The Obligation to Obey a Prophet

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parashat Vayera’s mitzvah is my own choice (there are no mitzvot in Sefer Ha-Hinuch, and She’iltot’s options didn’t work for me). I thought of it because Sanhedrin 89b wonders how Yitzhak (whom the Gemara probably thought was 37 at the time) permitted himself to obey Avraham, allowed himself to be tied to an altar to be sacrificed, a violation of the Torah law Hazal assumed the Avot observed.

We obey established prophets, the Gemara answers, reminding me of a Biblical obligation whose ramifications I wonder if we realize.

Do What They Say, Don’t Excessively Test Prophets

Rambam has two mitzvot for the requirement to listen to a prophet, Obligation 172, to act however a prophet tells us (more on that in a minute), and Prohibition 64, which bans doubting a prophet once s/he has been certified. Establishing a prophet’s bona fides is step one, so let’s look at it first.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 424 says we may not overly test a prophet ha-meyaser et ha’am, ve-ha-melamdem darchei teshuvah, who disciplines/admonishes the people and teaches them the paths of repentance (he assumes those are the key roles of the prophet, to bring people to better service of God, not as much to predict the future).

The prohibition acknowledges the downside of doubt. Given rope to chip away at a prophet’s credibility, people jealous of him/her, pained by the prophet’s greater achievements, or just resistant to his/her message, will have room to push their view. [Imagine a time where someone is telling us the truth, and we would rather push our own agenda than accept it.]

In addition, prophecy comes with varying rhythms, at different times and intervals for each prophet. If we insist on unnecessary demonstrations, we will a) burden him/her too much, b) weaken faith in his/her true prophecies.

The Basics of Testing

We are allowed to assess the likelihood a person is a prophet. For one clear prerequisite, the prophet must be a person of character, act well [Sefer Ha-Hinuch has taken this from Rambam; it is an idea I always find striking, because many people today happily follow people of lesser or  even bad character. Rambam’s idea reminds us false prophets seem to have also had good character, otherwise they’d have been disqualified more quickly.]

Once possessed of the personal qualities to be a reasonable candidate, Sefer Ha-Hinuch adopts Rambam’s test, people are supposed to ask the prophet to predict good things (since God never backtracks on a prediction of good; predictions of punishment can and we hope will be averted by people’s repentance, so such prophecies cannot test his/her validity. Tradition had it, for example, that Yonah ran away rather than go to Nineveh because he had previously prophesied destruction for Jerusalem, it had not come true, and he had been mocked for his false prophecy).

Rambam had said we test the prophet repeatedly, leaving unclear what counts as excessive; Sefer Ha-Hinuch says to test two or three times, where Rambam implied a longer process.

Obey the Certified Prophet

Once tested and certified, we must listen to almost whatever that prophet tells us.

Rambam elaborates. The prophet can tell us to violate any of the commandments—or almost all of them, Sefer Ha-Hinuch 516 points out– as long as s/he says it is only temporary, le-fi sha’ah, and does not involve avodah zarah, worship of any power other than God.

[The phrasing seems to allow for a prophet telling Jews to abrogate the Torah for the next century, eat pork, drive and cook on Shabbat, and have bagels on Pesach, because a century is not permanent. I have not seen any sources otherwise or with a more exact definition, but it seems odd to think so; to me, le-fi sha’ah, temporary, would have a narrower horizon, the prophet addressing some specific, short-term need calling for these violations.]

For reasons for the mitzvah, he says the highest level of humanity is to reach prophecy [an idea Rambam held, too]. The greatest knowledge of truth one can find is through prophecy, and there is no room for doubt, because it comes from the fountain of truth. [Imagine if we could agree person bore ideas from the fountain of truth.] Few people achieve it, especially because prophecy also depends on the needs of the generation.  [Sefer Ha-Hinuch seems to mean, and Rambam agreed, someone might be worthy of prophecy and never need it, because the generation was not worthy or did not need it.]

When He Is Speaking Prophetically, Or Even If Not

When we have such a resource, Sefer Ha-Hinuch is sure we should take advantage of it, not rebel or argue against it. Minhat Hinuch brings up Tosafot to Sanhedrin 89, who argue a certified prophet can tell us to violate the Torah temporarily without claiming s/he knows this specific idea prophetically. For Tosafot, prophets reach a high enough (or deep enough; I’m not sure which metaphor to use here) level of understanding to know on their own when temporary adjustments are needed. Minhat Hinuch  reads Rambam to hold we only need to accept a prophet’s instructions when s/he speaks prophetically, even if it is not a question of violating the Torah.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch is unclear. Minhat Hinuch assumes he lines up with Tosafot, and tells us to check his reason for the mitzvah carefully. I think Minhat Hinuch means a passage I left for here, just before the reason for the mitzvah, where Sefer Ha-Hinuch says the Torah obligated us to listen to a prophet because such people have only good intentions and want to strengthen the Torah. That does sound like we are supposed to listen to whatever the prophet says, because s/he means so well.

When he lays out the reason for the mitzvah, it seemed to me Sefer Ha-Hinuch focused on how a prophet knows truth more fully than any of us. Unless he meant a prophet becomes generally more adept at spotting truth, even when not functioning prophetically, he seems to me there more like Rambam. So it’s not clear, I suggest.

Failure to Obey, Or Mocking

Refusal to obey a prophet brings death at the hands of Heaven, as Hashem says in Devarim 18;19, I will call him to account.  Minhat Hinuch assumes Tosafot would not think this death penalty came into effect when the prophet issued a command of his/her own accord, because the verse says God will call to account the person who does not listen to the prophet about what s/he says in God’s Name.

[I appreciate the inference, but if we are supposed to obey and violate the Torah based on the prophet’s nonprophetic idea, shouldn’t that mean Tosafot thought everything the prophet came up with counted as asher yedaber bi-Shmi, that which s/he said in My Name? If not, what permits going against the Torah on the prophet’s say-so?]

Minhat Hinuch raises the possibility this mitzvah is transgressed only if a person/people ridicule what the prophet said, treat it as a joke (I am leaving out his supporting arguments because I found them unconvincing; the basic idea interests me greatly). Just disobedience will incur some other appropriate reaction, but not death at the hands of Heaven.

Step One: Establish prophets without testing them excessively, then listen to whatever they tell you, as long as it is neither avodah zarah, worshipping a power other than God, nor a permanent change to Torah law.

False Prophets

Another prohibition, twenty-nine in Rambam’s list, warns us not to fear a false prophet, nor delay killing the miscreant once we are clear s/he is false. Minhat HInuch includes failure to offer damning evidence about such a prophet in the full-fledged Biblical transgression. [We may not sit on the sidelines of a fight about a false prophet, in other words.]

SifreiDevarim 18;22 [the verse that expresses the prohibition], says the Torah’s admonition not to fear such a prophet teaches us not to stop ourselves from finding the negative in the person. (Normally, we are to be careful not to jump to negative conclusions too quickly.)

Rambam adds he has discussed the laws of the false prophet fully in the introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, a reminder he originally saw that work as a place to draw halachic conclusions.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 519 says we kill a false prophet even if his prophecy called for us to follow the  Torah, as soon as we know s/he is not a true prophet. He limits the obligation to when the Jews are living in Israel, because only then do we administer capital punishment.

Are You Ready for Prophecy?

Last week, during the discussion of circumcision, I pointed out halachah’s assumption a court would circumcise a baby if the father did not, apparently despite the father’s objections, and noted how far it diverges from our current sense of parental rights. This mitzvah pushes our envelope yet further: Imagine a prophet walks up to you, says go to the airport right now and board a flight to Kenya.

As long as s/he is certified, and says God directed this (and maybe not even), it becomes a death penalty sin not to (at God’s Hands, and perhaps only if the person mocks it, according to Minhat Hinuch, but still).

We live in a world where we survive on the Word of God we were fortunate to receive through Moshe, his following prophets, and the prodigious contributions of Torah scholars throughout the ages. But there is a mitzvah, one I think we should hope will return soon, which reminds us the Word of God was not meant to be distant or a remnant of an earlier time.

As we long for the return of the world God intended, one piece is a return to a time when we have prophets, when we can know specifically what God wants of us in this particular moment.

About Gidon Rothstein

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