The Jewish Kabbalah pits the Prophet against the Wise man, and puts the Wise man above the Prophet. Why this hierarchical order? Is it justified? What does it teach us? What can we expect from this vision of things?
Let’s start with some elements of argumentation, against prophetism.
« The Wise man always prevails over the Prophet, for the Prophet is sometimes inspired and sometimes not, while the Holy Spirit never leaves the Wise men; they have knowledge of what has happened Up-There and Down-Here, and they are under no obligation to reveal it. » i
The Wise men « know ». Their wisdom is such that they even dispense with the risk of speaking about it publicly. There would only be blows to be taken, trouble guaranteed. And for what benefit? In their great wisdom, the Wise men are careful not to « reveal » what they « know ». It is precisely because they are « wise » that they do not reveal what is the basis of their « wisdom ».
What do they do then, if they do not reveal their knowledge to the world? Well, they continue to deepen it, they study to climb the ladder of knowledge constantly.
« Those who study the Torah are always preferable to the prophets. They are indeed of a higher level, for they hold themselves Above, in a place called Torah, which is the foundation of all faith. Prophets stand at a lower level, called Netsah and Hod. Therefore, those who study the Torah are more important than the prophets, they are superior to them. » ii
This frontal antagonism between sages and prophets has a long history. It can be summed up in the age-old rivalry between prophetic Judaism and rabbinic Judaism.
Gershom Scholem, who has studied the great currents of Jewish mysticism, notes « an essential point on which Sabbatianism and Hasidism converge, while moving away from the rabbinic scale of values, namely: their conception of the ideal type of man to whom they attribute the function of leader. For rabbinic Jews, especially at that time, the ideal type recognized as the spiritual leader of the community was the scholar, the Torah student, the educated Rabbi. From him, no inner rebirth is required. (…) In place of these masters of the Law, the new movements gave birth to a new type of leader, the seer, the man whose heart was touched and changed by God, in a word, the prophet. » iii
The rivalry between the scholar and the seer can be graduated according to a supposed scale, which would symbolically link the Below and the Above. For rabbinic Judaism, the talmudic scholar, the student of the Torah, is « superior » to the seer, the prophet, or the one whose heart has been changed by God.
Once a sort of scale of comparison is established, other hierarchies proliferate within the caste of the « masters of the Law ». They are based on the more or less proper way of studying the Law, on the more or less proper way of approaching the Torah.
The texts testify to this.
« Why is it written on the one hand, ‘For thy grace is exalted to the heavens’? (Ps 57:11) and on the other hand: ‘Your grace is greater than the heavens’ (Ps 108:5)? There is no contradiction between these two verses. The first refers to those who do not care about the Torah in a selfless way, while the second applies to those who study in a selfless way. » iv
One might conclude (probably too hastily) that it is therefore in one’s interest to be disinterested (as to the purpose of the study), and to be disinterested in any interest (for the purpose of the Torah), if one wants to know the grace that « transcends the heavens ».
But another avenue of research opens up immediately.
Rather than only concerning those who ‘study the Torah’, the grace that ‘ascends to heaven’ and the grace that ‘transcends heaven’ could apply respectively to the masters of the Law and the prophets, – unless it is the other way around? How do we know?
We have just seen that the Zohar resolutely takes sides with the superiority of the masters of the Law over the seers and the prophets. But the ambivalence of the texts of the Hebrew Bible undoubtedly allows for many other interpretations.
Perhaps we can draw on the sayings of the Prophets themselves to form an opinion about them, and try to see if what they have to say can « reach beyond the heavens »?
Isaiah states about his own prophetic mission:
« Yes, so spoke YHVH to me when his hand grasped me and taught me not to follow the path of this people, saying :
‘You will not call a conspiracy all that this people calls a conspiracy, you will not share their fears and you will not be terrified of them. It is YHVH Tsebaot whom you will proclaim holy; it is He who will be the object of your fear and terror.
He will be a sanctuary, a rock that brings down, a stumbling block for the two houses of Israel, a net and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble, fall and break, and they will be trapped and captured.
Enclose a testimony, seal an instruction in the heart of my disciples’.
I hope in YHVH that hides His face from Jacob’s house. » v
According to Isaiah’s testimony, YHVH declares that He himself is a ‘rock that makes fall’, a ‘stumbling block’, a ‘net and snare’. But a little further on Isaiah radically reverses this metaphor of the ‘stone’ and gives it the opposite meaning :
« Thus says the Lord YHVH:
Behold, I am going to lay in Zion a stone, a granite stone, a cornerstone, a precious stone, a well-established foundation stone: he who trusts in it shall not be shaken. » vi
To paraphrase what was said above about self-serving and selfless study of the Torah, let us argue that the ‘well-grounded foundation stone’ applies to true prophets.
On the other hand, the ‘stumbling block’ refers to the ‘insolent’, those who have ‘made a covenant with death’, who have made ‘lies’ their ‘refuge’ and who have ‘hidden in falsehood’vii, as well as false prophets, priests and all those who claim to ‘teach lessons’ and ‘explain doctrines’….
Isaiah eructs and thunderstruck. His fury bursts out against the pseudo-Masters of the Law.
« They, too, were troubled by the wine, they wandered about under the effect of the drink. Priest and prophet, they were troubled by drink, they were taken with wine, they wandered with drink, they were troubled in their visions, they wandered in their sentences. Yes, all the tables are covered with abject vomit, not a clean place! » viii
The false prophets and priests are drunk and roll around in their abject vomit… Their visions are troubled… Their sentences are rambling… They stutter, they donkey absurd sentences, but YHVH will give them their derisory lessons and knock them off their pedestals :
« Who does He teach the lesson to? To whom does He explain the doctrine? To children barely weaned, barely out of the teat, when He says: ‘çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘ ix. Yes, it is with stuttering lips and in a foreign language that He will speak to this people (…) Thus YHVH will speak to them thus: çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘, so that as they walk they may fall backwards, be broken, be trapped, be imprisoned. » x
As we can see, Isaiah had, more than a millennium beforehand, already warned of the subtle contempt and the self-satisfaction of the Kabbalistic scholars, and of the pseudo-sapiential sentences of rabbinic masters.
Today, what has become of the ancient bipolarity of prophetic and rabbinic Judaism?
It seems that rabbinic Judaism now occupies almost all the ideological terrain. The time of the (true) prophets has indeed been over for more than two millennia. The (false) prophets have been particularly discredited since the recurrent proliferation of multiple « Messiahs » (ranging from Jesus Christ to Isaac Luria, Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza…).
There is little hope that the Messiah will risk to come again on the world stage any time soon. We know now what it cost the daring ones who ventured to take the role.
What future, then, for the Eternal People? What future for Judaism in a shrinking, suffering planet, threatened from all sides, especially by war, injustice, biological death?
I don’t know, not being wise enough.
I only know that, in truth, probably only a prophet would be able to answer these questions…
iZohar II 6b (Shemot). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.
ii Zohar III 35a (Tsav). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.
iiiGershom Scholem. The great currents of Jewish mysticism. Trad. M.-M. Davy. Ed. Payot et Rivages, Paris, 2014, pp.483-484
ivRabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Ed. Verdier 1986, p.210.
vIs 8, 11-17
viiIs 28, 14-15
viiiIs 28, 7-8
ixLiterally: « Order to order…measure to measure…a little here, a little there ». This can be interpreted as a derogatory imitation of the self-nominated « masters of the Law ».
xIs 28, 9-13