Parshat Re’eh: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17; Isaiah 66:11-24. (Shabbat Rosh Chodesh)
The litmus test for true prophecy described in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 13:2-6) reveals much about the prophet’s role in ancient Israel.
In a nutshell, an individual claiming to be a prophet, even if this individual provides seemingly miraculous signs and wonders in support of a prophetic message, is not to be believed if the substance of the prophecy deviates from the teachings of the Torah. Prophets were not magicians or diviners of dreams; rather, they were conveyers of Divine instruction and law, whose mission was to defend the commitments of the past, the commandments that comprised the covenant between God and Israel, from the abuses of the present.
This litmus test tasked the listeners of the wannabe prophet — ordinary people in ancient Israel — with the burden of vetting the prophetic message and not being duped by smoke and mirrors or by empty promises. This meant, among other things, not being swept up by grandiose claims and by easy solutions to complex problems.
The prophet who claimed to have the solution that no one else had and who claimed that simply following “another god whom you do not know” will solve all of life’s difficulties is by definition a false prophet making a false promise.
The ability and willingness to employ this litmus test, moreover, is one of the ways God tests the mettle of Israel. Passively accepting the commandments and the divinity of God is not enough, not least of all because one who follows a true prophet passively will more easily be swayed to follow a false prophet passively.
Conversely, one who follows a prophet after actively vetting the message will be less likely fooled by a false claim. Actively engaging the meaning of the commandments and, in this case, the veracity of prophecy, is a crucial line of defense against the unscrupulous charlatan, prophetic or otherwise, who takes advantage of people in times of duress and is thus an indispensable requirement for all of Israel.
Active engagement in this regard is not a simple task, but one that comes down to an ability not only to obey mindlessly but also to think critically and to raise the all-important question, “How do you know that?” Yet asking questions such as this is crucial not only in the matter of vetting a prophetic message, but in day-to-day interactions as well. It is no coincidence that the section immediately following the passage on false prophesy addresses a similar matter in a more day-to-day context: a personal friend or family member trying to lead you astray. Here, too, a ploy is an easy solution to life’s problems: “Come let us worship other gods who you do not know,” a similar offer of an enticing solution. And here, too, sensing perhaps that the lure of a personal friend might be even more enticing and irresistible than that of a stranger claiming to be a prophet, the Torah is even more emphatic in its insistence that we resist such a suggestion.
The larger message is that active engagement and critical thinking are integral components of a Jewish outlook and a Jewish way of thinking. The ultimate aim of living according to the teachings of the Torah and its interpreters is attainable only when, between hearing the laws and following the laws, there is an intensive, on-going, active, critical engagement with the meaning of these teachings.
Here the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag in Tractate Avot resonates with particular clarity: “Delve into it [the Torah] and delve into it, for everything is in it.” If, after extensive examination, one finds meaning and validity in the teachings of the Torah, the resulting belief and commitment will be difficult to assail, if not unassailable, by friend or by false prophet.
Dr. Howard N. Lupovitch is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University and director of WSU’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.