Does God Still Talk to People? And If So, What Does He Say?

December 8, 2016 | Ari Lamm
About the author: Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is chief executive of Bnai Zion and the founder of the Joshua Network and host of its Good Faith Effort podcast.

The Talmud and other ancient rabbinic works tell a number of stories in which God seemingly addresses humans via a bat kol—a phrase usually rendered “a heavenly voice,” but meaning literally “the daughter of a voice.” One source states directly that, although the era of prophecy has ended, God can still be heard through a bat kol. After arguing that this phrase is best translated “a disembodied voice,” Ari Lamm shows through an examination of various passages that a bat kol almost always affirms what is already known, and cannot decide matters of halakhah:

Why, of all metaphors, was a disembodied voice selected to describe God’s involvement in a discussion? . . . [The dominant talmudic position] is that the bat kol should not be used as a halakhic tool, such that people might be tempted to claim, in support of their own positions, that not only are they right on the merits, but, in fact, God is definitively on their side. The process of halakhic decision-making does not and should not claim that degree of confidence. Halakhic decisors must do their best with the modest, human tools they are given. In other words, the divine bat kol . . . is, simultaneously, a way of expressing commitment to an ongoing relationship with God and a way of conceding with due humility that we know too little about God to make more extravagant claims [about His will].

The disembodied-voice metaphor is perfect for expressing this tension. . . .
The ancient rabbis sought . . . to live according to God’s will. When we have questions about how to do this, we do our best to provide solutions, and are reasonably confident in our process for doing so. But we are fully conscious that, at best, halakhic decision-making is like God’s bat kol, a disembodied voice, an echo that we hope—but cannot be sure and cannot check—that we have interpreted correctly. . . .

And surely this humility should extend beyond the realm of halakhah as well. Should it not also infuse our theological pronouncements, our prayers, and the entire scope of our religious life? Now, this should not induce in us so great a fear of being wrong that we become spiritually paralyzed. That would be a mistake. But it should encourage us to ask ourselves difficult questions.

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