Maimonides (1135 – 1204), the great codifier of Jewish thought and practice, compiled what he considered to be the Thirteen Principles of Faith of the Jewish people. He did so in order to help clarify and organize Jewish belief in an easy to remember, all-encompassing manner.
The first five of these principles establish the unique oneness and absolute non-physicality of God as Creator and Ruler of the universe. The next two principles profess a belief in the truth of the words of the prophets, and especially the unique stature of the prophecy of Moses. These are then followed by the principle that declares that the Torah we have today is the one given by God to Moses and that there will be no other Torah given to replace it. Thus, we can see that out of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, four of them relate in some manner to prophecy.
In this way, a subtle and structural statement about the fundamental role of prophecy within Judaism is firmly established. For, from a logical point of view, if we did not believe in the words of the prophets, of which Moses was the greatest, then the very basis of our belief in the transmission of God’s word to the Jewish people would be compromised.
Even before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people was established through prophecy as evidenced by the fact that the patriarchs and matriarchs were all prophets themselves or were at least imbued with Divine inspiration. Furthermore, according to the Torah, prophecy is not only the foundation of Jewish religion and revelation, but, as evidenced by the fact that God spoke directly to Adam, Eve, Cain and Noah, all of whom preceded the patriarchs and matriarchs, prophecy can in fact be understood as an inherently human capacity to communicate with the Divine.
Although followers of a monotheistic religion may take a personal relationship with God for granted, it is certainly not a given. In fact, the greatness of Abraham lies not only in his general revelation that there is only one true God, but also in his existential example, as recorded in the Torah, that a human being can enter into an intimate relationship with the Divine Creator.
As Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz points out in his excellent essay, The Encounter with the Divine, the basic belief in a Creator, first cause or Divine force in the form of an energy or wisdom that permeates the universe is a matter of philosophy not religion. It is the fundamental belief in a God who not only creates but also expresses His care and regard for His creation that defines religion in general and Judaism in particular.
According to tradition, Prophecy with a capital “P” ceased during the Second Temple era. Yet, the potential for achieving prophetic experience and Divine inspiration did not cease. In perhaps his most important teaching regarding prophecy, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 – 1746) explains that although God may choose to speak with a certain person directly or help a certain individual reach an elevated level of consciousness in order to communicate a particular message to his or her generation, prophecy is defined more broadly than this. He teaches that, for the most part, the prophetic experience does not necessarily entail a direct and specific message transmitted by God; rather, prophecy in its more general manifestation is a state of elevated consciousness in which one experiences an intimate closeness to God and senses His Immanent Presence. In this sense, to have a prophetic experience is to attain a substantially higher level of Divine consciousness wherein one becomes attached to, and, intensely aware of God’s unequivocal Presence.
Thus, one does not have to be a prophet to have prophetic experiences or to be Divinely inspired, and that everyone, even today, has the potential to develop their soul’s spiritual nature in order to access the Divine within themselves and the world around them. There are no prophets today but everyone has a glimmer of prophecy within their soul and it is part and parcel of Jewish tradition to learn about our prophetic heritage and then to apply it to our own lives. As Elijah the Prophet, exclaimed: (Tana D’Bei Eliyahu 9): “I call heaven and earth to witness, that any individual, man or woman, Jew or gentile, freeman or slave, can have Divine inspiration come upon him. It all depends on his deeds.” Similarly, Moses, the greatest of the prophets, pronounced his fervent hope: “Would it be that all God’s people were prophets and that God would put His spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).
When we talk about Divine inspiration and prophetic experience today, we are for all practical purposes talking about various practices that are conducive to what is generally referred to as, “spiritual experience,” with the express purpose of expanding and evolving one’s consciousness to include, access, embrace and articulate more of the infinite oneness of essential reality.
Spirituality is a catchword today for breaking free of the restraints and exclusive pre-occupations with the material world in order to allow the soul to express its innate Divine essence. As discussed above: one does not need to be a prophet to access the tangible awareness of being in God’s Presence in a real and perceptible manner.
Yet, an important word of clarification and caution is in order. In the modern world there is a tremendous emphasis on experience for experience’s sake. In the Torah there is actually no word for experience, because experience itself was always considered a means and not an end. Likewise, there are many words connoting different states of joy in Hebrew, yet there is no word in the Torah for “fun.” Therefore, in general there is a de-emphasis on experience for its own sake in Torah, rather it is looked upon as a byproduct of a life devoted to the service of God.
The true goal of all the prophets and those honestly and humbly seeking Divine inspiration was only to come close to God in order to do His will. Prophetic experiences were never the goal in and of themselves, only a means to a holy and exalted end of coming close to the Creator.
For an extensive and in-depth treatment of the prophets and the prophetic tradition in Judaism I refer you to my new book, Prophecy and Divine Inspiration.