Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Prophets and Sages in Tikkun

by Tzvi Marx

Tikkun has in its twenty-five years availed itself of many different sorts of voices, some more prophetic and others more rabbinic (sage-like) in their tone. It is helpful to keep in mind the essential difference between these two modes of communication in our current discourse.

Since prophets and sages are the two sources of inspiration in the Jewish tradition, one might expect these two types of teachers of Torah to reinforce each other. In a sense they do, since the sages try to interpret the words of the prophets. Nevertheless in a very important way they are not compatible. The prophet is duly instructed to speak only and all of the words that God "puts into his mouth" (Deut. 18:18). Basing itself on the biblical teaching of Leviticus 27:34, the Talmud infers that "no prophet is at liberty to introduce anything new henceforward" (Megilla 2b). The prophet is the mouthpiece of God, expressing himself in divine absolutes such as can tolerate no opposition. A false prophet earns capital punishment.

By contrast see how the Mishna discloses the rabbinic mind of the chachamim (sages) when it asks, "Why do they record the opinion of a single person among the many, when the Halachah [law] must be according to the opinion of the many?"

According to R. Yannai, the prophets' utterances must be refined, just as silver from a mine needs to be refined: "The words of Torah were not given as clear cut decisions (chatuchot). For with every word which the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to Moses, He offered him forty-nine [seven times seven] arguments by which a thing may be proved pure and forty nine-arguments by which a thing may be proved impure." The dilemma of course is then about what God or the prophet means. So "Moses asked: Master of the universe, in what way shall we know the true sense of a law?" To this reasonable question, "God replied: The majority is to be followed. When the majority says it is impure, it is impure; when a majority says it is pure, it is pure."

Comparing divine words to raw silver implies for R. Yannai that, like silver, these divine words are not fit for the "consumer" of prophetic words, i.e., the believer, until they undergo a process of purification, and a lengthy one at that, "seven times seven." What is most significant is that the end result of this process is not an absolute unambiguous prophetic instruction, but an interpretation (one of multiple plausible alternatives) of such an instruction. The choice of that interpretive option which is to be followed in practice is that of the majority. This is no guarantee, though, that the majority has a greater claim to the truth of the divine instruction than the minority.

Fifteenth-century Spanish theologian R. Joseph Albo, in his Sefer Ha'Ikkarim (Book of Principles, III:3) wrote, "Moses was given [Torah] only in general, as things only briefly sketched in the Torah, so that the Sages of every generation should through their own efforts fill in the newly emerging details" (italics mine).

Is this rabbinic mode not a far cry from prophetic consciousness? A rabbi with another opinion is not a "false" rabbi. Would it enter the biblical mind to record the opinions of the "false" prophets in order to provide a later basis for following their views? When false prophets are recalled in the Bible, it is only to denounce them.

It strikes me that the spirit of the sages' approach is more in keeping with the spirit of Tikkun, than the prophetic. While the mystical tradition succeeded in bringing back the prophetic modality to its teachings, the rabbinic style of discourse is, nevertheless, more suited to our critical way of thinking and that of Tikkun's. Let's not forget that unlike the prophetic texts, Tikkun publishes even views that take issue with its editorial position. If its editorials sometimes, in their enthusiasm, take on a tone emanating something of prophetic certainty, in general, its varied menu of views reveals its true propensity for the rabbinic mode of respect. On the occasion of its silver jubilee, Tikkun and its staff should be complimented for advancing its agenda in the rabbinic spirit of "Eilu va'eilu divrei Elohim chayim -- these and those are the words of the living God" (Talmud Eruvin 13a).

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Marx, author of Disability in Jewish Law (Routledge, 2002), is a publicist on Judaism in Holland, participates in interreligious activities internationally, and recently founded the local branch of the Dutch-Israel Friendship League.

His articles in Tikkun include "Make The Dream Come True," May/June 2008; "A Post-Hebron Letter to My Son Michael Who Just Went From Yeshiva to Basic Training," May/June 1994; and "The Corner of My Cloak," May/June 2004.

Source Citation: Marx, Tzvi. 2011. Prophets and Sages in Tikkun. Tikkun 26(1): 55

tags: Judaism