Online Adult Jewish learning

Foundations Course Information:

Course InfoDetailsSyllabusSample Lecture
Other Courses in this Series:

Foundations 1: Foundations of Judaism

Foundations 3: Encounters with G-d

Foundations 4: Oral Torah & Midrash

Foundations 5: Divine Providence

Foundations Series:
Responsible Leadership

Excerpt from Lesson Four: Prophecy


LESSON OUTLINE

  1. Introduction to Prophetic Experience
  2. The Prophetic Experience
  3. Prophetic Limitations - Location & Time
  4. "Sub-Prophetic" Levels of Divine Communication

The Prophetic Experience

Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi (1080-1145, Spain), Maimonides (1135-1204, North Africa – Egypt) and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (1707-1747, Italy) discuss various aspects of the prophetic experience:

Rabbi Ha’Levi (Book of the Khazar, Section 1, ch. 103), Maimonides (Book One of Mishnah Torah: Fundamentals & Principles, ch. 7), and Rabbi Luzatto (The Way of G-d, Section 3, chapters 3-4):

The Essence of Prophecy:

Any person, whether man or woman, who achieves a state of prophecy, has reached a high level of human perfection, a level at which one binds oneself to G-d. The prophet feels the spiritually rewarding feeling of connection to G-d (akin to the spiritual reward of the World to Come), being fully as sure of it as he would be sure of having observed a physical object with his physical senses. During a prophetic experience, one also learns many lofty truths about G-d’s hidden mysteries of Creation.

Preparation for Prophecy:

Attaining a high level of prophetic experience is a gradual process, one that requires the guidance of a recognized, well-established prophet. Those who would learn from that prophet in the hopes of themselves achieving a state of prophecy must serve in a prolonged, intense period of apprenticeship under the master. It is important to note that no amount of effort can ensure anyone that he will achieve prophetic experience; G-d alone determines if, when and how anyone will experience prophecy. Like other disciplines, the "student" must advance step-by-step, until he has mastered prophetic techniques. The established prophet who guides him must possess adequate knowledge and understanding of prophetic ways, and must therefore teach each student according to his own level of advancement.

The Bible is replete with references to such "disciples of prophets" (e.g., Kings II ch. 2). These disciples dedicate themselves exclusively to the intense discipline of prophetic techniques, in order to bring G-d’s influence upon them and to overcome the natural human barriers to Divine communication that are created by their physical condition: The fact that the soul is encased in – and encumbered by – the physical body, makes it very difficult for man to achieve prophecy; hence the rigid discipline that is necessary to raise one’s entire being – physical and spiritual – to a level of extreme closeness to G-d. In addition to a regimen of purifying themselves physically, students of prophecy engage in a variety of meditations, prayers and pronouncements, to achieve a heightened state of spiritual sensitivity and awareness.

Even after a student begins to experience Divine revelations, the master continues to guide him toward achieving ever-higher levels of prophecy. Depending upon the type of revelation the student has already achieved, the master instructs him to help him reach still higher levels of revelation and experience of G-d’s Presence.

Achieving Full Prophetic Vision:

One can engage in all the proper preparations for prophetic experience, yet never achieve prophecy, although such a person will certainly achieve a very high spiritual level. Even if someone does achieve full prophecy, he may reach any of the innumerable quantitative and qualitative levels and degrees of prophecy: quantitatively – a prophet may prophesy many times, or he may prophesy only once in his life; qualitatively – each prophet achieves a different level of closeness to G-d, which will result in a higher or a lower degree of revelation. Yet, if indeed he has succeeded in attaining a level of prophecy, whatever that level may be, he is clearly and powerfully aware of his unique attachment to G-d.

Physical Effects of Prophecy:

During a prophetic vision, the prophet is greatly overwhelmed. His body and all his limbs immediately begin to tremble, and he feels as if he is being "turned inside out" (e.g., Daniel 10:8). The prophet loses his ability to command his own senses, and his mental faculties can no longer function independently. They have all been superseded by the experience of communication with G-d, to the exclusion of every other stimulus. The prophet’s entire being is infused with the G-dly experience, and with the influx of Divine inspiration that is encompassing him. This is the physical nature of a person: it cannot tolerate the revelation of the spiritual, and cannot exert any control in the presence of the spiritual, particularly where direct communication from G-d is involved.

Prophetic Messages:

There are two distinct aspects of prophetic messages that a prophet receives: the content and the wording. Thus, a prophet may receive a clear prophetic revelation that contains no specific wording, in which case, the prophet will communicate the message of his prophecy using any wording he chooses. At other times, the prophetic revelation may also contain precise wording. All the prophecies recorded in the biblical books of the Prophets are of this nature.

Public & Non-public Prophets and Prophecies:

A prophet’s career may involve his being sent to an individual, or to a group of people, with a Divine message of guidance, or of a warning to refrain from sin. Alternately, a prophet may never be sent on a public mission; instead he may experience Divine revelations for his personal benefit. Since the essence of prophecy is an exalted feeling of attachment to G-d, along with Divine revelations concerning G-d’s hidden mysteries of Creation, prophetic experience does not necessarily require a public message that must be delivered to other people.