The Legacy of Moses, Part II
Chapter 3, Law 8(b)
"There are three types of heretics ('apikorsim').
(1) One who says there is no prophecy at all and there is no knowledge
which comes from the Creator to the hearts of man.
(2) One who denies the prophecy of our teacher Moses.
(3) One who says that the Creator does not know the deeds of man.
Each of these three is considered a heretic."
As a general introduction, much of Chapter 3 of the Rambam discusses the
very few exceptions to the almost universal principle, "All of Israel is
granted a share in the World to Come" (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1). As the Rambam
discusses, the only exceptions are people so sinful or heretical as to make
it evidently clear they want nothing of G-d and spirituality. In this law,
the Rambam discusses the category known as apikorsim -- people who deny
G-d's knowledge or direction of the affairs of man.
As we discussed last week, examples 1 and 3 are relatively straightforward.
Claiming G-d does not even know what man does is certainly antithetical to
Judaism, which teaches us that G-d weighs and judges our every deed.
Likewise, denying prophecy is a statement that G-d never even told man what
He wants of us and the purpose of existence. It would be a rejection of the
entire text of the Torah. Scripture would not be the sacred word of G-d but
the invention of finite and deficient man, no more relevant to us today than
any other classical work of literature.
The one example which we found tricky was the Rambam's second -- the
acceptance of Moses' prophecy. Why was Moses singled out from all the other
prophets of Israel? Once a person accepts that G-d speaks to man via
prophecy, the entire Torah is validated, the later writings -- of Samuel,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Daniel, etc. -- as well as the Five Books of Moses.
(Later in this law -- as we'll discuss next week -- the Rambam adds that one
must not only accept the validity of prophecy, but that the entire Torah is
the word of G-d, transmitted to us via His prophets.) If so, why must we
accept Moses' prophecy as a principle in its own right? Wasn't he merely an
example of one of the prophets of Israel, a great one to be sure, but merely
a prophet as all the rest?
We did not get as far as answering last week, but we established one basic
principle, based on the writings of the Rambam elsewhere. Moses' prophecy
was unlike that of any other prophet. All other prophets experienced murky
and indirect visions, via an angel. It only occurred when they were in a
deep trance, in dreams of the night, and they would lose their senses and
physical abilities in the process.
Moses was different in every respect. "Mouth to mouth I will speak to him,
in a vision without riddles, and the image of G-d he will behold" (Numbers
12:8). Moses reached the highest level of prophecy attainable. He virtually
became an angel on earth. He was not tainted in the slightest by his
physical self. His understanding of G-d and His laws was as whole and
complete as humanly possible.
Moses, as compared to the other prophets, was thus not just more of the
same. His prophecy was a different experience entirely. And this is
critically significant for two reasons.
First of all, this authenticates the entire Torah and the 613 Commandments.
Many the other prophetic works we have -- especially ones discussing the
distant future -- are vague and confusing. G-d spoke to the prophets in
riddle and metaphor, which no doubt had multiple possible interpretations.
When G-d told Jonah the city of Nineveh would be overturned (Jonah 3:4), it
may have meant physically -- via destruction, or spiritually -- via a
dramatic change of heart on the part of its populace. The people were wise
enough to choose the latter. Likewise, many of the prophecies we have of the
End of Days -- Armageddon, the arrival of the Messiah, the Messianic age --
are purposely vague. They may transpire in any number of ways -- depending,
of course, on how deserving we will be.
Thus, the words of the Prophets are vague and imprecise. Their visions of
the future were clouded and ambiguous -- purposely so. Yet this could not be
the case with the Torah of Moses. It had to be crystal clear. Every word,
every nuance was precisely the utterance of G-d. As some thinkers express
it, it was the word of G-d coming through Moses' throat. Anything less, and
the Torah would be Moses' subjective understanding of G-d's intent. But it
is not. The Torah is G-d's absolute, objective truth, not tainted in the
slightest by Moses' personal perspective or understanding. No one could ever
doubt in the slightest if G-d really meant what Moses claimed He did.
Casting any such doubt on Moses would destroy the Torah's entire sanctity
and immutability. (Based on thoughts heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig).)
There is a second, equally critical idea behind this principle. Let's say
someone comes along later, making the following claim. "Although Moses was a
great man and a fine prophet in his day, his time has passed. I am a new
prophet, and I know better than Moses what G-d wants of you." How can we
know whom to believe -- the original prophet or the new improved one?
Although ever since the experience of Mt. Sinai no one could ever deny the
validity of Moses' prophecy, can another come along -- without denying Moses
(in his time), yet proffering a new, improved covenant? (Yes, it's been done
more than once since.)
There is an important passage authored by R. Moshe ben Nachman, known as
Nachmanides or the Ramban based on the acronym of his name (Talmud and
Bible commentator of 13th Century Spain, considered one of the foremost
scholars of his age. Note that the acronym of his name ends with an 'n'
rather than an 'm', as Maimonides). The following is an elaboration of his
commentary to Exodus 19:9.
Exodus 19-20 describes the Revelation at Sinai, in which G-d appeared to all
Israel in all His glory, communicating to them the Ten Commandments. Verse
19:9 states as follows. "And the L-rd said to Moses, 'Behold I come to you
in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the nation will hear My
speaking with you, and they will believe in you eternally.'" Thus, the
purpose of Sinai was not only to receive the Decalogue or even to gain a
glimpse of G-d. It was in order that Israel witness G-d speaking to Moses
firsthand. We would be spectators to the prophecy of Moses, overhearing
Moses' prophecy as it actually occurred. (This was the case for most of the
commandments given at Mt. Sinai. The first two commandments were spoken
directly by G-d to all Israel (Talmud Makkos 24a).)
Why was this so significant? Why was it so important that Israel witness
Moses' prophecy? Did not the Children of Israel know of prophecy since the
time of Abraham? The answer, explains the Ramban, is in order that we see
for ourselves the level of prophecy Moses reached. He attained the highest
level of prophecy achievable. He had an absolutely direct and unimpeded line
with G-d -- and every one of us witnessed it and knew it personally.
As a result, no prophet could ever come along later and claim he knows
better, that his prophecy or covenant supersedes that of Moses. When Moses
told us "...and the revealed matters are for us and our children *forever*
to perform the words of this Torah" (Deut. 29:28) or when the Torah many
times states "...it is an eternal law for all your generations" (e.g. Levit.
3:17, 10:9, 23:14), no one could ever come along and say, "Their time is up;
they are no longer binding." Theologically -- as well as legally, such a
claim is no longer tenable.
I actually do not know if Christianity and Islam, both of which accept the
Torah of Moses in its time, grapple with or are even disturbed by this
glaring self-contradiction going to their very core. My readers know that I
am not at all in the habit of bashing other religions -- nor other Jews who
disagree with my basic beliefs. We all share so many basic beliefs and
values, and we gain much more by finding and building upon common ground
rather than harping on those wedges which drive us apart.
Nevertheless, the issue of the permanence and immutability of Moses'
prophecy is well-established in the Torah -- irrefutably so. It was
witnessed by an entire nation of 2-3 million specifically in order that no
one could ever come along with a new and improved covenant. (Needless to
say, G-d knew of the heresies which would ultimately challenge mankind. He
did what He could, so to speak, to prepare us for the eventuality.) And that
nation, millions strong, would tell its children about the eternal truth of
Moses and his Torah, and they would tell their children, and their children
would tell their children till the Messiah and the End of Days.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org