(Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6)
January 29, 2005
Isaiah\’s prophecy, in this week\’s haftarah, is one of the great revelatory moments in prophecy. Isaiah was privileged to see a vision of the divine throne room and to experience God\’s retinue offering praise to the Almighty: \”And I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne…\” (Isaiah 6:1)
This religious vision has become a normative part of the Jewish religious and liturgical experience but the Talmud preserves an alternative tradition which found Isaiah\’s vision so disquieting that it led to horrendous results: A tanna recited: \’Shimon ben Azzai found a genealogical scroll in Jerusalem and in it was written: …\'[King] Manasseh slew [the prophet] Isaiah.\’ Raba [a sage from the period of the Talmud] related the story: \’Manasseh brought Isaiah to trial and slew him. He said to him: Your teacher Moses said: \’For no man shall see Me [God] and live\’ (Exodus 33:20) and you [Isaiah] said: \’And I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne.\’ … \’I know, thought Isaiah, that no matter how I answer he will not accept it and if I reply at all, then the king will be guilty of willful murder. Isaiah, therefore pronounced the Divine Name and was swallowed up by a cedar tree. The cedar, however, was brought and sawed into pieces. When the saw reached the prophet\’s mouth, he died. This was his penalty for having said at his initiation: \’And I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips. (Isaiah 6:5). The contradiction between Moses\’ statement and Isaiah\’s statement still remains. [The statement of Isaiah]: \’I saw the Lord\’ [can be understood] in accordance which what is taught in a teaching from the period of the Mishnah]: \’All of the prophets saw things through a dim glass (aspaklaria lo meira) while Moses saw things through a clear glass (aspaklaria meira). (adapted from Yevamot 49b)
There are a number of different themes running through this story. An ancient tradition that Isaiah was murdered by a wicked king who used his prophecy as a pretext to kill him is not an unusual theme in the Jewish tradition. It is also not uncharacteristic of the tradition to critique its prophets, at times, for insulting their own people. This story\’s evaluation of Isaiah\’s prophecy, however, is less typical. The sages felt compelled to explain how Isaiah\’s prophetic vision could contradict that of Moses. How might it be possible that Isaiah could see something that Moses was incapable of seeing? According to Rashi, the sages explained that Isaiah described something that he really did not see accurately while Moses had total awareness of what he could and what he could not see. Similarly, Rabeinu Hananel ben Hushiel (11th century Kairouan) saw only an image and thought he saw God while Moses saw clearly only the back of God\’s Presence (Shechina) and demanded more. (Hiddushe HaRamban) Rabbeinu Natan (11th century Italy), in his dictionary – the Aruch, described Isaiah\’s vision as similar to one who looks in a distorted mirror which enlarges what is small and shrinks what is large. Maimonides adds that Moses knew that he could not see God but later on demands from God to discern His essence rather than see Him. (Guide to the Perplexed 1:55)
This story is part of a debate in the rabbinic tradition over whether a person is able to visually experience God. The consensus in the tradition follows Moses\’ paradigm, which claims that this type of religious experience is not possible. Isaiah\’s vision, according to this position, merely serves as a foil for this point of view.