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How do we distinguish between a true prophet and a false one? That is one of the questions raised in our parsha, and it is quite a conundrum. Think about it: what criterion can you use to determine whether a prophet was sent from God or from a cult or from his or her own effervescent mind?
The criteria are limited. We cannot tell by their manner of speech. “Thus saith God the Lord” can thunder out of the mouth of Moshe or a charlatan with equal ease.
According to today’s parsha, we cannot decide on the basis of an omen or a sign which comes true. Moshe turned a staff into a snake. So did the magicians. Saying something will happen and then it happens does not indicate causality or control. (In “Henderson the Rain King” by Saul Bellow, Henderson, a discontented pig farmer, goes to Africa and becomes the rain king of a tribe after predicting an eclipse of the sun, based on his trusty almanac!).
Well, how about the accuracy of the prophesy, as opposed to a sign or omen? That too is problematic. Isaiah prophesied the fall of Jerusalem but that was 150 years before it happened. Did that make him a false prophet? To us, he was simply ahead of his time. In the eyes of many of his contemporaries – he was spouting drivel and incitement.
There’s another factor to consider in this regard. While some prophets were “seers” – ‘fortune tellers’ in today’s lingo (that was one of Samuel’s functions early in his book) – others were charged with warning the people with the express purpose of getting them to repent, change their behavior and save themselves and their cities and countries. In other words, a successful prophet should never see his prophesy materialize (because his warnings worked), as in the case of Jonah.
The Torah gives us only one very clear distinction between true and false prophets. The moment a prophet calls to the people to follow other gods – he is false. In fact, the next few paragraphs deal with what to do to those (including close family members) who try to lead others astray. Spoiler: it’s not politically correct today.
The same problem has appeared throughout the centuries. Perhaps the most blatant example is Shabtai Zvi, who proclaimed himself the messiah and the mouthpiece of God and attracted hundreds of thousands of Jews, until he chose conversion to Islam over death. In more recent times we have not had such a radical example, but the problem exists.
Who are the prophets today in our religion? That depends on whom you ask. This means that a prophet today would get short shrift from any group other than his own. This, by the way, is why many rabbis with what we would call more enlightened approaches are afraid to speak out.
(A rabbi who fit into this category passed away last week. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was an educator, a scholar, and a person whose love for Judaism and learning was equaled by his acceptance of all Jews. From an atheistic Hashomer Hatsair upbringing, he became a Chabadnik. He created a revolution by translating the whole Talmud from Aramaic to Hebrew (and then to English) in order to make it accessible to everyone, and he wrote a commentary on the whole Bible, the Mishna and the Rambam. He was a man of peace. When he published a book which criticized King David and ultra-orthodox circles threatened to excommunicate him, he retracted and rewrote the book. He did not want to create schisms in Jewish life. I had the privilege of attending a course he taught in Jewish Values, way back when he was 23 or 24.)
Deciding on true “prophets” is even more difficult in political, economic and social domains. When the center does not hold and the extremes gain strength, tolerance for other views wanes. If a true prophet were to arise today and warn the people that we are heading for another churban, another destruction, because of our social, economic, political and/or religious practices, he would be interviewed on TV as a joke, he would be threatened by those who felt threatened, lauded by those who agreed and then forgotten.
We seem to have lost our compass. Perhaps we can attribute this to the weakening magnetic north as it seems to be shifting over to a magnetic south. Or perhaps a weakened magnetic field (this appeared in last week’s newspapers). Perhaps we are not sure of who and what we are or should be, and are not sure we’d recognize the truth if it hit us in the face.
Perhaps this has been the human condition all along. Perhaps we’ll get better.