Image: President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Lately there have been a lot of people making predictions about the future: that the country will open back up over the next month or so, that if we do open up it will be a disaster, that the coronavirus is some kind of hoax, that the U.S. is on its way to being the pariah among first-world nations, this one will will the next election, no that one will….etc., etc.
Torah teaches us to be wary of people who claim to know the future. There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Deuteronomy which lays out the Rules for Prophets.
First of all, it sets out what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters with ghosts. They were not necromancers or magicians. All those jobs are described as “abominations.” (Deut. 18:12)
Next the passage lays out a discussion about the reasons for, and requirements for prophets. A Hebrew prophet was an ordinary Hebrew whose life was taken over by God, God used that person as a mouthpiece whenever there was an important message to convey, which could be hazardous for the prophet. The role did not guarantee honor or even respect: Jeremiah suffered horribly for his prophecies, and died in a deep pit in Egypt for his trouble.
Just after that, the Torah asks an interesting question: how do you tell a false prophet from a true one? The answer it gives is slippery: if they speak in the name of God and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine (Deut. 18:22) If their words don’t come true, then they are false prophets and we shouldn’t listen to them.
For Jews, the Age of Prophecy is closed, but we still sometimes have to decide whom to believe when it comes to predictions about the future. That has been a sharp issue when it comes to the current pandemic: there is a lot of variation in the predictions, and the information seems to change every day. The disarray in information is extremely stressful, a state that also isn’t good for our immune systems.
Worse yet, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating, and accusations about who is hoaxing whom.
Torah cuts through all of that with a simple question: what sort of track record does the speaker have? Has he expertise in this matter? What level of expertise? Do they have a track record managing pandemics? Or if not a medical expert, on what basis is this person making their claims to expertise? And what about past prognostications: is this just the latest sensational click-bait theory or have they been right about things in the past?
Torah encourages us to ask for credentials and a track record, whether we are questioning a prophet or the modern-day variations on that theme. As they say in Missouri, “Show me!”
5 thoughts on “How to Judge a Prophet”
Ho Rabbi Ruth!
This was an exquisite piece of writing! How true are your words!
Thank you for being profound and making sense in these crazy days.
Stay safe and healthy, please.
I meant to write, “Oh, “not “Ho.” Oops. I’m not dyslexic, but these days, who knows.
Thanks for this linkage, Rabbi, between Torah & prophets, & today’s myriad of events.
Analyzing & giving context to today’s events & the actors thereof is a full-time occupation.
thank you Rabbi Adar for cutting thru the confusion with your words of wise guidance
Words of wisdom. Glad I found you. I write modern midrashim, divrei Torah and drashot. It’s nice to connect with Jewish thinkers and like-minded folks.