Based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory.
Part II: Direct Communication Between Man and God
Man should know that there are men of great ability and perfection whose souls are primed to receive pure intellectual form. Their human intellect cleaves to this active intellect and receives a profound emanation. These [men] are prophets and this [process] is prophecy. To explain this Principle with clarity would be lengthy and our intention is neither to adduce proofs for each Principle nor to present a complete elaboration of each, for this would encompass the Principles. Numerous verses in the Torah attest to the prophecy of our many prophets.
-- Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith
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The first Principle of this series is to be aware of and to accept full the fact that God communicates with human beings. The Rambam describes the experience of prophecy in the following manner:
"The information that is made known to a prophet in a prophetic vision is made known through a parable whose meaning is immediately engraved [understood] in his heart in such a manner that he knows what it is." (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 7:3)
It is clear from this statement that the source of the communication is external. There is no way for man to discover the will of God other than through direct communication of this nature.
The Rambam's choice of the term "prophecy" rather than "inspiration" is significant.
Prophecy is defined as the reality of man receiving a direct and clear message from God. In terms of Torah, prophecy involves receiving the actual words of the Almighty. In terms of the Prophets, however, prophecy involves receiving a vision, a mental image, with its exact interpretation. In both cases, a clear, distinct message emanates from God and is perceived by man.
Inspiration, on the other hand, may emanate from God, in which case it is Divine inspiration, or it may come from within, from man himself. Because of the latter possibility, inspiration could never be the basis of the Torah. When being inspired, one may easily confuse the source of his inspiration. In examining history, how many madmen have been inspired? Aren't Gadaffi and Arafat inspired? Doesn't their inspiration form the basis of their peoples' ideology?
The difference between Divine inspiration and Divine prophecy is in the manner in which the hashgacha, or Divine Providence, manifests itself. To one who is Divinely inspired, the Divine Providence of the Almighty provides guidance in his endeavors; to the prophet who receives Divine prophecy, the Divine Providence of the Almighty provides a clear message.
Those contemporary thinkers who believe that the Torah was not given through direct communication with the Almighty, that the words of Torah are not His exact words but merely the Divinely inspired words of men, do humanity a great disservice. Their claim that the Torah is only a produce of Divine inspiration is convenient. Since a person is easily inspired by messages he wants to hear, a law built upon inspiration obviously will not command the respect and authority necessary to bind man; rather it will become malleable in his hands. Such a Torah would cease to be the source of life from Above, and would instead become a mere product and target for human manipulation.