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When Is It God? When Is It Me?

How do I know when I’m manifesting the divine spirit and will? How do I know whether it’s just my own very flawed voice that I’m hearing?

A student of mine posed these questions in a talk he delivered at a Sabbath service on the day before the ceremony when he became a rabbi.

There was a wide variety of responses in the congregation. I suggested that we can never know with certainty whether we are making the best choice or thinking clearly about dilemmas we face. All we can do is the best we can. That is certainly my own experience. When I am faced with a difficult decision, no matter how intensely I pray for guidance, I never know if my conclusions are inspired except in retrospect.

As I have reflected on these questions over the last week, however, it strikes me that the way that medieval Jewish philosophers thought about these matters can be helpful to contemporary seekers.

For Maimonides (1135-1204 Spain & Egypt), divine-human communication (and its highest level, prophecy) occurs when the perpetual divine overflow is received by one’s intellect and then travels through one’s imagination. To the extent that one has an imagination unsullied by excessive desires, one can interpret sense perceptions creatively. To the extent that one has acquired true knowledge, one can filter imaginative constructions that conflict with reality. The overflow is constant and unchanging. What is variable is the human vessel through which the spirit flows.

According to this point of view, prophecy, revelation, inspiration, insight—all of them are a combination of divine spirit and human interpretation. The dichotomy established by the opening questions is false. It’s not either God or human; it’s always both.

Perhaps the best illustration of this approach is Gersonides’ (1288-1344 Provence) interpretation of Genesis 22, The Binding of Isaac. Abraham “hears” God in a dream saying, “Take your only son, Isaac, and bring him up on the mountain for/as a burnt offering.” The Hebrew is ambiguous—you can’t determine whether Isaac is to be the sacrificial offering or if the commandment is to take Isaac up to show him how to make a burnt offering.

According to Gersonides, Abraham “passes” the test in two ways. First, even though the more common understanding of the audition is to sacrifice his son, Abraham keeps an open mind, checking and rechecking if he understood correctly. Second, Abraham remains calm, willing to do God’s will, even if that means killing Isaac. He continues to investigate clearly, even as he proceeds as if he will offer his son as a sacrifice. In the end, the ram appears, and Abraham understands that God’s intention was to offer the ram with his son Isaac. He would not have noticed the ram and its significance if he had not kept an open mind and a calm, willing heart.

From this kind of interpretation, I conclude that everything I do comes from God, but not purely. The spirit is filtered through my ideas, my feelings, my cultural presuppositions, my woundedness. How the divine spirit is expressed through me reveals as much or more about me than about God. It’s never just one or the other.

I love Gersonides’ approach because he implicitly acknowledges the uncertainty with which we all operate. Consider: Abraham, one of the greatest prophets, is close enough to God to receive such communications. Yet even he is capable of disastrous misunderstandings of God’s will. He came close to killing Isaac, which would have preemptively destroyed the Jewish people. If, in Gersonides’ view, even the greatest of prophets can potentially err so catastrophically, so can we all. For Gersonides, Abraham passes the test by realizing that God does not want him to sacrifice his son. Had he rushed to do so, he would have failed.

One lesson is that it may not be so important to determine whether or not our insights and resolutions have a divine source. It is more important that when we think we know what is right and true, we do not rush into action fervently. It is better that we continue to think about it, questioning our assumptions and our facts, even to the last minute.

The ultimate divine insight sometimes arrives as a negation, a correction of what we thought we believed with certainty.

Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at

Type: Essay

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