To Listen to Prophets

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shofetim

I return to this mitzvah often, perhaps because it most starkly confronts us with the question of our readiness to bow to authority imposed without our choice, whose commands we often do not understand.

S/he Can Tell Us What?

Rambam’s Obligation 172 records the necessity to obey all a prophet commands, even should it be a temporary violation of a mitzvah, as long as it is not avodah zarah (says Sefer HaChinukh 516), worshipping a power other than God, and as long as the prophet is clear about the temporary nature of the abrogation [although I do not remember seeing a definition of temporary; I think he prophet can say “we’re all to eat pork for the next ten years,” and have it still be considered temporary].

Rambam makes a point of his having discussed this issue in the Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah, a fact I bring up here because it shows how concerned he had been, from his first writings, with the balance/difference between the ordinary intellectual study of Torah, and the messages sent by a prophet. The prophet has no power, in his/her role as prophet, to tell us what the Torah means, but does have the power to call for acting other than what the Torah said, temporarily.

Minchat Chinukh points us to how far it can go, violating Shabbat, or tradition’s examples, Eliyahu offered sacrifices on Mount Carmel despite the prohibition against sacrifice anywhere other than the Beit HaMikdash, and Yitzhak submitted to Avraham’s plan to kill him, based on his father’s prophecy. I often wonder about a prophet walking up to us with some demand that seems crazy, tells us to cross a busy street right then, regardless of traffic, or to go directly to the airport [do not pass Go, do not collect $200] and fly to Kenya. If s/he is a verified prophet, we would be obligated to listen.

The Obligation and the Punishment

It’s based on Devarim 18;15, where Hashem tells us He will send us prophets similar to Moshe, elav tishma’un, to him (or her) you must listen. Four verses later, Hashem warns whoever refuses, anokhi edrosh me-imo, I (Hashem) will require it of him/her, read by Sanhedrin 89a to mean a death penalty at the hands of Heaven.

Minchat Chinukh struggles with the idea, especially because we will see that Tosafot and Sefer HaChinukh think the mitzvah includes a prophet’s personal intuitions, not only specifics commands God sent. Based on Rashi’s wording, the person is mevater (disregards, not just fails to fulfill) on the prophet’s order, he suggests Heaven will mete out death only to those who refuse to obey in principle.

Being overcome by temptation fails to fulfill the obligation to heed the prophet, but perhaps does not incur that level of Heaven’s wrath, he argues. (In I Melakhim 20;35, one prophet tells another to hit him, and the latter refuses. Minchat Chinukh is sure that was more than just squeamishness about violence, it was a deliberate, dispassionate decision to disobey.)

Those who fail for other reasons—such as Shaul’s inability to stand up to the people, have them kill all of Amalek—will suffer punishments as Hashem sees fit, in Shaul’s case, loss of the monarchy. Aside from Heavenly punishment, Minchat Chinukh is sure a court can and should coerce fulfillment of this mitzvah, as it does of many others (another example of externally imposed authority).

How Do You Know Who’s a Navi?

Neither Rambam nor Sefer HaChinukh include it here, but this mitzvah only works if we have a clear way to know who is a navi, because we can’t obey just anybody, especially who tells us to violate the Torah. For a convenient version, I’m stepping out of my usual bounds and summarizing Rambam from chapter seven of Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah.

In the first paragraph, he rules out prophecy for anyone not already extremely wise, of highly elevated character, impervious to the pulls of his evil inclination, always does what he knows to be right rather than yield to temptation. Only such a person is a plausible candidate for prophecy.

In paragraph seven, Rambam agrees Hashem sends prophets armed with signs and wonders to demonstrate their status, yet is sure only the people who qualified for paragraph one might bring signs we would have to obey. Were a known liar, say, or serial adulterer, or anyone obviously not in control of him/herself to claim to be a prophet, Rambam thinks no miracle in the world can change our certainty s/he is not.

True, even a seemingly qualified person might be a fake, but the combination of prior character status and performance of a miracle is enough to require us to act as if s/he is a prophet, until we have reason to think otherwise.

Notice: the prophet, once certified, has extensive powers to demand our obedience, while s/he can only get certified by people.

Prophetically or Intellectually?

Minchat Chinukh contrasts Rambam’s view, we only listen to the prophet when s/he brings word from God, to Tosafot Sanhedrin 89b (and elsewhere), who thought we must listen to a qualified prophet, even where s/he speaks of his/her own understanding.

Remarkably—because he usually follows Rambam, unless he tells us he’s decided to follow Ramban—Sefer HaChinukh seems to adopt Tosafot’s view. He says once a person is a true prophet, all of his/her intentions will be for the good, to strengthen the religion and faith in God. It sounds like he means we can trust this person’s instincts even where not explicitly told by God, a truly radical idea (when Tosafot said it, too).

Prophecy the Pinnacle of Personal Perfection

His reason for the mitzvah continues in the same vein. He says the highest level of person accomplishment is prophecy (it’s a claim Rambam might have made, too, which is interesting because a prophet cannot opine on Torah, remember, so it seems to make skill at Torah interpretation, at least, something lesser than prophecy; but that’s not our topic here). If so, one who has reached that highest level, usually no more than a handful at a time, has what to tell us we should be hearing.

Along the way, Sefer HaChinukh says these few only achieve prophecy in a generation worthy of it. This, too, is a Maimonidean idea, assumes personal achievements depend on the times we happen to be born into, a sobering thought.

His/her achievements make disobeying or disagreeing with the prophet a tactical error as well as a religious one, because s/he has gotten closer to the truth than the rest of us, and is therefore a better repository of good ideas than we are.

It highlights the challenge of this mitzvah: in Tosafot and Sefer HaChinukh’s version, it requires us to admit so-and-so has better insight into what we should do, has such good insight it might even involve what we are usually taught is completely wrong (including assault and murder, possibly).

Who of us is willing to concede such authority? And among those of us who are, are we insistent to do only when told to by someone of the kind of character and wisdom that makes them eligible to be a prophet? Or would we follow wholly unsuitable people as they tell us to violate the Torah and God’s Will, however temporarily?

About Gidon Rothstein

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