Magazine article Tikkun

Prophets and Sages in Tikkun

Magazine article Tikkun

Prophets and Sages in Tikkun

Article excerpt

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 Daw] 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. …

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