Avoiding False Prophets, Hearing From Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Re’eh, Week Two: Avoiding False Prophets, Hearing From Hashem

דברים יג:ב כִּֽי־יָק֤וּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ֙ נָבִ֔יא א֖וֹ חֹלֵ֣ם חֲל֑וֹם וְנָתַ֥ן אֵלֶ֛יךָ א֖וֹת א֥וֹ מוֹפֵֽת:  (ג) וּבָ֤א הָאוֹת֙ וְהַמּוֹפֵ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ לֵאמֹ֑ר נֵֽלְכָ֞ה אַחֲרֵ֨י אֱלֹהִ֧ים אֲחֵרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתָּ֖ם וְנָֽעָבְדֵֽם: (ד) לֹ֣א תִשְׁמַ֗ע אֶל־דִּבְרֵי֙ הַנָּבִ֣יא הַה֔וּא א֛וֹ אֶל־חוֹלֵ֥ם הַחֲל֖וֹם הַה֑וּא כִּ֣י מְנַסֶּ֞ה יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם לָדַ֗עַת הֲיִשְׁכֶ֤ם אֹֽהֲבִים֙ אֶת־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם:

Devarim 13;2: When a prophet or dreamer arises among you, and gives you a sign or wonder. (3) And the sign or wonder comes to fruition, that s/he spoke of to say ‘let us go after other gods that you have not known, and worship them.’ (4) Do not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer, for Hashem your God is testing you, to know whether you love Hashem your God with all your hearts and all your souls.

This passage is about false prophets, but Ramban’s first comment teases apart the difference between ot and mofet, which people usually translate as ‘sign’ and ‘wonder.’ Ramban says an ot is a prediction, whereas a mofet operates be-shinui tiv’o shel olam, functions in a way that changes the nature of the world. But he means that differently than we would, as we see from his examples ofotot and moftim.

Examples of Signs and Wonders and the Nature of the Unnatural

When predicting the plague of arov, wild animals, Shemot 8;19 says Hashem will distinguish the Jews from the Egyptians (in that the Jews will not be affected by the plague), and adds le-machar yihyeh ha-ot ha-zeh, tomorrow this ot will come.

Ramban says that’s an ot even though he himself noted (on Shemot 8;18) that this was the first plague that should naturally have spread to Goshen and yet did not. Why wasn’t it a mofet? He does not say, but I think it’s because he thinks the primary point here was to show that Hashem could predict the future. True, there was a surprising change from the ordinary workings of the world (although not an obvious or complete violation of what we think of as nature) about the animals’ staying out of Goshen, but that wasn’t the point.

The surprise deepens when we see that he sees all those plagues that came without being predicted as mofetim—that nature changes without warning or explanation is a mofet, even if there might have been a naturalistic explanation for it. That’s interesting on its own to me, since it expects people to notice these changes and ascribe them to the right cause, but Ramban’s example from Yeshayahutakes it a step further.

Yeshayahu 20;3 notes that the prophet went arom and barefoot for three years. (Rashi follows Targum in saying that arom means he wore torn and worn-out clothing, so that he was not fully clothed; this reminds us that prophets were very odd, by ordinary human standards. Radak rejects the idea that prophets ever acted in all the strange ways mentioned in Scripture —Hoshe’a’s marrying a prostitute is another example of an act he finds unimaginable — and says that all these kinds of prophecies happened only in visions, the prophet never actually performed these acts. For all that Ramban did accept many of Radak’s ideas in his Torah commentary, the continuation of this comment shows that he did not accept this one.)

The verse says that his doing so was an ot and a mofet regarding Egypt and Kush. The ot was that he was predicting future events for those countries. The mofet was that a prophet would act this way whereas they usually did not, says Ramban, which tells us that his idea of “unnatural” was anything that would shock us. A mofet need not violate laws of nature, it needs to be out of our ordinary experience, even if we could easily explain how it came to be. It can still be a demonstration of a prophet’s bearing messages from Hashem.

Ways to Be a False Prophet

The simplest version of false prophet, who urges us to worship a power other than Hashem, is where the prophet claims that that other power sent him or her. That’s a capital crime, since inherent to prophesying on behalf of a power is the belief that it’s relevant to one’s life.  Sanhedrin 90a, however, suggested that the prophet in this passage said that Hashem sent him/her to tell us to worship that other power, with whatever justification (to me, this is a more dangerous and insidious form of false prophecy, since it claims to operate within our same values system, just that it tells us to act in prohibited ways).

Ramban adds that we have to reject this prophet even if s/he tells us to do this only for a limited time and for a particular reason (couching the directive in a way that could make it sound more plausibly as being from Hashem—true, ordinarily Hashem doesn’t want us worshipping x, but right now, for this reason, it’s an exception. To me, Ramban would find this particularly possible, since his theory of the sa’ir hamishtaleach, the goat thrown off a cliff on Yom Kippur, is very close to being an example of where Hashem tells us to appease some other power. Of course, that one was in the Torah, which is the big difference, as he’s about to tell us).

The experience of the Exodus—a set of actual events, not a single sign, wonder, or vision—and of Sinai—where Hashem Himself, as it were, told us never to worship any other power—should have permanently forestalled listening to such a prophet.

Uprooting the Torah by True and False Prophets

Ramban points out that there’s another version of false prophecy as well, where the prophet tells us that Hashem has changed the Torah (remember that Ramban lived in a Christian country; aside from the theological issues that likely made him think of Christianity as a form of idolatry, they believed that the Torah changed over time, that Hashem no longer wants people to observe the commandments. That alone would make a person a false prophet, Ramban is telling us).

A prophet could tell us to violate the Torah in many ways and yet not be inherently a false prophet, by limiting his/her directive. For example, Eliyahu offered sacrifices on Mount Carmel despite the prohibition to sacrifice outside the Temple– prophets do issue hora’ot sha’ah, temporary rulings to violate the Torah, so that this would not instantly identify a false prophet.

(Once we know that, if a prophet told us that Hashem said to worship another power for only a little while becomes a more challenging case. Unless we know the codicil that there can never be a hora’at sha’ah that calls for worshipping powers other than Hashem, we might not realize that this charismatic figure has actually outed him/herself as a false prophet.)

It Might Actually Be From Hashem

In the last verse in this passage, Moshe warns that this false prophet is a nisayon, a test, from Hashem. Ramban points out that back inBereshit, he had already dealt with the question of why  Hashem “tests” us (doesn’t Hashem know the future, and therefore know the outcome of the test? There are many answers, this is Ramban’s). It’s only a test from our perspective, he said. Hashem indeed knows the outcome, and is engaging in it to bring our potential into actuality (that implies that everyone always passes these tests, which works well for figures like Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. It seems to me less convincing about the nisayon here, since the Jewish people have in fact occasionally followed such false prophets).

Still, that’s the less surprising part of this Ramban, since it is the face value of the verse, that the wonder did in fact come through the Will of Hashem, Hashem showed him this dream or vision to test our love of Hashem.

Ramban doesn’t say more, but I think he means—and this is the part that is more surprising and a bit challenging– that all people involved must realize that this is not what Hashem wants. I think he means the prophet him/herself was supposed to refrain from giving this prophecy (the other option is that Hashem was commanding and condemning this person to be a false prophet, to forfeit his/her life in doing so, and that someone we would put to death as a false prophet is actually a hero of Hashem’s service. I find that unthinkable, unless the prophet said “I had this vision, but you clearly shouldn’t listen to because we’re not allowed to ever worship any power other than Hashem.” But it’s logically possible).

The prophet aside, anyone who hears that prophecy, even if it’s supported by uncannily accurate predictions, must both refuse to obey and react to this person as a false prophet. That is what true ahavat Hashem would lead us to do, a reminder that acting on our love of Hashem sometimes means doing that which under other circumstances should be distasteful. Putting someone to death for sharing his/her vision is not usually conduct we applaud. Here, it would still be upsetting, but necessary for those whose love of Hashem fills their beings.

A Lived Relationship with Hashem

One of the temptations of a false prophet is that it seems to give us access to a higher form of wisdom. When we’re unsure of how to act, hearing someone say, “here, this is what Hashem wants of you” is attractive. Ramban’s reading of the next verse sees Hashem as recognizing and responding to that.

דברים יב:ה: אַחֲרֵ֨י יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֛ם תֵּלֵ֖כוּ וְאֹת֣וֹ תִירָ֑אוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתָ֤יו תִּשְׁמֹ֙רוּ֙ וּבְקֹל֣וֹ תִשְׁמָ֔עוּ וְאֹת֥וֹ תַעֲבֹ֖דוּ וּב֥וֹ תִדְבָּקֽוּן:

Devarim 12;5: Follow Hashem your God, Him you shall fear, keep His commandments, hearken to His voice, serve Him, and cleave to Him.

The command to follow Hashem, for Ramban, means to follow Hashem’s counsel, to look to Hashem alone for all hidden matters and for advice about the future. Just as Rivkah went to Hashem to understand her troubling pregnancy (Bereshit 25;22) and Yehoshafat sought out a prophet before going to war (II Melachim 3;11), we are supposed to look for ways to hear from Hashem about how to conduct ourselves (this, too, can lead to excesses, where people seek Hashem’s advice from those who claim a more direct channel than they actually have).

Along with seeking Hashem’s view, we must cultivate yirah, which Ramban defines as asserting the truth of [that’s my new preferred translation for the Hebrew word emunah; we often speak of “belief,” but in contemporary English that is used as implying that it’s not true, it’s what we happen to believe. Emunah, which have overtones of trustworthiness, is our assertion that a statement or idea is true even if we have no way to prove it, even if other seemingly thoughtful people deny it, as has been true since the time of Avraham Avinue] that Hashem controls all life, can bring it into being, sustain it, or end it at any moment, and that Hashem takes account of sin and rewards proper conduct.

That proper conduct is the topic of the next phrase, keeping mitzvot, the Torah. Beyond that, the verse calls for us to hearken to Hashem’s Voice, which mean all Hashem’s extra-Torah communications—primarily through a navi. Ramban gives examples from Tanach where failure to heed a prophet’s words is a serious flaw (Shaul loses the kingdom over it in I Shmuel 13;13).

For Ramban, in other words, the events at Sinai and the words of Torah were not meant to be our final opportunity to hear from Hashem. When the world is going well (as it has not been doing for a long time), we have prophets who help us hear from Hashem throughout our lives, giving us a greater connection to the Divine Will, letting us know how and where to apply our efforts.

That possibility came with a dangerous other side, that we would make the mistake of listening to the wrong people. But these four verses showed Ramban that the line between natural and supernatural, physical and metaphysical, divine and not, was sometimes less clear than we might have thought.

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