Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Prophets and Prestidigitators - Reflections on Parashat Shoftim 5774

A charismatic preacher comes along and says, "The 'Lawt' hath spoken unto me, and I speak unto thee in His name." Should we believe him? How do we know if he's telling the truth? What proof should we demand? Is he merely psychotic (like the disheveled soapbox 'messiahs' that roam the streets of Jerusalem)? Is he a crass opportunist like Shabbetai Zvi, he really the conduit of Gcd's Word, like a Moses or a Nathan or a Samuel, a person who demands our attention and respect? 

Intriguing question.

This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, deals with this very problem. But, whoa, horsey, let's back up a bit.

In Shoftim, Moses lays out the basic framework of Jewish leadership. He deals with the Cohanim/Levi'im, the priestly tribe, administrators of the Temple and the trustees of the sacred treasures of Judaism; with the king, whose power is delimited and whose high station never places him above the law; with the Judge/Rabbi, through whom justice is administered and Torah law applied to novel situations; and with the prophet, the holy soul through whom Gcd speaks to Israel and functions as the conscience of the nation.

As an aside: there is an interesting balance of powers between these positions of leadership. Two are hereditary, and two are meritocracies. Two deal with matters spiritual, and two deal with matters temporal. They are all interdependent and yet exclusive. Think of it - 3,000 years before the drafting of the US Constitution, the Torah understood the need to diffuse and balance power among different "branches" of government.

In the gestational period of our national being, we had, in the person of Moses, all four leadership duties rolled in to one man: Moses was king, prophet, judge/rabbi and High Priest. In his lifetime, he delegated the Office of High Priest to Aaron and the priesthood to Aharon's descendants. He also established the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of 71, as well as the system of lower and appellate courts. But here Moses, as he nears death, is telling us that in the future, these four poles of leadership would be distinct and separate.

Let's return to the question of our prophet. The verse states: 
And when you shall ask in your heart: how do we know if the prophet really speaks in Gcd's voice? Here's how you know: when the prophet claims to speak in Gcd's Name and the matter doesn't happen or come to pass - then you can be assured that Gcd didn't say it, that the 'prophet' willfully lied to you. Don't be afraid when he threatens doom. (Deut. 18:21,22)

We must say that the Torah's answer (wait and see) is not terribly helpful. It could take decades to vindicate this guy; great for the judgement of history, but pretty darn useless for practical decision-making in the here-and-now. Furthermore, the commentators bring cases where genuine prophets predicted things that didn't come to pass: the famous case of Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh. The Ninevites did teshuvah and their city was spared. Or Jacob, whose death-bed prophesies were not fulfilled (according to some) because his children were not deemed worthy enough.

OK, what about performing miracles, signs and wonders? Ooh! That's impressive. Sorry, the Torah is not thrilled, as we learned earlier in Chapter 13. The performance of miracles, taken on their own, signifies nothing about the veracity or the divine favor of the miracle worker. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. A cheap trickster, a master of prestidigitation. Don' be a sucker.

What about the sine qua non of Judaism, the performance of the 613 mitzvoth? Perhaps a good predictor of the trustworthiness of our prophet and the source of the sounds in his head is his encouragement to the Jews to keep the mitzvoth? Ah, now we're getting somewhere. 

But sadly, this yardstick is also not absolute. We see later in the Torah that at moments of great national crisis, verified prophets have deviated from the 613. Elijah the Prophet established a private altar on Mount Carmel to confront the priests of Baal, in violation of an explicit commandment not to do so. Abraham, after a lifetime devoted to uprooting human sacrifice and other monstrous pagan rituals, wakes up one morning intent on offering his only son as a crispy burnt offering.

The commentators struggle mightily with this question, and the answers are all over the map.

I would like to suggest my own approach to the problem.

First, we are being shown what not to seek out in a prophet of Gcd: don't be conned by skillful orators, dynamic personalities and charismatic leaders. Louis Farrakhan is one of the most spellbinding and electrifying speakers that I have ever heard. His ability to hold an audience of thousands on the edge of its seat for three or fours hours is freakishly Hitlerian. And I make that comparison deliberately. Given the chance, he would impose his view of black supremacy on America like Hitler's Aryan supremacy myth on Germany. He is a dangerous man.

(If you've never heard him speak, here is a three minute clip of Farrakhan on the recent race riots in Ferguson, MO.)

In contrast, a true prophet of Gcd will be quiet, unassuming, humble; pious and modest in their personal behavior. No G5s, no mansions, no stretch limos or celebrity meet-and-greets. As the conscience of the nation, the true prophet will speak truth to power in a still, quiet voice, connecting only with those who are spiritually sensitive enough to hear it. 

The second lesson is that sometimes there is no ready-made answer: we have to start thinking things through for ourselves.

For forty years in the desert, Moses did all the cogitating for the Jewish People, all the intellectual heavy lifting. Have a question of law? Ask Moses. Need a dispute resolved? Find Moses. Missed offering the Paschal Lamb for reasons out of your control? Moses will ask Gcd for the answer.

Moses is saying; Look, I can't give you a simple rule on how to know who is a true prophet and who is a charlatan. You're going to have to noodle it through on your own. You can't rely on me to solve all your problems anymore; I'm not going to be around to pack your lunch and wipe your nose. There is a reason the very first blessing in the weekday amidah is "You graced humanity with knowledge, and instructed mankind in discernment; please continue gracing us with your wisdom, discernment and knowledge."  Your head is not merely a hat rack - think! Open your eyes and your ears. Use your head and your heart. 

What's his track record? That's one factor. How are his character traits? Another factor. Miracles? Another factor. Weigh all the factors. Don't be seduced by bling. And depending on the time and place, different factors may weigh differently.

In Moses' cryptic answer is a profound truth: Don't abandon reason at the doorstep of belief. The Torah says that the prophet's predictions must come true. Truth - capital "T" truth - has many facets, but they must somehow all fit seamlessly together. 

In providing a non-answer, Moses is demonstrating his abiding faith in our ability to eventually figure it out on our own.

Shabbat Shalom.

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