It’s Important to Be Insecure

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 11, part 3

Ran’s view of batei din, halachic courts, turned them into an institution whose work could have been performed by a prophet. Since, in his view, courts articulate ultimate justice, he wonders why Hashem didn’t leave that to prophets, who could tell us Hashem’s will exactly.

Theyre Not Steady, Theyre Sources of Faith

Prior essays in this series

Primarily, his answer is that we have no guarantee a prophet will always be around when we need one. Some generations have little prophecy, and even bonafide prophets do not prophesy all the time, or on demand. But we will always have scholars to interpret the law to the best of their abilities. As Devarim 31:21 promises, the Torah will never be forgotten from among the Jewish people.

Ran adds an important line, but doesn’t explain it well enough for me to be sure what he means. He says prophets never speak to issues about which there’s no way to doubt them. In context, I believe he means that if a prophet ruled one way or another on Torah law, there’s no way to prove him or her wrong—since God gave the Torah, anything a prophet said would trump what any scholar would say. But a prophet, Ran seems to say, says that which people can reject—Hashem wants us to surrender Jerusalem, or stay in Israel when we want to flee to Egypt, or not worship idols.

But if they’re not to decide Torah law, what are they for?

Mistaking the Causes of the Future

Ran starts with the prohibition of דרכי האמורי, the ways of the Emorites (Devarim 18:9-12). The ways of the Emorites, he says, were how they attempted to predict the future, to be able to prepare and to act accordingly. People—especially kings, who have the fate of the nation in their hands– want to know when to do what. That’s why Shaul went to the בעלת אוב of En-dor.

The mitzvah of תמים תהיה, that we should trust in Hashem and eschew these strategies, is one response. But another part of the response, Ran says, is that we would have prophets to reveal to us all that which other people try to find out through sorcerers.

What the Torah does not explain, for the many authorities who accepted that those practices might have been effective, is why the Torah opposed taking advantage of them?

As I write Ran’s answer, I note that this version of the question applies to any means we have of feeling we can predict the future. He says Jews’ taking advantage of those predictions would lead them to believe the stars (or whatever) in fact shaped the future, and that dealing with them directly was the best, maybe the only, way to have it unfold differently. This forgets that Hashem controls those stars, that they do His bidding, not operate independently.

The contemporary parallel is all those areas of life we see as true regardless of what we think of Hashem. Medicine is the easiest but not only example. While we are allowed, expected, and commanded to consult with doctors, Ran shows us how easily that can easily slip over a line from consulting with them to the extent that their knowledge extends and coming to believe that they are the only hope for responding to our medical conditions.

תמים תהיה as a commandment and the presence of prophets as a way to know the future, Ran is saying, were to remind us that Hashem is the only fully accurate source of knowledge of the future. Turning to Hashem for salvation is the only way to change that future, to avert those parts of that future we fear, fully and meaningfully.

Testing a Prophet

One of the central questions with a prophet is verification. Rambam mentions performing a sign as a first way of demonstrating one’s prophecy, but seems to see the real verification process as making repeat correct predictions, with a hundred percent accuracy. Ran disagrees.

Despite wonders being reproducible by people who aren’t prophets, Ran thinks the Torah tells us to listen to someone who offers such wonders until and unless we have reason to doubt or reject that prophet’s authenticity. Devarim 18:15 says Hashem will establish a prophet כמוני, like me, like Moshe Rabbenu. He first approached the Jews with signs (water turning to blood, his hand becoming leprous, his staff turning into a snake), and the verse tells us they then believed him.

But not fully. It wasn’t until Sinai that Shmot 19:9 tells us Hashem guarantees that now the Jews would believe in Moshe’s prophecy forever. As we’ve seen before, Ran thinks Hashem appeared at Sinai in a way everyone could see (a lesser visitation than Moshe could handle) specifically so that they would have witnessed it themselves. This created belief in Moshe’s prophecy that would never be replicated nor challenged by a later prophet, regardless of what signs or wonders he or she performs.

Faith and Creeping Doubt

But if they believed in Moshe in Egypt, and then again at the Sea (as Shmot 14:31 says), why did they need Sinai? Ran says that events after each of those raised doubts. In Egypt, after they were told they were being taken out, they watched Moshe ask Paroh to go three days’ into the desert, to sacrifice to Hashem.

Hashem had good reason for this chain of events—Ran thinks it was so Paroh would chase after the Jews and ride to his destruction in the Sea. However, it made the people wonder whether Moshe really represented Hashem, Who shouldn’t need to beg Paroh for three days leave. The same happened when Hashem asked the Jews to borrow the Egyptians’ gold and silver, instead of taking it outright. A powerful God would not need that, the Jews would think, and begin to wonder what was going on.

Even Moshe might not have known the reason for all this, Ran says, leading to doubt that could not be assuaged in the short term. Hashem wanted that doubt, such as when He brought a wind the night before the Splitting of the Sea. It was not—according to Ran—strong enough to split the sea, but it was strong enough to let Paroh and the Egyptians fool themselves into attributing it to that. Just like the Egyptians, until Sinai, the Jews found ways to question whether Moshe was doing this at Hashem’s behest.

The upshot is that Moshe did prove his prophecy through signs and wonders, as a model for later prophets. But Moshe also had the advantage of Sinai, which erased all the doubts that signs and wonders can leave.

For other prophets, Ran seems to say, we didn’t and won’t have that same security. We will have signs that are in fact evidence of their being sent by Hashem, but they might be signs others can do as well, and later events might seem to weigh against their prophecy, for reasons that only Hashem might know.

That’s Ran’s view of the courts, the king, and prophets, three fundamental components of a society that melds the natural and supernatural.

About Gidon Rothstein

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