Tuesday, June 25th, 2024

Prophets of Today by Gidon Rothstein

December 19, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy

We are used to relegating prophecy to the past, the bygone days of Moshe Rabbenu, Yeshaya, Yirmiya, and to see their messages as our only avenue to knowing what God wants from us (beyond the world of Torah and halachah).  While even there, I think we miss how much those texts could tell us about how God wants us to act (as I’ve noted in several venues, particularly my book, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel), there is a tantalizing Talmudic discussion which seems to go significantly further in its view of how we might access God’s contemporary and current messages for us.

Prophecy Among the Sages

In bBaba Batra 12a, R. Abdimi of Haifa says that once the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the Sages.  That later rabbis such as Abbaye, Rava, and R. Ashi sought to prove that claim, and since rishonim and aharonim explicated it, this suggests that they saw this as expressing a continuingly valid Jewish idea. I would like to rehearse some of their ideas, which suggest that in one view, we have continuing access, of sorts, to God’s communication with the world.

Abbaye suggests that he can prove that sages are now repositories of at least some form of prophecy from the fact that sometimes two sages, separated by great distance, arrive at the same idea.  Such “coincidental” discoveries, he seems to be saying, can only occur if God sent this idea to the two scholars.

Rava responds in a way that I think has a very modern tinge, although it is expressed in classical terms.  He dismisses Abbaye’s example by noting that the two might simply be בני חד מזלא, bearers of the same luck, or astrological sign.  It would be easy to read that as saying that they have the same supernatural forces operating on them, but for the well-known fact that we hold אין מזל לישראל, the Jewish people are not controlled by such forces. 

More importantly, I think Rava was anticipating a fact recognized in many circles today, especially science, that intellectual achievements are often already primed to occur, and therefore can be reproduced in multiple places by different scholars.

If so, Rava was saying that perhaps these rabbis were not demonstrating prophecy, but had similar intellectual bents; based on the knowledge they had in front of them, they could reach similar conclusions.

Rava himself suggests a different proof, that occasionally a sage will come up with an idea which we later discover was originally said by R. Akiva.  Considering Rava’s reason for rejecting Abbaye’s proof, his statements shows us something about the Talmudic attitude towards R. Akiva—it was, Rava means us to understand, impossible that a sage had the same “mazal,” the same intellectual background and makeup as R. Akiva, so that coming up with such an idea was proof that it was given to the sage by God, not by ordinary intellectual achievement.

R. Ashi disagrees because, he says, the sage might have had the same “mazal” as R. Akiva for that one topic.  In my translation to modern terms, I think that R. Ashi was saying that R. Akiva’s genius was not in each particular idea he had (so that another sage could, conceivably, have arrived at such an idea on his own, without prophecy), but in the sum total of them.  R. Ashi then argues that the proof of prophecy among sages lies in their occasionally articulating ideas that later turn out to have been given to Moshe Rabbenu directly from God at Har Sinai.

Full Prophecy or Prophecy-Lite?

Some scholars seemed to take the Gemara at face value, saying that sages are really the prophets of our day (and that would seem to apply throughout history).  In the introduction to Halachot Gedolot, Behag juxtaposes a Talmudic saying that ascribes the death penalty for willfully violating Rabbinic law with the saying we have been discussing, that says that sages, post-Temple, have prophecy. Behag does not explain further, but I think he meant to imply that since the Sages are the closest thing to prophets we now have, violating their words incurs the same penalty that violating a prophet’s words would, death at the hands of Heaven.  In another passage, Hovot haLevavot characterizes the highest levels of achievement in any discipline as akin to prophecy.

In his commentary to Baba Batra, Ramban makes a point about this passage that I think both goes far to putting it in the kinds of modern terms we are able to accept, but also serves as a reminder of the awe in which we need to hold Torah scholars and—at least according to Hovot haLevavot—those who excel in many other disciplines besides.

Ramban assumes that the Gemara does not mean Torah scholars now have prophecy in its classic sense of a vision or dream, of a direct communication from God; that was lost with the destruction.  In his view (and Hatam Sofer expands on it in his commentary), ordinary intellectual efforts only take us so far, and that is not prophetic.  The greats of Torah, however (and, perhaps, of all disciplines), arrive at ideas that are such a jump from what had come before, we can only see it as having an element of prophecy—or, better said, Divine spirit– to it.

I don’t know if the analogy is fully apt, but it seems to me similar to the concept of “prior art” in current patent law.  Patents are not awarded for discoveries already latent in the existing literature of that discipline; as my wife once told me, “prior art” means that if we were to take all the existing human knowledge on a topic, put it on scraps of paper in a room, and it would lead ineluctably to some idea, that idea is not patentable. It is for leaps of intuition, advances that were not already obvious, that the US offers patents.  I think Ramban is saying that is what the Gemara is calling the prophecy given the sages.

If so, the Gemara is actually two-pronged, giving us a sense of continuing prophecy, but not of the kind that we see as “real” prophecy; for the sages, their prophetic realizations will only come within pre-existing discussions.  A Torah scholar can, on occasion, be inspired with an idea we could not have imagined, but is limited to doing so within the purview of topics he encounters in his studies.


The Prophecy of Children and Those Not in Their Right Minds

Once we see that the prophecy of sages did not mean the exact experience of prophets, another Talmudic statement about prophecy becomes more understandable. In contrast to R. Abdimi of Haifa, R. Yohanan declared prophecy to have been given to שוטים (delicately, those not in their right minds) and children.  In the Gemara, it is not clear whether R. Yohanan is adding to R. Abdimi or contradicting him.  Either way, we are left to understand what that would mean and how it would work. 

Torat Hayyim, an early 17th century Talmud commentator, writes that this statement explains the occasional Talmudic practice of turning to a child and asking for the verse of Scripture he learned that day, and then applying the verse to the questioner’s situation (incidentally, a practice Rema Yoreh Deah 179:4 allows today). 

Since prophecy was taken from prophets and given to children, Torat Hayyim says, this is a way of accessing that prophecy.  Note, though, his assumption that the prophecy is not a conscious process for the child, but that the words that will come out of a child’s mouth, in certain circumstances, will be those we are meant to hear.  That leaves us with the challenge of knowing which words we are to take as prophecy and which not, a challenge that continues when we turn our attention to the other Talmudically-designated “prophets,” those not in their right minds.

Torat Hayyim suggests that this is part of the punishment of the loss of prophecy. That is, since we so long ignored the messages of the prophets, who were impressive and worthy people, God took those messages and put them in the mouths of those who seem wholly unfit.  While we might struggle with the idea that someone who is not fully sane would be a prophet—for example, Rashba rejected a late 13th century claim of prophecy partially because the putative prophet was so obviously unworthy of it—it does suggest Torat Hayyim’s view that sometimes our punishment is to have the truth become less accessible rather than more.  Not all that an insane person will say will be prophecy, but some of it might be.

Along similar lines, Hatam Sofer suggests that God’s goodness is so great that even with the loss of prophecy, God continues sending messages to people. When ordinary people receive those communications, they ignore them (or refuse to say them out loud), for fear of seeming so odd or out of line with the mainstream (not Hatam Sofer’s casual assumption that the messages God really wants us to hear will be out of the mainstream).

The only ones willing to say what comes to their minds are those who always speak so, who are often out of touch with what polite company allows, those we call crazy.

It’s Out There, Although Harder to Notice

Hatam Sofer challenges us to consider whether God might be communicating with us more often than we would like to admit, that in our certainty that we know what God really wants, our readiness to reject truths that are too far from how we view the world, we lose the opportunity to hear what God actually wants us to hear.

In sharing these ideas with my class at the Webyeshiva, an attendee noted that some people claim that autistic savants (particularly in Jerusalem) are revealing exactly such prophecies.  Certainly the Gemara and Hatam Sofer would urge us to be alert to the possibility; at the same time, the Gemara does not claim that all the words of those not in their right minds will be prophecy, only that they might be.

We are left with the challenge of all times of hester panim, of God’s hidden face.  The Gemara would seem to be telling us that even now, even in these times, God is still communicating.  While there was a time when God did so relatively directly—although even then, we found ways to deny the truth or accuracy of the prophets bearing those messages—now the messages come in packages that make it all that much harder to distinguish which are from God and which are childish or mad ravings.

It reminds me of a scene from Field of Dreams, where a young Doc Graham is standing at the plate, and an older ballplayer is giving him advice about the kind of pitch to look for. They agree that it’s likely to be outside, but that he had better be on the lookout for “in his ear.” 

The Gemara in Baba Batra, I suggest, is reminding us that while most of the statements of the sages will be ordinary intellectual accomplishments, most children’s ramblings will be just the cute process of growing to adulthood, and most pronouncements of those challenged with mental illness will be “high and outside,” not requiring any more than the ordinary attention they each deserve in their own context, we had better be on the lookout for “in our ear,” for truths God is trying to get us to hear, even in this time bereft of the more direct contact we would prefer, and for whose return we long.

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