completely true. The prophets were great philosophers who presented the truths they had attained in figurative form. Yet the reader who wishes to understand these truths must turn to Greek philosophy to unlock the meaning of the prophetic texts.

Generations of Jewish philosophers after Maimonides differ on the extent the Bible taught theoretical truths not attained in philosophy. The early fourteenth century philosopher Gersonides (12881344; Wars of the Lord), for example, essentially negates the view that the prophets grasped truths not available to the philosophers. Later philosophers such as Hasdai Crescas (13401410; Light of the Lord), Joseph Albo (13801444; Book of Principles ) and Isaac Abrabanel (14371508; Commentary on the Guide of the Perplexed ), on the other hand, argue the contrary position. They accord the prophets the attainment of truths beyond the realm of the discursive reasoning of the philosophers. They also challenge the completely naturalistic foundation underlying Maimonides' approach and seek to ascribe to God a more immediate involvement in the choice of prophets and the content of their revelation. Yet for all the differences between the medieval philosophic approaches, they share the view that underlying the figurative language and the parables of the Bible are to be found the most profound conceptual truths.

Spinoza on Prophecy

Baruch Spinoza (16321677), writing in the seventeenth century, sets out to negate this view in his Tractaus Thologico-Politicus. He thereby attempts to undermine the authority of the Bible (i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament) as a source of truth, let alone the ultimate source. Ironically he utilizes the authority of the Bible to accomplish this task. A literal understanding of the Bible, he argues, leads to the conclusion that it in no way touches on conceptual matters belonging to the domain of philosophy, not even in figurative form.

Spinoza rejects any supernatural conception of divine activity. Everything must be understood in accordance with the eternal laws of nature. In his approach to revelation he builds on the two naturalistic models of prophecy found in the medieval sources. Yet, instead of combining them, he treats them as completely distinct. Against Maimonides and his followers, Spinoza argues that the biblical prophets possessed solely a perfect imagination and lacked intellectual perfection (i.e., the mastery of science and philosophy). As one can discern from the Bible itself, they were simple individuals who addressed other simple people. Hence the revelation they attained involved only the workings of the imagination.

Spinoza accords the prophets a strong moral sense but no true speculative knowledge, including a philosophic understanding of morality. This was no less true of Moses who lacked a proper understanding of the nature of his own prophetic experience. Hence, the divine law Moses legislated as a result of his imaginative prophecy does not lead to perfection and ultimate felicity, only to a society well ordered for its time. The second type of prophecy, purely intellectual illumination, is ascribed by Spinoza to Jesus. The nature of this illumination is treated in greater detail towards the end of his Ethics, in which he labels it "the third kind of knowledge." It is the final stage in the quest for intellectual perfection. The conclusion to which the reader is drawn is that only the truths attained in a natural manner by the human intellect should be labeled divine and the prophetic texts contain no divine truths at all. Hence the medieval Jewish philosophic enterprise that treats philosophy and the Bible as teaching essentially the same truths is without foundation. Spinoza's approach to biblical revelation and human reason plays a critical role in the development of modern Jewish thought, even among those philosophers who stopped far short of his radical conclusions or who challenged them.

Prophecy in Qabbalistic Thought

Alongside medieval Jewish philosophic treatments of prophecy, there also developed mystical approaches. It may be argued that inherent in the turn to mystical study is the attempt to attain conjunction (termed devequt ) with the higher realms (if not with God) and the illumination of the intellect. This in essence is identical with what the mystics perceive as the prophetic experience. Some of the early mystical texts written after the Talmud, termed heikhalot literature, present the road to illumination as a journey of the soul through the celestial palaces. The texts convey knowledge of the secret names of the angels (and of God) that allows the mystic to continue the ascent until he or she reaches the final palace in which he or she beholds God in all the divine glory, together with myriads of angels. Most of the subsequent qabbalistic texts do not present the road to mystical illumination or the nature of the experience so explicitly. They tend to be theosophical in character, describing the world of the Godhead, at times by way of mystical homilies on biblical verses. This is true particularly of the most important texts in the Jewish mystical tradition, those that constitute the Zohar. Yet it appears that some of the stories found there dealing with the experience of enlightenment that the authors ascribe to the rabbinic sages hint to their own experience of revelation. The proper study of the Bible, particularly the Torah, from the perspective of the system of the ten divine sefirot (emanations) the text embodies, is the path to this experience.

An important exception to the reticence on the part of Qabbalists to talk explicitly about mystical illumination and the path to its attainment is the school of prophetic Qabbalah belonging to Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century). Abulafia laid claim to revelation and wrote a number of works, including prophetic manuals, describing the state of mystical ecstasy as well as indicating how to attain this state. His mystical approach combines older forms of Jewish mysticism focusing on the divine sefirot and the divine names with techniques involving Hebrew letter combinations. It also shares some striking similarities with Sufi and Eastern mysticisms.

Qabbalistic approaches to conjunction with the divine realm and the attainment of mystical illumination, particularly those approaches focusing on the study of the Zohar, gave rise to a good number of mystical movements within Judaism, such as Hasidism, that continue to attract fol-lowers.

Approaches to Prophecy in Modern Jewish Philosophy

The idea of revelation occupies a central position in the thought of many of the most prominent modern Jewish philosophers. As in the case with the medieval Jewish philosophers, their approaches to revelation are integrally related to their overall philosophy and tend to combine ideas found in Jewish sources with contemporary philosophical developments. Immanuel Kant's (17241804) philosophy, in its stress on the inherent limitations of reason in attaining speculative theological truths yet its ability to attain moral truths that are to serve as the basis for theology, sets the stage for many modern Jewish philosophical approaches to revelation. Far different thinkers in the nineteenth century, such as Samson Raphael Hirsch (18081888; Horeb ) and Salomon Steinheim (17891866; Revelation according to the Doctrine of the Synagogue ), utilize Kant's strictures on reason to defend the idea of supernatural revelation. Hirsch sees the transmitted text of the Torah in its entirety as a product of divine revelation and hence the basis for understanding God's thoughts. Revelation for Steinheim, on the other hand, is in essence synonymous with faith. He identifies the content of revelation with the doctrines of the freely willed creation of the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) on the part of the one God, the human being's moral freedom and the immortality of the soul. These doctrines in his view are closed to reason. It is revelation, and not autonomous ethical reason, that makes ethical activity possible.

Abraham Geiger (18101874), a leading theologian in the early Reform movement and a pioneering scholar of the academic study of Judaism, is also influenced by Kant as well as by G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), in developing his approach to prophecy. Geiger sees Judaism as a living organism developing in history as it assumes different forms. At its heart lies the prophetic idea of God and morality. By means of a careful study of Jewish history Geiger sought to reform Judaism to best express this idea in his own day without breaking completely with its past.

In the early twentieth century, Hermann Cohen (18421918) developed his philosophy of Judaism (Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism ) on a Kantian foundation while breaking with Kant on fundamental points of his philosophy. Revelation for Cohen is the bridge between God's Being and the human being in the state of becoming. Revelation addresses itself to reason, indeed it is the creator of reason, which culminates in the idea of ethical monotheism. Cohen does not think of revelation as an event but as an attribute of relation that expresses itself primarily in ethical activity. This relation is expressed in the message of the biblical prophets.

Cohen's philosophy of religion on one hand and the approaches of different existential philosophersparticularly Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) and Martin Heidegger (18891976)on the other exert a profound influence on the approach to revelation in the religious existential-dialogical philosophy developed by the twentieth-century philosophers Martin Buber (18781965; I and Thou ) and Franz Rosenzweig (18861929; Star of Redemption ). True human existence for them does not begin with one's awareness of individuality, but with the next stepthe encounter with the other not as an object but as a subject. God is the Absolute Other. Revelation is neither the result of union with God (the individual always remains an independent subject in their view), nor is it concerned with attaining conceptual truths about the Godhead. It is the name given to the encounter in which the individual experiences God's love, listens to God's "speech," and is drawn into a dialogue with God by returning love. By means of this relation one is redeemed from one's isolation. Moreover, divine love or speech always makes demands on the listener in the form of ethical activity. Love must be extended to others also drawing them into the dialogue. The Law heard by Moses and the divine speech heard by the prophets are to be read as historical reflections of this existential dialogue.

Buber's and Rosenzweig's philosophy heavily influenced Abraham Joshua Heschel (19071972), most of whose philosophy and scholarship focuses on prophecy. In developing his own philosophy, he is particularly concerned with understanding the existential confrontation between the prophet and God on one hand, and between the prophet and society on the other. In his book The Prophets, Heschel defines prophecy as "exegesis of existence from a divine perspective. Understanding prophecy is an understanding of understanding rather than an understanding of knowledge. It is exegesis of exegesis. It involves sharing the perspective from which the original understanding is done" (Heschel, 1962, p. xviii). The writings of other modern Jewish philosophers, such as Joseph B. Soloveitchik (199031993) and Emmanuel Lévinas (19061995), also reflect the influence of the religious existential-dialogic philosophy of Buber and Rosenzweig, whose thought continues to attract new generations of students.


For rabbinic views on prophecy see Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, translated by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, 1975). The most comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon in medieval Jewish philosophy is to be found in Howard Kreisel, Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2001). For qabbalistic thought, see Elliot Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines (Princeton, N.J., 1994), as well as the works of Moshe Idel, particularly Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah (Albany, N.Y., 1988). No comprehensive treatment of prophecy in modern Jewish thought has yet been written in the English language (Eliezer Scweid has written in Hebrew a book on this subject), and one must turn to studies of the individual thinkers. Noteworthy is the fact that some of the most important modern Jewish thinkers also produced studies exploring the biblical phenomenon of prophecy, which allow readers at the same time to attain a further glimpse of their own thought on the subject. See for example Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, translated by Carlyle Witton-Davies (New York, 1949) and Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York, 1962). Mention deserves to be made also of the studies of Leo Strauss focusing on medieval political approaches to prophecy. See for example his Philosophy and Law, translated by Eve Adler (Albany, N.Y., 1995).

Howard Kreisel (2005)

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