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Divine Inspiration: Part One

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The mechanics of receiving a direct spiritual revelation.

Although God created man to live on a physical plane, He did not close off the spiritual completely.

God arranged creation so that even while in the physical world, man would be able to open a door to the spiritual and experience the Divine. This would constitute the highest perfection that a mortal human can attain.

God also used this spiritual experience as a means of revealing His will. One of the foundations of our faith is the belief that God grants such inspiration and thus reveals His will to mankind.

Since God created the universe for a purpose, it is inconceivable that He would not communicate this purpose to His creatures. The only way that man can approach God is by striving to achieve His purpose as revealed by Him.

Rational morality is always debatable, but God's revealed will needs no further arguments.

Although God has given us the intelligence to understand our responsibilities, we cannot seek Him on our own [i.e. without any structure or guidance]. In case of illness we must seek the advice of an expert physician, since a seemingly logical cure can sometimes kill the patient. Similarly, we must seek God's revelation, since an apparently reasonable morality may actually draw a person away from God.

Revelation is also a more perfect way to the good life than human intellect, since any rational morality is always debatable. God's revealed will, on the other hand, needs no further arguments to strengthen it.

Furthermore, God had to reveal His will because the majority of people do not act according to the dictates of pure logic. Man is a complex creature, who is strongly influenced by his environment and material desires. It is written, "A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous" (Deut. 16:19). Our desires for recognition and material pleasures can likewise blind our eyes to moral truth. If God had not revealed His will in an unambiguous manner, man would be likely to rationalize a morality of convenience, rather than one of sincerity.

Divine Logic

Just as God is unknowable, so is His ultimate purpose. Even if man were to have a high degree of intellectual integrity, his intellect would not be sufficiently perfect to comprehend God's purpose well enough to seek Him.

Even if pure logic could be used to define general moral principles, it cannot fill in the details through which they must be used to approach God and for man's ultimate good.

Although logic may define a general morality, only God can reveal the seriousness of various immoral acts.

Although logic may dictate that certain actions are morally and ethically wrong, reason alone cannot prescribe how to correct wrongs that have already been committed. Therefore, a person who attempts to live by a man-made system of morality is likely to find himself beset by guilt feelings that cannot be resolved. It is only God, Author of all morality, who can reveal the ways of repentance and reconciliation.

Lower Level Inspirations

Israel's history and relationship to God predicate a responsibility, and only God Himself can teach us how to fulfill it. Experience has shown that only by observing God's revealed will has Israel survived.

Besides morality, there are many things that cannot be fathomed with human intellect, and can only be known through revelation. These include knowledge of future events, especially the Messianic promise, as well as the rewards in the afterlife. Also revealed are many mysteries that would otherwise be inaccessible to human intellect.

Inspiration and prophecy are not mere psychological processes in which the human imagination constitutes the main factor. Rather they are conditions in which man becomes the instrument through which God exerts His power. They are experiences that are as real as physical sensation, leaving absolutely no doubt as to their authenticity. True prophets were therefore even willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their teachings.

The lowest level of inspiration is divine guidance that is granted to a person without his knowledge. This was the minimal attainment of all the great biblical and Talmudic leaders, who were guided by God in all their words and deeds. It is thus written, "God's council is with those who fear Him" (Psalms 25:14). Such inspiration also marked the beginning of the careers of the prophets.

Steps to Revelation

The gift of divine guidance is granted to those who teach Torah publicly, bringing the people closer to God. It is thus written, "This book of the Torah shall not depart from you… and you shall observe everything written in it, for then you shall… have good success" (Joshua 1:8). Therefore, any Torah leader whose works have been accepted by all Israel is assumed to have been divinely guided.

The gift of divine guidance is granted to those who teach Torah publicly.

This gift is attainable by any person, at any time or place, as long as the person makes himself worthy of it.

The next degree of revelation is Divine Inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh). On this level, a person is consciously aware of God's guidance in his speech or actions. Through such inspiration, a person can be aware of future events, as well as other people's thoughts.

There are ten steps through which one must prepare himself before he can attain Divine Inspiration. They are:

  1. Constant study and observance of the teachings of the Torah (Torah)
  2. Scrupulous care not to violate a single law (care; zehirut)
  3. Constant diligence to fulfill every commandment (diligence; zerizut)
  4. Living completely free of sin, in thought and in deed (cleanliness; nekiut)
  5. Avoiding even the permissible when it may lead to wrong (abstinence; perishut)
  6. Purifying oneself of all sin, both past and present (purification; tahora)
  7. Dedication to God, far beyond the call of the Law (piety; chasidut)
  8. Absolute negation of the self (humility; anava)
  9. Loving God so much as to dread all sin and evil (fear of sin; yirat chet)
  10. Total negation of the worldly (holiness; kedushah)

Clear Mind

Once a person had completed all these steps, he was then ready to engage in the exercises of meditation (hit'bod'edut) that were used to attain inspiration. These exercises would consist of the repetition of Divine names, as well as the chanting of psalms and prayers. The purpose of these exercises was to totally isolate the mind, both from external stimuli and internal thought, leaving it perfectly clear to receive the divine influx.

Although these practices were helpful, Divine Inspiration could be attained without them, merely through incessant and fervent study of the Torah. It can also be attained through deep meditation in prayer. Often it comes automatically through a great act of faith, or from the observance of a commandment in utter joy.

With Divine Inspiration, a person may understand lofty mysteries not accessible to logic alone.

When a person attains Divine Inspiration, he can understand things with a knowledge completely different than anything that he ever experienced previously. He may also gain information about lofty mysteries not accessible to logic alone. He can also reach a level where he is clearly aware of otherwise imperceptible spiritual entities and structures.

A person experiencing Divine Inspiration attains an insight far above ordinary people, and thus virtually becomes a different person. The prophet Samuel thus told Kind Saul, "God's spirit shall descend upon you… and you shall be transformed into a different man" (1-Samuel 10:6).

Divine Echo

There are many levels of Divine Inspiration. The highest degree is just below actual prophecy. The only difference is that Divine Inspiration does not involve trance nor vision as does prophecy. It is for this reason that such inspiration is often referred to as a spirit of prophecy (ruach nevua).

In such a state, a person can speak or write words without being aware of their source. It was in this manner that the third portion of the Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim) were written. King David thus said, "God's spirit speaks through me, His word is on my tongue" (2-Samuel 23:2). Hence, the Writings are on a lower level of holiness than the Prophets (Nevi'im).

A low level of Divine Inspiration was a bat kol, literally the "daughter of a voice" [or understood as an "echo"]. Even after messages bearing Divine Inspiration ceased to exist, a bat kol could deliver a clear, unambiguous message.

Normally, a bat kol was only heard by tzaddikim, who were otherwise worthy of prophecy. Nevertheless, when the situation demanded it, it could even be heard by gentiles. In many cases, it was heard by everyone worthy, but in others, it was only heard by a single individual. The bat kol was heard until the Sanhedrin ceased to function (around 361 CE).

A bat kol is like a voice heard in the mind. Although it sometimes sounds like a voice from heaven, it is a prophetic, rather than a physical voice, and it is only heard by those for whom it is intended. It was a voice often heard by neophytes not yet ready for prophecy. Regarding the bat kol it is written, "Your ears shall hear a voice behind you" (Isaiah 30:21).

The High Priest

A high degree of Divine Inspiration was also involved in consulting the Urim and Tumim, the oracle associated with the breastplate (choshen) of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol).

The Urim and Tumim could only be consulted by a king, the Sanhedrin, or a public official in the interest of the entire community. This oracle was in use until the destruction of the First Temple (421 BCE).

When the Urim and Tumim would be consulted, the High Priest would have to wear all eight vestments. Both he and the questioner would face the ark. The questioner would then make his inquiry in such a low voice, that no one else but he would hear it.

The High Priest would then meditate on the stones of the breastplate until he reached a level of Divine Inspiration. He would then see the breastplate with inspired vision. The letters containing the answer would appear to stand out. With his Divine Inspiration, the High Priest would then be able to combine the letters to spell out the answer.

Only one question at a time could be asked of the Urim and Tumim. If more than one question were asked, only the first would be answered.

The Urim and Tumim were necessary even while there were prophets. While a prophet cannot receive a message at will, the Urim and Tumim could be used at any time. Moreover, while an evil decree foretold by a prophet could be changed, the message of the Urim and Tumim was irrevocable.

Ark of the Covenant

The next degree of revelation is true prophecy (nevua). Here the prophet is in such a high meditative state that his mind is totally blank, serving as a clear channel for the Divine message. When the prophet then returns to a normal state of consciousness, he is able to relate his message.

The prophet's mind is totally blank, serving as a clear channel for the Divine message.

Prophecy is a gift of God that cannot be attained through a person's own efforts. Nevertheless, a very high degree of spiritual and mental preparation, as well as difficult disciplines, is also necessary.

God only grants the gift of prophecy for the sake of His people. Therefore, even when a person is worthy of prophecy, it cannot be attained unless his generation is also worthy.

A major source of prophetic inspiration was the Ark of the Covenant, containing the two tablets of the original Torah, which stood in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. God told Moses, "I will commune with you, and I will speak with you from above the ark-cover from between the two Cherubim, which are on the Ark of Testimony" (Exodus 25:22). What was true of Moses was also true of the other prophets.

The Holy Land

The influence of the Ark only extended as far as the borders of the Holy Land, making it particularly suited for prophecy. Moreover, outside the Holy Land, there are many spiritual barriers that must be penetrated before a vision can be obtained.

Therefore, since prophecy requires the highest degree of sanctification, it can only be attained in the Land of Israel, which is the Holy Land. It is thus written, "God your Lord will raise up a prophet in your midst" (Deut. 18:15). This implies that prophecy would only take place in the Land of Israel when it is settled by the Israelites.

A prophet can therefore only obtain his first revelation in the Holy Land. Once he has attained prophecy in the Holy Land, however, he can later obtain a vision even in other lands, provided that it is absolutely necessary for the sake of Israel. Even in such cases, however, the vision could only be obtained in a secluded place, such as in a valley or near a river, which is not contaminated by the general population…

Divine Inspiration: Part Two

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing). Reprinted with permission.


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