Presentation by Rabbi Raymond Apple at Bridges for Peace, Efrat, Israel, 18 May, 2009.
Prophecy is an integral part of both the Jewish and the Christian religious experience. Ahad HaAm called it “the hallmark of the Hebrew national spirit” (Selected Essays, 1962 ed., page 132). I am not sure I can explain the Christian view without my Jewish bias showing, but I shall do my best.
Where we begin is with the obvious fact that some human beings have always regarded themselves and been regarded as speaking the word of the Lord, and there are some who still claim to do so. Even in today’s highly sophisticated age, some people set up shop as prophets in the crystal-ball sense of foretelling the future; regrettably, there are few really great moral teachers capable of *forthtelling* the word of God and possessed of the vision to lead mankind into the society based on peace, justice and truth of which Isaiah and Amos spoke in such tones of ringing grandeur.
Biblical prophecy went through a series of stages. For our purposes let me draw a rough line between the early prophets and the later. Despite the similarity of language, this is not the distinction between nevi’im rishonim and nevi’im acharonim in editions of the Hebrew Bible. Nor does it reflect the artificial dichotomy between “major” and “minor” prophets – a distinction between larger and smaller books that implies no judgment on the relative importance of one prophet as against another.
What I have in mind is an early stage when prophets were wandering ecstatics, dervishes, religious mercenaries, and a later stage when prophets were men of moral insight, courage and conviction, able to withstand the establishment, castigate the unrighteous and envision a perfect society. The distinction is roughly reflected in the movement from the ro’eh or chozeh, the seer and prognosticator, to the navi, in whom wells up a Divine message which he cannot hold back: God’s word is “in (his) heart as a burning fire”. It is not rhetoric and charisma that makes the navi, but Divine inspiration. Nevu’ah, prophecy, is a natural phenomenon in that it depends on the individual’s heart, mind and soul in his encounter with his environment, but it is also super-natural in that its source is God. (The term navi, from a root that means to bubble up, is first found in the Abraham narrative in Gen. 20:7, indicating someone who is close to God).
Both themes, the natural and the super-natural, figure in Jewish enquiry about prophecy. Amos insists that he did not inherit his prophetic gift from his father; indeed he says he is not a prophet at all but only a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees (Amos 7:14). God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I appointed you a prophet” (Jer. 1:5).
Rabbinic literature analyses the traits that predispose a person to prophecy. The Holy Spirit (ru’ach hakodesh) is indispensable; it rests upon “him who is strong, wealthy, wise and meek” (Nedarim 38a; cf. Sanhedrin 11a, Maimonides, Guide, 2:32). Wealth implies the independence to speak out without tailoring one’s words to the whims of a royal or other employer. For Judah HaLevi, in the medieval period, prophecy is a Divine grace arising from “philosophic biology” (Lou H. Silberman, “Prophets and Philosophers”, in Arthur A. Cohen, ed., Arguments and Doctrines, 1970, page 165).
For Moses Maimonides prophecy is not a direct Divine charisma but the highest level of intellectual communion with God. One can train to be a prophet through developing his mind, though God can decide that a person is unworthy and withhold prophecy from him (Guide, 2:32) – a corollary which Maimonides may have added to avoid allegations of unorthodoxy. Supporting Judah HaLevi, Gershom Scholem says that prophecy “depends on something utterly beyond you” (“Three Types of Jewish Piety”, in Jewish Heritage Review, B’nai B’rith publication, 1975, page 79).
Tension with Maimonides is also seen in HaLevi’s belief that true prophecy is found only among Jews and in Israel, whereas for Maimonides all human beings are – at least in theory – capable of developing their minds to reach prophetic truth. Yet though several Biblical women were called prophets (e.g. Miriam, Deborah and Huldah), Maimonides felt that women’s intellect is limited. Despite HaLevi, Maimonides wrote, “Whether or not one should give credence to a prophet depends on his doctrines and not on his race” and argued that some Biblical prophets were gentiles; however, a true prophet cannot teach anything which is opposed to the Torah (“Letter to Yemen”, translated in Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, ed. Abraham Halkin and David Hartman, 1985, page 111).
The prophet is not the same as the priest or sage, though all three are leadership types and there is some blurring of the lines – for example priests who are sages and sages who are prophets. However, the priest has a fixed function and fixed place; the prophet is more free-wheeling. Priesthood comes from lineage; prophecy is personal, like wisdom (Mishnah Horayot 3:8). The sage is a learned intellectual; the prophet is a poet and visionary. The rabbis, however, valued the sage over the prophet (Bava Batra 12a).
We have quoted the Talmudic view of the qualifications of the prophet. No-one disputes that he must be a man of great moral and spiritual qualities. Maimonides has his criteria of intellectuality; there may be an anti-Islamic polemic in Maimonides’ further argument that a prophet must keep away from bodily pleasures (Guide, 2:40) and both an anti-Christian and anti-Islamic thrust in his statement that a prophet is not to establish a new religion or add to or abrogate any commandment (Code, Yesodei HaTorah, chapter 10).
There is a view that the classical prophets, representatives of the second stage of prophecy, are preachers more than prognosticators. To an extent this is true. But these prophets do not speak only of today but of tomorrow. Does not Isaiah envision the future, the acharit hayamim when nation will not raise sword against nation and each man shall sit under his own vine or fig tree?
In one sense the Biblical prophets restricted themselves to drawing conclusions from events and trends. When right and wrong are blurred, disaster is sure to come. That is a clear application of Biblical logic. But the futuristic visions of Utopia on earth are closer to dreams. The prophet is foretelling the future, but not in a primitive sense. He is saying: “This is a flawed society, but look at what could and one day will be”. Put in more sophisticated terms, he is positing two options – destruction and also redemption. The destruction is a looming danger, but it can be averted or overcome if his listeners determine that the vision of redemption must be brought about.
Christianity brought a new emphasis on the prophet as prognosticator. Christian exegesis asserted that Isaiah in particular was predicting exact events and personalities in visions that came true in Jesus and his life and work. Jesus was, for example, deemed to be the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. In the belief that the end of days was nigh, the messianic prophecies gained a special degree of topicality. Jesus in turn was deemed to be a prophet and with his advent prophecy began again (Luke 1-2). Matthew states that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the city asked, “Who is this?” The reply was, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matt. 21:11). Luke calls him “a prophet mighty in deed and word (cf. Jer. 32:19) before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19). Mark reports that he was known as “a prophet, like one of the prophets” (Mark 6:15). Presumably the term “prophet” resonated with the Jewish public, though we are not certain whether they saw him as more in the forthtelling than the foretelling mode. In the early Church it is said that there were prophets, including women (Luke 2:36, I Cor. 12:28, Acts 21:9).
Some groups of the early Christian period go in for fantasies of futuristic prediction. Their example is still followed by those who try to tie down the history of the world and predict the exact date when a particular contemporary empire will rise or collapse. Often wrenching verses out of the Book of Daniel, they find hints of events that range from the fall of the Iron Curtain to the disintegration of Iran. Jesus himself is more serious and sober.
But when he believes that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15 etc.), is he foretelling or forthtelling? There is a fair argument that he is forthtelling. The signs of destruction are there: misery, oppression, pride, internal moral disintegration. So are the signs of redemption as foretold by the Hebrew prophets. His message is not so much, “This is what *will* happen”, but “This is what *is* happening”.
Traditional Judaism was not prepared to accord him the status of prophet, either as a foreteller or a forthteller. Part of the Jewish response was to insist that prophecy had not only a beginning but an end. Classical prophecy ended with Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, though for a time the bat kol, a heavenly voice, was heard (Tosefta Sotah 13:2). The sages said, “When the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was given over to fools and children” (Bava Batra 12b). The insight of the prophet had been lost, but “fools and children”, unaware of history’s changes, never lost their innocent ability to see and believe. Not only the Jews but other ancient cultures believed that children had the power of prophecy (Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 1950, pages 195-197).
Yet despite this Talmudic passage, Jewish scholars retained a view that prophecy was still possible and would be restored in messianic times, possibly in the 13th century. Some biographers of Maimonides (e.g. Abraham Joshua Heschel) hint that he felt that he himself had reached the lower ranks of prophecy. Modern scholars, however, are more likely to understand the restoration of prophecy as metaphor; Leo Baeck, for example, says in his “Essence of Judaism” (1936 ed., page 34): “The ancient prophets walk through the world of Judaism, like living geniuses reawakening from generation to generation” (cf. Albert H. Friedlander, Leo Baeck: Teacher of Theresienstadt, 1973, page 67).
The Jewish tradition is not greatly concerned with details of the restoration of prophecy in the messianic age, though it has a general belief, based on the end of Malachi, that one prophet, Elijah, will return “before the great and awesome day of the Lord”. As harbinger of the Messiah he will solve the problems that have accumulated over the centuries, the problems which the Talmud characterises as teyku, “let it stand” (folk etymology sees this as the initials of Tishbi yetaretz kush’yot uva’ayot, “Elijah the Tishbite will solve problems and difficulties”). A cup of wine is placed on the Passover table to welcome Elijah, he has a place of honour at a circumcision, and he watches to see whether Israel keeps the Sabbath properly. Significantly, Moses is regarded as the chief of the prophets, symbolic of the belief that the teacher has become the paradigm Jewish spiritual leader.
Post-Biblical Jewish movements re-interpreted the Biblical prophets in their own terms, basically re-inventing them in their own image. The sages (e.g. Avot 1:1), whilst not derogating from their spiritual quality, saw them as halachists (authorities on Jewish law) who had rabbinical courts, made rabbinic rulings and issued enactments (see Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Mevo HaTalmud: The Student’s Guide Through the Talmud, trans. Jacob Schachter, 1952, pages 86-87).
Echoing the approach of 19th-century liberal Protestantism, the early Jewish reform movement interpreted them as one side of a set of antitheses. It saw them as championing spirituality as against legalism and ethics as against ritual, believing them to be the enemy of the Temple and its liturgy. Today, however, we have rediscovered the links between the prophets and the Israelite cult, and we see evidence of prophecy outside the books of the literary prophets – in particular, seeing the Psalms as prophetic liturgies.
Christianity and Islam both depend on prophecy as a continuing phenomenon. Islam is not our subject this afternoon, though the Muslim doctrine of prophecy is of great significance. In Christianity, the epithet generally used for Jesus is not prophet, though this is, as we have seen, one of the terms applied to him: his status is more usually encapsulated as Messiah, Lord, Son of God or Son of Man. Judaism continues to have difficulties with the idea of a prophet who overrides the Torah; the culmination of the prophetic teaching of the Bible is “Remember the law of Moses My servant” (Mal. 3:22).
The major problem of prophecy is how it is possible at all. How can a non-physical God relate to a material world and physical creatures? Some Jewish philosophers, with Maimonides as the main proponent but HaLevi as the main dissentient, combine the Aristotelian theory of Intelligences and the Platonic theory of Emanations. From God emanate ten Intelligences and their spheres. The tenth (the sechel hapo’el or Active Intelligence) controls the human mind. Both the prophet and the philosopher are thinkers, but the prophet has a special dimension of imagination, inspiration and intuition.
Part of the anti-rationalist response to Maimonides was prophecy as an existential experience: as Amos said, “The Lord God has spoken: who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). Many authors speak of the prophet being seized by an irresistible force.
Ahad HaAm gives a definition of the prophet in his essay, “Moses”: “He is a man of truth. He tells the truth not because he wants to but because he ‘can no other’. The Prophet is an extremist. He can accept no compromise. He is also a man of justice, which is truth in action” (Selected Essays, ed. Leon Simon, 1962 ed., pages 311-313). How the word of the Lord leaves God and proceeds to the prophet is not analysed.
Abraham Joshua Heschel says: “The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words” (The Prophets, 1962, page 5).
Andre Neher writes of the meeting of ru’ach (spirit) and davar (word): when the spirit leaps upon a prophet he participates in the life of God; when the word comes to him he facilitates God’s dialogue with the world (L’Essence du Prophetisme, 1957).
One would like to believe in the comfortable 19th century doctrine of the inevitability of progress which would allow for what Leo Baeck calls “living geniuses” moulding each step in mankind’s advance towards Utopia. Unfortunately the cataclysms of the last century have left us clutching for straws. Some yearn for Divine magic to intervene and send us charismatic prophets who speak the word of the Lord. Many nations have placed all their hopes in charismatics who believe only in themselves and lack the word of the Lord, or, worse still, who see themselves as God’s policemen who can arrest or manhandle at will.
If only we had leaders who, in the words of the Talmud, were “strong, wealthy, wise and meek”. Strong in moral courage. Wealthy in inspiration. Wise in judgment. Meek in personality. Above all, possessed of the Holy Spirit that moved Isaiah and Jeremiah…