Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Time of Prophets

Passover is the holiday that celebrates the exodus from Egypt, led by Moses who, in Jewish tradition, is considered the greatest of all the prophets. And the subject of prophets and prophecy has been the focus of the sections of the Mishneh Torah written by Maimonides, aka the Rambam, that we have been reading in our recent weekly Torah study sessions. And as he has on previous occasions, congregant Ludwik Kowalski has provided us with some reflections and comments on the readings, along with his wishes for a Happy Pesach:

Essay on Mishneh Torah Chapters 7-10


Ludwik Kowalski


After the last Torah Study meeting, devoted to Chapter 10, I decided to reread the last four chapters of The Book of Knowledge by Maimonides. Listening to them once, during our weekly meetings, was not sufficient for me. Why is it so? Because I do not hear well, and because my brain's ability to digest new material is deteriorating. More important factors are my absence of theological and linguistic background.

The translation I am reading is closer to today's English than the one we are using in the temple. I downloaded it from:

The title is "The Book of Knowledge by Maimonides; THE LAWS OF THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF THE TORAH." Will writing of this essay help me to understand theology better? I hope so.

Chapter 7

Prophets, unlike God and angels, are human beings. A prophecy is a message we receive from God. His wishes are transmitted to prophets by angels, and prophets transmit them to us, human beings. Why are God's wishes expressed in the form of riddles (parables)? This puzzling question is not answered by Maimonides, as far as I know. Interpretation of riddles, he writes, is left to prophets, and expert theologians, among humans. How do we distinguish a real prophet from a false prophet? By his ability to perform miracles, and by his ability to predict the future.

Moses was unique in that his prophecy (the five books we call Torah) was received directly from God, not from angels.

Chapter 8

This chapter is about signs Moses performed (splitting of the Red Sea, manna from the sky, etc.) to convince people that he was a real prophet. We are warned that some signs of other prophets might be the results of "spells and witchcraft."

Chapter 9

Moses was an exceptional prophet. Later prophets are not allowed to "make any changes whatsoever in the Torah and the commandments contained therein."  The word "whatsoever" seems to conflict with what I see in Maimonides' next paragraph, where we are told that a pronouncement made by a "true prophet," even if it conflicts with the Bible, should be accepted, except when it leads to idolatry. [Editor's Note: Maimonides meant that later prophets cannot make any permanent changes to the Law, but could call for a temporary suspension of one of the 613 commandments, with the exception of the prohibition against idolatry.] Maimonides was probably aware that this is a contradiction. His definition of a "true prophet" clarifies this. It states that a person trying to disprove the prophecy of Moses is a "false prophet." Any suggestion made by such a person must be rejected, not only a call for the return to idolatry. What would Maimonides say about later attempts to reform traditional Jewish theology? He would probably label them as sinful.

Chapter 10

Maimonides wrote that "any prophet who arises and says that God sent him does not have to perform a sign of the type that Moses, Elijah, or Elishah did, which involved supernatural events. Instead, the sign that he has to perform is to predict the future, and we have to believe him." This reminds me of scientific methodology; knowing that a scientific theory explains already known facts is not enough, as theories are tested on the basis of their ability to predict unknown facts. Even a single conflict, between a confirmed experimental fact and a theory is a sufficient reason to either abandon or to modify the theory. The rule is "theories guide but experiments decide." Theoretical scientists, Bohr, Einstein and Pauli are example of "scientific prophets".


Theology is different from science.  Neither scientists nor theologians  have suggested that laboratory investigations should be used to confirm God's existence. That is how the Biblical statement  "I am invisible" should be interpreted, in my opinion. Pronoucements found in the Pentateuch are not to be questioned; we accept them axiomatically. Scholastic interpretations of the original Bible, on the other hand, including descriptions found in the twenty volumes of the Talmud, and in the Mishnah, are not axioms. These products of human thinking are logically debatable, modifiable, and rejectable, when necessary.

In that sense, theology is similar to mathematics—we accept theological axioms on faith and we derive other statements by using logical speculations. A Talmudic statement, for example, cannot be disqualified, unless a logical error is found in its derivation. Everything that is logically consistent with the Pentateuch, and with already derived statements, is valid. Some logically-justified statements, however, are more practically useful than others, in my opinion.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for correcting me, Lance. The word "temporary" was important. The description of chapter 9 should have been as follows:

    Moses was an exceptional prophet. Later prophets are not allowed to "make any changes whatsoever in the Torah and the commandments contained therein." Then Maimonides mentions "temporary" situations, when all transgressions are acceptable, except idolatry. He is probably referring to situations in which one is forced to transgress in order to survive. What would Maimonides say about later attempts to reform traditional Jewish theology? He would probably label them as sinful.