The Haftarah of Mattot – the first Chapter of Jeremiah – introduces the prophetic mission of Jeremiah, the prophet who foretold the destruction of the First Jewish Commonwealth and subsequently comforted and sustained his defeated nation. Like other prophets before him, Jeremiah felt he was inadequate to his assigned task. But God would accept no excuses, declaring (Jeremiah 1:5), “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you; and before you emerged from the womb, I sanctified you; a prophet to the nations I have appointed you.”
These words of God to Jeremiah raise two fundamental questions: 1) Does a person become a prophet only if God chooses him, or can he attain prophetic vision by his own efforts, through intensive study and self-improvement? 2) What happened to free will? Can’t Jeremiah, or any prophet, choose not to be a prophet?
On the first of these questions, Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204) opines that prophecy is impossible without training, and it is only through intensive study and self-perfection that a person can attain prophetic vision. Thus, we see in the Bible that there were schools for prophecy, and the students were able to prophecy (see I Kings 20:35-43). Nevertheless, study and training alone were not enough, and some who were adequately prepared – such as Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch –never became prophets, because God had not chosen them. God’s selection of a person for prophecy, then, is prerequisite according to Maimonides, but the potential prophet cannot realize his potential without study and training.
A different view of prophecy is found in the philosophy of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141). According to him, God grants the prophet an inner eye, through which the prophet is able to perceive visions that are beyond the reach of other people, and it is only through this God-given faculty that a person can become a prophet. Halevi does not cite study and training as prerequisites for prophecy, and apparently they play no role, according to him.
Which of these two views of prophecy is correct? The existence of schools of prophecy provides strong support for the view of Maimonides. And yet, Samuel’s initiation as a prophet when he was but a child (1 Samuel, chapter 3) provides strong evidence against the contention that intensive study and training are necessary prerequisites to become a prophet.
I believe that both views are correct up to a point. The view of Maimonides applies to the great majority of prophets – the hundreds or thousands of prophets whose names we don’t know, trained in the prophetic schools over the period of four or five centuries prior to the destruction of the first Temple. But for the greatest of the prophets, the ones who have books named after them, or others – such as Elijah and Elisha – whose prophecies appear on multiple occasions in the Bible, training was not necessary. Their inner vision – their God-given talent to perceive that which is beyond the ken of ordinary people – was so great that little or no training was needed for them. Truly, they were selected before they were born and were predestined to prophecy. It was not their choice, but God’s.
And that brings us to our second question: what about free will? Couldn’t Jeremiah, or any prophet, choose not to be a prophet? After all, the Torah tells us that Man has free will to choose the path of righteousness or the path of evil. And, even for the prophet, the choice between good and evil still applies: Bil’am, despite having been blessed with prophetic vision, chose the path of evil. Nevertheless, in the matter of prophecy, the prophet has no choice; he must prophecy willy-nilly. Jonah sought to run away from prophecy, but God would not allow it (see my commentary on Jonah, posted 2 October 2009). Bil’am sought to curse Israel, but God forced him to bless instead (see my comments on Balak, posted 16 July 2009). Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah all claimed they couldn’t prophecy. But God had chosen them. He had created them to prophecy, and they could not refuse. As God declared to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you; and before you emerged from the womb, I sanctified you.” Or, as Amos puts it (Amos 3:8): “A lion has roared, who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who will not prophecy?”
© Copyright 2011 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.
For the view of Maimonides on prophecy, see The Guide for the Perplexed II:32.
For Halevi’s view on prophecy, see The Kuzari IV:3, V:14, and V:16. (See the sidebar of this blog for a link to The Kuzari.)
For a discussion of free will, see “Thoughts on Re’eh” (posted 10 Aug 2009). See also “Thoughts on Nitzavim” (posted 7 September 2009).