Prophecy, Soothsaying, and the Line Between Them

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 12, part 3

Ran sees prophecy as the antidote to sorcery, as its replacement. He references here his earlier comments in the fifth Drasha, that Hashem chose Egypt as the site of the slavery so that Moshe’s prophecies would happen in the center of world sorcery. Defeating their sorcerers demonstrated that prophecy is a superior, entirely different phenomenon.

Prior essays in this series

That would imply that Jews are not supposed to utilize sorcery. However, Chullin 95b has Rav judging the propitiousness of travel by how easily he found a river-crossing, which seems like a form of divination. Ran answers that Rav didn’t fully rely on those signs; if the signs were bad, he’d take greater care, seeking ways to avoid the predicted misfortune, but he wouldn’t refrain from travelling. He used it to inform his trip, not determine it.

That answer does not work for two cases, that of Eliezer deciding Rivkah was the right wife for Yitzchak (Bereshit 24:12-18) and Yonatan’s attacking the Plishtim based on their reaction to seeing him (I Shmuel 14:8-10).

Or Psychological Insight?

Ran answers that in both cases, the protagonists set up signs that were sensible, not sorcery. Eliezer knew two facts about his search for a wife for Yitzchak: 1) The Divine Providence of Avraham allowed his slave confidence that Hashem would help him find the right woman, and 2) character was a central qualification for Yitzchak’s wife. He could figure out her character, largely, by her response to his request for water. An ordinarily nice woman might draw for him; volunteering to draw for the camels as well would show her to be kind and caring.

Yonatan, Shaul’s son, was similarly setting up a way to gain psychological insight into his enemies. If the Plishtim were confident and courageous, they would jump to engage him in battle as soon as they saw him. If they were anxious and therefore vulnerable, they would delay the engagement, taunting him to come to them so they could kill him.

Except that Rav held these up as the paradigm of prohibited divination. Ran argues that that meant only that these two fully relied on their conclusions; one who does that with divination would be violating the prohibition. With that, he can bring us back to the question of prophecy which, for Ran, was there to replace all of this.

Ways of the Emorites

Such practices are labeled דרכי האמורי, ways of the Emorites; they don’t involve worship, but finding ways to ascertain or protect the future by consulting with forces other than Hashem. It reminds us that many authorities, including Rambam and Ran, thought alien worship started with our insecurity, our desire to ensure our future. Worship was one way; another was to consult such powers for insight, even when not asking them to change it.

Complicating matters, some ways of finding out the future are permitted. Rambam’s view is that anything which operates according to העיון הטבעי is permissible (in Mishneh Torah, Rambam speaks of that which doctors say works). We might translate that as science, the study of the natural world, but today we’d have to differentiate between science which uses the scientific method to draw evidence-based conclusions and science which speculates beyond what its evidence shows. Those latter might not qualify as having been realized by העיון הטבעי.

We don’t have to get into that, because Ran has a broader definition. He notes that Shabbat 67a allows carrying certain items to avoid certain problems (the details don’t matter), and then reciting a protective verse. The other side of that page allows more such apparently non-scientific and not obviously natural remedies, such as wearing the tooth of a wolf or a nail from a crucifixion.

Discernible, Natural, and Supernatural

Ran’s view is that nature has two modes, the discernible, whose processes we easily see—apply this salve to that wound, and it heals—and nature, whose workings we do not understand. His examples are gravity and magnetism, which were clearly natural but operated in ways and for reasons that were unknown.

When Abbaye and Rava said that anything that is done for medicinal reasons is not considered part of the ways of the Emorites, Ran now concludes, they meant anything which the person involved believes he or she is doing for naturally medicinal reasons. They may think that it works in a way science could not explain, but as long as they think they are working within the natural world, that will not be prohibited.

Ways of the Emorites are those actions where the result comes from contacting supernatural powers, and having them provide information and/or protection from a feared future. If a person believes Hashem made the world such that wearing garlic or an amulet heals or protects from illnesses, they may be in error, but they will not be violating the ways of the Emorites, according to Ran. But if they think they are bringing to bear supernatural powers, that’s the ways of the Emorites and the ways of alien worship.

This is a complicated question and a complicated claim (it allows for all sorts of views, as long as they say that’s “really” how the world works), but Ran doesn’t leave us much room to delve into it. In his view, motive becomes centrally important. As long as one believes one is functioning naturally (even if I came to that conclusion by listening to one or a community of quacks), I am not violating these Torah prohibitions.

Proving Prophets

But his main concern was prophets, whom Hashem sent to obviate the need for those ways of knowing or being confident in the future. Prophets, though, need authentication. As he’s said before, Devarim 18:15’s reference to Hashem establishing prophets כמוני, “like me,” indicates that future prophets will be verified as Moshe was, through signs and wonders.

Yes, Moshe also took them to Sinai, but that was to establish the permanent legislation of the Torah. Later prophets do not have any impact on the Torah’s law, in commands or interpretations. Prophets can only make temporary rules, as did Moshe in Egypt, and his power to do that was based on the signs and wonders he performed. So, for Ran, later prophets who perform miracles are to be believed, unless they’re falsified by having one of their good predictions fail to materialize.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

Ran sort of stops here, ending the Drasha with a bracha to Hashem, but no overall conclusions. Taken together with the last drasha, he’s rounded out his consideration of the three central guides to a Jewish society—king, court, and prophet. Especially in fleshing out the role of the prophet, Ran brought us back to issues of what is natural and what isn’t, which seem to me the central questions for the book as a whole.

We’ll summarize that next time, a quick roundup of this series, a five minute version of Drashot haRan.

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