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When believers appeal to their private spiritual experiences to argue for their faith, skeptics typically respond by dismissing their stories entirely, conjecturing that these are more likely cases of hallucinations, some form of mental illness, or simply their minds and emotions playing tricks on them.

How do Jews make sure this is not the case? How do Jews discern genuine spiritual experiences from hallucinations or 'mind tricks' in general?

Note: this question is inspired by a similar question recently asked on Christianity Stack Exchange.

Note 2: I'm not sure if my choice of tags was the best. If it wasn't, amendments by more experienced users will be appreciated.

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As time has gone on, Jews have tended to believe in miracles and hallucinations less and less. Jews originally believed in exorcisms, and discussed how to perform them in the Talmud and other ancient texts. But thanks to the modern psychology movement almost no Jews believe in exorcism anymore.

I would argue that for a modern Jew to believe his spiritual experience was real he would probably be like Moses when confronting the burning bush.

In Exodus 3-4 we see Moses struggle with his spiritual experience. In the end Moses wasn't convinced by the signs that God had shown him, and he said that other people wouldn't believe him. Therefore God gave Moses signs that OTHERS would also see. And God and Moses even expect that people won't believe just from the first sign, but might need the second or even the third miraculous sign.

In that vein I think most Jews would only believe that their vision from God was real if there was a later physical manifestation that others could see.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Double AA
    Oct 26 at 1:05
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According to Mamionides, one of the basic fundamentals of Jewish belief is belief in prophecy, especially the prophecy of Moses. The concept of prophecy is difficult to relate to, because according to tradition it has not been around since the time of the second Temple. However, part of the experience of true prophecy is the clarity that this is real prophecy. This goes beyond normal intellectual certainty, as the clarity is divine.

However, this alone is not a "proof" so to speak, because based on logic alone, the argument is circular. The real proof is the historical experience of prophecy given to the Jewish nation at Sinai. Personal experiences of spirituality, while very meaningful to those who had them, are absolutely useless for convincing skeptics of anything.

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  • I get that we cannot deny Moses and the whole Sinai thing. But what are we to make of spiritual experiences of the Baal Shem tov or Isaiah (since none of them had mass witness). Their words are just as good as Jesus! How do we know they're telling the truth? I've been wanting to ask that question for some time now.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 23 at 3:55
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    Great question. Basically, the Torah commands us to heed the words of someone who shows the ability to correctly prophecy future events. Not that this is absolute logical proof, but the Torah's command. If this person is lying, G-d will deal with him. However, if the man tells us to violate the Torah's commandments, he is a false prophet and we are obligated to kill him (Deuteronomy 13).
    – N.T.
    Sep 23 at 10:25
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    The Baal Shem Tov is a different story. He is reputed to have had Divine Inspiration/ruach hakodesh, but that is not essential to history. What matters is his philosophy. Even Chassidim (such as the Satmar Rav) admit some/many of the legends regarding him are not true. (Some oppostion to Chassidus was that they elevated the role of the holy man and miracle worker beyond its true place in Judaism.)
    – N.T.
    Sep 23 at 10:25
  • Thank you for your well answer. I agree with it.
    – Turk Hill
    Sep 23 at 19:00
  • You're very welcome.
    – N.T.
    Sep 23 at 19:45
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The answers given above are excellent. I want to mention another aspect of belief in spiritual experience/prophecy; verification.

As in most aspects of Judaism, a healthy amount of skepticism is required. In the case of prophecy, for instance, a double measure is necessitated to prevent charismatic people from convincing the nation that they are prophets.

Mass Revelation as A Proof

One of the major 'proofs' for Judaism is that the initial prophetic insight they received at Mount Sinai was a mass event. Other major religions, such as Christianity or Islam, have a single founder who claimed prophecy, whereas ~three million Jews at Mount Sinai had the exact same experience. Even if one were to claim that someone dosed the entire nation with LSD before the supposed event, it is without doubt that each person would have a dramatically individual "trip"/hallucination, and not leave that nation-building event with a cohesive understanding and goal, nor with a commonly shared experience that would stand up to the many arguments and quarrels the famously stubborn nation had.

Additionally, the Mount Sinai revelation was supposed to have been experienced (at least in part) by the entire population of the world. Even barring a miraculous/prophetic transmission, I claim at least preliminary scientific backing for this by examining the Krakatoa eruption where the sound waves circled the earth multiple times, enabling literally the entire plane to experience the event. Nonetheless, the Mount Sinai revelation has been undisputed fact in major religions and society for thousands of years.

Testing Individual Prophets

How do we prove the veracity of prophecy that does not come via mass revelation?

Now if you say to yourself, "How will we know the word that the Lord did not speak? If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and the thing does not occur and does not come about, that is the thing the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken it wantonly; you shall not be afraid of him. (Devarim - Deuteronomy - Chapter 18)

Rashi writes on this verse that you must slay such a prophet, if his prophecy is proven to be incorrect. He also writes that the admonition "do not be afraid of him" means "do not be afraid to prosecute him (and kill him) because of fear that you will incur punishment".

Additionally, Rashi states in the same verse that a prophet that claims that the Jewish nation is no longer required/allowed to perform certain biblical commandments (Rambam adds the test if he tries to establish a new religion (as Jesus did)), he is by default a false prophet, even if his prophecy came true. Rambam further discusses it

Therefore, if a person will arise, whether Jew or gentile, and perform a sign or wonder and say that God sent him to:

a) add a mitzvah,

b) withdraw a mitzvah

c) explain a mitzvah in a manner which differs from the tradition received from Moses, or

d) if he says that the mitzvot commanded to the Jews are not forever, but rather were given for a limited time,

he is a false prophet. He comes to deny the prophecy of Moses and should be executed by strangulation, because he dared to make statements in God's name which God never made. ( Yesodei haTorah - Chapter Nine)

However, there is a provision for a temporary ability to overrule biblical commandments by "someone who is widely known to be an expert and a complete and total righteous person, such as Elijah the Prophet on Mount Carmel, for at that time offering sacrifices on personal alters was forbidden" (Rashi, ibid).

When a prophet - who has already proven himself to be a prophet - instructs us to violate one of the mitzvot of the Torah or many mitzvot, whether they be of a severe or light nature, for a limited amount of time, it is a mitzvah to listen to him (Rambam - Yesodei haTorah - Chapter Nine)

Additionally, if a prophet prophesies calamity and it fails to occur, he is not immediately proven a false prophet. Only if he prophesies a positive outcome which fails to pass, is he immediately labelled a false prophet. As Rambam writes

As to calamities predicted by a prophet, if, for example, he foretells the death of a certain individual or declares that in particular year there will be famine or war and so forth, the non-fulfillment of his forecast does not disprove his prophetic character. We are not to say, “See, he spoke G‑d does not retract from a promise He has made of good, or peace, or return and his prediction has not come to pass.” For G‑d is long-suffering and abounding in kindness and repents of evil. It may also be that those who were threatened repented and were therefore forgiven, as happened to the men of Nineveh. Possibly too, the execution of the sentence is only deferred, as in the case of Hezekiah. But if the prophet, in the name of G‑d, assures good fortune, declaring that a particular event would come to pass, and the benefit promised has not been realized, he is unquestionably a false prophet, for no blessing decreed by the Almighty, even if promised conditionally, is ever revoked . . . Hence we learn that only when he predicts good fortune can the prophet be tested

Yesodei haTorah 10:4

Thus, the only way to test a prophet is to test a positive prophecy he or she makes.

Often miracles were used by prophets to partially prove their veracity (such as Moses did in front of Pharaoh's magicians).

Not everyone who performs signs or wonders should be accepted as a prophet: only a person who is known to be fit for prophecy beforehand; i.e. his wisdom and his [good] deeds surpass those of all his contemporaries. If he follows the paths of prophecy in holiness, separating himself from worldly matters, and afterwards performs a sign or wonder and states that he was sent by G‑d, it is a mitzvah to listen to him (Rambam, Yesodei haTorah - Chapter Seven, Verse 7), as the verse states: "Listen to him" (Deut. 18:15).

This link has a more in-depth layout of prophecy in Judaism.

Rambam in Chapter seven discusses how prophecy works. In Chapters 8-10 he discusses how to test and verify a true prophet from a false one.

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  • According to Rambam (cited in this question) the people did not all have the same experience at Sinai.
    – Alex
    Oct 12 at 13:04
  • Welcome to MiYodeya and thanks for this first answer. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Oct 13 at 3:20
  • That doesn't really contradict what I said. Only Moshe and the people had a different experience, but all the people had the same exact experience as each other. Oct 13 at 9:02

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