The late Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great Orthodox Jewish scholars, theologians, and philosophers of his generation. His books made a striking impression on many people, including me. His many insights are eye opening. His book “The Prophets” is one of his classics.
He tells us that he will not address the well-known question about prophets: Did God really speak to them? Did they actually communicate with God? Yet, I think it is clear that he did not believe that God spoke to the prophets. I say this because his book is devoted to telling us about the passions that the prophets felt that encouraged, even compelled, them to speak.
Heschel’s view of prophecy is radically different than that of Maimonides (1138-1204). The two seem to agree that prophecy is not a supernatural event, it is part of human nature. But they differ in whether the prophet is prompted to act by his emotions or his intellect. Heschel mentions Maimonides in his book ten times, but only to disagree with him.
Heschel stressed the anguish of the sensitive prophets over what they saw. He considered this emotion a good thing, and contended that their emotional reactions to what they saw around them prompted them to speak. While it seems to me that Heschel was influenced by hasidic mystical thinking, for he was raised as a hasid, Maimonides took the rational Aristotelian view that what is important is intellect, thinking, not emotions. Maimonides stressed that emotions must be controlled by the intellect, and unless emotions are controlled by the intellect, they can be evil. Maimonides contended that it was not emotions that prompted prophets to speak but the higher level of understanding that the prophets had; his or her understanding that what was being done was wrong. They saw and understood what the general population did not understand.
Heschel not only contends that emotions are good and that it is an emotional reaction that compels prophets to speak, he also takes the biblical stories about God’s reactions to the Israelite behavior literally and states that God also has emotional reactions. God, he writes, is “moved and affected by what happens in the world, and acts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath…man’s deeds may move Him, affect Him, grieve Him or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him.” He writes that “the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos (emphasis by Heschel).” God, according to Heschel, has these feelings because “His thoughts are about the world. He is involved in human history and is affected by human acts.”
Maimonides rejected the idea that God could be affected by human behavior. He taught that God has no body and no emotions and all of the biblical descriptions of God having an emotional reaction refers not to God, but to the way the people perceive their own behavior. When the Bible states that God is angry, it does not mean that God suddenly changed and reacted with anger. It means that the people realized that the behavior was wrong and not what God wanted. A side effect of portraying God having an emotional reaction is that it tends to frighten the masses who think that God actually is angry at them, and they become frightened and some even change their evil deeds.
Thus, for example, Heschel, as well as Rashi and the Targum, understood that the prophet Hosea actually married a harlot and suffered extreme agony as a result of her behavior, her adulteries, and these emotions caused him to understand how the wavering of the Israelites, their abandonment of God, affected God. In contrast, rationalists such as Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Kimchi interpreted the tale of Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute as a parable that Hosea invented and used to dramatize his message, a message he developed intellectually.